Big Smoke (2000)

NZ Listener 175 (3146) (26/8-1/9/2000)

Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975, edited by Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000. [xii + 344 pp. ISBN: 1-86940-230-8. RRP $49.95]

Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott, ed.: Big Smoke (2000)

I wish I didn’t feel nagging reservations about this project. After all, if it’s the acid test of an anthology to tell you things you didn’t already know, Big Smoke is a winner. There’s nothing predictable about this line-up of poets – or poems. Murray Edmond explains the distinction in his introductory essay:
Big Smoke … is a collection of poems rather than poets. At least 29 of the poets here have never appeared in any other collection …

That’s quite a burden of novelty to put on any publication, but then, this is an ambitious book (two introductions, a detailed chronology, cartoons, drawings, manifestos – it’s more than one might have expected, though perhaps no more than the subject requires).

That subject is no less than New Zealand’s “decade of crisis” (as Alan Brunton calls the sixties in his own essay, “Restoring the Commune”). He defines its characteristic tone in terms of five crucial differences from a “deeply conformist and monocultural colonial society which had already created its poetry and its poetics, thank you.” (Edmond). They are, in order:
  1. Race – “as misrepresentation, manipulation, and excuse”
  2. Consciousness – “The normal state of mind was paranoia”
  3. Sex – now achieving “autonomous status”
  4. Politics – “the recognition that equilibrium was patriarchal, oppressive, and indifferent”
  5. The Commune – “Beloved Community”

So far so good. Brunton’s analogies with the Paris Commune and the career of Rimbaud seem a compelling and original way to approach this sense of radical disjunction from a compromised past.

The real problem comes when we get to the poems themselves. Many of them are, I’m afraid, not all that good.

Take, for example, the poem “August 1974” by Nuru Jaya (presumably one of the 29 who have never appeared in any other collection – please bear in mind also that with so wide a choice, any singling out is bound to be invidious):
and in our sharing, we both know
who will drown, for you have
made me shiver into beingness –
impinging a thousand images of you upon me

That’s a nice sentiment, but rather underwritten, wouldn’t you say? “Beingness” strikes me as an unnecessary and infelicitous neologism, and “impinging a thousand images of you upon me” seems a remarkably round-about way to express that particular poetic cliché.

So what? So there are some undercooked poems in there – wasn’t the whole sixties thing about hanging loose? After all, as Edmond makes clear, part of the point of this book is to be the 1960 Curnow anthology’s evil twin: bigger, badder, and broader all round. Nuru Jaya is just one of many new voices unearthed from under the dead weight of patriarchy.

But many of the voices in this book are not new. We have Bill Manhire, we have Ian Wedde, we even have Hone Tuwhare (not to mention Edmond and Brunton themselves). And I don’t think that it’s just familiarity with their works that makes me say that their contributions are – for the most part – amazingly strong: sinewy, powerful poems which really do go a long way towards substantiating the grandiose claims made in those two prefaces (not to mention Michele Leggott’s rock-bio-intense chronology).

Who isn’t there is equally striking. When I think of the sixties in NZ poetry I tend to think of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets (referred to here obliquely with the inclusion of Manhire and Brent Southgate’s “New Jerusalem Sonnets”), the first flowering of late Curnow, Smithyman’s self-reinvention as a Jamesian monologist. I have no trouble with leaving these mainstream voices out, but in that case why count Tuwhare in?

“Voices that first came to prominence in the sixties” answers that, I guess, and I do like the idea of not just confining oneself to the canon. Brunton and Edmond were, after all, there – and retain much street-cred as founding editors of The Word is Freed, not to mention continuously productive artists ever since.

Interestingly, the first thing I saw when I opened the book was the cartoon on the last page, depicting a schoolgirl called Judy discovering an old Freed in some landfill of the future: “Judy is going to make a discovery! Namely some poets about whom I’m very familiar in my capacity as university lecturer!” comments a tweedy old perv from a side panel.

This is fun, and succeeds in bringing back that romantic aura of witty freshness which must still hang around these faded magazines for those who were there. There’s an air of the campus rag about it, though – clever but immature: the kind of thing I used to admire so when I read Craccum as a beady-eyed youth.

Perhaps one could sum up by saying that’s the strength and weakness of this collection. It makes it possible to re-experience that Dylan mantra “the times they are a-changing;” but it also tries to perpetuate the myth that poetry can be made “by all not one.” There is a kind of poetry that can be made that way – it’s called living. However, Brunton, Edmond, and their peers are poets in a very different sense from, say, Nuru Jaya, and it’s disingenuous of them to pretend otherwise.


NZ Listener 175 (3146) (26/8-1/9/2000): 40-41.

[877 wds]

NZ Listener 3146 (2000)

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