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New Zealand feature

Philip Mead: Smoking Jacket

Philip Mead reviews three books of New Zealand poetry

Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott, eds Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 Auckland University Press, 2000. Paperback; illustrations; 376p; NZ$49.95; ISBN  1 86940 230 8

Michele Leggott, as far as I can see Auckland University Press, 1999. 64 pp. NZ$19.95 1 86940 2170

David Howard, Shebang: Collected Poems 1980–2000 Steele Roberts, 2000. 168 pp. NZ$24.95 ISBN 1 877228 59 1

This piece is 4,300 words or about ten printed pages long

Cover of Big Smsoke Big Smoke is a kind of poetry doco-anthology of a specific period in recent New Zealand history, the decade and a half of the 60s and early to mid-70s, a time of crisis, modernisation and independence in New Zealand (as in Australia). As well as a framing intro by Alan Brunton (‘Restoring the Commune’), it includes an essay in historical poetics by Murray Edmond (‘Poetics of the Impossible’), a chronology by Michele Leggott (‘Protest, Performance, Publication, 1960–75’), as well as photos, graphics, cartoons, biographical notes on the poets represented and a glossary of magazines from the period.
      Big Smoke dates itself very deliberately from 1960, the year of publication of Allen Curnow’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, through to the end of the festival of ‘the Sixties’ in the mid-1970s. The editors read Curnow’s anthology as a sign of the constricted and contracted cultural space that was New Zealand in 1960; their expressive and cultural revolution begins at the point of the Penguin Book’s (enervated) synopsis of an ancien régime. They date its demise to the advent of a resurgent (Muldoonite) Kiwi nationalism. The bulk of the book presents poems from more than fifty poets, as congenial and enragé a bunch of old stoners as you’re ever likely to meet.

Internet resources: you can read

1960–1969 — Restoring the Commune by Alan Brunton at

Poetics of the Impossible, by Murray Edmond at

Then it was now again: New Zealand poetries and colonial histories (first published in UTS Review 6.1 (May 2000): 113-22.) by Murray Edmond at

