Vincent receives the National Library tokotoko from Hon Chris Tremain. Photograph by Mark Beatty.
There's nothing like being presented with a marvellously myth-laden and symbolic tokotoko by the Minister of Internal Affairs to focus the mind on what that rather chromium-plated phrase, 'Poet Laureate', bears with it – the tradition of poets who carry on the business of poetry very much in their own way. I don't think many prescriptions for poetry stand up apart from one – if it isn't individual, if it's not 'the cry of its occasion', then why aren't we doing something else?
Since the laureateship though is a public role, as well as a personal trust, there’s the very reasonable expectation that what you are up to as a poet becomes information that you are prepared to share. This means both what one does, and where one's values as a writer lie, are there to be observed. Here, I will say something of what I may have been doing in the world of fellow poets and their varied interests. This site will also carry new and unpublished poems I may have been working on, and poems by others I particularly admire. I shall also invite different poets to choose a poem of their own, as well as contemporary and older pieces that significantly ring for them. It's the breadth of poetry I want to take in, not just my own narrow questing through its terrain.
If I may rattle the banner for a moment, poetry is hospitable to pretty much anything, other than the cosy and complacent. As a kind of masthead, I begin with what must be close to my favourite New Zealand poem, a touchstone for so much that I like poetry to do. Then two poems from my last collection, Us, Then, published just before the laureateship was announced.
And special thanks to Ian, for his kind good wishes as the baton changes hands. Here’s to Berlin.
Spectacular Blossom, by Allen Curnow
Mock up again, summer, the sooty altars
Between the sweltering tides and the tin gardens
All the colours of the stained bow windows
Quick, she’ll be dead on time, the single
Actress shuffling red petals to this music,
Percussive light! So many suns she harbours
And keeps them jigging, her puppet suns,
All over the dead hot calm impure
Blood noon tide of the breathless bay.
Are the victims always so beautiful?
Pearls pluck at her, she has tossed her girls
Breast-flowers for keepsakes now she is going
For ever and astray. I see her feet
Slip into the perfect fit the shallows make her
Purposefully, sure as she is the sea
Levels its lucent ruins underfoot
That were sharp dead white shells, that will be sands.
The shallows kiss like knives.
Always for this.
They are chosen for their beauty.
Wristiest slaughterman December smooths
The temple bones and parts the grey-blown brows
With humid fingers. It is an ageless wind
That loves with knives, it knows our need, it flows
Justly, simply as water greets the blood,
And woody tumours burst in scarlet spray.
An old man’s blood spills bright as a girl’s
On beaches where the knees of light crash down.
These dying ejaculate their bloom.
Can anyone choose
And call it beauty?–The victims
Are always beautiful.
About Allen Curnow.
Reproduced courtesy of the copyright holder, Tim Curnow.
On the track above the bay
Grinning was the best part of it,
once you’d scoffed the blackberries
up above the beach:
you grinned black
like a crazed ink-drinker,
rusted ink, let’s say:
man who had eaten libraries
liked watching the child:
taste bitter, or better than others,
you’ll never run out', though
scratches along her arms’ll tell him
how 'Hard to get at them, see, my wrists
It's red scribble, she thinks
of. Or 'Like lace', he wants to tell her,
'like stinging lace'.
First time, about Easter
There was a donkey inside a wire fence where the road
begins its first climb to the Rimutakas.
We passed it on Friday late afternoon for years,
passed it again coming back on Sundays, or thought
so in winter, when the dark was already down.
It was more grey than not, though children
reasonably argued the toss, and its muzzle
this frosty white, without question. You could not of course
hear from inside the car, but once we saw
its neck extended, its teeth displayed, without
doubt it was braying, and looked hurt: our driver
said No, it was nothing like it, yet thought of the horse
with the spiked tongue in Guernica, the blue-grey horse,
or paler even, imagine the glare of a search-light
picking it out in a show called 'War Arriving'.
Then one day it is gone, the donkey on the first
incline towards the Rimutaka hill. A dozen reasons.
I forgot, says another driver, a long time later,
to ever mention, did I, the one time
it snowed that far down the hill, the donkey
standing in the white paddock brought tears
to my eyes? Its head hung forward
as though too heavy for its body. As though,
finally and forever, that bit too much.
A donkey in a snowed-in paddock, under trees black
as its hooves. On the Rimutaka road. One Friday.