Pure Enterprise: The Poetry of the North Shore (2004)

Graeme Lay & Jack Ross, ed.: Golden Weather (2004)

Pure Enterprise:
The Poetry of the North Shore

For me, perhaps the defining moment in North Shore poetry is that afternoon in April 1955 when the young Dunedinite Janet Frame, having given Frank Sargeson a short story of hers to read, wandered the streets of Takapuna until she came to the sea-shore:
I sat on the beach looking out to Rangitoto, the island everyone in Auckland claimed as theirs, speaking of its perfect shape viewed from all directions as if they had helped to design and form it. ‘See, there’s Rangitoto,’ they said. I thought, So this is the island in Charles Brasch’s poem,
Harshness of gorse darkens the yellow cliff-edge
And scarlet-flowered trees lean out to drop
Their shadows on the bay below.
I had little experience of many people; I knew them only in my heart; I found endearing this eagerness of Aucklanders to claim Rangitoto. [1]

Having grown up myself in Mairangi Bay, under the constant shadow of that perfect volcanic cone just a short way away across the water, I find it odd to think of someone having to imagine Rangitoto through the medium of a poem, especially so idiosyncratic and personal a poem as Brasch’s, that vision of the androgynous “long-limbed mountain” lifting its “easy flanks” to “[clasp] the notched, worn crater-cone between them.” Did he imagine the mountain as a human figure lying on its back, crooking its knees into a cone? In that case, how does the crater-cone “drooping like an aging head” fit in? In any case, he sees it as belonging to a fiery elder world before the “pert waves” and “shiftless waters” of the present.

If that’s what Rangitoto meant for Brasch at the beginning of the 1930s, it’s interesting to see that twenty years later, in the 1950s, it’s become an image of materialist possessiveness for Frame: the (alleged) propensity of Aucklanders to claim the island “as if they had helped to design and form it.” It’s an interesting take on what Kendrick Smithyman, in “At Ti Point,” called “our yet to be shattered
complacent city, dear, vulgar, desecrated
daily in other ways, where still a proud
flesh does not connote the smart pride of pain.[2]

Smithyman, in his turn, was writing in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, from a “Pacific as itself, a state of dream,” while “elsewhere – Saigon, Hanoi – children scream / subscribed to dreams of power they do not dream.” That was also the era of Keith Sinclair’s “The Bomb is Made:”
The bomb is made will drop on Rangitoto.
I do not want to see that sun-burned harbour,
Islandless as moon, red-skied again,
Its tide unblossomed, sifting wastes of ash.
Be kind to one another, kiss a little,
Our only weapon is this gentleness.

Brasch, Frame, Sinclair – three different decades, three different ways of reading the same sight: this iconic Rangitoto which overhangs us all (and, one suspects, will continue to do so).

I think that’s why I see this anthology of North Shore poetry and prose as important. Brasch and Frame and Sinclair are all aware of one another, aware of earlier interpretations of the sites they describe: beaches, baches, headlands, sea. There can never (obviously) be a definitive reading of the North Shore – no final statement of what it means in the larger scheme of things. What we do have is a succession of overlapping visions, not just of Rangitoto, but of every other aspect of this curious outflung outpost of metropolitan Auckland.

“Across the bridge …” Other Aucklanders speak as if the North Shore (“North Harbour” as it’s gradually become, as the suburbs sweep ever further inland and along each coast) were a foreign country, a distant region where guides and maps are suddenly required. Each of the regions of the city has developed its own character, its own distinct identity: Waitakere and Henderson out West; Tamaki and Howick in the East; Mangere and Manukau to the South. Ever since the days when it could only be reached by ferry, though, the North Shore – Devonport, Takapuna, the East Coast Bays – has been defined by being alternative: a series of binary opposites: Queen Street Farmers against Bayswater yachties; Business against Bohemia; packed streets against green spaces; asphalt against sand …

Was this mythical North Shore ever real? Was there ever a time when life here was golden, relaxed, Mediterranean? It seems impossible to believe, and yet I’ve tried to gather here a collection of those instants when it seemed possible to believe such a thing – from A. R. D. Fairburn’s “Cave,” where:
all was transfigured, all was redeemed,
so that we escaped from the days
that had hunted us like wolves

to Nick Williamson, “ankle deep in cold / sea, watching,” as his father brings home the fresh, white schnapper. Of course, I’ve tried to represent the other side as well: coarseness, realism, disillusionment – Barry Southam’s “mortgaged suburb of modern homes,” where the concentration-camp guards obey their orders; Kevin Ireland’s gulls, “Heads down, backs hunched” …
drilling screams into the cliffs,
rubbing the shine off the day.
Always some bastard has to spoil it.

