Sunday, December 7, 2014

An essential New Zealand poetry anthology

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page selected by Siobhan Harvey, Harry Ricketts and James Norcliffe. Random House NZ (2014).

Another great anthology! There are just 150 poems - one each, from 150 NZ poets - carefully chosen by the three editors, who make no empty claim that they are the 'best' poems (because that always starts a fight anyway), just that they are their favourite New Zealand poems (in their own words: "we have chosen poems that reflect our subjective preferences").

In my opinion they've chosen well. They picked the Janet Frame poem that she thought was her 'best': 'The Place'. They have picked many of my own favourites, so reading this book is a reunion in many cases with a familiar old friend. But there are occasional surprises and there are plenty of exciting new poets and poems to add freshness to the palate of someone who has a very large number of the other poetry anthologies produced in New Zealand, on a shelf in the same room.

Initially I was shocked to find that the great Kendrick Smithyman (a personal favourite of mine) was omitted. And then the wonderful Ursula Bethell, and Ron Mason, and others, are not there. But I was mollified somewhat by the explanation that the anthology intended only to cover those poets writing from the 1950s on. This decision has fortuitously made room for many fine new poets who may otherwise have had to wait their turn. But the cutoff point of the 1950s doesn't explain the absence of Smithyman, who was writing well past then, or others such as Wystan Curnow, Leigh Davis, Sam Sampson, Alan Loney, Alan Brunton, to name just a few obvious missing in action (and there is a pattern emerging).

Clearly the choice for this book was to be an overall conservatively accessible one, nothing too much there to scare the horses, as one would expect from a handsome burnished book with a golden ribbon, published by a main stream publisher. And at least the editors have been honest about their rationale, and they have delivered an excellent selection. These books do very well in the local market, and long may they do so. We New Zealanders love our poets and we love our poetry.

This is another volume highly recommended as a literate Christmas gift that ticks all the "buy local, buy a book' boxes, and that is sure to be welcomed warmly into any home.


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