OBITUARY: Hone Tuwhare

Iain Sharp looks back on the career of one of the country's most revered yet irreverent poets.

The death of Hone Tuwhare so soon after Sir Edmund Hillary might set you thinking all the giants have been stripped from the land and only the pipsqueaks, fumblers, duffers and bluffers remain. But, like Sir Ed, Tuwhare would have deplored such wallowing in misery and defeatism.

The title of his last collection of poetry, published by Steele Roberts in July 2005, was an eccentrically punctuated exclamation: Oooooo......!!! Death is one of the book's big themes for, at age 82, Tuwhare was well aware that his time was running out. But the tone is anything but gloomy.

In one poem he addresses Hine-nui-te-Po, the Maori goddess of death, as a "fat bitch". He follows this act of defiance with an even more insolent effort titled: "Let me rest my head on your fat belly, Hine, feel/sniff you up oops!"

One of the finest poems in the collection advises, "If I should die, think nothing (nihil) of it. Happens naturally... to all." It begins with Tuwhare raising his wrist-watch to his "deaf ear" (he was very hard of hearing in his last years) and "just barely noting/ the tiniest intervals/ between the tick and/ tock of it, inexorably paging". It concludes with the thought, addressed partly to himself and partly to the world at large, that "mayhap, your great, great/ grandnephews, nieces, will inherit/ your wrist-watch/ & reclaim, the rhythm/ the 4/4 Boogie beat of your heart./ For, on their tiny feet/ you march."

When I first met him in the mid-1990s I was worried that Tuwhare might have been offended by some of the cheekier remarks I made about his work over the years in my reviews. Writers and poets, in particular are often prickly in this regard. They remember the negative comments (and hold them against you forever) rather than the praise, which they take for granted as their due.

But Tuwhare was not precious in this way. He could take and make jokes at his own expense. Literary criticism didn't trouble him; he was oblivious to much of it. He always treated me kindly.

I recall with particular affection my attempt to interview him for the Sunday Star-Times book pages in August 2001 when he was coming to the end of his two-year stint as Te Mata poet laureate.

His hearing by this stage was utterly shot and, to make matters worse, we met in the noisy lobby of a flash Auckland hotel. I had to write my questions on bits of paper and pass them to him.

After putting up with this clumsy procedure for a few minutes, he chuckled and said, "Aw, jeez, Iain, just give me a hongi." He then chatted to me about his life, his apparently random but always astute observations far better than anything I could have solicited from my prepared queries.

Janet Hunt had similar experiences during the many interviews she conducted with the ageing poet for her 1998 book Hone Tuwhare: A Biography. "He would go off on a tangent and I would try to steer him back to the original question," she told me. "But when I listened to the tapes later I found he was often heading in a more interesting direction anyway. So I decided it was best just to let him talk, putting in occasional comments of my own to keep the flow going."

Of Ngapuhi descent (hapu Ngati Korokoro, Ngati Tautahi, Te Popoto, Uri-o-hau), Tuwhare was born in 1922. His birthplace is usually listed on websites and in reference books as Kaikohe, but in Oooooo......!!! he takes pains to set the record straight by pinpointing the location more precisely: "I was born at Kokewai, Mangakahia/ Road, 212 miles from the town/ ship of Kaikohe just this/ side of our lake, Omapere." Although he spent most of the second half of his life in Otago first in Dunedin and then 14km further south at Kaka Point in the Catlins district he was always proud of his Northland roots.

His mother died when he was only five. As a boy and young adolescent he had a hard-scrabble life in Auckland with his loving but perpetually broke, gambling-mad father, who earned a small wage by labouring for a Chinese market gardener. He was a bright kid, but there was no money to allow him to go to high school. Instead he served an apprenticeship as a boilermaker, welder and riveter at the Otahuhu Railway Workshop.

