Classic NZ Poets in Performance: Preface (2006)

Jack Ross, ed.: Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (2006)


Alan Smythe & Jan Kemp working on the Waiata Archive (1974)

In 1974, the poet Jan Kemp, together with Alan Smythe and Dr Jonathan Lamb of Auckland University’s English Department, set out to collect sound recordings of as many as possible of New Zealand’s major poets. Of the 53 who eventually read for the project, 41 had poems selected for the set of three LPs published later that year: New Zealand Poets Read their Work (1 & 2) and New Zealand Poets Read their Work for Children. The reel-to-reel tapes of the original sessions were eventually donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library, where they have remained ever since.

In 2002, nearly thirty years on, Jan Kemp and Alan Smythe, then Acting-Director of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Auckland University, decided to create a new, updated archive of spoken poetry. The plan was to set up regional collection centres in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin in order to maximise coverage of the country’s poets. Jan Kemp took responsibility for Auckland, Elizabeth Alley for Wellington, David Howard and Morrin Rout for Christchurch, Richard Reeve and Nick Ascroft for Dunedin.

When it was eventually deposited in Auckland University’s Special Collections late in 2004, the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive had grown to include 171 poets, each reading for approximately twenty minutes, collected onto 40 audio CDs, together with photos, texts, and bio-bibliographical materials in separate, complementary discs.

These two unrivalled collections of the country’s poets form the basis of the following collection. There are, of course, gaps. It’s regrettable (to mention just a few) that we have no recordings of Ursula Bethell or Robin Hyde. Ruth Dallas, too, unavailable to read in 1974, felt that she could no longer do justice to her own work when she was asked again in 2002. The most striking thing about both archives, though, is their immense inclusiveness.

The Waiata archive includes readings by many of New Zealand’s canonical poets, including James K. Baxter, Charles Brasch, A. R. D. Fairburn, Denis Glover, M. K. Joseph, and R. A. K. Mason. Most exciting of all, perhaps, is the opportunity to hear a voice in 1974 and then again thirty years later. The poets represented twice, in both archives, include many of our finest: Fleur Adcock, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Allen Curnow, Lauris Edmond, Riemke Ensing, Janet Frame, Kevin Ireland, Michael Jackson, Vincent O’Sullivan, Alistair Paterson, Kendrick Smithyman, C. K. Stead, Brian Turner, and Albert Wendt.

The task of selecting materials for this collection of Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance has therefore been more a matter of pruning back this embarras de richesse than of questing around for more.

We have tried to choose the poems according to a number of criteria:

  • Historical significance is one. It would be unthinkable to leave out, say, Glover’s “Magpies,” Curnow’s “Unhistoric Story” or Tuwhare’s “No ordinary sun,” even if one actually preferred other poems by those authors.
  • Representativeness is another. We’ve tried to display as much as possible of each author’s range of styles and voices (literally, in the case of those recorded both in 1974 and 2002).
  • Poetic merit is another, obviously far more subjective and difficult to assess. In general, we’ve gone for poems which seem to me concrete and clear, rather than those which exhibit an outdated sense of poetic rhetoric.

Limiting the time available to each poet might be seen as a constraint – alternatively, as an opportunity. My experience of many a long poetry reading has convinced me that the short, sharp shock can be more effective than the lingering half-hour performance. Our poets have roughly five minutes apiece to make an impression. Each of them, it seems to me, rises to the occasion supremely.

To facilitate the use of the collection, I’ve listed CD track numbers beside the text of each poem. Fuller bibliographical and recording details can be found in the track list at the end.

A decision was made at an early stage to be true to the poem as it was read, rather than as its author published it. All such variations between texts published elsewhere and the recorded version printed here have, however, been included in an appendix of Variant Readings.

Biographical and bibliographical information on each poet, together with a picture, can be found after their poems.
I moved monotonously with each altering swell
my rigid body drifting in small space
about the cold ridged ocean-moulded shell
till I lost hope of light: yet on my face
after drear days I felt again the sun

It’s intensely moving to hear R. A. K. Mason read these words of his, more than thirty years after his death. His voice sounds rough, vernacular, unstrained – almost as if he intends to undercut the lofty sentiments of the verse – but then it rises again to passionate conviction with that “after drear days I felt again the sun.” These, he seems to be saying, are true words, words to live by. I don’t know any other way to experience that.

This, then, is not so much a museum piece as a set of living voices recorded in their prime. The more I listen to them the more I learn. I hope you’ll feel the same way.

Jack Ross & Jan Riemenschneider Kemp
[AoNZPSA Launch, Gus Fisher Gallery (17 July, 2004)]


Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006): ix-xi.

[878 wds]

Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (2006)

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