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.