Saturday, October 18, 2008


[Massey Albany]

Recent Poets and Fiction in NZ

BC = Bruce Craig
AL = Anna Leclercq
KL = Kathryn Lee
MP = Mary Paul
JR = Jack Ross
GW =- Gregory Wood

Administration Guide:



[John Donne]

Creative Responses:

Reviews & Comments:


[Mairangi Bay Beach in Summer]

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Final Course Meeting on Monday 6/10 from 5.30 pm

Mary and I thought we might make the last meeting for our intrepid Argonauts of contemporary NZ / International Poetics on Monday at the little bistro Zavitos in Mairangi Bay. It doesn't open till 5.30 pm, but I won't be back from my other course in Auckland before then anyway, so it seemed like a good time to gather.

Zavitos is on the left as you head north through the Mairangi Bay shopping centre, at the head of a little shopping arcade, past Hastings Rd but just before you get to Penzance Street. There are full map details here.

There's a bar and a restaurant, so we can maybe start off with a drink and some pizza bread and then see what we want to do after that.

It's intended as a postmortem on the course, naturally - but also as a discussion of new directions both for your studies and for the subjects we've been discussing all year.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Poetry Session 5: Fiona Farrell

[Fiona Farrell at Scapa (2002)
- photograph by Jan Kemp]


Fiona Farrell is a writer who's extremely difficult to pin down to one mode or genre or even tone of voice. As you'll see from her author page, she's published three books of poems, a number of plays, and seven books of fiction (including five novels).

This session is intended principally as an examination of her poetry, but I don't doubt that we'll be straying into the whole question of "genre-bending" -- what it means to straddle different creative forms in this way.

There are, of course, a number of precedents one could cite. Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy, two giants of the nineteenth century -- and, in New Zealand literature, both Robin Hyde and Janet Frame wrote poetry as well as fiction.

Fiona Farrell is the only one of the eight poets we're discussing in this course to have published substantially amounts of fiction (unless you count Anne Carson's experimental verse novels Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband).

Emma Neale, though, whom we've been reading as a novelist, has an almost equally strong reputation as a poet, so it's perhaps not a particularly unusual trend in New Zealand letters.

I guess what I want to discuss principally is the tendency (I would suggest) for novelists writing poetry to be quite conservative in their conception of poetic form. Whether the same holds for poets writing fiction is another question. The categories tend to merge into each other after a while.

Historical novels are never really about the past. They are really about the preoccupations of the time in which they are written.
– Fiona Farrell, Notes on Mr Allbones’ Ferrets (2007)

I wanted to engage the reader in a game – because that is what reading fiction is, after all: it is play, an adult extension of “let’s pretend…”
– Fiona Farrell, Notes on The Hopeful Traveller (2002)

I enjoy rough or unfinished things: preparatory notes, the rough cartoon for a painting, the back of a piece of embroidery, the backsides of buildings …
– Fiona Farrell, Book council blog (2007)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Return to Waimarino County

Martin Edmond

When I first heard Martin Edmond read some excerpts from his works during his lightning visit to Massey University on August 27, I thought he was reading poetry. His delivery was like that of a poet but he was reading prose. Edmond has written two books of poetry but of late writes non-fiction. This tall, tanned New Zealander is based in Sydney and is the son of the writer Lauris Edmond. He spent his childhood in Ohakune, which lies in Waimarino County almost under the shadow of Mt Ruapehu, and has recently published a book of essays called Waimarino County & other excursions

Autobiographical essays take up the early part of the book with the opening essay ‘Waimarino County’ dripping in decadent rural imagery. There is something of Eric Lee-Johnson’s artistic vision in Edmond’s descriptions of abandoned farmhouses; something of the melancholia of late Sargeson in the poverty of a region once left to rust (before the opening of the Ruapehu ski-fields revived Ohakune); something of Sam Hunt's On the Road as Edmond revisits small town stations next to the Main Trunk line. The following excerpt from the opening essay says it all:

A wagon load of shattered glass on a siding beneath a sky bright with rain. A two-stroke motor, whining like a mason bee in the cells of my prodigal mind. A cross-eyed railway clerk and an enormous Maori in a Swandri. Two kids ride by on bicycles, weaving between the steel girders holding up the corrugated iron roof of the station veranda. In a forgotten nook between the station proper and the toilet block, a sullen girl in a checked shirt and jeans is whipper-snippering the waist-high grass. Soaking wet stems churn in the teeth of the blade, . . .
The rain gets heavier. I can hear it now on the tin roof of the veranda, the single event inside an immensity of time on a small town railway platform in the back country on a wet Monday afternoon. What am I doing here. 
(‘Waimarino County’ p. 3)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Martin Edmond at Albany (27/8)

Atrium Building
level 3 common room
Massey Albany

Wednesday 27th August
3 to 4 pm

We’ve invited Martin Edmond to come and give a reading / q & a session on campus as part of our regular seminar series.

I'd especially recommend this talk to those of you who are curious about where New Zealand writing is going at present.

Martin Edmond’s latest books Waimarino County and Other Excursions (AUP, 2007) and Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia (Adelaide: East Street, 2006) were both nominated for Montana awards, a prize he won in 2004 with Chronicle of the Unsung.

