Yesterday, Fiona Kidman launched my latest anthology. 'These I Have Loved'. Here is her address.
There’s something marvelous and exhilarating and absolutely special about gathering with friends for the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the century. It feels like a unique moment in time. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras saw 10 as the symbol of the universe and of expressing the whole of human knowledge.
As it happens I’ve got a passion for the synchronicity of numbers. I’m a failed mathematician, who might have been better but for a change of schools when I was growing up. And I don’t have any deep hindsight into what numbers might or might not signify in our lives. But it does seem to me that this idea of the whole of human knowledge rings one or two bells here as, on this 10th day,, we launch a collection of one man’s poetic human knowledge, distilled into those poems he loves the best.
‘These I Have Loved’ are poems loved by the poet and educator, our friend Harvey McQueen, 100 New Zealand poems that have caught his attention, lingered in his memory, and stayed there as lasting sentinels, totem poles if you like, to his life long love of language and poetry. Or to put it another way, as a beacon to the wider life of the mind, a way into learning and understanding that which is important.
It’s no real surprise to those of us who love poetry that, although poetry falls on hard times, it never dies. The voice of the poet is always with us, the singing words that resonate in our heads, are carried like emblems of grief and happiness, there to sustain us in good times and bad. The music pf poetry embedded in our subconscious simply never leaves us, or not the best of it, those which we love the most.
Indeed, in his introduction to this book, Harvey writes “These are poems which, down the years or in some cases only recently, have settled in my mental household, comfortable and available, a satisfying source of reflection and contemplation. To a considerable extent they represent who I am, or maybe, the person I would hope to be. They reflect my temperament and my interests. There are long poems and short poems, some simple, others difficult, some well-known, others not. I, that is Harvey still speaking here, used to tell my students, you don’t need to understand a poem to fully like it. Love has the capacity to astonish. Like relationships, you think you’ve grasped the essence, only to find there are previously unplumbed depths and surprises.’
Well, I get all of that, because the kind of poems that Harvey loves are often the ones I love too and I guess that that shared delight, as well as our long friendship, something I will return to, is the reason Harvey asked me to launch this book today. Like Harvey, I love Ruth Dallas’s poem ‘Milking Before Dawn’ which is one of the great pastoral poems of New Zealand’s or any, poetry. It has a great resonance for me, who milked many a cow before dawn, with chilblains on my fingers. Then there’s the countryside of poets like Brian Turner, Denis Glover, the different landscapes of Mark Pirie, Pat White and Janet Frame, and of course the poetry of his own beloved Little River territory on Banks Peninsula where he grew up. So landscape, and family and childhood, love and loss, food and its preparation- witness Ian Wedde’s lovely poem ‘To Autumn’ – for instance, and gardening, are some of the great themes that Harvey explores.
How does he put it all together? Well, he has divided his loves into several sections” Love the World, I’m in Love with you, You know the place , Books and paddocks endure, This much I have learned, are just some of them. In so arranging the poems, Harvey does indeed create symbols of the universe. Each section includes a generous introductory note that creates an order and context for the poems.
The book includes a wide ranging, eclectic mix of poets. But I think it no random act that has brought James K. Baxter into the center of his mix. This centrality signals a particular kind of voice, and again I return to a musicality of language, a yearning beyond the obvious things of life, to those of the spirit. We know, because the voice of Baxter at the heart of Harvey’s choices, mean that the poems he has chosen will reflect a certain quality of music and rhythm, plus expressions of social comment and concern. You could say here, perhaps, that for Harvey Baxter represents a centrifugal force from the past 50 or 60 odd years, similar to that of that Dylan Thomas in Welsh poetry, or Seamus Heaney does for in Ireland, or, if one dare mention him in the same breath, Leonard Cohen does for Canada. Baxter, then, is an indicator, of what we might expect from Harvey’s choices of poem, his view of what constitutes new Zealand poetry.
There are several recent poems by newly emerging poets, and also many who spring from a group of their time, people who were seriously writing poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, a time where my own modest poetic history began. Vincent O’Sullivan, Lauris Edmond, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, Sam Hunt, Elizabeth Smither, Rachel McAlpine, Tony Beyer, Bill Manhire, to name just a few. In many ways it’s a meeting of minds amongst friends. Vincent O’Sullivan said to me the other day, and I hope he’ll forgive me for quoting him, that this book is significant in the wide range, the broad and generous tone of this selection. I echo that, the selection doesn’t live by any rule book about what’s good and what’s not. Harvey has simply chosen what he wants without fear or favour.
We do, it seems to me, have a wide poetic mainstream in New Zealand today, but we also have individual voices and events, fringes and movements which wax and wane, and may not last forever, but leave in their wake memorable poems. Several of Harvey’s books have been published by Mark Pirie’s Headworx Press, just one example of a publisher and poet working at the edges of the mainstream, not altogether recognized by it, yet made the richer by its contribution. Michael O’Leary at the Earl of Seaclyff Press is another.
And I should of course place Roger Steele, publisher of this book in this context, -if that causes Roger a ripple of unease, I’m saying here that these are risk takers, and risk in poetry publication is something to be hailed and celebrated. Sometimes, as we saw with Roger’s publication of the poet Glen Colquhoun, there are results beyond all expectations. I should add too Roger, that this is a delightful production of Harvey’s book and you’ve done it proud. Bravo.
I mentioned my friendship with Harvey. I don’t really remember when it began, but I’ve been aware of him as a poet since his first book ‘Against the Maelstrom’ appeared in 1981. He moved to Wellington in 1977, and it was somewhere in the space of those years, when he was moving amongst my friends, those several poets of the 70s, I’ve mentioned as appearing in this book, that we got to know each other. He’s been a school teacher, a school inspector and an education aide to former Prime Minister David Lange, and most of all a poet of whom it has been written that his poems often contain a very simple action that becomes a symbol for a universal human truth. He is above all a constant friend to many, and a mentor of other poets. And to Anne Else to whom he dedicates a poem of his own at the beginning of the book,he is a loving companion, friend and husband. Many thanks are owed to Anne for her help in arranging today’s gathering.
All in all, and almost the last thing I have to say is that this is a generous, energetic, imaginative and very enjoyable anthology, full of unexpected surprises which I hope many will own (That means buy the book) But there is just one more thing : Harvey asked me if I would like to read a poem of my own from the book, but on reflection I decided that I would like to read one of Harvey’s because, apart from the opening poem for Anne, in typically modest fashion, there are none of his own in the book. I was torn between two, one is ‘Reading Janet Frame’, which is perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s poems, and ‘Worth a Chance’. The first ends on a slightly bleak note, and as today is a day of celebration of Harvey and of this book, ‘Worth a Chance’ won out.'
PS I will post 'Worth A Chance' as my Tuesday Poem for this week