Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2019 (March 2019)
What makes a poem good?
Manawatu Writers' Festival
[Photograph: Jenny Lawn (8/9/18)]
It’s a somewhat absurdly ambitious premise for an editorial, you may think. Certainly I did, when I was booked to speak on the topic at the 2018 Manawatū Writers’ Festival.
I won’t attempt to reprise everything I said on that occasion (vanity —— not to mention sanity —— forbids), but I thought I might mention a few points. First up is a quote from Robert Graves, one of my favourite poetry gurus:
The most popular theory advanced to account for the haunting of houses is that emanations of fear, hate or grief somehow impregnate a locality, and these emotions are released when in contact with a suitable medium. So with a poem or novel, passion impregnates the words and can make them active even divorced from the locality of creation. (On English Poetry, 1922)
You see what I mean? What a man! Graves, fresh from the trenches of the Western Front —— and even fresher from the psychoanalyst’s couch —— went on to argue in favour of the even more sweeping opinion that ‘Art of every sort . . . is an attempt to rationalize some emotional conflict in the artist’s mind.’
If the work created as a result succeeds somehow in resolving or at least exteriorising the conflict in question, he claims, then it can be said to be successful —— for that artist, at any rate. There is, however, no automatic reason to expect this success to translate to others. If, by some stroke of luck, it does, then we have what is commonly thought of as a ‘work of art’; i.e. something that speaks meaningfully to the emotional conflicts and traumas of others, as well as to yourself.
Certainly, as an editor, I have to acknowledge a certain futility in most of my attempts to make objective judgements about poems. A. E. Housman said that he always knew the real thing because it made the hairs on his chin stand up while he tried to shave. In other words, even that most austere of Classicists had to resort to a physical reaction rather than any more reasoned definition of poetry.
As my father grew older, and especially after his first stroke, we began to see a more emotional side of him (the exact words the doctors used were ‘emotionally labile’ —— apparently a common symptom of cerebral damage). In layman’s terms, he would burst into tears at the drop of a hat. Any mention of war sacrifice, moral courage, or bravery of any kind, would have him sniffing away in a manner that would probably have embarrassed him profoundly as a younger man. It certainly embarrassed us as the more-or-less standard products of a repressed Kiwi upbringing.
Even at the time I felt ashamed of this embarrassment, and tried to persuade myself to look on at such displays with joy and affection. It’s hard to overcome the conditioning of a lifetime, though.
Now it’s happening to me! I have always been pretty susceptible to uplifting speeches or noble acts in movies —— that moment in Rabbit Proof Fence, for instance, when the little girl pulls herself up off the sand to struggle on for just a few yards more with her sister in her arms . . . Pretty much the whole of that movie, in fact. I could make a list. Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (‘Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for . . .’); Cher in Mask (‘Now you can go anywhere you want, baby’); Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (‘Stand up, child, your daddy’s passing’). You know the sort of thing.
It’s starting to affect my poetry reading, too. It’s not that all the poems I like now have to be tragic or elegiac: humour is a pretty strong emotion, too, and everyone needs a good laugh from time to time. It’s just that I’m no longer afraid of being moved by them —— by the last lines of Brett Gartrell’s ‘After the principal calls’, for instance:
The dogs broke into the hen house
stringing two birds out in bloody feathered scraps.
My son cornered the panting terriers
washed the blood from their lips
as they licked the tears from his eyes.
Or, for that matter, by the whole of Wes Lee’s extraordinary ‘The Things She Remembers #1’, which is almost the only poem I could imagine knocking Brett’s into second place in our annual Poetry New Zealand competition:
Standing looking in the mirror saying:
No, No / The cold orange lipstick of the
Big Nurse / The patient who screamed like
a bird / her mouth wide as the abyss /
The patient who jumped on my back, kicked
in her heels, tried to gee me up like a
donkey / The painful embarrassment of being
thirteen / The laughter of the nurses / At
a terrible time I believed / At terrible times
I still believe / There are still things left to
sell / On the bus a wasp and a homeless man.
My God, there’s some pain in that poem! I hope that it had some success in working out certain traumas for its author (as prescribed by Robert Graves). Whether it did or not, it certainly works for me.
It’s not that I sit here boo-hooing as I read through all the submissions for each issue —— but every now and then something in one of them sits up and looks alive, persuades me that something is being worked out there that might be relevant to others simply because it seems so relevant to me.
It must have been very difficult for A. E. Housman to shave without constantly cutting himself. Every time he thought of ‘Into my heart an air that kills / From yon far country blows’ or ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages’, up the little hairs would go.
I wouldn’t trust myself to read out loud either Brett or Wes’s poems —— or quite a few of the other wonderful poems I have included in this edition of the Yearbook, either —— but I’m very glad the poets wrote them. Glad to have had the privilege to read them and to present them for the rest of you to fall for as hard as I did. (That’s if you’re not still stuck at the embarrassment-before-strong-emotion stage of your development. You wait: the time will come when you, too, find your face wet with tears when the townsfolk burst in to give their hard-earned savings to Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Housman called poetry ‘a morbid secretion’. Graves, too, sees it as the necessary working-out of a repressed trauma or complex. Whether or not that helps as a tentative answer to what makes a poem good, I don’t know. I just know that spotting the real thing has become, for me, as much of a somatic as a psychosomatic matter.