His work in the genre of (so-called) “Creative Non-fiction” is taught in our Massey Life Writing and Travel Writing courses, but he’s also an award-winning poet and fiction-writer. He’ll be reading from his latest book, The Evolution of Mirrors (Otoliths Press, 2008). For further details on that book, please go here.

The other dates in his NZ tour are:

Thursday 21 August, 6pm, Wellington
Writers Read: Martin Edmond

Level D, Room 16, Block 5
Entrance A, (access through "The Pyramid")
Massey University Wellington Campus
Wallace Street
Chair: Ingrid Horrocks.
RSVP: to Jo Fink ( or 04 801 5799 x 6696) by Wednesday 20 August.

Friday 22 August, 7pm, Palmerston North
Massey University's Writer Read series
Guest Writer: Martin Edmond

Free entry
Palmerston North City Library
4 The Square

Thursday 28 August, 2.30pm, Auckland
Mollie: On the Track of the Ohakune Elephant 1957-2008

Michele Leggott, Martine Edmond, Mandy Harper, Mary Sewall conduct an afternoon of talks and readings about Mollie, the circus elephant whose death in 1957 drew the attention of zoologist and curator Barney McGregor at Auckland University College. For more information contact Mary Sewall, or 373 7599 x 83758.
Old Biology Building (McGregor 1 Seminar Rm)
University of Auckland

Thursday 28 August, 5.30pm, Auckland
Book Launch

Jack Ross launches Martin Edmond's The Big O Revisited (Soapbox Press). Register attendance with Laurel Walker,
Main Foyer
Old Biology Building
University of Auckland

Obviously the last of those dates is of most interest to me. I'll be launching Martin's first book of poems in almost twenty years (Streets of Music won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 1980, and was followed by Houses, Days, Skies (1988). Michael Steven has done a wonderful job as publisher and designer of this book of poems.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Notes from the session on Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones

Posted on behalf of Mary -

This post contains lots of interesting stuff but it only relates to one aspect of what were discussing last Monday and I am going to try to explain how i think it might connect. Thanks to Anna for starting the discussion off so well!

Mr Pip is narrated retrospectively by a young woman who is telling about her experiences between the ages of 13 and 15 (‘skinny thirteen year-old’ on the first page). In fiction retrospective narration can work in many ways - sometimes a lot is retrospective assessment set against the past/present experience of the story and therefore moving between different understandings of a situation, sometimes the focus is more on the innocence at the time and although in the past tense reminds us very infrequently of the longer perspective. This latter manner is how Mr Pip is structured - so as you say Greg it is a useful voice in which to tell the events because it can engage readers who are also ignorant of the history and context of this island and because the young perspective is vivid and describes in a detail (the beach, Mr Watts, the stories, etc, etc) that is useful to evoke that world for those unfamiliar with it. Often child perspectives are to bring alive what we no longer see, or judge too much see. (And I agree with what you say about the choice of a girl to tell the story - keeping the narrative out in the open and so on).

However both 'convenient and versatile' imply something else, you seem to be saying that this was a good way for a writer with himself a limited knowledge to tell a story perhaps, but isn't that worrying: aren't gaps and silences left intentionally in a story to hint at knowledge and understanding that surpasses what is actually included.

That makes me come back to on the one hand the tension between the retrospective narrator and the protagonist - remember Jenny commented on how in Great Expectations Pip comments in complex and often self-critical way on what he is telling. This mix can thicken a fiction - make it more meaningful as we think about the difference between different perspectives.

Another issue is the one raised about Sargeson and the distance between Sargeson's narrators (and often his characters) and the perspective of the implied author. Sargeson's work hinges on this distance - he uses an unreliable narrator ( I don't think Matlida is quite that though we th reader do think beyond her naivete at times) - and the narrator is telling a story (boxes within boxes) of someone he has met or known. It's usually a story which he the narrator is moved by but dosn't quite know why - ie he emotionally feels its significance but can't explain why or what it is. The difference from what greg is suggesting is in Sargeson’s case that this is an extremely conscious strategy for telling a story which is particularly designed to comment on what Sargeson the author thought was a judgmental and impoverished society in which those real experiences of joy, love, revelation, purposefulness were experienced by ordinary working people ( particaularly men)denied and destroyed by a utilitarian and judgmental (puritanical) middle class. Hence he is dignifying a real experience of the world by creating these inarticaulte narrators. He wrote mostly short fiction often - a good genre in which to sustain this tension. You acn of course deconstruct this also -s howing that the desire to show without telling, to hide knowledge and to write plainly is in fact a continuation of the puritanism he was trying to break away from.

So the question comes back to MR Pip - does Lloyd Jones use the naivete of Matilda's to some purpose - other than a useful way to tell a fable or fairystory. Is there a tension between Matilda's new understanding of the world and her first one. I think to give him his due at the end Lloyd Jones is trying to show that story can come via a pathetic example – that is it arises from NZ in the form of a rather lost and undirected actor in an arid community who gets involved with the lonely island girl living next door - Mr Watts.

