Shadow Stands Up #11

I’ve just read 296 poems by young poets in New Zealand, for the annual New Zealand High School Poetry Competition. This was an amazing experience, perhaps at the ethnographic margin of reading. The quality of the work was uneven if judged by standard measures of correct writing, and the poems’ default mode was probably personal, anecdotal lyrics addressing a few familiar themes; but what was much more important and interesting was the variety of ways in which these poems were uttered, and at the same time their collective energy, which was overwhelming. It would be silly to claim I encountered some kind of aggregated self here, and equally silly to claim that each poet had a totally distinctive ‘voice’, though there were some marvellous, smart, and original poems in the pile. We speak and write using comprehensive common languages and, within those, in argots and accents that identify us tribally; what distinguishes our individual utterance involves variation rather than uniqueness. The effect of reading so many poems by poets within an age-span of thirteen to seventeen was of being within a dense texture, a layering of variations – a complex social chord; or, as Roland Barthes would have described it half a century ago, reminding us of the etymology of ‘Text’, a woven fabric, a textile. Of course I’m not suggesting that there is a single tribal language for New Zealand high school poets, god forbid: I encountered a great many interlocking variations within the span of English, and even within the span of English as a second language. Rather, what I think I was experiencing was a kind of poetic socio-biology, a situation in which the tensions between diverse tribals and distinct individuals generated extraordinary energy.

I had to choose ten distinct threads from this interweaving of poems, and from that ten a single winner. These are the rules of the competition, which is, after all, a competition; which admirably aims to encourage young poets to write, to enter their poems in the competition, and perhaps to experience the satisfaction and encouragement of making the short list or winning. I think the short listed poems I’ve selected are terrific, and though there could have been other winners chosen, I also think the winning poem is a good one. Pulling these threads out of the collective text does highlight their distinctions, and I hope other readers will enjoy them on that basis; but I was lucky enough to encounter these individuals first-off within a larger, denser, richly textured, highly-strung, sometimes chaotic energy fabric. The ethnographer in me observed this ritualised face-off between cultural loyalty and individual subversion. Then I could look at the best results. That was a special, slightly illicit pleasure, and a privilege.


If I wanted to translate
silence I would have to be
deaf, to remember silence
I would have to recognise
its opposite, for instance
singing, a miracle, not
too much to ask I hope, and
why wouldn’t I hope, why not?

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