Friday, July 27, 2007

Smarter than Jack

Well, I guess it's true: cheeky animals are smarter than Jack. It kind of goes without saying, really. But I'm not entirely sure that I welcome the advent of a whole series of books reinforcing the fact.

Basically it started out as a book of cute animal stories compiled by animal-lover Jenny Campbell, which enjoyed so much success that it's now spawned a whole slew of sequels: Cats are Smarter than Jack, Dogs are Smarter than Jack, Aardvarks and Crocodiles [for all I know] are Smarter than Jack ...

What I'm curious about, though, is: Who is this Jack? I mean, I've looked in vain through the publicity material accompanying the series for the least reference to the original Jack. Is it simply meant to be a generic masculine appellation: Jack & Jill, Jack the Giant-killer -- the ubiquitous hero of so many nursery rhymes and folktales? Or is he some actual person (or animal, for that matter? Probably not, given the fact that so many other animals have been proclaimed to be smarter than him).

One thing's for certain -- he's male, and he's constantly being outsmarted. Which brings me to the real subject of this post.

I was all set to go along to the beach to read out my poem from the volume above, Poetry Pudding, edited by Jenny Argante and published by Reed earlier this year. There was a big launch party planned on Long Bay beach, with kids and party games and (I hoped) parents waiting in the wings to control their unruly offspring.

All set to go -- but then I checked the time. Not Sunday afternoon, but Saturday afternoon, 28th July 2007. So I missed it. Animals really are smarter than Jack.

So I've decided that the least I can do is to repent in this public forum, remind you that it 's now on sale in bookshops (or, alternatively, from the Reed website here), and to reprint, as a kind of teaser, my own poem from the book. Sorry, Tania:

Noughts and Crosses

My name is …
John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom X
I live in …
The Fortress of Solitude X
My father is …
a barbarian chieftain from the Plains of Leng X
My mother is …
a slavegirl from the Mongolian steppes X
I have 100 sisters and no brothers
save for the heads impaled atop my tent X
This summer I …
set out to pillage all the known world X
It was …
very easy X
My teacher is …
a dog whose last words will be screams of pain X !!
My best friend is …
my mighty two-handed battle-axe X
My classmates are …
dust beneath my chariot-wheels X
I like to …
ride like the wind on my 8-legged steed Thorondor X
When I grow up I want to be …
a vengeful ghost X


This silly work is becoming increasingly typical of you, I’m afraid. You know you could do far better if you tried.

[Poetry Pudding, ed. Jenny Argante (Auckland: Reed, 2007) 28-29].

Friday, July 20, 2007

Metamorphoses IX (1994): Iolaus

… Making clear
that this was a one-time favor, she had been on the point of swearing
that never again would it happen that an old person be made
young again, but Themis, the Hours’ mother and Mistress
of Seasons and Years, prevented this ill-considered gesture.
And now we get Themis’ list of myths in which time stands still,
moves around, plays tricks. . . not stories but only allusions,
some of them clear, and others oblique or coy. Our attention
wanes, as the voice — of Themis? Ovid? — falters and drones.
Tired perhaps? We strain to follow its murmur and feel
frustration, even annoyance. Why has he thus betrayed us?
Is this a place he’d have fixed had the gods not sent him away
(or, to keep to the pattern, turned him from darling to exile,
the victim of Caesar Augustus’ whim)? But there is a way
to read this passage and turn time back. We are children again,
hide in the hall at the top of the stairs and strain to hear
the phrases that float up from our parents’ conversations.
Greedy for what we can catch, we hold our breath to listen
and to comprehend their words and the world’s unpleasant secrets
from which they have tried to protect us as long and as well as they could.
The question is one of trust, which Ovid invites or tests.
Have we learned in these pages to yield to his moods and moves, to read
with that mixture of love and awe we felt many years ago
in the upstairs hall? The subject, at any rate, is the business
of youth and age, how the gods can turn back the clocks—not often,
but every now and again. We get Amphiarius’ story,
and Callirhoë’s, who prayed that her young sons might be made
mature to avenge their father’s death. ...
… We’re back on track now. This story, a somewhat mannered performance,
is one of those nice rhetorical set pieces Ovid loved
to dazzle with. He could put his lawyer’s training to use
as he made up elaborate speeches for his characters to declaim.
We’re all ears now, or they are sharper for having been jangled
a while, as if, in a concert hall, a composer had scored
a tune-up, white noise to get us into the proper expectant
mood. There’s even a warning, a moral (not quite on target,
but, if it were, the story would be otiose and redundant).
Byblis, he says, is a warning that girls should be careful to keep
their passions in check and direct them only to lawful and licit
persons — and this is a rule it’s difficult not to agree with. ...