But somehow I am not convinced both because the narrator's rethink has been delayed without building up a questioning tension as Dickens or Sargeson do in different ways and because the pattern of story- telling in the main part of the book has been so much the pattern of colonial appropiation, misrecognising or leaving out and erasing the culture of the island, and privileging the power of story as it emenates from the Western classic - even if its conduit, Mr Watts, is unlikley.

I hope I have explained this - this last part probably needs better articulation!

The choice to go back to the island is, as Bruce said, also interesting - why? And why escape alone - in the initial plan?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The constructions of parenthood/motherhood in Relative Strangers and its narrative effect on emotional and global terrorism within the novel.

This seminar was an exploration of my idea for the final essay for this paper. Although some of the questions remain only partially answered, I thought it might be useful to blog the seminar notes. Thanks to everyone for their really great comments and feedback during the seminar.

Global context of novel:

A world in which terrorism is, if not necessarily happening more often, is at the forefront of people’s minds more as it is increasingly happening in settings seen as “closer to home” and under circumstances that would normally be considered safe. The terrorism referred to in this novel is against America: 9/11 and the fictive Honolulu bombings and describes the recent and current (?) moral panic around terrorist attacks. This global context of the novel is important for two reasons: One, it sets the backdrop for the interpersonal emotional terrorism between the characters and secondly it becomes a crisis point event for Chloe, illuminating the essential differences in her and Allen’s views on parenthood and the importance thereof.

Personal Context of the novel:

Chloe and Colin, the central characters of the novel, have been both the victim and perpetrators of what I am choosing to call emotional terrorism. What is emotional terrorism? Quite simply put it is the awful things that people do to one another – either with a specific purpose in mind or to simply cause the other person pain. Examples of this terrorism are sprinkled throughout the novel, but I believe the following are the key events as they centre around the key theme of parenthood:


Victim of:

Being denied fatherhood by “fate” and Anna

Perpetrator of:

Denying his father a relationship with his son


Victim of :


Abandonment by Allan of his parental duties

Perpetrator of:

Forcing a parenthood on an unwilling participant

It is important for me to note at this point that there have been other traumas suffered by the characters which have also affected them, but I am choosing to focus on the specific instances of interpersonal trauma.


How does the portrayal of parenthood, particularly motherhood, in the narrative mitigate or indeed heal the effects of the emotional terrorism in the novel? Does it bring about any resolution? Is motherhood therefore privileged in the novel? Can the healing effect of parenthood in the novel be extrapolated to the global context of the novel? Should it be?

Construction of parenthood/motherhood:

Construction of motherhood – see the construction of Rachel vs Anna – Rachel more sympathetic despite her myriad flaws as she was on the way to being a mother compared to Anna who doesn’t want kids.

Motherhood for Chloe:

Has a grounding effect after the emotional trauma she suffers at being given up for adoption.

Is all consuming, what she does. Performative element, given her acting past? Like she is acting like the parent she wanted her birth mother to be.

As Bruce said in his seminar, Toby re-affrims her belief in life.

Colin’s reaction to Toby and Chloe’s relationship:

Has been denied fatherhood twice and so reacts to Chloe and Toby’s relationship.

Makes him re-examine his life and the traumas he has suffered and the relationships he has had/has (Rach; Anna; his father) – effect of parenthood therefore constructed as having a “healing effect”.

Birth parents of Chloe – mirrors Colin in being the unusual figure of a man wanting a baby which is opposite to Allan:

This male desire for parenthood highlights Allan’s shunning of his paternal responsibility within the novel. Allan is viewed as a criminal in the narrative for abandoning his family and not wanting to come back even under circumstances that Chloe views as a wake up call. Additionally, this male desire for parenthood, which is seen to be “unusual” in our society highlights Anna’s lack of desire to be a mother, something seen as “unnatural” in our society.

Overall, then, parenthood and particularly motherhood is privileged in this novel and is imbued with healing properties.

Some other questions I need to consider...

How does this construction of parenthood mitigate or heal the emotional terrorism/trauma mentioned above?

Does this construction of parenthood bring about resolution in the narrative or does it just open the way for new possibilities?

Is "emotional terrorism" the best way of describing what I am trying to identify in the novel?

Can this or even should this be extrapolated to the global context of the novel? Is Neale trying to infer anything about possible solutions for today’s world’s condition?

Some idea of where this is headed...

For Colin, the resolution (in my view) centres around becoming more self-aware through coming into contact with a child. This is exemplified in his vision for the memorial to 9/11 in Ground Zero - the relevant passage is on page 262-263. This scene of domesticity which culminates with those in the memorial leaning over the baby throws into relief what Colin has experienced. In leaning over the cot in the memorial, people are supposed to wonder “where are the parents?” I think that the implicit answer is that it’s us. Those people leaning over the cot are the parents. This epiphany of self-awareness and need to take individual responsibility, I think, is Emma Neale’s answer to the questions of what can be done about terrorism on a personal and a political scale. By placing this scene of domesticity and parenthood in the centre of Ground Zero links the personal with the political in a powerful way.

Lunching with Michele

"I hear you've done an assignment on one of my poems?"

Here I am. I am face to face with my favourite poet and one of my literary idols, Michele Leggott. And she's talking to me. Me! So, of course, my mind goes blank at the all crucial moment, robbing me of anything even mildly intelligent to say. Of all the times my mind chooses to stop working (and it does it with alarming regularity), why now!!

