Essays & articles

Entertaining Possibilities: Six Contemporary New Zealand Poets

(Allen Curnow, Bill Manhire, Gregory O'Brien, Michele Leggott, Dinah Hawken, Jenny Bornholdt)

By Andrew Johnston
Meanjin (Melbourne) Vol 51 No 3, Spring 1992
Literary Half-Yearly (Mysore, India), 33,1, Jan 1992

There is no mainstream in New Zealand poetry. Under scrutiny, the critical categories proposed from time to time break down into ever smaller categories, whose number almost corresponds with the number of poets. The approaches I have found most useful, rather than offer a guided tour of a hastily-erected artificial structure called 'New Zealand poetry', respond to the writing itself by describing some ways of reading it. I would like to look at the work of six writing interesting poetry: five who published books in 1991, and Allen Curnow.

Curnow has been a presence to be reckoned with in any discussion of contemporary New Zealand poetry for more than fifty years. His is an extraordinarily complex, individual poetry that resists easy description. It has always combined a broadly philosophical and theological frame of mind with observation of the physical world and an acute consciousness of the slipperiness of language:

I write. Those writings which we now identify
doubtfully as such yield nothing. I transcribe
tapes of the period recovered from pack-ice,

leaning hard on the crude systems in use today.
I construe gaps, blips, ambiguous phonemes . . .

('The Vespiary: A Fable')1

Curnow has always seemed confident in the role of poet as spokesman for (high) culture — with Curnow it's a kind of self-ordained, strangely secular priesthood of poetry. Earlier this led to an active, public role, both as poet and anthologist, in shaping ideas of a realist, 'responsible' New Zealand poetry — and ideas of New Zealand.2 Later Curnow's confrontation with phenomena, with time and place, with history, with language, took a less public, less universal tone, but the general concerns remained, and found a greater range of forms. Curnow's poetry now is a flexible, fresh vehicle for a less anxious, less combative, and often eschatological conversation with his own past — especially his childhood:

My turn to embark. A steep gangplank
expects me. An obedient child,
I follow my father down.

('A Busy Port')3

To someone of my generation, the most striking characteristic of Curnow as poet is the sense of tradition and vocation intertwined. He has always been a 'professional', working away assimilating the ideas and practice of 'the tradition' (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, WB Yeats, especially, from this century) and forging a 'New Zealand poetry' tradition of his own; he is a professor, always professing (in the word's sense of 'declaring publicly'), even if what he has to profess is usually doubt. His poetry has a ceremonial or rhetorical tone, even if personal recollection is its starting point. In his later poems he has come down off the stage, but the reader's implied position is still at his feet. His every new poem is admirable, a consummate performance, but even his casualness and wordplay seem somehow studied, and the reader is always kept at a certain distance:

Blood sample of Peter Monro, where do I
come in? The book doesn't say. Might as well ask

this heart-murmur I've got, how Edinburgh rock
chipped like a golf-ball cleared Arthur's Seat the day
after Waterloo, first bounce Van Diemen's Land . . .

('A Scrap-Book')4

To be a little simplistic about it, Curnow seems always to be working, where others have found the freedom to be playful; he insists on 'the tradition', where others see many traditions; he is rhetorical, where others are intimate; his poems are deliberate, made, where others' are fortuitous, found.

Where Curnow observes slippages in the language — alternative meanings, the arbitrariness of the words we use — these are pressed into service; a scepticism about the ability of language to refer to a reality beyond language flavours and gives voice to other philosophic scepticisms. In the poetry of Bill Manhire, by contrast, language is observed at play rather than put to work. The poem's urge to say something is typically mocked — gently, bemusedly, enigmatically and sometimes bleakly or poignantly — by the way language misbehaves, plays up. These lines are from 'Hirohito' a long poem in Milky Way Bar (Victoria University Press, Wellington and Carcanet, Manchester, 1991):

I am writing my book about him,
A Modest History of the Wind,
but I am in difficulty:

chapter after chapter
is being blown away.

