Sunday, April 8, 2012

Notes Apropos "Robert Creeley in NZ" and Jack Ross on NZ Poetry

Robert Creeley in Auckland, 1995
When I arrived in New Zealand this past August, I had intended to begin a book chronicling Robert Creeley's influence on the New Zealand poetic community. A number of factors temporarily halted the project in the "research and development" phase: full-time employ, diverted attentions, and a fresh round of PhD applications. I've chided myself since then on time wasted, on time that could've been better spent toward the completion of this project, a project I still very much believe in.

Now, I'm in Wellington and knee-deep in a new project which concerns Ezra Pound's theory of melopoeia, "wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning," and its implications for contemporary poets. And while I'm deeply engaged in and excited by this new project, my thoughts often return to "Creeley in NZ."

Last week, Ellie and I hiked the four-day Milford Track with her parents and some family friends. And eight-hour days of tramping through fern groves, lichen carpeted beech woods, and rough, brown tussock is ample opportunity to hatch ideas and scheme about books: past, present, and future.

During my time here, I've tried to familiarize myself with contemporary poetry in NZ and get a sense of its trends and taboos, and the traditions it holds dear. My reading has only served to make me more curious, less sure. I've had this notion that Creeley's 1976 visit to NZ totally rocked the NZ poetic community, that it introduced the possibility of experimentation and "New American Poetry" to poets nursed primarily on the British tradition. I had hoped, perhaps vainly and prematurely, to trace an aesthetic through-line from Creeley's early and mid-career work to contemporary NZ poets.

After talking for hours with Ellie while ambling along the Milford, I'm less certain that such a neat and tidy "reading" of this multifarious national community (or communities?) is valuable or even possible.

More and more, I'm fascinated with the idea of influence itself. In the States, so much importance and emphasis is placed on who you read, on poetics as a sort of genealogy of influence. When asked, I once told another American poet that I really enjoyed Robert Duncan's work and had recently fallen in love with Ronald Johnson's ARK and Susan Howe. They described their love for the work of Charles Wright and Richard Hugo. I'd like to say this kind of interaction is based purely on curiosity, but we were both probably guessing in that moment what the other's work was like.

Does that happen in NZ in the same way? Obviously, New Zealand has a totally different history and relationship toward its history than the U.S. has with its own. What role does experimentation or an "avant-garde" presence have in NZ? What relationship, what conflict or curiosity, does it have with its language?

I was happy to come across a new feature on Jacket 2 this week, Jack Ross's ongoing column on NZ poetry. In his introduction to the commentary, Ross writes:
Allen Curnow, in his classic 1943 poem "The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch," wrote of the Moa's (by extension, our) "interesting failure to adapt on islands". More recent ecological theorists have suggested that, on the contrary, islands have a tendency to be engines of evolutionary change: extraordinary adaptations to unique circumstances.

So which is it? Is New Zealand poetry more or lessinteresting as a result of our isolation?
On the one hand, it can lead to a willingness to break the rules, lending our writing a wild and lawless frontier feel. On the other hand, there's a certain tendency to reinvent the wheel, proclaim as innovations techniques which are the most hackneyed commonplace elsewhere.

It is encouraging to know that someone else is asking these questions and I look forward to reading Ross' forthcoming posts as I continue to develop this project further.


  1. Hi Steven - I'd like to say "great minds" - but I suspect yours is greater than mine, so I will simply say "me too" :)

    A few years ago I had the same idea, and was considering pursuing it as a PHD.

    To start the ball rolling (after much fossicking around) I decided to focus on an essay documenting the 'presence' of Robert Creeley in New Zealand, & vice versa.

    I figured from there I could track the influence of the 'new' American poets on NZ poetry in more depth. . .

    Simple, you'd think. A little essay.

    I wrestled with it from start to finish - and still would like to really finish it one day, continue to include what I left out, trouble further the aspects that troubled me.

    Looking back, I think I wanted to do too much all at once. All while working full-time, and out of academia.

    I think also I confused the delight of reading Robert Creeley's work with a desire to turn that into my own creative output.

    Maybe this is the spirit in which many New Zealand poets responded to Creeley's work (and other American writers)? Breathing in at the same time a legacy of American influences back to Whitman and so on (see Manhire, for example:, and closer, with Olson.

    The online form seemed the closest I could come to 'showing' what Creeley 'meant'.

    Nonetheless, here is where I got to in the end (in public form at least):

    This is one part of the essay. It was a surprise discovery to find that the possibility of influence occurred even earlier than 76.

    Sometimes, I'd like to return to pick up where I left off. But it's unlikely I'll have an opportunity to, or the gumption.

    Perhaps we could collaborate somehow?

    Or at the very least, you are welcome to borrow from my pile of sources, books by NZ poets, and possible somewheres to go :)


  2. Thanks for commenting, Virginia! And my apologies for the late reply. I so rarely receive comments that I forget to check! First off, I should say that I've been familiar with your Creeley essay for some time and learned a lot from it.

    As I wrote in the post above, I'm in the middle of another project at the moment, but was hoping to begin the preliminary research and planning this winter. I'd be very inetersted in collaborating and would love to speak more about this with you.

    My email address is Thanks again and don't be a stranger!

  3. Dear Steven,

    I've only just run across your post. I hope the rest of my Jacket2 column (now completed) wasn't too disappointing: I guess the need to propagandise in favour of NZ poetry did at times get in the way of finer distinctions and closer readings within the tradition ...

    There's no doubt that you're correct in seeing the Creeley tour as an important event -- what's almost equally striking about it, though, is how many people claim to have "run" or been responsible for it. As I understand it, the initial invitation came from Alistair Paterson. In his version, the tour was then commandeered or preempted by various Academic careerists (Stead, Murray Edmond, etc.), and thus he was written out of the history of the event.

    It depends who you talk to, I guess. On the one hand, there's the fine freeing up of Kiwi poetics kicked off by American influences in the '70s; on the other hand, there's our intensely provincial jealousy of anyone seeming to get ahead of the others in our little islands ("Great hatred, little room", as Yeats said of Ireland).

    I think if you do end up writing about the tour, this darker side might have to be admitted to the discourse also.

    Great to find your blog!

    1. Hello Jack!

      I've been meaning to get in contact with you for some time. I appreciate you making first contact! I enjoyed your Jacket2 feature immensely; it has only sparked a wider curiosity regarding current NZ poetics. I would be keen to continue the conversation with you further. Thanks again for your comment!