New Zealand Poetry: A When, Why and How

02:13, Dec 11 2012

Poetry seems to be a divisive subject in New Zealand, even among self-described readers.

The last time I brought up the subject, there were mixed responses. Some people posted Youtube links to their favourite live performances, some had fun critiquing the selection and one chap charmingly compared the creative process to farting. From what I can tell, not too many people will admit to going out of their way to pick up a book of poetry.

And yet there are moments scattered through everyone's lives where poetry is needed and nothing else will do. Weddings, funerals, anniversaries, courtships, break-ups, apologies, letters to badly-missed friends and lovers who are far away. When words mean everything and it's hard to find the right ones, you'll usually find that somebody has been down that road before you and figured out more or less exactly what needs to be said.

Janet Frame had her beautiful homage to poets published in The Goose Bath two years after she died. Pamela Gordon of the Tuesday Poem website said she has heard it read out at several funerals for other writers.

If poets die young
they bequeath two thirds of their life to the critics
to graze and grow fat in
visionary grass.

If poets die in old age
they live their own lives
they write their own poems
they are their own might-have-been.

Young dead poets are prized comets.
The critics queue with their empty wagons ready for hitching.

Old living poets
stay faithfully camouflaged in their own sky.
It may even be forgotten they have been shining for so long.
The reminder comes upon their falling
extinguished into the earth.
The sky is empty, the sun and moon have gone away,
there are not enough street bulbs, glow-worms, fireflies to give light

and for a time it seems there will be no more stars.

Poetry is robust, as well, it doesn't need to be kept in a drawer for special occasions. That magical relevance doesn't just relate to big moments in your life- sometimes you'll find a snippet that makes sense of something you've been chewing over in your mind for a while.

James K. Baxter's High Country Weather does a good job of distilling the kinds of thoughts that can bubble up when you're gazing out the window on a Sunday afternoon.


Alone we are born
and die alone
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
over snow-mountain shine
upon the upland road
ride easy stranger
Surrender to the sky
your heart of anger.

Fleur Adcock described a different kind of reflective moment in her poem, Things.

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected. There are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

Sometimes it's really satisfying to wallow around in high-flying language, but you don't have to if you don't want to. Poet C.K. Stead has helpfully translated T.S. Eliot's famous epic The Wasteland into plain English for us.

Yes it's spring
but London's hell-
all these dead people
and me.

Rich and poor
I find them equally

Autumn's no better.
Sex can be really disgusting
but I do like the River.
I go there
and hum a little Wagner-
weialala leia
and so on.

But imagine drowning in it-
that would be ghastly.

So in my head
I head for the desert-
dry throat
crops dying
voices, thunder...

oh God!

One of the nicest things about poetry is that it's often brief, and infinitely variable. If you don't like a poem, it's no skin off your nose- you've wasted perhaps five minutes, unlike the poor poet who went to the trouble of writing it. Tim Upperton expresses the difficulty of whittling life down into a good poem very sweetly in The Trouble with Poetry.

In the poem which is like a house the poet is looking
out a window. This is to say, he is looking into his own
furnished, sensitive mind. Sometimes he doesn’t see anything
out the window at all, it’s so reflective, and that’s one kind of poem.
Sometimes he sees something you wouldn’t notice but –
because he’s sensitive – he gets worked up about it. Not too much.
A thrush on the lawn, for example, yes, a lyric thrush pecking
at the soil, its bright, hard eye, a light rain falling,
and it reminds the poet somehow of his friend’s last days
at the hospital, and what he said to his friend, or didn’t say,
and meanwhile his hands are doing nothing in particular
and so he’s now peeling fruit, maybe a pear, the flesh gleaming
wetly under the knife. So there’s the pear, the speckled rind
spooling naturally into a self-deprecating, slightly goofy anecdote
to offset the gloominess about his friend. He’s sensitive, not morbid.
His glass of chilled sauvignon blanc – there it is, in his hand –
catches the yellowy light. And he’s a poet, not a novelist,
so after a page he’s winding it all up, the friend, the pear,
his wine the colour almost of grass, the rain, and evening coming on,
finishing, of course, with the thrush on the lawn, its head cocked,
bent to the ground, acutely listening to the unseen thing tunnelling there.

Personally, I think the best way to enjoy poetry for the first time is to buy a big book and jump in at random. Landfall is a good start if you're hungry for something well-vetted and contemporary, or you could look through the many and varied online resources.

There are a few tricks that go with poetry-reading:
-    Don't be shy about reading things out loud if the mood strikes you. Some of the best pieces are made to sound completely different when you speak them, and it’s a good way to straighten your brain out if you feel like you’re getting stuck as well.
-    If you like a particular writer and are looking for something new, have a quick Google and see if they were friends with or inspired by other writers. This is one of the best ways to find new material while staying on a particular wavelength.
-    Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand the references the first time. When an author drops in a reference, most of the time it’s meant to be an optional extra, not not the whole point of the verse. Just keep reading and let it wash over you.
-    As most people will remember from high-school English, over-thinking kills poems.

NEXT WEEK: Some thoughts from award-winning Kiwi poet, Sam Hunt.