Manhire has a keen eye for exhausted and repetitious phrases and situations, which he juxtaposes in surprising ways and sometimes turns inside out. Figurative language is made literal, and the literal built into structures tantalisingly suggestive of allegory. Like Curnow, Manhire is concerned with uncertainties — in the world and in language — but instead of taking as the subject of his poems uncertainty itself, he wittily takes advantage of the possibilities that exist when we are uncertain about something. The poet operates not as creator but as re-creator; the poems are his recreation, where he entertains possibilities, while entertaining the reader. In 'Synopsis (Handel's Imeneo)', for example, confusing plot summaries of opera and soap-opera are mixed together:

But this is not Toronto, why have the pirates
entered our conversation? Are they trying
to restore romance or do they want

to leave us in confusion? Any one of us
might be the father of Stephanie's baby.

The best person to read on the subject of Bill Manhire's poetry is Bill Manhire. An essay published in 1987, which offers several interesting ways into his poetry, is about the connections between New Zealand and American poetry.5 Since the 1960s, the major poetic influences on emerging New Zealand poets have been American. Manhire points to the huge range of options that American poetic practice suggested for him as a young poet in the Sixties and Seventies: 'Poetry could quite properly be an instrument for subjective exploration, yet this subjectivity was not necessarily the same thing as narcissism or solipsism; it might even be a means to a truly public voice. And poetry could be messy, contradictory, various, inclusive. It could also be conversational in its voice, not measured and managed like a newspaper editorial.' Many of these avenues are being explored by four poets who emerged in the 1980s and who each published a new book of poems in 1991 — Gregory O'Brien, Michele Leggott, Dinah Hawken and Jenny Bornholdt6 — which suggests that what applied to Manhire and his contemporaries is even more applicable today: 'I don't believe that American poetry made the poets of my generation into clones . . . What it did do was make diversity and possibility available, and in doing so it freed New Zealand poetry from the single line represented by the English tradition. . . . A literary tradition was something you might construct for yourself . . .'

Gregory O'Brien has constructed his own tradition from an unusual range of sources: visual, musical and religious as well as literary. Mark Williams mentions 'Thomas Merton and Kenneth Patchen, Blues music and surrealism, [C K] Stead and Manhire'.7 What he takes from these sources into his own very distinctive poetry seems to be their attitude to the world and particular qualities of voice — sometimes exalted, sometimes plangent, often incantatory — rather than specifically poetic echoes. His poetry, full of paradoxes, is constantly surprising, as it conflates the abstract and the concrete, the quotidian and the mysterious, and subverts our expectations of syntax. Here is the beginning of 'Cosmos and Damian', from O'Brien's latest book Great Lake (Local Consumption, Sydney, 1991):

Talking to no one, the conversation lasts all day.
In the absence of leaves, to lose someone. Seeking
the gift of tears, I drink from this flask of

rooftops, hedges, the abbey in rain. If it were
that easy. And I, an unreliable man in a storm.
A machine of flowers rolls across the hills . . .

O'Brien's Roman Catholic background and his parallel career as a painter and illustrator are relevant to an understanding of his poetry, which (like his painting) can be simultaneously symbolic and iconic; language invested with public and private meanings is used beside language used apparently 'plainly', to construct tableaux which function as icons, as pictures of the inexplicable:


Her previous body shivers
beside the bed a feather

lands on her thigh a faint
bruise manoeuvres around

her previous body toitois
buffet the window insects

polish sides of the house
a man's hat slips from her

head descends her back
embroidering a short life

of Georgia there.

O'Brien's attempt to capture the fantastic or the miraculous — the impossible erupting into the possible — sometimes ends in whimsy. And we may not draw the meanings the poet has invested in his work; the extent of private reference, and the reliance on supposedly evocative words, can lead to a kind of wilful obscurity. It is as if the tradition O'Brien is constructing for himself has come to include his own earlier work.8 This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, it's just that such poetry, which is so unmistakeably the work of its author, asks that you read it a particular way, that you go along with it. The rewards are many if you're prepared to take the trip: O'Brien's poems project images in a highly inventive way. They tap a rich vein of humour that recalls the tall stories of Irish writer Flann O'Brien (no relation); their strategy could be described as 'entertaining impossibilities'. And sometime they shine with a brilliance unique in New Zealand poetry:

Alone, among such things as
he loved — the beautiful ride
away from beauty, for instance

how the song enters the room
before the singer
at evensong.
Alone among each of them:

the white of peacocks
far from their blue nests
these cold waters
to heal him

of coldness
clouds to absolve him
of clouds. . . .

