Launch Speech by Nelson Wattie at the Opening of the Poetry Archive of NZ Aotearoa
The following speech was read by Nelson Wattie at the Poetry Archive opening and book launch held in St Anne's School Room, Northland, 25 July 2010, next door to the Poetry Archive:
I have been asked to launch two books of poetry into the world, and I am delighted to do that because of the deep belief I have in the importance of poetry. For the same reason I want to congratulate the founders of the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa and to say a few words about that before addressing the two books.
I believe that poetry, far from being a marginal decoration to other things, is at the very heart of human life itself. It helps us define and understand what it means to be human. It can help us define and understand what it means to be a particular kind of human as well - such as a New Zealander, or Aotearoan. Not everyone agrees with that. Recently on a TVNZ programme, a panel was asked to discuss the poetry of James K. Baxter. One of the panel opened the discussion by saying that in the hierarchy of the arts, poetry is somewhere below macramé, and this position was not challenged by anyone else on the panel. As long as literary opinion is led on our national media by fools of that kind, we will have to look elsewhere for any real insights into our culture.
The place to look is not in our big decorative institutions like the media, universities, major art galleries and the like but at a much more basic level, the grassroots level, where our culture has its foundations.
About twenty years ago I became aware of the existence of the Poetry Library in London. I visited it then and I have visited it several times since, and I was convinced from the beginning that New Zealand needs an institution of that kind. I approached a number of individuals and existing institutions with this idea and met brick walls on all fronts. For example, when I was President of the New Zealand Poetry Society in the late nineties I put the idea forward to the committee of that time, and I suggested that they might like to view certain premises in the CBD which could be a promising site. I thought that if we begin with a central site we can then approach the funding question from a firmer point of view. Not one member of the Poetry Society committee viewed the site or took up the idea in any other way. It is pleasing to see that as time passes attitudes change, and the current president and committee of the New Zealand Poetry Society have given the Archive a generous donation and a lot of moral support. But back then one of the committee members pointed out that the Wellington Public Library already collects poetry - isn't that enough?
Well, no it is not enough. An important reason for a separate institution, such as the London Poetry Library, is to demonstrate physically and visibly that poetry has a unique and significant place in the culture of the nation and is not to be subsumed as a minor art pushed into the corner of some other broader structure. The fact is that no human society lives without poetry. I would even say that no individual lives without poetry, and the media types referred to a moment ago are fools not because they have no poetry in their souls but because they don't know that it is there; they live in a semi-conscious state.
In his book How Art Made the World, Nigel Spivey* has described how the universal need to make art has in fact constructed our very perceptions of what the world is. In another relevant book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker** has argued that language distinguishes humanity from other creatures in the way that web-making distinguishes spiders from all others. In poetry these two instincts coincide - the art instinct and the language instinct - and it is in poetry that we become most fully human and most fully aware of our humanity. It is not by chance that people in times of crisis and exaltation turn to poetry - in cases of birth, marriage and death or in the most vital turning points in a society's history.
The reason that I failed miserably in my efforts to found a poetry library is that I approached people whose instincts for art and poetry have been distorted and stunted by bureaucracy, intellectualism and similar diseases. Mark, Michael and Niel have started somewhere else, at grassroots, in the human heart, and they are making the gesture that says, "Yes, we need this institution - and here it is, in this suburban garage." I am reminded that my Uncle Jim (my brother and I called him Uncle Jam, but he is known outside the family as Sir James Wattie), started bottling fruit in my grandmother's garage during the depression and ended his life as the head of one of New Zealand's largest and most successful corporate enterprises. From humble beginnings in Niel's suburban garage, I expect great things to develop.
But it is high time that I turned to my actual purpose, which is to launch two books of poetry. The first of these is closely connected to the Archive itself, a kind of dinghy acting as flagship. It is captained by the redoubtable Mark Pirie, who seems to go from strength to strength in his efforts on behalf of our poetic imagination. Throughout the world, thematic anthologies have come into fashion in the last ten years, and, in addition to other achievements, Mark is our leading exponent of this kind of book. Rail Poems of New Zealand Aotearoa is appropriate to the occasion because the railways have always been a vital part of the New Zealand imagination. They retain their imaginative significance even if they decline in commercial value. With his customary hard work and ingenuity Mark has brought a fascinating collection together. It contains classics of our tradition - even though they might seem forgotten - such as ballads by Will Lawson. In his own day, Lawson was recognised as a bard of the railways, and one essayist even claimed that you could identify the different locomotives Lawson was writing about by the way the rhythms of his verse matched the rhythms of their engines. Another classic of popular New Zealand culture is also here, Peter Cape's "Taumarunui". Any book which represents both sisters Marilyn Duckworth and Fleur Adcock is sure to meet my approval. There are other well-known poets here, such as Jan Kemp, Fiona Kidman, M.K. Joseph, Louis Johnson and Peter Olds, along with names that are less familiar to us. The themes covered are also wide-ranging. Political calls for building and protecting railways, the railway as a link between communities, departures and arrivals, farewells and welcomes, the food supplied at the stations and much more. I am also intrigued to see that Marilyn Duckworth and Michael O'Leary find the motion of trains sexually arousing. In short, considering the small size of this book it is astonishing how it overflows with themes and ideas of many kinds. I am happy to launch it and wave to it as it goes on its way.