Big Smoke, as Murray Edmond outlines its ambitious project, ‘is more a cultural history than an anthology. It is a record in poetry of the life and times of those who sought to create the ‘other place’, the commune, as Alan Brunton evokes it in his essay’ (21). The ‘cultural history’ and ‘record’ represented by Big Smoke, despite those properly academic terms, are entirely partisan; it is rather the gleeful polychronicon of an uprising.
      The usefulness of this kind of approach is that it represents for the reader, more than an anthology usually does, how poetry functions within a culture. Unlike the traditional, or normative anthology, which works rather like a dialysis machine — providing a life support system that keeps poems alive outside of their original matrix — Big Smoke galvanises into existence a reconstructed version of a cultural moment. The energy and commitment evident everywhere in this reconstruction are also due in large measure to the participant roles of at least two of its editors, Brunton and Edmond, in the movement they are — thirty years on — chronicling. Refreshingly, there is no pretence at objectivity here, or at dragging a messy and impulsive event before a latterday tribunal of respectable literary history. For example: ‘Big Smoke includes many poems which did put people’s backs up. [...] At least 29 of the poets here have never appeared in any other collection; and several others were anthologised only in Arthur Baysting’s 1973 The Young New Zealand Poets. Time, the era, defines Big Smoke’ (21).
      A potential pitfall with this approach is that originary readings and contexts tend to be privileged over subsequent ones — the source of nostalgia. But the editors have done the difficult thing of somehow staying true to the (radically disparate) spirit of the times as well as providing a (coherent) contemporary reading of a literary-historical event that is remarkably free of nostalgia and self-indulgence. One thing the editors sensibly eschew is the situated reading of the Big Smoke years within New Zealand literary history; that’s another field of power plays. But this anthological ‘cultural history’ does a lot to remind us of how literary culture — subset poetic — functions, and that includes the relations between subjectivity, artistic practice and the regimes of national and global power.
      One of the chief ways in which Big Smoke has been able to achieve this notable feat is in the style of its chronicling. Its documentation of New Zealand poetry and poetics of the 60s is unashamedly celebratory, and presumably it is the result of careful and comprehensive archiving. It doesn’t work within the paradigm of professionalised, evaluative literary history and criticism, even where that way of reading acknowledges the extra-textual aspects of poetic cultures — as in Christopher Beach’s Poetic Culture: contemporary American poetry between community and institution (1999). The editors are untroubled by the proliferation of contemporary accounts of the death of poetry: ‘[i]t was this sense of non-consequence that the Sixties shattered’ (14), the sense that poetry matters. True to its Situationist (anti-academic) allegiances, Big Smoke is conceived in the mode of festivity, of dancing on the grave of ‘heavy structure, orthodox forms, templates, measure, ponderousness, irony, maintenance of distance, denial of attachment to the work’ (14) — ‘Poetry Will Be Made By All Not By One’. Thus the inclusiveness (anti-evaluativeness) of its aesthetic and the obsessive, loving detail of its kind of ‘scholarship’. Its claim to be a collection of poems, rather than poets, is credible.
      More problematically perhaps, it also works with a stable category of ‘a national poetry’ which underwrites all the immediate homologies the editors want to draw between crises of the (New Zealand) nation and the evolution of its national poetry. There are no doubt discontinuities and slippages here (like Robin Hyde, for example) that the editors would want to, and do, acknowledge in other contexts. Readers of New Zealand culture will also quickly identify the instantiation in Big Smoke’s periodising ‘cultural analysis’ of the historian James Belich’s schema of New Zealand history, including the period of ‘decolonisation’ beginning in 1960 (see Edmond, “Then It Was Now Again”, 125).
      Brunton, Edmond and Leggott’s framing essays work rather like those whiteboards, covered in photos, scribble and keywords you see in the operations rooms of television copshows: the editors have drawn in lots of bright, confident lines of temporal relations and politico-aesthetic connections between local, national and what we refer to as global-historical events. Grabbing the felt pen off one another; a heady collaboration. Thus, Brunton characteristically draws lines of synchronicity between NZ political eruptions and the political events that have come to define the era: the Waitangi Day Act and the Sharpeville protests (1960); the Wellington Land March (1975) and the Washington protest marches (Martin Luther King 1963, Pentagon, 1967); the New Zealand anti-Vietnam protests (LBJ, 1965) and the Paris 1968 demonstrations; student occupations of university admin blocks at Columbia and Otago, etc.
      Michele Leggott’s chronology at the end of the book takes this mode of local and global apposition even further, into more nuanced and detailed annals of local and other temporalities. It is a curious impulse in some ways — the obsessive calibrating of non-metropolitan modernity against the centre — eg. the Beatles’ tour to NZ (June 1964), the visit of Germaine Greer (March 1972). It works like a cultural GPS, pinpointing New Zealand’s position on the chart of its own postmodernity.
      Perhaps it is also a kind of postcolonial address to the cosmopolitan world: ‘we are (post)modernising too, in our own way, but at the same time,’ but it does nevertheless give the anthology a seriously useful historical specificity and one that, no doubt, will be the source of endless disputation. All this has a kind of blaring, newsreel tone, at times, but you have to admire the editors’ bravura performances. Where are the loudhailers of yesteryear?
      Brunton organises his historical riff around a thematics of the commune. This has a number of suggestive aspects, from the conjunction of radical political action and revolution in art that has long been available in the identification of an army-surplus version of Rimbaud — a hero for all liberation movements — with the Paris Communards of the 1870/71. ‘Restoring the commune’ then is a recollection of utopian politico-aesthetic action, whose exemplar (retrospectively) is the Federation of Artists, a component of the Communards’ direct democracy, and whose most recent model is the commitment and festivity of the 1968 Days of Rage. But it is also cognizant of James K. Baxter’s own radical socio-poetic practice in his Hiruharama Beloved Community, a (failed) New Jerusalem of the New Zealand social imaginary.* It’s perhaps worth adding here, that as a trans-Tasman-Sea (that is, Australian) reader I was struck by the differently inflected, and yet similar, histories of New Zealand and Tasmania as sites of utopian inscription and practice, as havens, or perceived havens, at the opposite end of the world to European modernity and thus as distant as possible from that modernity’s depredations. Being a ‘social laboratory,’ lends an otherwise ‘minor’ place a privileged relationship to modernity.