As Baxter put it in his “Ode to Auckland:”
The farting noise of the trucks that grind their way down Queen Street
Has drowned forever the song of Tangaroa on a thousand beaches,
The sound of the wind among the green volcanoes,
And the whisper of the human heart.

What’s left are moments, Wordsworthian “spots of time” – moments of perception, love, empathy … flashes of pure magic: Richard von Sturmer’s dream of:
… all the dogs that I have ever known. In front are Bonnie, my father’s Scottish Terrier, and Kiri, the Golden Cocker Spaniel from my childhood. Next are the dogs of friends and relations: Otto, Heidi, Larry, Toby, Daisy, Dolly, Bodhi, Brutus, Chauncey, Buddy, Judge. ...

or Michele Leggott’s harsh epiphany in the ticket-office:
Are you blind? the fuller’s boy asked. He was in charge of the fare. Yes I said I am. In the change was a small silver leaf.

When Janet Frame came back to Sargeson’s Esmonde Rd bach that afternoon in 1955 she was “cautious in her hopes” for her story “I knew … that it was too loosely woven; I might even have said that it sagged in the middle. Oh to have it stapled with bolts of fire to the sky!”
Mr Sargeson poured two glasses of his favourite Lemora wine and I sat on the high wooden stool opposite him while we drank our wine.
‘I read your story,’ he said. He took the pages, scanned them, and read aloud, “Every morning she rose ...“‘ He looked sternly at me. ‘Rose? Went up to heaven, I suppose? Why not say, simply, She got up. Never use rose.’
I listened contritely, realising that ‘rose’ was unforgivable.
‘The story is quite good of its kind,’ Mr Sargeson said. I felt a surge of disappointment.[3]

We all have to come back down to earth in the end, but this anthology is dedicated to those moments when something better seemed possible: “eccentric starfish fallen from impossible heavens / fretting on uncharted rocks” {Fairburn, “Full Fathom Five”]; “A kingfisher’s naked arc alight / Upon a dead stick.” [Allen Curnow, “A Small Room with Large Windows”]; “I’ll have the Bay neat and tidy for when you get back, promise. I’ll put the waves away, surf down the roof and scrub along the top of the cliff even. You won’t know the place. …” [Wystan Curnow, from Castor Bay] … Moments when “Nothing goes / visibly traded between pine, lemon and silver dollar” [Smithyman, “If I Stepped Outside, in May ’93”].
When I go outside light flows, pure enterprise.

A Note on the Selection of Poems

The texts here have been arranged in small knots or clusters, each grouped around a particular theme, or place, or person. I’ve tried to include most of the principal poets who’ve lived on, or been concerned with the Shore for any length of time. My main criterion, however, had to be the appositeness (in context) of each poem.

Given the space available, it seemed to me better to attempt to build up a composite portrait of the Shore in poetry, rather than a biographical dictionary of all the poets who’ve ever been resident here (a daunting – though doubtless rewarding – task).

You may therefore notice certain anomalies: writers who only visited briefly (James K. Baxter, Charles Brasch), or who are strongly associated with other parts of Auckland (Murray Edmond, Bob Orr, C. K. Stead). In each case, I hope the piece itself justifies the decision to include it.


1. Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table – An Autobiography: Volume Two. 1984 (Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1987): 144.

2. Kendrick Smithyman, “At Ti Point.” Earthquake Weather (Auckland: Auckland University Press & Oxford University Press, 1972): 23.

3. Frame, 145.


Golden Weather: North Shore Writers Past and Present (Auckland: Cape Catley, 2004): 12-16.

[1458 wds]

Golden Weather (2004)

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