The 1960s and After

By the mid-1960s poetry itself was also moving in significantly different directions. One of these directions was a movement among the older poets to break out of fixed forms, to develop a more personal mode of expression which drew flexibly from a variety of formal and informal speech registers and explored a wide range of personal, domestic and social concerns in a style which exploited shifts and contrasts of tone, mood and emotional intensity. Its immediate model was the confessional poetry of Americans like Robert Lowell, but it had distinguished New Zealand precursors in Robin Hyde's sequence, 'Houses by the Sea', and in Mary Stanley's slim output in the 1950s. Apart from Baxter its most skilled exponents in the 1960s were Fleur Adcock, Peter Bland and Louis Johnson, and variations of it were later to appear in the substantial oeuvres of Vincent O'Sullivan, Kevin Ireland, Brian Turner, Lauris Edmond and Anne French. By the early 1980s it seemed so ubiquitous a mode among a host of minor poets that Roger Horrocks could caricature it as a form of local mass-production and draw attention to the irony that its 'studied spontaneity', based on the notion that 'poetry is an exemplary defence of individuality', had itself hardened into a set of predictable conventions. (Horrocks, 1985, pp. 101—2). Nevertheless it has remained a significant form in New Zealand, especially among women poets — perhaps because of the special claims it makes for the authenticity of personal experience.

The other major shift in the mid-1960s was an explosion of writing by a new generation, mainly students, youthful, iconoclastic, involved variously in the counterculture of political protest, drugs and rock music. They were deeply suspicious of authority in any form (including the literary—cultural establishment and its privileged voices), hostile to High Culture (especially its Anglo-European exemplars and icons), but receptive to the wide variety of new energies emerging in the United States (Donald M. Allen's anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945—1960, was widely read and influential), and to the language and iconography of popular culture. The practice of the many poets whose work began to appear at this time, in student magazines (including Freed, the best known, which appeared from Auckland in five issues between 1969 and 1972) and in new small presses, varied widely, and — as elsewhere — such labels as 'open form' and 'postmodern' soon began to be applied to it. As a group they were more readily identifiable by what they opposed than by what, collectively, they might 'stand for', and indeed were resistant to the practice of attaching labels to traditions and trends. What proved most durable — in the work of those who went on to produce substantial bodies of work and in turn influence younger poets (Wedde, Bill Manhire, Alan Brunton, Alan Loney, Murray Edmond) - was the nature of their attention to language and to the authority of the poetic voice. Behind the often exuberant display of verbal and typographical virtuosity lay a deep scepticism about the capacity of language to represent any special truth thought to be accessible to the authority of the poetic voice, and a celebration instead of the contingency of language, its strategic possibilities for hugely more various, allusive and performative deployment on the page - ranging from the fragment to the most elaborate patterning - as well as in spoken performance.

Such a poetics, with its postmodern tendency to abolish the distinction between surface and depth, lay at the opposite pole to the poetics of the personal poem, which retains a kind of epistemological faith in the continuity of 'mind', 'self', 'language' and 'the world', despite the often elaborate casualness and indirection of the movement of the poem's thought and language. However, Wedde's key terms and strategies of selection, later, for the 1985 Penguin, belonged less to the poetics of either postmodernism or the personal poem than to the new critical discourse of postcolo-nialism: language, location and the ongoing processes of cultural exchange and translation, both within the country and in its outward global relations. Despite his emphasis on these questions, he did not entirely avoid the teleological, prescriptive cast of the older nationalism, and in this sense shared the latter's ambivalence.