('Anna Akhmatova's First Husband')

Michele Leggott could also be said to have 'chosen her own tradition'; hers seems closer than most to the kinds of American poetry that were being picked up by young New Zealand poets in the 1970s, and to the work that some of the latter were publishing. It is a line — or rather a colloquy — of influences that goes back to William Carlos Williams, and to Louis Zukofsky, whose work Leggott has studied in depth. In broad terms, this kind of poetry explores the power of language to enact experience, rather than to formulate abstractions from experience. Leggott's poetry is a torrent of sounds, sentiments, situations and sensory detail; hers is the most colourful poetry being written in New Zealand. Mark Williams said of her earlier work: 'Leggott is a sensualist of the word. Her poems enact sound, colour, taste, smell, movement.'9 The title of her second book, Swimmers, Dancers (Auckland University Press, 1991) captures her poetry's sense of movement; Elizabeth Caffin's comment on Leggott's first book, Like This? (Auckland University Press, 1991) is equally true of her second: 'Words themselves give a pleasure of the senses — repeating, varying, patterning sounds and stresses — but also suggest others.'10

Like many books of New Zealand poetry, but more so than most, Swimmers, Dancers is a kind of family album; it even reproduces some family photographs. Many of the poems are about motherhood, the 'sensual and miraculous world of mother and child'. Their long, confident, energetic lines flow on without punctuation; the reader must devise a score for the words, and the process of doing so seems to lend some words more charge than conventional sentences might allow them. This is the first stanza of 'Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers', a longish poem which shares the title of Leggott's book on Zukofsky:

lavenders blue
roll your eleven weeks onto summer's late belly and look out
at the world with your black olive eyes
this was promised under the apple tree at Christmas
when you swam in deep pools of picture space nine days out
among the dream polaroids jacaranda diamante
simulacra of before and after
the visceral rub of pohutukawa in bloom
good established labour the sun going down the Carmel geese
shrieking and flocking the big movie of us coming apart then
waterboatmen on the lake at dawn
and we began the long haul from Recovery nine floors up
to Tranquility a sea a somer-seson

Leggott is 'swimming, dancing' in language, and it's quite a performance. I enjoy her poetry's music and colour, its lack of restraint, its inclusiveness and generosity, its openness to the poet's experiences. But despite its self-conscious asides to the reader, and its awareness of its own artifice, neither the presence of the reader nor the referentiality of language are really made complex. The reader is invited to witness the performance, and is acknowledged ('close readers what will they find here . . .' — 'Deluge in a Paper Cup'), but the poet is always assumed to be in control. And language is always 'under control'; these poems are immensely playful, and do offer choices to the reader, but language is played with, and doesn't really play up — the ability of words to become opaque, to resist their intended uses, is not really a concern for these poems. While I doubt they were intended to do anything of the sort, two lines from a poem called 'Colloquy' sum up for me the way Leggott's poems operate, on their wide pages:

what about a big table in a room with windows
looking over the wild and wavy event?

Most of Dinah Hawken's first book, It Has No Sound And Is Blue (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1987) was written during a three-year stay in New York. On the back cover of the book Hawken says: 'New York is a place that thrives on tensions and extremes, and I am a person preoccupied with connections and balance. No wonder we had a difficult, fruitful relationship.' The poems in the book are often concerned with the struggle for spiritual wholeness, which seems to be made both more difficult and more necessary by the 'climate' — both human and physical — of New York:

When you come down to it we have nothing much.
Just our bodies. And while they continue to rust
and shudder living in them all of a piece

is the sought-for arrangement, one
that every so often we become — with unearthly
perceptions — with hair's breadth composure.

('Traces of Hope')

Hawken's second book, Small Stories of Devotion (Victoria University Press, 1991) is mostly composed of short prose poems — 'small stories.' In contrast to the earlier poems, these tiny narratives read as attempts to communicate directly a sense of wholeness, rather than discuss the necessity and difficulty of achieving it. They are preceded by an introductory section which is arresting in its immediacy and its statement of direction:

I'll stop shuffling under my New Zealand cool, I'll come out
and tell the stories in an eager child-like way, not because
she's a woman but because she wants me to talk simply and to reach you.
If I reach you, she says, she'll probably want to touch you.