      An interesting tension exists here between Brunton’s conception of the ‘commune’ as a version of the city — a Formula for a New Urbanism, in the SI slogan — and the Romantic recourse, in many of the anthology’s poems, to New Zealand nature.
      While Edmond’s essay on the ‘Poetics of the Impossible’ is a cooler piece of work than Brunton’s, it is also valuable for its knowledgeable rereading of poetic genealogy, including its detailed account of Maori contributions to modern New Zealand poetic culture.

* James K. Baxter (1926–1972) — poet, critic, and guru, Baxter published more than thirty books of poetry before his death at the age of 46. He opposed Western materialism, and advocated social change and the spiritual values of Catholic faith and Maori culture.

      The first poem in the book, pointedly, is Rangi T. Harrison’s te reo ‘Waikato te Awa’. This essay needs to be read in conjunction with Edmond’s excellent fictocritical article in the UTS Review, ‘Then It Was Now Again: New Zealand Poetries and Colonial Histories’ (6.1, May 2000, 104–29), where the fascinating question of the development of an Aetearoa/New Zealand language, syncretically English and te reo Maori, is discussed from a number of cultural and historical perspectives. This language, more fluid, more rounded and labial in its spectrum of sounds, than the normative octaves of anglophone speech, can be heard throughout the poems of Big Smoke.
      Another potential problem with the Big Smoke approach is that it tends to produce readings that are strong on cultural context and light on recognition or understanding of linguistic practice. But this is actually one of the strengths of both Brunton and Edmond’s contextualising essays notwithstanding their, at times, outrageously utopian rhetoric. Edmond’s detailed scholarship helps to obviate the tendency within the grand récit of Big Smoke’s annal-ising to overlook the specificities of poetic practice — Rimbaud’s actual poems certainly don’t offer any obvious ones! — in favour of the assertion of the homology between social action and revolution in art. Both Brunton and Edmond in their different ways are aware of the importance of keeping the specific poetic practice in the foreground.
      It should also be noted that the three editors of Big Smoke are plenty savvy enough as cultural operators to realise that their project is hardly an innocent one. In Big Smoke they are contributing to a plurivocal, foundational myth for a powerful tradition in New Zealand writing. The effectiveness of this myth lies in its honesty, and paradoxically, it is the unapologetic mythifying of Big Smoke that is one of its great attractions. Whether it is Mark Young’s hip reappropriation of the Rimbaud myth (and City Lights style), or Andrew Davie’s Yippee word salad, or his own ‘One’ from The Word is Freed, a kind of poster-manifesto poem — one of the many (Beat influenced) aesthetic UDI’s, characteristic of the time — Brunton can articulate eloquently the credo of a generation:

Poetry in the Sixties was written in the name of individual freedom, rejection of all social constructs, hedonistic desire to escape predictability, in the case of justice attempting to redress past wrongs, in a prosperity made possible by social discipline and national exporting agencies. Poets sailed the globe, or other bodies which were also exotic lands, in drunken boats. Aware of the frailty of the world, disordered, at the edge of incoherence, and filled with yearning, the poetry is also pervaded with the sense that something is ending. The spirit would not descend again so easily each morning, the soul music would never be as sweet... (14)