Bumbling idiot act aside, this experience of meeting Michele was one of the most outstanding and inspirational experiences of my entire life.
She had come to Massey's Albany campus to give a lecture in the Chancellor's Series and what a treat it was. She read us five of her poems which are all the more beautiful when read out by their author; showed us her tokotoko (the ceremonial stick each Poet Laureate is given, each personally designed for them by Jacob Scott) and then spoke about her writing and its current connection to journeys.

If this was the closest I got to Michele Leggott ever again, I would die a very happy woman. However, our wonderful lecturers Mary and Jack (three cheers for Mary and Jack!!) arranged for us to have lunch with her afterwards. Which was where I found myself, directly opposite one of the women I admire most, barely unable to remember my own name, let alone the poem of hers I had written about. It was of course, a woman, a rose and what has it have to do with her or they with one another, a poem I have read many times and love dearly. My most sincere apologies to Michele for my appalling memory.

Over lunch, our group had the opportunity to discuss her work, her teaching, her Laureateship and her inspiration with her. I think the two things that stood out for me the most of all of the things she said were that she takes her inspiration from her journey through life (including trips to the shops as well as Portugal) and that, when I answered her question "Are any of you here writers?" with "I try to be" she said, "No, you say, YES, I am a writer."

So, YES. I am a writer. And I have Michele Leggott to thank for a boost of creative confidence. It doesn't get much better than that!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Poet Laureate's Journey leads to Albany

Michele Leggott

New Zealand Poet Laureate Michele Leggott was guest speaker at Massey University, Albany, on August 13 as part of the 2008 Chancellor’s Lecture Series. Leggott lectures at Auckland University, but has much in common with the Massey Albany campus, having worked on various literary projects with Drs Jack Ross and Mary Paul. In the picture above, Leggott is holding a fire stick, a ceremonial keepsake for being the Poet Laureate which was carved by Jacob Scott. A special coating on part of the stick is capable of creating fire through friction. Leggott’s tenure as Poet Laureate lasts for two years, and she says that she is already planning her next “journey” once her tenure ends. “As one project folds another unfolds,” she told a near-capacity audience, “I think I know how it’s going to happen.”

Pictured above with Leggott are students and staff from the Massey postgraduate paper ‘Recent Poets and Fiction in New Zealand’. From left, Anna Leclerq, Jack Ross, Michele Leggott, Kathryn Lee, Mary Paul, Bruce Craig.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Authorial Voice in 'Mr Pip'

Lloyd Jones, author of Mr Pip (2006), has written 14 books since 1991, including novels and children’s stories. In that time frame, he has either been short-listed for or won a dozen or so national book awards, including at least one children’s book award. The latter implies that Jones is adept at knowing how to ‘speak’ to children, which brings us to the question of the authorial voice in Mr Pip: Jones chose a university graduate named Matilda recalling her life at age 14 onwards in a village in Bougainville cut off from the outside world by an encircling war.

Before discussing Matilda, let us backtrack for a moment to an essay called ‘The Godly Roof', which was written by R. A. Copland and first appeared in the New Zealand periodical Landfall in 1968. In the essay Copland discusses the authorial voice in literature, particularly that of Frank Sargeson. For Copland, authors continually battle with what level of intelligence to give their characters without it seeming forced. If we apply that statement to Emma Neale’s 2006 novel Relative Strangers, it was not a huge jump for Neale – who holds a PhD on expatriate New Zealand women writers – to speak in the voice of the protagonist Chloe, who also has an enquiring mind and is continually taking night courses to keep herself intellectually stimulated. Likewise in the 1987 novel Dirty Work written by Nigel Cox, the protagonist Gina Tully is a middle class girl with a college education, so it is not a huge jump for Cox to emulate Tully’s voice, however, crossing the gender divide to speak as a ‘postmodern Ms’ no doubt was. 

In short, both the above authors and their protagonists are almost like us. In contrast, Copland writes that Sargeson wrote with his left hand (not literally) to achieve the realism of his characters, so distanced were they from his intellect.

So how does Copland’s discussion about what level of intelligence to give a book’s character transfer to Mr Pip? At age 14, Matilda is at a very convenient and versatile age as a protagonist. She is old enough to comprehend what the adults in the village talk about and has access to the world of children through her classmates. Yet she is still exposed to the violence of war, as can be seen in the segment where her mother sacrifices herself to save Matilda from being raped. But why did Jones choose a female voice? One answer is that if the narrator had been a male from the same age group, he would have been preoccupied with whether he should join the rebels, as other boys around his age had done, or whether he would eventually be forced to. In short, the male world and the war would have overridden the narrative. So by having a young woman as narrator, Mr Pip keeps the narrative out in the open, within the village dynamics, not hidden in the jungle with the fighters. Plus, for much of the time during the book, the narrator appears to be either absorbed in a literary world, or in shock after experiencing close at hand the horrors of war, a condition that in the real world creates a sort of tunnel vision. Both devices are handy veils if the author is not quite knowledgeable about a lived reality.