The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans. David R. Slavitt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 183-85.

Well, that really is a rather remarkable passage to come across in the middle of a verse translation, isn't it? Fine if you call it a verse commentary or rewriting, sure - but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Slavitt is straining the boundaries of the genre here.

That's what Bernard Knox thinks, anyway. In an article in The New York Review of Books he remarks of this section of text:
Slavitt speaks eloquently in his introduction of the reader's (and the translator's) reaction to the poem as a "leap of sympathy, intuition, understanding, and, finally, collaboration." But this seems to go beyond collaboration; it is in fact editorial intervention, or perhaps intrusion would be a more accurate description.

Of course, it's true that Knox's article was written mainly to justify the appearance of yet another version of the Metamorphoses, this time by Charles Martin, and that Slavitt (along with Ted Hughes, the only other translation Knox considers) is really just being set up as a straw man against his pentameter-wielding hero. (In fact, Knox's article was reprinted as the introduction to the 2004 publication of Martin's translation.)

Is Slavitt justified in taking such liberties with the text? Who can say? My own feeling is that this is one of the more impressive passages in his book. I wish he'd done it a bit more often, to be perfectly honest. There's something daunting about endless ranks of advancing hexameters in any language, but especially in English, used as we are to the swift movement of the pentameter.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Contemporary NZ Poets by Theme

Come along with us, they say
There are one or two questions
We should like to ask you

– Bill Manhire, “The Old Man’s Example”

Here's a thematic breakdown of the 87 tracks in our Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance anthology (Auckland: AUP, 2007). The categories are pretty subjective, and could undoubtedly be improved on. Maybe that’s not such a bad starting point for discussion, though: what's the poem really about?


Janet Charman: injection
David Eggleton: Teen Angel
Graham Lindsay: Playground

Anne French: Trout
Sam Hunt: Hey, Minstrel
James Norcliffe: planchette
Peter Olds: Elephant
Bob Orr: Ballad of the Great South Rd

Murray Edmond: Voyager
Anne French: Uncle Ron’s last surprise
Roma Potiki: For Paiki
Ian Wedde: Earthly – Sonnets for Carlos 35

Geoff Cochrane: 1988
Peter Olds: Waking up in Phillip Street
Bob Orr: The X

Paula Green: greek salad
Paula Green: oven baked salmon

Bernadette Hall: Amica
Sam Hunt: Rainbows and a Promise of Snow

Alan Brunton: from Waves
Geoff Cochrane: Atlantis
Bernadette Hall: Famine
Bill Sewell: Breaking the quiet
Bill Sewell: Jahrhundertwende
Apirana Taylor: Parihaka
Apirana Taylor: six million

Graham Lindsay: Life in the Queen’s English
Bill Manhire: On Originality
Bill Manhire: Valedictory
Iain Sharp: Two Minute Poem
Ian Wedde: Barbary Coast

David Eggleton: Poem for the Unknown Tourist
Paula Green: Two Minutes Westward
Jan Kemp: Sailing boats
Graham Lindsay: Cloud silence
Bill Manhire: The Old Man’s Example
Bill Manhire: Visiting Mr Shackleton
Cilla McQueen: Living Here
Stephanie de Montalk: Northern Spring
James Norcliffe: at Franz Josef
Peter Olds: Doctors Rock
Bob Orr: A Country Shaped like a Butterfly’s Wing
Vivienne Plumb: The Vegan Bar and Gaming Lounge
Roma Potiki: Exploding Light
Bill Sewell: Riversdale

Keri Hulme: from Fisher in an Autumn Tide
Bill Manhire: A Song about the Moon
Vivienne Plumb: The Tank
Ian Wedde: Earthly – Sonnets for Carlos 31