This is borne out by at least one noticeable aspect of the poetry in this collection, the large number of love poems (Vanya Lowry and Ginny Sullivan’s stand out). Often these might seem a bit cringe-making, but at the same time they have a kind of freshness and directness that is characteristic of this romantic morning of the New Zealand imagination. There is a memorable reference in Edmond’s essay to a comment by Roger Horrocks in And, about the Curnow 1960 Penguin’s being short on love poems, by either men or women (27). It’s a telling point, and one of the primary attractions of many of the poems in this collection is their heady, slightly juvenile humanness. Big Smoke is good shit: light up, have a toke.
      One small footnote: a figure who gets lost in the fumes of this collection is Baxter. No doubt he was a difficult presence, personally, given the new gender politics of the Big Smoke moment (the anti-Oedipal imagination) and no doubt his allegiances to New Zealand reterritorialisations of Modernism were partly backward-looking, but nevertheless, his poetic presence is disappointingly muted in this collection, although it is there in photos and in the background to Brunton’s utopian rhetoric of the commune. From right field, but perhaps relevant here: C.K. Stead’s recent collection of essays (The Writer at Work) also finds it almost impossible to accommodate Baxter seriously, apart from a couple of pages where he is used to shore up an argument about inheritors of Modernism in New Zealand.
      Is this simply a case of a masculinist strand in NZ poetic culture that hasn’t yet been come to terms with an overbearing oedipal figure? Or is Baxter perhaps entirely resistant to the Brunton-Edmond-Leggott celebration of the city of modernisation, the Big Smokes of Paris and London (30)? Baxter’s commune belongs to the Romantic utopian imaginary of Erewhon and News From Nowhere, as opposed to the inner-city polis of the Communards and the social laboratories of the twentieth-century, whether New Right or Left. What might be useful is a reevaluation of Baxter’s poetry and poetics, including an analysis of the symptomatics of what looks like his occlusion, within the topography of NZ literary culture as it is presently being redrawn.

As Far As I Can See, cover
Michelle Leggott’s fourth volume of poems as far as I can see represents one of the avatars of the Big Smoke paradigm: second generation NZ poetic innovation. This collection deliberately avoids normative expectations of what a book of poems should be; it is an example of those alternative press and sui generis volumes of writing that are produced within the ‘innovative’ or Language writing institutions. Whether in its format and cover design, its arrangements of words and lines on the page, its grouping of poems into sections, or its graphic interludes, as far as I can see is a sophisticated and complex coalescence of signs.
      To describe it in a bit more detail, because the physical object contributes significantly to its meanings: the wide format front cover image is a grainy frame of a golden sunset scene, with small yachts and a gothic iron gate and lamp. This turns out to be from Heaven’s Cloudy Smile, a 1998 poetry video co-scripted by Leggott. The back cover, with what looks at first sight (!) like a grainy shot of Leggott as poet-movie star is backgrounded by text — a poem? — accompanying the photo, a confessional piece about how she is suffering from the tragic condition of retinitis pigmentosa, the loss of almost all sight.
      So we revise our impression of the author photo: the poet in dark glasses for other than iconic reasons, and indeed for the opposite reason to photosensitivity; not like Marilyn facing the flashbulbs, but like the blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. Wait until dark? ‘Much of what is written here is an effort to remember seeing, something to put against the dark while I searched for ways of understanding where it has put me. This understanding is elusive, it vanishes most when I need it. It is the sound of words on darkness, and of words in light. But eyesight is not vision. The rest waits.’ So this distinction, cruelly felt, between eyesight and vision necessarily becomes the dominant trope of the writing shut in darkness between the covers.

Photo of Michele Leggott
The contents are divided into three longer sequences, within which there are further divisions. The first of these contains five sonnet mini-sequences, ‘fortunes’ (a dream landscape in five free sonnets), ‘dove’ (another five astonishingly virtuoso permutations on the dark associations of the suffix/root ‘perse’ or bluish-black, from black moons, to peachleaved nymphs, to the ‘persic’ or Persian, and persienne blinds, ‘the sky per se’), ‘hesperides’ (the most specific of the sequences in terms of events and place, also typographical play), ‘torches’ (another five poems, curtalled, and curt in tone too), and ‘snake & jewel’ (‘hyle’, one of the five ‘substance’ or matter poems in this sub-sequence has some ravishing lines, as they used to say, like the final three: ‘this you face sweet poet we cannot fall/asleep or in love until you see me through/the unsapphirine unsilvered mirror of where I am’). These are further instances of Leggott’s ongoing fascination, begun with the ‘Blue Irises’ sequence in DIA (1994), with the sonnet form.