Finally, in keeping with his previous books targeting children, to some extent Jones is using a author's device that has worked for him before. In 2004 he wrote Everything You Need to Know About the World by Simon Eliot. The book was a finalist in the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children. In the book a narrator named Simon Eliot creates a worldview for children in the 9-14 years age group. Sound familiar? The upper level of the target age group is the same age as Matilda, the protagonist in Mr Pip. Jones is familiar with the dialogue of that age group.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Peter Reading's mean streets

Perduta Gente means Final Demands and is Peter Reading’s fourteenth book of poems since 1970. So it is positioned about halfway through Reading’s oeuvre. This story of England’s dispossessed is woven into a sort of apocalyptic narrative that feels like middle class voyeurism when read from the comparative security of one’s own home. A perusal of the accompanying notes next to the poems would seem to indicate that Reading spent some time observing or listening to the yarns of some of the “old hands” living on the street. According to Isabel Martin in the introduction to Peter Reading: Collected Poems 1970-1984, Reading has a talent for eavesdropping and can mimic a wide variety of spoken registers. So conceivably he could observe or mingle without actually having to doss down with his subjects, who he terms as a legion of the “bankrupted, batty [and] bereft” whose beds he symbolises as a “huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard spin-drier carton”. Meanwhile, we carry on by as though nothing is wrong is because “that is what we [British] are good at”, Reading writes.

Perduta Gente has no page numbers, which implies that it is meant to be absorbed in its entirety, not to be dipped into. It can be read in less than a couple of hours. Isabel Martin writes that Reading’s favourite literature is eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, which would help explain Reading’s comparison with Dickens. Reading apparently got up close enough to his sleeping subjects to read what was written in the newspapers they were wrapped in to stay warm. Or perhaps that was simply an artist’s imaginative focus at work. Whatever it was, it worked well:

Newspaper, wrapped around the torso between the
Fourth and fifth jerseys
(night attire for doing a skipper in icy December
under the Festival Hall),
carries a note to the Editor, from ‘Ex-Soldier of Telford’ ...

Towards the end of the book, Reading turns his gaze directly to the reader, warning us of our potential vulnerability:

And don’t think it couldn’t be you:
grievously wounded veteran of the Battle of Bottle,
jobless, bereft of home, skint,
down in the cold uriniferous subway ...

There’s no getting away from the misery, but by offering these poems to us, Reading is doing a public service, firstly by keeping a huge social problem to the fore, and secondly, by warning others not to fall victim to it. For some respite I flick over to the online edition of the New Zealand Herald and read of the lonely death of Brent Andrew Beattie. ‘The 38-year-old father of two died while living alone under a footbridge on the edge of Hagley Park in central Christchurch,’ the Herald reported. Beattie had lived under the bridge for at least six months and it was almost a month before anyone even noticed that he had died. A fireman had found Beattie’s decomposing body in a crouching position with his knees drawn up to his abdomen surrounded by glue and methylated spirits containers. His mother had indicated she might attend the coroner’s hearing but did not show up. The only people who were there was the coroner, a court registrar, two policemen and a reporter (NZ Herald, 17/07/08).

There is something unnerving about the crouching position the fireman found Brent in. It is as if he simply gave up on life one Christchurch night, and, resting his head on his knees, froze into a macabre statue. For days on end he stayed like that, unnoticed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Seamus Heaney on Paul Muldoon

A couple of points of interest from the discussion last night:

First, thanks to Gregory for pointing out that Seamus Heaney's review of Paul Muldoon's The Annals of Chile (1994), containing the poem "Incantata," is included in his book of selected essays, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (london: Faber, 2002).

The relevant passage runs as follows:

In Paul Muldoon's new book .... personal grief and creative glee keep playing into one another's hands. One of several extraordinary poems here is called 'Incantata', a lamentation for the premature death by cancer of a young and gifted artist. This is both a cry of heartbreak and a virtuoso performance. The higher the lift-off the poem achieves, the deeper the registers it engages ...

'Incantata' commemorates the life and work of Mary Farl Powers, an artist who was much cherished because of the intensity of her striving for spiritual and technical perfection. 'Incantata' is an example of what we might call 'the Lycidas syndrome,' whereby one artist's sense of vocation and purpose is sent into crisis by the untimely death of another. Here Paul Muldoon is possessed by a subject that puts all his brilliance to the test, with the result that he blossoms into truth and humanizes his song to an extraordinary degree. [395-96]

Elsewhere he refers to Muldoon as "one of the era's true originals."

The 'Lycidas' reference is of course to Milton (Shelley's 'Adonais,' on the death of Keats, might be another example - or, for that matter, Tennyson's In Memoriam).

I don't know how Paul Muldoon would have reacted to that "blossoms into truth" phrase - or the one about "humanizing his song" ... Did that have anything to do (as Gregory suggested in discussion) with the tone of Muldoon's own remarks about Heaney in his recent book of essays The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures (New York: Farrar Straus Girous, 2006)?