The use of first and third persons, the 'I' that is the poet and the 'she' whose stories are told (who may or may not be Dinah Hawken) enables considerable play — in the sense of 'freedom of movement' — in the stories that follow. The stated intention to 'tell the stories in an eager child-like way,' to 'talk simply,' will inevitably be subverted by this gap, and by the poetry's acute awareness of language's ability simultaneously to enable and to hinder communication, to convey and withhold meaning at the same time. This is the way riddles work, and the stories read like riddles; many are actually retellings of dreams, as the second introductory stanza explains:

I did think of using a new language but above
all (though certainly not forever) she is asking to be under
stood so I'm settling for the premise that the unconscious
is fresher and less contaminated by history than history.
In other words I'm bound to tell you her dreams.

As we read, however, the distinction between dream and fiction becomes blurred — it becomes impossible to know whether each 'small story' has been found in dreams or simply made up. The reader is forced to surrender any desire for 'truth', and enter the unrestrained, irrational, playful world of dreams, of 'unearthly perceptions', where Hawken has scope to explore a wide range of emotions — love, desire, fear, anxiety, joy, melancholy — and to mock, or speak up against, the restraint typical of many New Zealanders (our 'New Zealand cool'): 'Where is their restraint, where is their containment?' becomes a refrain.

The way the poems 'wobble' — between 'I' and 'she', between dream and fiction — aided by Hawken's deadpan tone, also makes for some very funny poems. Often the humour lurks just below the surface, just behind the straight face the poems pull:

A few nights earlier she and Jung are in a huge bed together
caressing each other's right forearms. He in his eighties:
she in her thirties. I won't make love to you, he says,
unless I can be sure of your respect and commitment.

('She and Jung')

She goes bleak and blank and balmy. She says bloody hell and then goodbye.

('The Return')

In Hawken's poetry the reader is often addressed directly, enlisted in the tricky task of making sense, but the reader is also repeatedly questioned, and the meaning of 'you' shifts around; as in Bill Manhire's poems, and Jenny Bornholdt's, the relationship is always a complex one. Nevertheless, a kind of intimacy is set up, and reinforced by the personal nature of the dreams told — and the jokes shared. This is poet as ordinary person — fallible, sometimes confused, losing and regaining that 'hair's breadth composure' with which to live 'all of a piece'. We've come a long way from the thin air of Allen Curnow's poetry.

Like Dinah Hawken's, Jenny Bornholdt's poetry is casual, conversational, self-conscious, sometimes laconic. Hawken's focus, however, is more internal, more concerned with the psyche; Bornholdt's poems look outward. They are preoccupied with perception; they are highly observant, busy trying to apprehend the world and watching others attempt to do the same. But they are suspicious of grand themes, of generalisations. The poems work on a small scale, wryly scrutinising details — of objects, of landscapes, of our daily negotiations with the world — for the ironies they might yield, for the possibilities they contain, for the humour they might inadvertently create.

Bornholdt's latest book Waiting Shelter (Victoria University Press, 1991) begins with seven short poems in a style familiar from her previous books This Big Face and Moving House (Victoria University Press, 1988 and 1989). The rhythms are those of prose, and they could be called prose poems. They are organised into short lines, however, whose careful sequence builds in a sense of tentativeness, but at the same time of a kind of confidence. The tentativeness functions as an acknowledgement and an echo of the difficulty the poet has in translating her observations — 'the elusiveness of objects, the shifting of scene, the instability of perceptions and the fragility of words which permeate the poems.' 11 The words step down the page, however, with a confidence that is also a confiding in the reader, in the word's literal sense of 'sharing faith'; faith that communication, while difficult, is always possible. A poem called 'Australia' illustrates these ideas more literally than most:

A green man walking
means cross the road.

Dairy equals milk
. At the laundromat

the news is in Italian.
You recognise Foreign

Exchange and
Melbourne. At the

supermarket the woman
doesn't understand

fish.Fish you say
fish fish

it gets away from
you, you wonder how

to mime such a

know, comes from the
sea. Ah.

