This is what you see from the top floor of NZ House, an early 60s glass box above Trafalgar Square or, more precisely, on the corner of Haymarket and Pall Mall. The native sauvignon blanc certainly didn’t dampen things either. I was there on Thursday evening to see Jenny Bornholdt and Bill Manhire and attend the launch of the Carcanet/Victoria University Press anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, edited by Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack.
There have been a number of interesting anthologies from New Zealand but, while this one includes many poets whose work I admire, I have to say I find it a disappointment overall. Why is this? The title is modest and the book certainly doesn’t pretend to represent the state of the art entirely (as the infamous Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry did in the 80s). It does, however, evince a certain take on what’s of interest or importance in New Zealand writing now. And this is, generally speaking, the lyric. Though many of these poems are not expressly ‘formal’ there seems to be nothing really disruptive in here (though several of the poets included have written such poems). One of the parameters was that the work should postdate 1986 (the year Allen Curnow’s book The Loop in Lone Kauri Road appeared). This excludes the less formal work of Ian Wedde (something from his Sonnets for Carlos would have been nice), but it doesn’t explain the almost complete excision of anyone working in Auckland, the largest city. The introduction notes that the editors were ‘unable to include’ Michele Leggott’s work which is a pity. But the absence of poems by Murray Edmond or Wystan Curnow or even the late Kendrick Smithyman (who produced much interesting longer work in his later years) seems like a decision rather than an accident. I don’t like to be unenthusiastic about a book put together by editors I know and like and that contains many things by people whose work I enjoy, but I somehow feel gloomy about the result of the editorial decisions. This gloom is not in the least dispelled by a comment in James Brown’s notes (as Bill Manhire wryly noted, New Zealand has James Brown and Michael Jackson): ‘I like reading poetry that might loosely be called experimental, but whenever I drift that way myself, the ghost of Philip Larkin leans in reprovingly’.
It may just be that with so much going on these days the task of anthology editing is a thankless one. There are always questions about what these volumes are meant to represent, but there’s also the question ‘to whom is this directed?’ Given that this anthology is being produced by Carcanet it may be that a perceived British readership has determined selection. Twenty Contemporary Poets will tell you certain things worth knowing about writing in New Zealand. For further detail I’d recommend going to the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre and branching out from there.