My Review of 20 Contemporary New Zealand Poets (VUP 2009) Appeared in The Christchurch Press on Saturday.
Here it is:
This anthology contains some excellent work by outstanding individual poets. As an anthology however it is less then the sum of its parts. New Zealand, for a country of its size, has a relatively large number of poetry anthologies, and this should be taken into account when approaching a newcomer to the market. Such collections also necessarily reflect the biases of taste and ideology of their editors. In light of these considerations, the current collection does not stand well up well against other recent publications. Despite this collection’s title there seems to be no concrete idea of the contemporary represented here. Younger poets such as Robert Sullivan (the youngest in the collection, born in 1967) are presented alongside Allen Curnow (1911-2001), Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) and C. K. Stead (1932). This raises obvious questions as to the purpose of this anthology. Curnow, Elizabeth Smither, Stead and Ian Wedde all appeared in Alastair Patterson’s 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets in 1980, and Cilla McQueen and Gregory O’Brien were featured in The New Poets of the 80’s, edited by Murray Edmond and Mary Paul. Allen Curnow's son Wystan was excluded from Jack Ross and Jan Kemp’s Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance as his birthdate, 1939, excluded him from their parameters. Though the selections presented of these poets tend toward more recent work, whether or not this is the basis of ‘contemporariness’ is, I think, a valid question. If the purpose of the anthology is to showcase the work of younger poets, this renders a large portion of the anthology essentially redundant. This space could have been better used to do so, as was the case with the earlier Patterson and Edmond/ Paul anthologies. The introduction, too, leaves much to be desired, and does not fare well in comparison to previous works. It is a mere two and a half pages, compared to Patterson’s twelve, Edmond and Paul’s just over seven, and the twelve of Ross and Kemp. There is no discussion of individual poet’s work other than a brief gloss, nor is there any real historical or literary background. The editors celebrate New Zealand poets’ embracing of new American models that arrived here in the 60s, announcing that “[William Carlos] Williams’s dictum ‘no ideas but in things’ spoke to New Zealanders’ strong sense of the materiality of everyday objects, of the landscape, of weathers and climates – and chimed with their healthy scepticism of grand ideological claims.” This is a “grand ideological claim” in and of itself. Why do New Zealanders have this “strong sense of materiality”, and is this a uniquely New Zealand trait? My own “healthy scepticism” would argue that this is a rehashing of the arguments that cultural nationalists such as Curnow, Charles Brasch and Dennis Glover made in the 1930s to 50s, which the editors mention as the outmoded ideas of a previous generation just half a page later. There is also the unthinking dismissal of the writing of women before the “feminist revolution” of the 70s, seemingly ignoring the hard-hitting treatment of issues of gender by poets such as Robin Hyde and Eileen Duggan from the 1930s onward. Comments such as that “the emergence of [women poets] was one of the major factors in opening up the range of subjects and styles that give today’s poets so much space” not only reinforce stereotypes of ‘women’s writing’, but as a truism (women write different types of poems to men therefore these poems are different) seems to mean nothing at all. The inclusion of poetics statements by the contributors adds a great deal to the reading experience, and illuminates the poems and the personality of the individual writers. Finding out what makes some of my heroes tick is something I greatly enjoyed. However this is not enough to save the book for me. I would recommend The AUP anthologies Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance and New New Zealand Poets in Performance, both edited by Jack Ross and Jan Kemp as far better value for money- they cost a bit more, but are better edited, and have the poets reading on CD as well, adding a new dimension to the poems.
I would like to add that this anthology once again disappoints in the same way that The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams disappoints Wystan Curnow, related in his "High Culture Now! A Manifesto". While I do not personally agree with all that is stated in this polemic, a quote from it i think is pertinent here, and while Curnow is discussing the oxford anthology these criticisms can equally be levelled at this more recent one:
“A more important problem or puzzle which the editors have left to their successors is the extraordinary sameness of recent poetry or their selection of it. [...] Since one of the few claims they make is for the diversity of their collection the sameness of it must arise largely from a blindness to it. [...] Usually colloquial, and in the first person, these poems concern themselves almost exclusively with personal feelings, shifts in individual consciousness, as if this was all that poetry could do. In a decade during which the news and entertainment media increasingly personalize and privatize social and political problems, sentimentalize and sensationalize all emotion, this kind of poetry seems a part of the problem of public language in our culture rather than a critical response to it. This kind of poem was designed for the passionless people Gordon McLaughlin once accused us of being, but today everyone is passionate about everything they do, at least they had better be. The new forms of thought and feeling proposed by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were a response to corruption of public language in America, and yet the editors of the Oxford dismiss them as another foreign fad. In this they are not alone. Policing the boundaries of the ruling forms with cheap passing shots at L=poetry is as close as we get to serious debate in the poetry world these days."
Further criticism of the hackneyed pseudo-homage to diversity played here is the selection of "minority" poets, which is unsurprising in the extreme. The editors haven't even thought to include "writing in English" or the like in the title, as Bornholt, O'Brien and Williams did so as to not have to do the real work that Wedde and McQueen did in their 1985 penguin in the inclusion of Writers working in Te Reo. There are Two Maori Writers (Hone Tuwhare and Robert Sullivan) one Pasifika Writer (Tusiata Avia) and everyone else is Pakeha-European-Palangi. As Ishmael Reed argues in the introduction to From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas 1900-2002 the "minority" poetries that are endorsed by the dominant culture and selected to be "representative" are often very different to those which said cultures would chose and endorse themselves.
More. A survey of the publishers credited in the acknowledgements shows a huge domination by the University presses of Victoria and Auckland. Of the 58 books credited nearly half (25, or 43%) are published by VUP, 18 (31%) by AUP and a measly 11 by small-press publishers (the others are 1 by Otago, one by Oxford and a Manhire poem from the London Review of Books). Though this may be representative of the state of poetry publishing in New Zealand this domination is worrying (Cf. Patrick Evans on VUP and the IML - this is given simply as a interesting parallel text rather than an endorsement of his argument - though he raises some valid questions I find much of his argument, especially it's regionalism, problematic). This anthology is far from a selection where "each of the voices ... here surprises by its fresh take on language and the world ... offer[ing] a rich, rewarding conversation".