The other book I am launching today is The Pop Artist's Garland by F.W.N. Wright, better known to his friends as Niel. Niel has been a striking and yet mysterious figure in Wellington's literary community for many years. Nobody who has held conversation with him will fail to be impressed by the almost incredible scope of his knowledge of New Zealand poetry. So many people have published poems and even books of poetry in this country that it is almost impossible to get an overview. As co-editor of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature I suppose it is my responsibility to strive for such an overview, but I confess that I have been floored again and again by Niel's information on poets long forgotten by most of us but not by him. He knows their names, what they wrote, when they wrote, the contexts in which they wrote and, what's most important, he has actually read their work attentively.
We also know that he has been writing his own poems for many a year. He began, he tells me, in 1947, which means that he has been writing poems for more than sixty years. He has published them too. In fact no other New Zealand writer has published so many books. If we include his novels, stories, essays and other writings in addition to the poetry, he has produced about a thousand separate publications. According to his own count he has written more than 40,000 lines of verse. The statistics surrounding Niel are quite extraordinary.
But the fact remains that he and his work are very little known. Most of his books have been produced in tiny editions and their publisher - Niel himself - has made almost no effort to distribute them beyond the legal deposit in the National Library. Frankly, the physical appearance of the books makes them uninviting, and if you think the one you are looking at is only one of a thousand and may not be representative, you despair of getting any real impression of his work.
This makes the new book, meticulously edited and lovingly presented by Mark Pirie, the first real opportunity to get a genuine feel for Wright's poetry. We find a wide range of themes and forms. The poems are always rhymed but the rhyme schemes are multifarious. Wright's poems range in length from epigrams and aphorisms of two lines to narrative poems of several pages. On the evidence of this book I find that Niel has a special strength for narrative poetry. He re-tells classical stories such as that of Hero and Leander or Jason and Medea, And he also tells stories, sometimes romantic sometimes comic, of life in modern Wellington. But narrative is not everything. I have mentioned the aphorisms and there is also a wide range of lyric forms and themes to be discovered in these 100 pages.
My partner tells me that I always talk too long on these occasions, and I can see that some of you are already growing weary. But I don't want to finish without giving you an actual example of what I've been talking about. More important than talk about poetry is poetry itself. I will conclude by reading what I consider to be one of Niel's most successful poems. It is called "Wahine" and Wellingtonians will have immediate associations with that name. In fact storms are a recurring motif in Niel Wright's poetry - storms in the Mediterranean or in suburban gardens. In addition to recalling the disaster in a terrible Wellington storm, the word wahine is also, of course, the Maori term for "woman", and women are another recurring motif in these poems. In this particular poem the breakup of the ship in the harbour happens at the same time as a breakup between lovers on shore, and the interweaving of these two events and the two associations of the title word give special poignancy to the poem. (As for the other poems - buy the book and read them!)
By F W N Wright
We did think twice whether to face
Such rain and gale force
Winds as inch deep drenched
The pavement and threatened to wrench
The massive steel and concrete building loose
From its base. This was as close
As the car would take us. We plunged into the rain
And staggering in the wind, stumbled, rather than ran
To reach shelter. As we and our colleagues sip
Our morning tea or coffee over desultory gossip
About this atrocious weather that still continues
Unabated, we hear the indifferent news
That the Wahine on her voyage across the strait, unable
To enter harbour in such a storm, has been disabled
And is drifting without power or help through the heads
But is in no immediate danger, the broadcast adds.
We had spent the night before wrecking our love
On one another's bones. We believed
Too readily that all was well, all shipshape,
Regardless of the storm whose vehemence and sharp
Onset intermittently we felt
Through concrete. We joked about the geological fault,
Rumoured to lie below the hillslope,
Which one day carrying building and all could slip
Catastrophically. We had awakened at six,
Two naked bodies in a single bed, had sex
Anew to the lash splash of the storm, with no thought
Beyond. Hours later we learnt with shock that
The Wahine, overwhelmed by an exceptional wave
Had sunk in the harbour. Just as conclusively we've
Become strangers. Fifty lives were lost
Within sight of the city viewers. The last
Of the wreckage was salvaged the other day.
That's how we watched our love die,
Uncomprehendingly, though in full view
It happened. Tell me, what became of you?
*Nigel Spivey, How Art Made the World, London: BBC Books, 2005.
**Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind, London: Penguin Books, 1994.
Nelson Wattie is a Wellington-based translator, literary scholar, poet and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998).