99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry by Paula Green & Harry Ricketts
Poetry usually arrives in the form of the traditional "slim volume" - elegant packages of 40-80 pages, like smoked salmon slices. By contrast, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, all 624 pages of it, landed on my desk with a solid thump. But, as the title suggests, the book comes packaged in a user-friendly fashion in 99 thin slices, and the reader is not expected to consume it all at a sitting. This is a book that will last.
At the recent Going West Books & Writers Festival, where a session was devoted to the book, Paula Green spoke of a mosaic made up of numerous separate tiles, and the analogy is apt because it implies the presence of many discrete sections, complete in themselves, which combine to form a larger pattern, the whole mosaic adding up to a comprehensive picture of New Zealand poetry from a contemporary perspective. Inevitably, perhaps, the foreground looms large, though the history of poetry, while seen in shortened perspective, is not forgotten.
Within the book's five sections, each "tablet" follows a similar format - a brief essay by either Green or Ricketts, a sample poem or two, some illustrations in the form of photographs and book covers, providing a welcome splash of colour, and in some places a short essay by a practitioner. For example, in a chapter called Visual Poetry, Green's essay discusses the myriad ways in which the visual presentation of a poem is part of its effect.
She discusses examples from a range of international and local sources including George Herbert (stanzas shaped like wings), Fiona Farrell, Glen Colquhoun and David Howard, with particular focus on Michele Leggott and Greg O'Brien, including photographs of the poets and examples, such as Leggott's Micromelismata - a poem in which Xs (one on one page) and words (on another) form the shape of kissing lips.
The chapter ends with a short essay by O'Brien about his etching, From the Classical Chinese Anthology, which combines image and text, the poems both in textual form and as they appear handwritten on the etching. Multiply this formula close to a hundred times and you have the book.
On the whole the strategy works well. Each "tablet" is a rich miscellany of poetry, discursive prose and illustrations; the effect is absorbing and light but not superficial.
The choice of two authors is a good one, both Ricketts and Green are poets with academic training so they are able to bring a perspective that combines the practitioner and the critic. And while most writers have a tendency to prefer the work of their own gender, neither Ricketts or Green is at all exclusive in this regard.
It was also a good idea to put together an Auckland-based and a Wellington-based writer. Ever since the 1950s there has been a tendency for poetry in this country to be dominated by these two centres, a situation that has become almost institutionalised through the two leading poetry publishers, the presses of Auckland and Victoria Universities, each of whose list has a somewhat different character.
Neither city dominates in this particular arrangement and plenty of South Islanders (Bernadette Hall, Michael Harlow, Ruth Dallas) and expatriates (Kapka Kassabova, Andrew Johnston) also get a look in.
I'm sure this ambitious and well-produced book, generous both in scale and spirit, will find a host of satisfied readers.
Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer and director of the Holloway Press.