[You can read ‘Snake and Jewel’ in Jacket 3]

      Notwithstanding this book’s attempts to shun the markers of conventional poetics, it actually contains another contemporary rereading of one of the most traditional of poetic forms. A remarkable thing about these sequences of sonnets is that they recall, with little effort or weight, the conventional topoi of such a genre — lover’s address, silent beloved, objective correlatives for the protagonists’ subjective states, etc, the junk DNA, if you like, of the sonnet sequence in its accreted western history — but way beyond that, they seem to be produced by a set of overlooked genes within that old organism that are coded for language play, deformation and generation.
      That is, the sonnet, formally, Leggott has intuited, is about language morphing under passionate pressure. There was always something about the size and shape of the sonnet, we understand from these poems, that was about the radical containment of huge emotional and subjective energies, thus the outbreaks of neologism and implosions of syntax.
      There is something genuinely impressive about Leggott’s grasp, and experimental handling, of poetic form. She has absorbed much of Language writing’s thinking about what Lyn Hejinian has described as poetic language’s function as ‘a medium for experiencing experience’ (The Language of Inquiry, 3). She understands the way in which strong poetry doesn’t treat language as a set of scrabble tiles — components to be put together to create already-existing meanings — but as a self-exceeding mode of experience and knowledge. (Has Leggott’s adventures in the sonnet been read over against Baxter’s?)
      The second section ‘oes & spangs’, consists of a couple of circular arrangements that recall ‘micromelismata’ from DIA and the genealogy//Taranaki medallions of her earlier book Swimmers, Dancers (1991). This section also works as a hinge or wheel between the first five sections (of sonnet sequences) and the last three sections.
      The section after ‘oes & spangs, ‘a woman, a rose, and what has it to do with her or they with one another?’ consists of seven pieces arranged in prose paragraphs. Each is a response to a simple, almost childlike question: ‘Do you see me?,’ ‘How will you know me?’, ‘What did you learn?’, ‘Where did we get to?’, ‘Is it far?’, ‘’Does it hurt?’, ‘Where will it end?’ In contrast to the simple heartfeltness of their opening questions, these are relentlessly abstracted pieces; there are no moorings in concrete place, and thus they work as shifting hybrids of allegory, dream narrative, fairy tale, even vatic oratory and visionary statement:

Doves whirl down/ behind the blue-flowering tree, sun glints up through wharf/ decking as I go. Doves and glints, wings in the head and still I/ descend. Here is the valley whose floor is too quiet, mind’s/ dancing floor where the winds of vision convene and are wings on/ the sea. I am close to the centre, close to the end. I am close to/ where it began (‘7’).

This is not a traditionally lyric dimension; it is a linguistic wrinkle in space and time where generic, pronominal and formal elements are unconstrained by their usual affinities. The following section consists of five elemental poems, ‘rain | blood | snow | ice | stone |’. These are dialogic pieces, where different, sharply delineated voices weave into and across each other.
      And finally, ‘the book of tears’, consisting of seven densely articulated poems that work as linguistic fantasias, soaring with the phonic possibilities of English (‘woodsmoke wintersweet winter-spring breakfast’) and revelling in vocabularic arcana (‘Pyxis, Puppis, Pictor’) and noisy dissonance. Interspersed throughout these sections are reproductions of woodcuts and details of engravings, some of them acknowledged, some not, natty little hand-drawn devices and other visual markers. I’m not sure what they’re all doing.
      Despite the powerful presence of that thematic of eyesight and vision, in as far as I can see, it is in fact the sound, vocabulary and syntactic texture of the these poems, rather than their imagery, that is so striking. There is the arresting line in ‘perse’ for instance, which seems to encapsulate this: ‘one body I not my eyes / reading’. What does this suggest? The deep experimental probing into the lyric that Leggott is involved with, overlain with the dreadful fact of encroaching blindness, has produced a kind of desperate and somatic logophilia. This is a deep valuing of the word, as word, rather than as Martian sign, an aesthetic that always leads the reader subtly away from what Leggott grasps onto: the exotic, the associative, the aural, the lexical, the cognate, etc.
      These poems have the texture, and richness of design, of linguistic brocade: stipule, pyrophoric, spangs, hyssop, palmettos, corybantes, lebh, persephatta, for example, are just samples of their opulence. As far as I know, it’s a cliché, but faced with Leggott’s kind of lexical richness and aural sensitivities — the delicacies of her syntax and narratives could be instanced here too — one can’t help but think of how the loss or suppression of one sense leads to the compensatory heightening of another. This is the kind of poetry, I guess, that has be termed Shelleyan: Leggott’s poems are definitely things of intellectual beauty. They are also, certainly, unique news from the logosphere.