So, to reprise, the winners of the third annual Poetry New Zealand Poetry Prize are as follows:
First prize ($500):Wes Lee,
for ‘The Things She Remembers #1’
Second prize ($300):Brett Gartrell,
for ‘After the principal calls’
Third prize ($200):Natalie Modrich,
I’ve already given you some idea of what I found so extraordinary in the first two of these poems.
The third is a complete change of pace. Natalie herself refers to it as ‘a very therapeutic poem’, and while it did make me laugh like a drain —— for which I thank her profoundly —— it also made me think a little about all the rest of the people doing what she calls ‘soul-crushing’ retail jobs. I don’t know if reading such things helps at all, but I’m prepared to believe it might. After all, Housman said that his poetry was meant for the ‘ill-treated . . . / For them to read when they’re in trouble / And I am not.’
This time the three poems have been printed separately, in their own section of the journal.
The same is true of the winning entries for the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook student poetry competition. All three of these poems seem to show an almost frightening maturity and skill. The difficulty in judging the competition was not so much in finding merit, as in deciding which of so many good poems to put first.
Aigagalefili Fepulea‘i-Tapuaʻi’s ‘275 Love Letters to Southside’ is a passionate piece of work —— richly imbued with the spirit of her beloved heimat:
When I learnt that no place outside of South Auckland would want to pronounce my name properly
I scraped it off their tongues
So now all they do is spit on us instead . . .
Haven’t my ancestors’ screams been muffled between textbook pages?
Didn’t a white teacher at my South Auckland sch tell us we’re just ‘typical South Auckland crap’?
If that teacher ever reads this poem, I hope he or she feels very small.
Kathryn Briggs’s ‘Earth is a Star to Someone’ is equally passionate, in a very different context. ‘Let —— This —— Matter,’ she pleads:
Let us be heard,
Let us take up the space we deserve in the universe.
Let all this youth, all this idealism, count for something. I certainly hope it does. I guess we all do.
Amberleigh Rose’s ‘Snake’s Tongue’ comes from a very different side of the poetic universe. Here passion has been turned to self-destruction, but there’s an aching residue of hope in there, too, somewhere, I feel:
Last night we slept in our blood stains
and whispered over the sound of our bones
trying to leave our skin and you
were the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
What was that? Not love?
Quite a few of the poems I read while judging this competition frightened me profoundly, I must confess. Where are all the flowers and bunny rabbits we used to write about at school? In fact (as a reviewer once remarked of one of my own books), ‘the spirit of darkness certainly prevails.’
There are 100 poets in this issue (besides Stephanie Christie, our featured poet). There are also three essayists and 10 reviewers —— though some of these have also contributed poems: 110 authors in all.
Among the poets I’ve included are such well-known names as Sue Fitchett, Michele Leggott, Stephen Oliver, Bob Orr, Vaughan Rapatahana, Elizabeth Smither and Emma Neale. In her reply to my acceptance letter for the poems she’d submitted, Emma, now firmly established as the new managing editor of Landfall, explains the process of selection better than I could ever imagine doing:
... it’s finally made me realise that rejections aren’t always a comment on literary merit! And it doesn’t even mean an editor dislikes someone’s work, it just means there is chronically limited space.
Quite so. What she said. My long list for this issue was full of beautiful poems which have, one after the other, had to bite the dust for one reason or another. Never assume that your poem didn’t make it into that giant file! And don’t think that I didn’t sweat blood over those rejections, either.
Of course my subjective reactions have a great deal to do with the poems you see before you. As long as I’ve been reading her, which is almost 20 years now, I’ve been impressed and (at times) flabbergasted by the sheer virtuosic brinksmanship of Stephanie Christie’s poetry. It’s great to be able to introduce her poems to —— I hope —— a wider audience than they’ve so far reached in this country. Her fractured word-play —— reminiscent at times of late Celan but with a pop culture edge he never achieved —— can be daunting at first, but I think you’ll see after a while how relentlessly quotable she is:
I hold onto hope because I want something
to do with my hands
Every morning the first word I say is
Nothing’s happened. You make me feel
less alone. You’re also real.
That might ruin everything.
If you need more evidence, here it is, in the form of a rich selection of 19 recent poems, plus a tell-all interview!
The reviews section is a bit smaller than in previous issues: not because I don’t think they’re important, but because I want to give them more space on their own. We’ve decided to follow Landfall’s good example and to cover most of the books we receive on our website, the Poetry NZ Review [https://poetrynzreview.blogspot.com/].
The reviews that we do include in the text will now be more in the nature of review-essays, and there will be no more simple notices of books. This also has the advantage of enabling us to include more poems and stand-alone essays. There are three of the latter in this issue, covering issues such as narrative strategies in poetry, Zen Buddhism, mourning, and death, in poets as diverse as Airini Beautrais, Richard von Sturmer and Derek Walcott.
I’m also happy to be able to include here some dual-text poems in Chinese, German, Spanish and te reo Māori. What more need I say? Enjoy!
— Jack Ross
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019. ISBN 978-0-9951029-6-5 (March 2019): 14-20. [Available at: https://issuu.com/masseypress/docs/pages_from_pnzy19].
Poetry NZ Yearbook 2019