In 1981 the New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon made a speech to the Worshipful Company of Butchers in London. Here’s part of what he said:
There’s a story told about Sir Walter Scott, who was walking with his wife at Abbotsford one day when they came upon a flock of sheep with new-born lambs playing about them. ‘It’s no wonder,’ he said to his wife, ‘that poets from the earliest ages have made the lamb the emblem of peace and innocence.’ ‘They are indeed, delightful animals,’ replied Lady Scott, ‘especially with mint sauce.’
Poetry is all very well, but we in New Zealand are most interested in the mint sauce end of the animal.
The prime ministerial words were actually written by a witty member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but probably Sir Robert enjoyed reading them aloud, just as he enjoyed making jokes about McCahon paintings, Australians, and trans-Tasman intelligence levels. And surely the butchers — for some reason I imagine them all sitting in freshly pressed, striped aprons — would have chuckled.
Of course, most New Zealanders are pretty pragmatic. ‘What is it for?’ is the first question we ask of something. Or, ‘What does it do?’ The problem with poetry is that we are never quite sure how to answer those questions. There it is, and we meet it at school, and feel mildly anxious, and we worry about how to spell ‘onomatopoeia’, and sometimes a phrase or two sticks . . . but it doesn’t seem to help with the balance of payments. Poems have no weight in the marketplace. You can’t hang one on the wall and watch its value appreciate.
And yet . . . every time we go to a naming ceremony, a wedding, a funeral, a memorial event like Anzac Day, there are the poems among us, at the very centre of our lives. Worth nothing, they are somehow worth everything — particularly during those rites of passage when we are drawn together by the deepest things we have in common.
1981 was hardly one of New Zealand’s glory years. Back then, distance seemed an especially difficult thing. I was living in London, and I remember writing a poem called ‘Zoetropes’ that was full of geographical distance. It was prompted by my more-than-usual need for news from home – the Springbok tour had become a dark, looming cloud on the horizon. But the poem was also about that unsettling thing that happens to all travelling New Zealanders: your homeland vanishes when you leave it. ‘Zoetropes’ begins with a familiar experience: the one where you turn the page of a newspaper – in London or New York or Melbourne – and glimpse a heart-lifting capital Z out of the corner of your eye, only to make the immediately disappointing discovery that the word in question is Zimbabwe, or Ziggurat, or even Zoetropes.
So in London in1981, as the Springbok tour approached, I was desperate for news from home, and found it very hard to get. Occasionally someone would phone; or a package of clippings would arrive in the post. These days I suppose I would be a little troubled, but not in that big, agitating, disconnected way that I recall, because of course the problems of distance have since been modified by the internet and other forms of instant communication. No one now is likely to feel, as one of our first poets, R.A.K. Mason, did back in the 1920s, that New Zealand is a ‘far-pitched perilous hostile place . . . fixed at the friendless outer edge of space’.
Happily, one of the aspects of New Zealand that now travels most easily and immediately is poetry. The quality of our poets has always been one of the country’s best kept secrets, and at last word is beginning to get out. Our poets are published in a range of overseas markets. The English publisher Carcanet has done an anthology of recent New Zealand poetry. There is now an anthology of contemporary New Zealand poetry in German translation, Wildes Licht (Wild Light). There is even a Russian anthology, Land of Seas. My own recent book Lifted was recently published in Italian translation.
And now the web makes New Zealand poetry accessible everywhere. Notable websites include the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre which currently archives the work of over 30 poets, and Best New Zealand Poems, which I’m personally proud to have brought into being. Each year a different BNZP editor chooses the best 25 poems from the last 12 months. There are notes on the poets and their poems (often by the poets themselves), and a whole range of links – for example, to journal and publisher sites – for readers who want to explore a particular poet’s work further. The site has become a shop-window for New Zealand poetry, and has visitors from all around the world.
The 2009 Best New Zealand Poems has just gone on-line, edited by Robyn Marsack, an expat New Zealander who directs the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
It’s sometimes said that poets are the antennae of the human race. The two poets who have been chosen most often by the BNZP editors over the past decade are Jenny Bornholdt and Geoff Cochrane. Anyone who wants to keep up with the places the New Zealand imagination is going should be seeking them out.