Michele Leggott: cairo vessel
Jan Kemp: The sky’s enormous jug
Jan Kemp: ‘Love is a babe . . . ’

Geoff Cochrane: Zigzags
Anne French: Acute
Roma Potiki: Riven

Alan Brunton: The Man on Crazies Hill, 1 & 3
Janet Charman: cuckoo in the nest
Bernadette Hall: Party Tricks
Sam Hunt: My Father Scything
Sam Hunt: Plateau songs
Graham Lindsay: Chink
Bill Manhire: Miscarriage
Bob Orr: Eternity
Vivienne Plumb: A Letter from my Daughter

Bernadette Hall: The Lay Sister
Stephanie de Montalk: Tree Marriage

Fiona Farrell: Instructions for the consumption of your Humanitarian Food Package
Anne French: The new museology
Cilla McQueen: Fuse
Bill Sewell: Censorship
Apirana Taylor: Sad Joke on a Marae
Ian Wedde: Earthly – Sonnets for Carlos 32

Alan Brunton: The Man on Crazies Hill, 2
Janet Charman: but she wanted one
Janet Charman: ‘they say that in paradise’
Fiona Farrell: Anne Brown’s Song
Sam Hunt: Bottle to Battle to Death
Jan Kemp: Against the softness of woman
Jan Kemp: Jousting
Bill Manhire: Domestic
Apirana Taylor: Hinemoa’s daughter

Paula Green: afternoon tea with Virginia Woolf
James Norcliffe: the visit of the dalai lama
Richard von Sturmer: Dreams

Janet Charman: ready steady
Geoff Cochrane: Spindrift Sunday

Janet Charman: from wake up to yourself
Iain Sharp: Amnesty Day

Contemporary NZ Poets by Region

Parts of the island are disappearing.
– Geoff Cochrane, “Atlantis”

Is it where you were born, where you were brought up, or where you live that defines you best as a person (or as a writer)? Bill Manhire was born in Invercargill, but is generally thought of as a Wellington poet; Janet Charman was born in Wellington but now lives and works in Auckland … I’ve been influenced more by where people were born than where they live now in compiling this list, but I have made some exceptions where the results seemed just too paradoxical.

So, anyway, here's my preliminary attempt at a regional breakdown of the 27 poets in our anthology, Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance (AUP, 2007):

Place -- Name -- Dates -- Pages in Contemporary NZ Poets


Paula Green (b.1955) 115-18
educated at Auckland University, now lives on the West Coast.
Sam Hunt (b.1946) 26-33
born in Castor Bay, but now lives north of Auckland.
Richard von Sturmer (b.1957) 141-45
born in Devonport, lived abroad for more than a decade in the USA, and now lives in Remuera.


Ian Wedde (b.1946) 46-52
born in Bleinhelm, travelled extensively as a child, but is now based in Wellington.


Alan Brunton (1946-2002) 17-25
born in Christchurch, educated in Auckland, but is most strongly associated with Island Bay in Wellington.
Peter Olds (b.1944) 1-6
born in Christchurch, but is generally thought of as a Dunedin poet.


David Eggleton (b.1952) 94-97
educated in Auckland, he is now based in Dunedin.
Fiona Farrell (b.1947) 53-57
born in Oamaru, she is now based on Banks Peninsula.
Bernadette Hall (b.1945) 7-11
born in Alexandra, Central Otago, she now lives in Christchurch.


Bill Sewell (1951-2003) 88-93
born in Athens, and brought up in parts of Southern Europe, he studied at Auckland, taught German in Dunedin, but then moved to Wellington.


Keri Hulme (b.1947) 58-62
born in Christchurch, but is now based on the West Coast, at Okarito.
James Norcliffe (b.1946) 42-45
born in Greymouth, but lives in Christchurch.


Murray Edmond (b.1949) 63-68
born in Hamilton, now lives and works in Auckland.
Jan Kemp (b.1949) 69-73
born in Hamilton, now lives between Torbay, on Auckland’s North Shore, and Frankfurt, Germany.
Bob Orr (b.1949) 79-83
born on a farm in the Waikato, lives now in Auckland’s Point Chevalier.


Bill Manhire (b.1946) 34-41
born in Invercargill, now lives and works in Wellington.