One of the poignancies of "Keeping Going" is the speaker's assertion - one we don't expect from a Heaney speaker - ... [of] the insurmountable fact of the limitations of art:
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong

This is not to say that a poem ... doesn't have some efficacy in the world, doesn't effect some change. It must change something, as these ... examples so elegantly display. One of the ways in which they do this is to clear their own space, bringin us 'all together in a foretime,' if I may borrow that phrase from section 3 of "Keeping Going" ... This condition of a "foretime" of the poem is, yet again, a version of what I described earlier as the "problem" to which the poem is a "solution" ... We appeal to the "foretime" of "Keeping Going" and recognise ... that to carry itself forward in the world - testing itself, and us, against a sense of how it itself "was / In the begining, is now and shall be' - is indeed the end of the poem.

This almost sounds as if he regards poems as self-justifying, posing a "problem" to which they themselves are the "solution." It's certainly a far less ringing pronouncement than Heaney's.

Oh, and as a footnote, I checked my ownb copy of Graham Lindsay's Lazy Wind Poems, which certainly does contain pp. 25-40. I can make a copy of them if you like, Bruce, but it might be better to send the book back to AUP and get a replacement one with the full text in it ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Poetry Session 4: Muldoon / Reading

[University of Iowa, Iowa City]

My sister-in-law Therese Lloyd, who's just been studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, tells me that while she was there Paul Muldoon came to do a reading.

The convention was for each of the students to take turns hosting the post-reading party (Therese had to host the one for the novelist John Irving, but that's another story ...)

Anyway, at this one she saw the poet cornered by the three biggest nerds in the whole group, who were quizzing him on the most intimate details of his poetics, and decided that it was up to her to rescue him.

So she went up and told him how much she'd enjoyed his reading.

"Tank you, tank you ... And what accent would that be you have." [You have to imagine all this in a rather more plausible Ulster brogue than I can muster, tempered by the 20 or so years he's spent teaching in the States, at Princeton].

"A New Zealand accent."

"Ah, New Zealand! C. K. Stead, now, he's from New Zealand, isn't he? I remember having to read his book The New Poetic when I was an undergraduate, and a fine book it is, too ..."

Luckily Therese had read the book, and so was able to concur.

They had quite a nice little chat after that, it seems. She introduced him to her fiance, and generally let him off any more hard questions about his poetics ...

The only other detail she had to report was that during the reading he used the word "coyote" in one of his poems. Only he pronounced it: "KOY-oat."

"Is that the correct way to say it?" he mused aloud.

The crowd shouted "Ky-OH-tee."

"Koy-OAT" he said.


"KOY-oat," he continued. "I can;'t get that at all. I tink I'd better keep on saying it my way, so, KOY-oat ..."

I don't know what all that adds up to, but it's always nice to rub shoulders with greatness - you never know what you mightn't pick up.

Remember to check out my earlier post, with a link to the Listener interview with Muldoon.

Is he purely a game-player, or is there more to his poetry? "Incantata" seems heartfelt enough, but what of the other poem I've included in your anthology, "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants" -- what's that about? The troubles? Or postmodernity in general?


As for Peter Reading, I guess it's difficult to judge the success of his technical innovations without reading at least one of his books as a whole. He does seem to have something of the novelist's temperament - or at least an interest in overarching narratives.

Perduta gente (1989) is still probably his most celebrated single volume, with its critique of Thatcher's Britain, the nuclear industry, and the monstrously proliferating cardboard cities in the great cities of Europe.

More recently, in -273.15 [absolute zero] (2005) he's shifted his attention from social engineering to ecology.

He's an angry man, but there's (arguably) a lot for him to be angry about ...

See you on Monday 14th July (Bastille Day), then. Bruce is booked in to give us a seminar. We may have some guests for the discussion, also.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Michele Leggott Seminar

by Anna Leclercq

[Michele Leggott, "Micromelismata." DIA (Auckland: AUP, 1994) 7].


I am going to talk about two of Michele Leggott’s poems, WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ and ‘Micromelismata’. My main focus is on ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’, followed by a short commentary on ‘Micromelismata’.

Half way through the preparation of this seminar I had thought of ditching the subject and finding another one which would be less difficult, more straightforward, where I could quote from learned critiques which would give us all a firm understanding of what the poems were about. I found none such critiques in my research for these two poems, but they would not let me go. Like an abstract painting, their very unintelligibility kept pulling me back to have another look in an endeavour to find a meaning, any kind of meaning, to them.

What a person viewing an abstract painting sees in the finished painting is not necessarily what the painter has in mind whilst he is completing the work. Nevertheless, who is to say the viewer’s interpretation is any the less valid. It is on this premise, therefore, that I gave myself license to indulge my own imagination, delve into these two ‘abstract’ poems and ‘make my own connections’.

Michele Leggott’s book entitled DIA, published in 1994, is her third book of poems, the first two being Like This published in 1988 and Swimmers, Dancers in 1991. It comes in a red and white cover with a Minoan* mural done as a Maori weaving, the latter stamping the collection with a New Zealand imprint, however faint or unrecognised.

Like Susan Howe, Leggott has achieved a name for being an intellectual poet, and in her first poem in DIA, namely ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE? she makes no apologies for that. She demonstrates her intellect by the use of Greek, French and Latin references, and of abundant use of polysyllabic and Latinate diction; her carefully chosen words are used as much for their beauty of sound and structure as for their meaning. Exactly what Leggott is telling us in this poem is obscure, yet the poem, I would like to think, does tell a story, and, as far as I can see, (which incidentally is another poem title of Leggott’s), on many levels.

"WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?" was originally a "ribbon text," which first appeared on the walls of the Wellington City Art Gallery, who had commissioned the work in the 70s. In its original form it was interactive in that the reader had to walk to read the poem, and the strung-together words from various discourses invited viewers and readers to make their own connections. I next found ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?” in a March 1991 edition of Landfall 45(1):3-24 where again it appeared as a ribbon beginning at the bottom of page 3 and continuing on through the pages to its end.

Now, in another incarnation, it has appeared as the first poem in DIA and keeps company with four other pieces, Micromelismata, which I will discuss briefly later, Blue Irises, Circle and Keeping Warm, all of which Leggott calls ‘heart poems, the ones that take one’s breath away or make tears and laughter come’. Blue Irises, Circle and Keeping Warm could well be described as less obscure in their meaning than the first two; but all challenge conventional lyric reading.

Douglas Barbour, in his ‘Essays on Contemporary Poetry’ states that ‘like Leggott’s poem, "Micromelismata,", ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ focuses on its materiality and on the fact of its production, encouraging us to "see" poetry in different frames from those in which we usually receive it’.

The word DIA comes from the Greek and means Goddess; it also means ‘through’ and it means two, couples; lovers, partners. Leggott, faithful to these interpretations, has chosen to display both ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ and Micromelismata in two parts being spread over two pages, and the voices, although both male and female, show a predominance for the female voices.

For ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ Leggott uses large unsophisticated capital letters, some bold, some in outline, some shadowed in parts or in whole, which compel us to view the words and phrases at the same time both ‘as advertising and art’, while requiring us to read them in what Douglas Barbour calls ‘their fragmented engagement with various discourses of power’.

For a number of years now Leggott has been suffering from two diseases of the eyes. Although she was not diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa until 1985, and then macular degeneration in the mid 1990s – long after ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ first appeared – it occurred to me that the unevenness in the density of each typed letter could be a representation of the dawning on Leggott’s subconscious of the fact that her eyesight was already showing signs of the onset of eye disease, and perhaps this was a way of displaying, in poetry, the changes in her vision. This is only a stab in the dark (sorry about the cruel pun), but I could find no other way of explaining this phenomenon .except for emphasis; and this I felt would be too transparent for Leggott. I would be interested to hear what others have to say on this point.

Andrew Johnston, in his work Entertaining Possibilities: Six Contemporary New Zealand Poets, states that Leggott’s poetry ‘explores the power of language to enact experience, rather than to formulate abstractions from experience’. He goes on to say that Leggott’s poetry is a ‘torrent of sounds, sentiments, situations and sensory detail (great alliteration there); it is the most colourful poetry being written in New Zealand.’ Mark Williams said of her earlier work: ‘Leggott is a sensualist of the word. Her poems enact sound, colour, taste, smell, movement’. I have to say I would agree with that, and the poems contained in DIA certainly reflect that point of view.

WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ contains no punctuation; the whole poem runs like a river and, were it not to begin with the word IN and end with the word OUT, it could equally appear circular, running back in on itself, like a river returning to its source, a snake wreathed in its own coils, a torque, a helix.

The work crafts wonderful sound pictures achieved by alliteration, assonance and repetition. ‘ALMOND ABEILLE AMYGDALA AH; COELENTERATE SOUP SIP SUP FOLLOW HER UP SPIRULA SPIRULA’. It also has great movement particularly when describing water, e.g. HYDROPHILE PURLING. You will see later what I mean when I give my interpretation of this word coupling.

Leggott appears to be having a good time playing with sound and rhythm, yet the meanings of the words are mysterious, hard to pin down. Once she has finished writing the poem she appears to have finished speaking. She then surrenders the poem, handing it over into the care of the reader who is charged with giving it its new life form.

A number of words written in bold type which, if linked together, read ‘IN DESIRE DESIRE ORAL DELIGHT DELIGHT OUT’ immediately stand out as though they should have some attention., and, like Jane Stafford in her article entitled ‘The panic of O’ (New Zealand Books Journal, Volume 4, number 3 (Issue 15) 1994), I saw them as a reinforcement of love and desire to underline eroticism in the poem. Stafford commented that these words would be ‘enough to get anyone’s hydrophile purling!’.

I wanted to find out if the poem as a whole did have any understandable meaning or message running through it, or whether it was just words strung together to create a sensuality of sound. What could I make of its meaning now that I, as a reader, was charged with giving it its new life form. A Latin dictionary, hardly used since school days, proved invaluable when tackling the Latinate diction. There did appear to be words that could be interpreted as signposts which might lead me to a coherent understanding of the poem. For example, ONTO LOGICAL = ONTOLOGICAL=the study of existence. PELAGIC = sediments deposited beneath deep ocean waters that are rich in the remains of microscopic organisms; INCUNABULA = the early stages of becoming something. Could she be speaking about the beginning of life?

