February 15, 2011

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry - the book

This book is written by Paula Green & Harry Ricketts and Published by Vintage, 2010. I've been trying to figure out why I like it so much. It's got range and depth of knowledge of the field (NZ poetry), it's well written, it looks beyond the canon for examples, it's sensibly and interestingly organised … I could go on, but there is something less tangible here, something that really gets to the "ways into" poetry aspect of it.
The combination of thematic and chronological works well. Here are the sections: Poetic Forms, Poetic Contexts, Poetic Features and Effects, Poetic Identities, Rites of Passage, Ways Into Writing (New Zealand) poetry. (This last in ten excellent pages, including a splendid two-page Tool Kit.) Within these sections, chapters (up to fourteen) toss out ideas, examples, opinions and so on in an entertaining and informative fashion.
The first section, Poetic Forms, is my favourite, maybe because I grapple with writing poems, (though I wouldn't call myself "a poet"). If I was looking for a form to carry a poem idea, a ballad, say, or a sestina or sonnet, I could come to this section—via the excellent index—and find out about it without being turned away by demonstrations of superior knowledge. Paula Green and Harry Ricketts certainly know much more of these subjects than I do, that's what makes them interesting. They present their knowledge in a friendly, "come and join in" sort of way, emphasising the usefulness of knowing a form and the freedom in contemporary poetry to adopt it, adapt it, or experiment with it.
The whole book is nicely laid out, with break-out paragraphs defining some of the key ideas — modernism for example — plenty of boxed poems to demonstrates points made, and a number of statements by poets about how a particular poem that is included in the book came to be.
My quibbles are physical; the book is a hefty three kilos, on shiny paper that is hard to read in some lights, especially the boxed poems, which are in faint print. And the cross-referencing parentheses are so conscientious as to becoming annoying at times.
If you like the following two sentences—the first is from Paula Green, the second from Harry Ricketts', you'll enjoy, as I did, the way this book is written.
Wedde has neither abandoned nor cauterised the motivation of the odes that preceded him, but daringly challenges the reader to accept the ode as a vessel for what might, upon first glance, appear oxymoronic, 'the sublime commonplace.' (page 55)
… many … recent New Zealand poets are 'tough,' difficult, but not impenetrable, provided the reader remains unafraid and is prepared to work away, following the poem's arc of thought. (page 420)
There's a history of poetry in New Zealand in here, and an exploration of canon-building in ten pages. The writers have done a pretty good job, as far as I can tell, of including the "left-outs" (Maori, women ……) and acknowledging the canonical (Baxter, Stead et al) throughout the text, in special chapters and in the full poems they have included.
I think what makes me delight in this book is the pleasure the writers take in their subject, the scope of their considerable knowledge and that, having read it, I am even more inclined—and better equipped—to read poetry. Read it, buy it, make sure your local library gets a copy, recommend it to your friends.
Here's a poem of mine that was published a few years ago in a Poetry Society anthology.

My mother’s name was Margaret.
She disapproved of Lauris Edmond.
I gave her a copy of Hot October
because they had both lived in Ohakune.
"Oh," said Margaret with her special, disapproving
sigh, "What a run-around she gave that poor
husband of hers. And all those children!
He was well-liked, you know, a good headmaster".

Margaret was, however, loved and respected
by all four of her grandchildren.
She treated them like real people, they said,
listened to them, and sent money
instead of judgements when they were students
or unemployed and it was a cold winter.

We became a thin family, cousins,
and aunts driven off by that disapproving sigh.
Death, sudden, did the rest, punched holes
in the threadbare family fabric.
Margaret, widow, 78, herself died alone,
probably painfully, likely from choice,
before the daughter who chose her own end
and the grandchild who succumbed to
smoking and bronchial pneumonia.

Lauris Edmond, 75, died the other day.
In an obituary she is described as, ‘the great
New Zealand poet of parents and children.’


  1. Oh, the disapproving sigh. I am familiar with that, or something very like it (though not from Margaret, whom I never met). Wow.

    Lovely review, Pat. Last night six of us had our first meeting as a tentative 'poetry reading group', with this book as our guide. We're thinking of calling ourselves 99 Ways. I think it's an idea that could take off.

  2. What a fantastic idea, a poetry reading group. I want one!

  3. Hi Pat. Just found your blog today in a restless period, trying to write a play, my first, all the while dealing with hard to define feelings about the quake and my self absorption that allows me to keep on focusing on me. I know, you're a writer, not a counsellor.Sorry.
    My mother is 87. She was christened Margaret but prefers Peggy. Apparently her parents wanted to christen her Peggy but it wasn't acceptable back then, in England, where she was born.
    I, too, bought Lauris Edmond's autobiographies for her to read - she's a great reader - and her main comment was a disapproving stab at the way the poet treated her husband. But unlike your mum, mine is not alone and never will be. She is loved by one and all. If anyone dies alone, I fear it will be me. I think I do need a counsellor after all.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Sal.