Looking back on his railway years in a 1987 interview with his friend Bill Manhire for the literary periodical Landfall, he remarked, "I was taught everything there. My eyes were opened to all sorts of things political influences. And political reading. There was the Left Book Club library in Darby Street [in Auckland's CBD] and the Railway Workshop library, where there was a much more sophisticated choice of books than I had known. I read Marx and Engels, Russian novelists. And American novelists Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe. They say he's a second-rate novelist, Thomas Wolfe but, you know, his words sang to me. And I was a voracious reader. I was still building my word stock."

In the mid-1940s Tuwhare joined the New Zealand Communist Party. That is how he met the poet R.A.K. Mason, another party member and an ardent trade unionist. Mason edited the Communist newspaper In Print.

"Once a week," Tuwhare recollected in the Landfall interview, "I'd go and collect about five dozen copies of the paper for the workshop and I'd meet Mason and we'd go to the boozer. But he was a major writer, a major New Zealand writer, and I didn't know this. When I found out, I thought, God, what a humble guy. I liked that; I liked the way he didn't give a stuff, really, whether he was a major writer or not. He was more concerned about workers' problems and things like that as I came to be."

Tuwhare's politics were always more humanitarian than doctrinaire. He quit the Communist Party in 1956 in protest over the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary. He rejoined briefly in the mid-1970s when the New Zealand branch was aligned more to China than to the USSR, but he left again when there was a swing away from China and towards Albania.

With Mason's influence, he became interested in poetry, but he was in his mid-30s a married man with three children and nearly 20 years' experience in the workforce when his first poem, Thine Own Hands Have Fashioned, appeared in Poetry Yearbook in 1958. This was a sexy but somewhat flowery dialogue between Samson and Delilah, based on the Old Testament story a surprising choice of subject matter for a communist, perhaps, but the Bible had been an important part of Tuwhare's boyhood reading.

Other poems soon followed and Tuwhare's reputation grew. Part of the attention was focused on his singularity as the first Maori poet writing in English, but he had the talent to bear up to any kind of literary scrutiny. The initial print run of 700 copies for his first book, No Ordinary Sun, sold out within a fortnight an unheard-of feat for a fledgling New Zealand poet.

An eloquent plea against nuclear weapons, its much-anthologised title poem was based on personal experience. At the end of World War II, Tuwhare was part of J-Force, which had the unenviable task of cleaning up what was left of Hiroshima.

Although only 24 pages long, Tuwhare's second collection, Come Rain Hail, was even more powerful than his first. At least three of the poems it contains Rain, Flood and Hotere (a tribute to his long-time friend, painter Ralph Hotere) rank among the finest ever written in this country.

Last year, with assistance from libraries, schools and the Sunday Star-Times, the Nelson-based publisher Craig Potton conducted a poll of New Zealanders' favourite poems. Choices were wide open. People could nominate verse from any country and any period. Even though competing against Shakespeare's sonnets, Wordsworth's Daffodils and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Tuwhare's Rain won by a clear margin.

Rain has a magnificent simplicity ("But if I/ should not hear/ smell or feel or see/ you/ you would still/ define me/ disperse me/ wash over me/ rain") that was one of the voices Tuwhare could manage with rare aplomb. But he could also be funny, ribald, slangy and deliberately vulgar. He had little patience with any kind of literary stuffiness. Nothing was off-limits for him. He wrote poems about haemorrhoids and blowflies as well as with sensitive lyrics. He wanted his poems to be accessible to ordinary people, including the blokes he had known on the factory floor.

He broke all the rules. He uses sound effects, street language, phonetic spelling and curse-words in his poems. He was addicted to adverbs, even though all the style manuals say these should be avoided. Sometimes instead of reaching for a dictionary he made up words of his own: "immeasureless", "infiltered", "flambent", "whump", "snuckle".

Although he was proud, I think, of the many literary prizes he won and the honorary doctorates he received, he made mocking references to his awards in his later poems and never had much interest in presenting himself as a grand old man of letters. It was always as a friend and equal that he spoke to his readers, not as a sage, prophet, tohunga or kaumatua. The final lines from his splendid funeral eulogy to Mason apply equally well to himself: "A red libation to your good memory, friend. There's work yet, for the living."


Sunday Star Times