Whereas the earlier model was modernist-derived, Wedde suggestively adapted a model invented by the Canadian critic, Northrop Frye, premised on a distinction between 'hieratic' and 'demotic' modes of writing. Wedde emphasized the linguistic and cultural implications of the model: 'Hieratic describes language that is received, self-referential, encoded elect, with a "high" social threshold emphasizing cultural and historical continuity. . . . [Whereas] "demotic" describes language with a spoken base, adaptable and exploratory codes, and a "lower" and more inclusive social threshold emphasizing cultural mobility and immediacy' (Wedde and McQueen, 1985, p. 25). Although he strives to avoid applying the terms normatively to New Zealand poetry, they do in fact often function that way, producing a narrative of the progressive development of poetry in English from the (implicitly colonialist) hieratic to the (implicitly postcolonial) demotic. The nationalist period (1920s-1950s) becomes, in this progression, a deeply ambivalent, 'transitional' period, compromised by its backward-looking colonialist/hieratic affiliations to High Culture (the province, always, of 'some distantly-located spring') in the practice of figures like Brasch, but at other times (in some of the work of Glover, Baxter and the women poets, drawing on other elements in modernism) marking the beginnings of the 'growth of the language into its location', and looking forward to 'the consummation of a sense of relation' (ibid., pp. 23, 26) apparent, diversely, in poetry from the 1960s onwards. Wedde's argument is itself deeply ambivalent in this respect, locked into a binary opposition of alienation/ relation which elides, or leaves unresolved, the key issue, for postcolonial analysis, of settler/indigenous power relations. An 'ease' of relation to location, if that is indeed what post-sixties New Zealand poetry in English reflects, might simply suggest that the cultural colonization of the country has been, at last, achieved.

Wedde's emphasis on the inescapably linguistic character of the cultural issues he addressed was nevertheless both highly original and deeply suggestive as a way of reading New Zealand poetry, especially poetry written after the 1960s. A highly significant development in the poetry itself was the emergence of language as a driving preoccupation in the work of many poets. In no other respect, it might be argued, has poetry in New Zealand (in English and in Maori) signalled more strongly its participation in the international discourse of postcolonialism. Among the older poets, Curnow, Smithyman and Stead moved increasingly self-consciously into the episte-mological issues raised by the transactions between language and location. The focus of Manhire, Wedde, Brunton, Leggott and others was less self-conscious, more celebratory, but every poem they wrote exhibits an implicit knowingness about language as offering a rich repertoire of strategic possibilities for cultural interventions. Tuwhare's poetry increasingly shared the same impulse. Other poets, like Alan Loney and Graham Lindsay, wrote with a more deliberate sense of the instrumental possibilities of language. The line of women's poetry extending from Elizabeth Smither in the mid-1970s to — after the mid-1980s — Leggott, Dinah Hawken, Anne French and Jenny Bornholdt carried the same kinds of linguistic sophistication, and in many of their poems they explored and exploited, as well, the gendered nature of language.

Manhire, the major poetic voice of his generation, and highly influential as a creative writing teacher and mentor of many emerging poets of the 1980s and 1990s, is also notable as a critic for his foregrounding of issues of language. 'A whole range of contemporary New Zealand poetry', he argues, is characterized by the linguistic habit of 'code-switching' — the deployment of multiple voices, multiple registers, producing texts 'crammed with voices, locations, and perspectives', in order to break down, move beyond, 'the control of a single homogenizing voice . . . the achieved, inviolable voice of the poet' (Manhire, 1991, pp. 149, 151—2). The distinction he makes between 'pure' and 'impure' language is related to Wedde's distinction between the hieratic and the demotic. Some of Manhire's examples of 'impurity' — Glover's 'The Magpies' and Curnow's 'House and Land' — survive from the earlier modernist—nationalist period, and he draws attention to key shifts in a poet like Baxter, who 'begins as the elevated poet of a single voice, but becomes a far more interesting poet when he opens his work — in Pig Island Letters and the Jerusalem poems — to a range of tones and registers', as well as to Curnow's development into 'the master of code-switching in our writing' (ibid., p. 152). However, most of his examples are drawn from the 1970s and after: Tuwhare in particular, but also Smither, O'Sullivan and his own work.

There is always a temptation to invoke undifferentiated notions of diversity or plurality when confronted by the sheer plethora of generations, styles, individual voices and languages, which seemed to characterize New Zealand poetry in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Such notions, however, tend to ignore or downplay the 'disputed ground' which remains central to the energies of poetry. The sites of contestation are many and various, and in that sense different from the older single-issue literary politics of cultural nationalism. Furthermore, every site has its own complex cultural dynamics, whether the issues are generational, gender- or ethnicity-

focused, locational (a refiguring of notions of the national or regional, revisions of the canon), or global (new international configurations of power and influence). Fortunately, there seems little prospect of a diminution in the vigour with which poetry, and poetics, engage with these key postcolonial issues.


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