Jack Ross, ed.: "We" Society Poetry Anthology (2015)
Mrs. Thatcher once declared, at the height of her attack on the British Social Welfare System, once the envy of the world: “Who is society? There is no such thing! People look to themselves first.”
What Thatcher actually meant by this challenge to the very name “society” was (as she proceeded to explain) the fact that: “Life is a reciprocal business, and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.”
There is, of course, a lot of truth in this. But that doesn’t mean that there are not certain responsibilities on the individual which transcend simple self-interest. The get-rich-quick beneficiaries of Thatcher’s new order may have done very nicely for themselves, but all those corporate raids and deregulated industries have left behind a bitter legacy of devastated communities – crime, drug addiction, social and political apathy.
I tried very hard, however, not to impose what I feel about society, and its complex relation to the individual, before reading the entries for the “We Society” Poetry Competition. I didn’t want to be only looking for poems I agreed with already.
Sure enough, I was astonished by the range of responses and interpretations to the idea of a society of mutual dependence. Some poets took the competition rubric quite literally, carefully inserting the words “we society” – or some variation thereon – in the body of their poem. Others took a more oblique, nuanced approach. These latter tended to be more successful, I think, but both trends are well represented here.
It was very difficult to make a selection from so many good poems: almost all of the writers who entered seem to have fielded their A-team for the competition, but I was eventually able to come up with a longlist of 70-odd poems (all included in this publication), which I then refined further into a shortlist of twelve. Here is that list (in alphabetical order of title):
- 10 in a packet
A very accomplished, simple but not-so-simple poem about children growing into adulthood, and the things they leave behind, all achieved without fuss or straining for effect.
This is a political poem – almost a manifesto – but it seems to me to personalise its message very effectively: the form is innovative and the language lively.
- Everything about us
I have to say that I’m particularly fond of the short prose poem as a genre, and there were some very good ones among the entries for the competition. This one was a standout, though – intensely timely, and expressed exactly.
This poem pleased me a lot. As a city-dweller, I share few of the experiences described in it, but the poet made me feel them from the inside. It struck me as a thoroughly imagined piece of writing.
- From me in Vanilla
I like the (disarming) simplicity of this a lot. There were a number of poems along such familiar utopian lines, but this one hinted most successfully at hidden depths below the “new society.”
- I love you very badly
A wonderfully terse, very modern poem, but with ancient resonances to it. The poet formatted it in the tiniest of tiny fonts, but when I blew it up large enough to be visible to my middle-aged eyes, I was quite enchanted by what I read, and its adroit combination of text language and classical love lyric.
- Ko Aotearoa tenei
The linguistic exuberance and multi-cultural inventiveness of this poem is intoxicating. I must confess that I’d like to read a lot more by this author: this is a dazzling piece of work.
- Little God
A very intense poem from (I would guess) a very dark place. Once again, what better way is there out of such places than to try and describe it for other people? It can’t hurt, and it often helps.
- may no disaster escape destruction in our bundle of sticks on fire
There’s a Neruda-esque delight in metaphor and the long line here: a kind of natural surrealism which brings this old language to life – a rich, complex poem.
- On the way from the ATM
This is the classic New Zealand storyteller’s voice: a well-told tale, almost anecdotal in its simplicity, which draws you in through narrative then forces you to confront uncomfortable truths. Again, the simplicity of it masks the true accomplishment of such a poem.
A complex set of associations and memories adding up to a really beautiful piece, one which repays reading and re-reading. This is one of the richest responses to the theme of the competition, I think.
- The mad ones
I really like this poem. The approach is not unfamiliar (“We are the music-makers, we are the dreamers of dreams” might be seen as a precedent), but there’s a charming directness about these “mad ones,” and I particularly admire that touch at the end: “So nameless they will write you / A poem / And forget the signature at the end.”
Dr Jack Ross works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University’s Auckland Campus. His latest book A Clearer View of the Hinterland: Poems and Sequences 1981-2014, appeared in 2014 from HeadworX in Wellington. His other publications include four full-length poetry collections, three novels, and three volumes of short fiction. He has also edited a number of books and literary magazines, including (from 2014) Poetry NZ. Details of these and other publications are available on his blog The Imaginary Museum [http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/].
"We" Society Poetry Anthology. Edited with a Preface by Jack Ross. ISBN 978-0-473-32197-0. “Stage2Page” Publishing Series #4 (Auckland: Printable Reality, 2015): 1-3.
[Available at: http://printablereality.com/publishing/we-society-publication/]