The Maori Tradition

Alexander and Currie, like most critics at the turn of the century, had singled out as a potentially distinctive feature of New Zealand poetry the 'colourful' narrative possibilities of Maori myths and legends. The vast colonial body of poeticized Maori myths and legends was almost wholly drawn from Sir George Grey's collection, Polynesian Mythology (1855). Grey's preface to that volume, which explained why, as governor of the colony, he had undertaken the project — 'I could neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion, and modes of thought I was quite unacquainted' — indicates how indivisible the project's political and cultural motives were. The prototype of the many poetic appropriations of Maori myth that followed in the wake of Grey's collection was Alfred Domett's Ranolf and Amohia: A South-Sea Day-Dream, an epic of twenty-five cantos published in London in 1872 and (revised) in 1883. Domett, also a leading political figure in the colony, derived the form of his poem from the high European tradition of epic, much of his versification from Longfellow's treatment of the Hiawatha legend in the United States, and his philosophy from the discourse of religious belief and doubt in Victorian England. The elaborateness and intricacy of its format and versification — a distinctive feature of almost all colonial verse — was primarily a demonstrative act of affiliation with Britishness, epitomizing local anxieties about colonial identity in a country remote from the centre of High Culture.

Perhaps by way of reaction against the wholesale appropriation of Maori culture by their precursors, poets of the nationalist period tended to avoid or evade the complications of indigenous/settler relations, in their explorations of identity. Indeed, although the nationalist paradigm emphasized 'difference' from England, internal cultural differences were relegated to the margins in order to promote the construction of an inclusive settler/national identity in an essentially unpeopled, unhistoried landscape. Such gestures, in the poetry of Charles Brasch and others, in their search, as Alex Calder puts it, 'for a deeper relation of settler to place' often 'repeat colonial patterns' which they otherwise condemn (Calder, 1998, p. 172), and in the process Maori poetry itself was relegated to an earlier pre-settlement era, as if belonging to a museum of the past.

The tradition of poetry composed in the Maori language is in fact rich, copious and ongoing into the present. Much of it has not been committed to print, and remains vested in tribal memory. However, from among the thousands of texts in archives and libraries an exceptional record of 400 waiata (sung poems) of many kinds and from many different tribal sources — the product of decades of scholarly work by Sir Apirana Ngata between the 1920s and 1950, and by his successor Pei Te Hurunui Jones — appeared in four volumes under the title Nga Moteatea ('The Songs') in 1959, 1961, 1970 and 1990. Numerous other collections of translations began to appear after the 1960s, notably Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell's Traditional Songs of the Maori and Orbell's Waiata: Maori Songs in History, a collection which illustrated the ways in which nineteenth-century waiata represented the transformations (political, religious, linguistic) wrought by colonization and settlement. In the wake of this growing awareness of the indigenous inheritance, the editors of the new 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse controversially included representations of the ongoing Maori-language tradition (including sixteen twentieth-century poets), accompanied by translations and interspersed among the English-language poems. The poets were presented chronologically, but the editors were also interested to emphasize differences of cultural perspective. One of Curnow's best-known early poems of settler alienation, 'House and Land' (1941), appeared beside a waiata tangi (elegy) by Arapeta Awatere in which the sense of personal loss is contained within an indigenous frame of explanatory myth of precisely the kind that seemed unavailable to Curnow's displaced settlers, 'with never a soul at home'.

In fact, the intersections of English and Maori traditions became increasingly complex from the 1950s onwards. James K. Baxter, in his later poetry especially, was able to achieve an inwardness of reference to Maori values and spirituality, as if he had at last found the master narrative whose absence had driven him to poetry throughout his life. His contemporary, Alistair Campbell — of mixed Rarotongan and Scottish descent — drew strongly on Polynesian rhythms and metaphors in his earlier poems of the 1950s, and later moved increasingly into Maori and Pacific subject matter. In the late 1950s, also, New Zealand's first major Maori poet writing in English, Hone Tuwhare, began publishing, and his voice immediately cut across the polarized poetic debates of the time, which were both generational and regional, and focused on what was felt to be the narrowness of cultural nationalism's emphasis on geographical isolation, landscape and history. Initially a poet of formal lyric eloquence with a rich vein of allusiveness to Maori metaphors, myths and distinctive cultural knowledge, his poetry became increasingly freer and more hybrid, increasingly a mode of highly skilled, subtly charged conversation in which formal and informal registers of New Zealand English and Maori speech meet, collide, mix and comment on each other. By the 1980s the term 'Maori poetry' covered a wide range of practice, some poets composing wholly in the traditional forms of waiata, some writing wholly in English, and others writing in varying proportions in both languages.

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