The fish swims
happily in its

broad sea of

'Waiting Shelter', the long poem which lends the book its title, records and re-interprets the observations, feelings, and memories experienced during a period of transition, when the poet is waiting both for the arrival of a loved one and for somewhere to live, for shelter. These fragments accumulate as a series of short sentences, which are then arranged, within sections, into three-line stanzas; the almost incantatory rhythm set up thus is reinforced by the repetition of words, phrases, and constructions throughout the poem:

. . . She has a different address
no longer 'care of', but still, the need for
such care to be taken. How precious it

is. How it needs to be cared for. There was
a house they moved in and out of but never
together. How far we have come from

closeness and how we remember it . . .

This is a highly personal poem, but the movement within it is always outwards: from autobiography to story, from 'I' to 'she', from memories and feelings to observations. Nevertheless, the things observed subtly become correlatives for the poet's state of mind:

. . . On the line
bees cling to her blue shirt. Their
grip on a precarious sky.

In this way some of the poem's least overtly emotional sections still manage to register an emotional response to what is observed. The poem's moving final lines, which bring the story to its (happy) ending, also reveal an awareness of the poem's preoccupation with what 'the heart sees':

They meet at the light of
day where the first sun
turns the clouded sky tumbled
rose, where the heart sees
plainly what the eye sees.

Bornholdt's skills of observation and translation are equally at work — and at play — in the other three sections of the book. Tourists Often Stop collects hilarious scenes viewed from a window which overlooks a park; Le Nom collects travel poems from Australia and Europe, in which the poet's keen eye and sharp sense of irony are exercised fully by the experience of 'overseas'; We Will We Do records the poet's search for German ancestors. Bornholdt's writing shows that poetry can be funny, and moving, without giving way to banality, and without sacrificing any depth.

If I want to draw any conclusions from these readings of six New Zealand poets, they centre on the idea of 'entertaining possibilities'. All six have taken advantage of the expansion of poetic possibilities since the 1960s; most of them are concerned, to some extent, with possible interpretations of experience, and the work of each has entertained new possibilities for poetry itself — many of which are highly entertaining. Others in New Zealand have been doing these things too; although I've decided not to make this essay a roll-call of New Zealand poets, you shouldn't start marking absent anyone who isn't here. Readers, as well as poets, are free to construct their own traditions — their own 'New Zealand poetry'. The choices are numerous; many are represented in this issue, including Allen Curnow, to whom it seems fair to give the last word (from 'A Reliable Service'):

. . . No lunch

over there either, the place
at the beach is closed. The Bay
is painted bright

blue from stem to stern.
She lifts attentively. That
will be all, I suppose.


1. "The Vespiary: A Fable" is in Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972-1988 (Auckland University Press, 1988) and in Selected Poems 1940-1989 (Penguin, 1990).

2. See Roger Horrocks's essay "The Invention of New Zealand" in AND 1 (October 1983) pp 9-30. Another perceptive essay by Horrocks is " 'Natural' as only you can be": Some Readings of Contemporary NZ Poetry, in AND 4 (October 1985).

3. "A Busy Port" appeared in Sport 7 (Winter 1991).

4. "A Scrap-Book" appeared in Landfall 175 (September 1990), which also contains an interview with Allen Curnow by Peter Simpson.

5."Breaking the Line: A View of American and New Zealand Poetry," in Islands 38 (December 1987). Another interesting essay by Manhire is "Dirty Silence: Impure Sounds in New Zealand Poetry," in Dirty Silence: Aspects of Language and Literature in New Zealand, edited by Graham McGregor and Mark Williams (Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1991).

6. Mark Williams, in his introduction to The Caxton Press Anthology of New Zealand Poetry 1972-1986, (The Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1987), p31, says of Leigh Davis, John Newton, Elizabeth Nannestad, Gregory O'Brien and Michele Leggott: "[They] display more variousness as young and promising poets than common ground. We detect trends at our own risk. As a group they show chiefly that there has been an accumulation of possibilities during the decade and a half since 1972 . . . "

7. Williams, The Caxton Anthology, p30

8. The Location of the Least Person (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1987). Dunes and Barns (Modern House, Auckland, 1988). Diesel Mystic (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989) Man With A Child's Violin (The Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1990). Malachi: an entertainment (Wellington Plains, Wellington, 1990).

9. Williams, The Caxton Anthology, p30

10. Elizabeth Caffin, review of Like This? in Landfall 169 (March 1989) p100

11. Elizabeth Caffin, review of Moving House in Landfall 174 (June 1990) p251

© Andrew Johnston / Meanjin / Literary Half-Yearly