[You can read some more poems from as far as I can see on this website:]

Shebang book cover image

David Howard has put together a Collected from his previously published two volumes of poetry (In the First Place, 1991, and Holding Company, 1995) together with a substantial amount of subsequent work. So it’s one of those ‘twenty years’ worth of work’ collecteds, rather than a lifework’s retrospective. This is a sign, perhaps, of Howard’s uncompromising seriousness about the art of poetry.
      Entering Shebang, the reader quickly realises that this is a coherently imagined and presented alternative world, including epigraphs and ‘images’ by Jason Greig. There are eight of these images, or nine if you include the cover, all charcoal-smudgy, mostly figurative, mysterious. They provide an intriguing counterpoint to the sharply bitten designs of Howard’s poetic forms and language. It’s almost a livre composé, always a sign of a poet with a systematic turn of mind.
      As the earlier poems here remind us, Howard started off being captivated by a particular range of figures from the European tradition, often painters: the modern painters of the ‘Portrait Gallery’ sequence, Stefan George, Satie, Vicente Aleixandre, Ivor Gurney, Pessoa, etc. Perhaps the most symptomatic of these homages, though, is the one to Celan:

prise the stone you
expose those who need
more than the stone
for protection

fell the tree you
build a bed to collect
the hearts of lovers
the bones of strangers

(‘For Paul Celan’)

This poem is a kind of digest of Howard’s poetic practice. He avoids poeticisms without effort, and even though his syntax is usually more expansive than this, it reflects a mind in the process of thinking that is unselfconsciously distinctive — the thought broken off, dwindling out, the ellipsis, is also characteristic of him.
      In a more representative poem, like ‘Nostalgia  for the Mud,’ one can see the other side of this poetic self-confidence, large, free gestures of language,  and a sense  of space, of there being no cramped corners in his poetic:

                            One sentence
pulls down the sun, another lifts it
clear from the incidental. I know
only the doctor’s certificate
serves as a passport to eternity —
which language will it be written in?

The rather austere and even allegorical mise-en-scène of these poems is also typical of Howard’s ambitious work. Hence his being drawn to Celan, one of the very high priests of twentieth-century magianism.
      For a person whose day job (or night job as it turns out) is as a pyrotechnician for the entertainment industry, we might (superficially) expect more SFX on the page, but of course what one is reminded of, instead, is the pyrotechnician’s arcane technical knowledge, his careful planning of delayed effects and his need to work strictly within the delimitations of a rule-bound spectacle.
      There is also — as in wholly successful lyrics like ‘Out’ — a very faint undertone of the pop lyric in the more recent poems here, a surprising lightening up of Howard’s effects. As he gains in confidence, and moves away from the overt reliance on the high European icons, Howard  is forging an impressive instance of poetic practice. He has made his (perhaps savage) choice to shun the ‘anecdotal,’ the confessional and the traditionally lyric, and to ‘accept the seriousness (and pleasure) of living inwardly,’ as he put it an interview. New  Zealand poetry can count itself lucky to have two such distinctive and dedicated practitioners as Michele Leggott and David Howard.

You can read Peter Simpson’s review of How To Occupy Ourselves, poems by David Howard and photographs by Fiona Pardington, in Jacket 25.

Philip Mead was born in Brisbane in 1953 and educated in Queensland, the U.K. and in the United States. He has been associated with poetry publishing, particularly in little magazines, since 1972. From 1987 to 1994 he was Poetry Editor of Meanjin Quarterly magazine and Lockie Lecturer in Australian Writing at the University of Melbourne. He has edited, with John Tranter, the new Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1992). He is currently a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania.

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