Many complex English word couplings, such as ‘HYDROPHILE PURLING’ added to the poem’s complexity. ‘Hydrophile’, I discovered, is derived from ‘hydrophilic’, a chemical term meaning having a strong affinity for water or being able to dissolve in, or be absorbed or mixed easily with, water. ‘Purling’ has, as one of its meanings , flowing with a curling or rippling motion, and a soft murmuring sound, as a shallow stream over stones.

INCANDESCENT LACUNAE FLUORESCE AT A TOUCH DESIRE TORQUES DILOQUENT PEARL CURVES LUMENS CON BRIO ALIGHT. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? It is a torrent of sound, it is sensual, it has an atmosphere of love. But does it actually mean anything? A loose translation created the following:


I won’t go through the meaning of every word here, but if my amateur translation is correct, this poem appears to describe, the process of attraction, copulation and fertilization from the moment the male sets eyes on the female to the end of the process where fertilization takes place. The poem is layered: that is to say the story is told not just on one level, the human level, but also on a botanic level (DELIQUESCENCE describing the release of the spores from the mushroom, for example), and from a marine level ‘FISHTAILS DEEP TROPES SQUIRT SQUID SUCH OCTOPI PULL ANEMONES GULP; eroticism over Latinate structure over biology, over botany over storytelling of beginning of life (life as we know it having its origins in the creatures that crawled out of the sea on to land).

The unconventional presentation of the poem and the complexity of the words did hinder a smooth reading; and instances of words such as ‘sanglots’ (sobs – French), for example, refused to allow me to tease out the reason for being there. Perhaps they were there for their sound as much as their meaning. The lack of a smooth reading and difficulties with some of the words did take away a little of the poem’s magic. Not being able to find an official interpretation of it is also unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, if I had to describe this poem I would say it is a celebration of words, rhythms, sounds which all relate to the process of procreation and the rhythm of life/death in the natural world. Whether I am correct or not in my interpretation we shall probably never know. My interpretation could be dismissed as pure whimsy; I can only say in defense of my conclusions that it does have a certain validity because Michele Leggott herself states, as I mentioned above, that we must ‘find our own meanings’.

‘Micromelismata’ .

Taking the words ‘BEE DESIDERATE MOUTH’ from ‘WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?’ moves me conveniently on to Michele Leggott’s next poem in DIA. "Micromelismata" is an example of ‘concrete’ poetry. ‘Concrete’, historically, is a particular moment, largely in Europe, but extending to Britain and the United States also, within a wider context of shaped poetry, going back to the work of George Herbert (died 1633) in England. Herbert himself knew of at least one predecessor for his work, an edition of The Greek Anthology, Theocriti Idyllia, printed by P. Brubacchius, Frankfurt, 1545. This information comes from an essay entitled Poetics edited by Joel Kuszai.

‘BEE DESIDERATE MOUTH’ reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe type bee stung lips which the type forms within the two poem balls that constitute ‘Micromelismata’. The balls are identical in shape; the first ‘ball’ being made up entirely of Xs and the second made up of words, the letters of which correspond accurately to the placement of the Xs. According to Elizabeth Caffin in issue 4, September 2007 of ‘A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics’, indentation, spaces between words, use of italics or small caps were all matters affecting meaning and taken with great seriousness by poet and publisher.

There are many voices, many more female voices than male, in this poem: many ‘Is’, Iris is there (Robin Hyde), mother, mama, you, them, her, the female, Isis the Egyptian female deity, the goddess of myths and life. There is dance and music in this poem: Melisma, in music, is the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note; melodiously.

There are kisses, lips, berries, flowers….. This poem is like a reverie, dreams coming in flashes of a single word. It is emotional and reflective; again it celebrates sensuality – reflections on kissing - and nature; the beauty that is around us.

In regard to both WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE? and Melismata - which could be said to be bordering on the unintelligible,- Leggott has been accused of ‘sophism** , elitism and pretension’ (Jane Stafford The panic of O). I would like to be much kinder and put them under heading of experimental. I greatly enjoyed the challenge of delving into these two poems which represent my first experience of works of such unusual construction.

Although I am sure many codes and allusions contained in the poems have eluded me, and not being able to find an official meaning left me somewhat frustrated, as I said earlier, I remain astounded by her mastery of language, captivated by her dexterity of word placement, and seduced by her lyricism.

* Minoan: relating to the Bronze Age civilization on Crete that lasted from around 3000 to 1100 BC.

**An argument or explanation that seems very clever or subtle on the surface but is actually flawed, misleading or intended to deceive.


Allan, Guy. New Zealand Herald 3: 6; 8 Oct 1994.
Barbour, D. Lyric/Anti-lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Edmonton: NeWest, 2001).

Direen, Bill. Listener 146(2849): 65; 19 Nov 1994.
Jensen, Kai. Printout 9: 88; Autumn 1995.

Leggott, M. DIA. Auckland : Auckland University Press, 1994.
Landfall, 45(1): 3-24, March 1991

Mead, P. Landfall 189: 121-125; Autumn 1995.
Sharp, I. Evening Post p.7; 7 Oct 1994.
Stafford, J. New Zealand Books 4(3): 10-11; Sept 1994.

Weston, Tom. Press Sup.p.14; 17 Dec 1994.
Wilson, Janet. Quote Unquote 24: 31-32; June 1995.