Terry Sturm

A generation ago there would have been widespread agreement about the general shape an account of New Zealand poetry would take. It would have confined itself to poetry in English, and identified a development in two phases: a colonial period of largely Anglophile mimic-verse, lasting from the beginnings of European settlement in the 1840s until the early decades of the twentieth century, followed, in the key decade of the 1930s, by the emergence of powerful nationalist impulses, aligned to modernist developments overseas. These transformed the direction of poetry, establishing a local tradition and the beginnings of a canon. In the later 1960s, however, this dominant cultural nationalist paradigm, buttressed as it often was by romanticist organic metaphors of the birth and maturing of colonies into nations, began to crumble, unable to contain the sheer diversity of poetic impulses — experimental, postmodern, postcolonial, feminist, indigenous — which characterized the practice of poets during the last three decades of the century. This new work has in turn prompted new readings, new mappings, of the past, problematizing the very notion of 'New Zealand poetry', as well as the apparent stabilities of nation, location and language on which it had been based.

None of the shifts identified above occurred without protracted and lively debates — about particular authors, about the nature of poetry itself (in particular, about what its proper subject matter in New Zealand should be), about the broader context of the kind of society New Zealand was, its history, its 'place in the world', and its future. In fact throughout the twentieth century New Zealand produced an unusually rich discourse of poetics, articulated through influential anthologies and the arguments they generated, as well as through lively, if often shortlived, literary magazines and the small presses which supported them. Although other forms of New Zealand writing, including non-fiction, began to attract attention within the ambit of postcolonial, postmodernist and feminist theory in the 1980s, poetics has remained a key instance of discourse about the culture as a whole. For these reasons it provides the starting point for this account of 'New Zealand poetry'.

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