Ricketts' Poetry of a place

16:00, Mar 19 2014
harry ricketts
OUTSIDER AND KIWI: "In lots of poems I scoop back into the caves of the past," says Harry Ricketts.

Writer and professor Harry Ricketts is a Londoner by birth and left in 1981 for a job at Victoria University, where he still teaches.

"It could have been elsewhere, but I was very lucky it was here," he says.

It couldn't really have been elsewhere. Ricketts, who will read his poetry on Wellington at tonight's Wellington Museum of City & Sea's first late-night opening, was enchanted by New Zealand long ago.

"My godmother lived here in the 1950s and she used to send me books about New Zealand, Maori myths and legends, and an old-fashioned ruler, a good, thick, fighting ruler I still have, with different woods in it. It's not like the skinny ones you have now."

When he left London, Margaret Thatcher was in power and he didn't want his children growing up there.

"Wellington somehow seemed the place and I still think that. It's a very manageable sort of city. I bump into people I know in Lambton Quay or bump into someone I've taught. It's like a village. I never had that as a child. I like that. It means a lot to me. Some New Zealanders find that oppressive – the village is too much. If you haven't had that it can be very sustaining."

Now, he says, three of his children and a dear friend live in London, and he thinks of it as having "bright pinpricks of affection. Without that, London would be a huge T S Eliot wasteland."

Most of Ricketts' nine collections of poetry include Wellington poems. They're not all love poems.

"Not many of them are odes to Wellington. Wellington is the location in some way or other and some are more serious than others."

They are "about coming here and living here. Some delve back into the past."

He says he sees, like William Faulkner, that the past is never dead or even past. "In lots of poems I scoop back into the caves of the past. My father was an English army officer and we moved every two years."

The family – he was an only child – lived in Malaysia and Hong Kong as well as Britain.

"We moved all the time and that definitely does something to your sense of the past, splinters it. It's quite different from a routine past, which is something I have envied friends having. I had boarding schools from seven to 18 and they became real life. Holidays were what you were doing in between real life.

"I saw my parents doing what they thought was right. It was not a vicious, nasty plot on their part. It definitely has an impact on how you relate to the world."

His own children are grown and scattered. His son, Will, 36, is a percussionist with the Phoenix Foundation and Will's difficult 18-month experience of getting a "proper" New Zealand passport after growing up here set Ricketts thinking about "how you identify. He hadn't been born here and the band spends so much time out of New Zealand.

"I'm very interested in these questions, how you identify and what you identify with and how long you need to live somewhere to be accepted. It takes a while."

Ricketts, after more than three decades in Wellington, says he feels like "a bit of both, an outsider and a Kiwi, and that's not a bad thing. I was used to moving around as a child, that doesn't seem unusual to me and quite a good space as a writer. Other writers need to be deeply embedded in a culture. Having slightly looser connections can be an advantage, looking from outside, not feeling quite the same piety, perhaps."

That doesn't, he says, automatically mean making fun.

"Not specifically, though I do think, for instance, New Zealand poets are sometimes a bit anxious about being funny. I remember 15 years ago doing an anthology of New Zealand comic verse. And there's lots more than you think." Quite a few of the poets, he says, balked at being labelled "funny". He found they were more amenable to having their work called comic, or satirical.

"It was strange, because a lot wrote genuinely funny poetry. It's probably the perception of The Poet and anxiety about not being taken seriously."

He reflects on New Zealand poetry's past: "When I came here in 1981, Curnow was the over-riding monumental figure with the late James K Baxter looming by his side."

He remembers reading his own poetry at Circa Theatre in front of a huge picture of Baxter – "we dwarf-like figures with him looming over our shoulders, trying to read poems. It was a telling image, really. At that point there were two young contenders, Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire, and Wedde was seen as the front-runner – completely changed by the end of the 80s."

He recalls a small number of women poets as "a newish development. Ten years earlier they might have been writing but not obviously."

Ricketts says there are probably more poetry readings now than when he arrived in Wellington. Then they were "ad hoc readings at Circa and the Poetry Society and occasionally the Angus Inn.

"Some poets hate the performance side of it and some are better performers than others. I quite enjoy it after the first one. I'm very nervous."

He always starts with one of a handful of poems, perhaps one about his daughter, or seeing Will playing at the Opera House – Wellington poems.

"The thing about poetry readings is you have to prepare. You can't turn up thinking it'll be all right on the night, because it almost certainly won't be."

By Harry Ricketts

Wellington, late summer 2014

On the bank at the Basin the crowd applauds;

cicadas click-click their castanets.

Listen to the money's slow, withdrawing roar.

On the bank at the Basin the crowd applauds.

"Wellington is a city that's dying,"

says the man with cold snapper eyes.

On the bank at the Basin the crowd applauds;

cicadas click-click their castanets.


Poets, including Harry Ricketts, Michael O'Leary and Paul Thompson, read their work at Museum of Wellington City & Sea from 6pm tonight. Admission is free.


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