Michele Leggott (b.1956) 134-40
born in Stratford, she now lives in Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore.


Cilla McQueen (b.1949) 74-78
born in Birmingham, she now lives in Bluff, after many years living and working in Dunedin.
Iain Sharp (b.1953) 104-07
born in Scotland, he now lives and works in Auckland.


Janet Charman (b.1954) 108-14
born in the Hutt Valley, she now lives in Avondale, West Auckland.
Geoff Cochrane (b.1951) 84-87
lives in Wellington’s Island Bay.
Anne French (b.1956) 128-33
worked for many years in Auckland, but is now based in Wellington, where she grew up.
Graham Lindsay (b.1952) 98-103
born in Wellington, he lived for many years in Dunedin, then Christchurch, and is now living in the UK.
Stephanie de Montalk (b.1945) 12-16
based in Wellington.
Vivienne Plumb (b.1955) 119-22
based in Wellington.
Roma Potiki (b.1958)146-50
lives on the Kapiti Coast, outside Wellington.
Apirana Taylor (b.1955) 123-27
lives on the Kapiti Coast outside Wellington.

Contemporary NZ Poets Teaching Notes

[cover image: Richard Killeen / Cover design: Christine Hansen]

Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance
Edited by Jack Ross & Jan Kemp
(Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007)

So it appears that I'm down to give a public lecture (in the "Chancellor's Series," no less, alongside the likes of Nicky Hager and Cindy Kiro), on the subject of this series of anthologies: NZ Poets in Performance.

It's at 12 noon on Wednesday, August 1st, in the Study Centre Staff Lounge of Massey University, Albany. If you happen to be passing. Free entry -- free tea and coffee, too ...

That got me to thinking about the bunch of teaching notes I put up on this blog when AUP published Classic NZ Poets in Performance last year. I hope they’ve been handy to someone, at least. I haven't heard much about them either way. In any case, I thought I might continue the tradition and do the same thing for this sequel, Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance.

I guess the philosophy behind our selection of poems all along was to choose those which didn't require a great deal of background knowledge to like. We’ve tried to choose poems about very concrete, accessible topics, by poets who are used to reaching out to a general audience. That’s not to say that there aren’t subtleties and complexities in all three books (these two and the projected New NZ Poets, scheduled for publication next year), but the idea was never to compile an anthology purely for poetry-lovers -- though of course we hope they’re being catered for as well.

The plan, at least, was to try to put in something for everyone in the books, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate in the breakdown of poems by theme which follows this entry.

Once again, I know that some of the poems could be listed under more than one heading, but all I’m doing here is indicating what I think is the predominant subject-matter or thematic direction in each. If you don’t agree, that might be a good starting-point for discussion:

As with the Classic NZ Poets, our new book is arranged in chronological order of birthdates, beginning with Peter Olds in 1944 and ending with Roma Potiki in 1958. The preface to the book explains that:
This second volume, Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance, is our overview of the poetic generation which came to maturity in the 1960s and 1970s, that turbulent era of social, sexual, musical and artistic experimentation.
(Some might call them the baby-boomers, though I doubt it’s a term which appeals much to the people in question. )

Many of the poets in the book have associations with many different parts of New Zealand; others (such as Bob Orr or Keri Hulme) are very strongly identified with a particular region, and constantly revisit it as subject-matter in their work.

Here are some of the places on offer:
• UK

Further information may be accessed at the following websites:
Authors. The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.
(A select but valuable list of major NZ poets with pictures, recordings, and critical reactions).

Homepage. Auckland University Press.
(Details of books and other publications by a number of the authors in the anthology).

New Zealand Literature File. University of Auckland Library Website.
(This has thorough – though not always entirely reliable – bibliographies for many major New Zealand writers).

Twelve Taonga. The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.
(A brief account of the creation of the 1974 and 2004 recorded poetry archives, which were the main source for this sereis of books).

New Zealand Writers. The New Zealand Book Council Website.
(This has pictures and short biographical and critical summaries adapted from Roger Robinson & Nelson Wattie's Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), but with updated information and supplementary entries on more recent writers).

Monday, July 09, 2007

Metamorphoses II (1993): The Crow

[The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993. 60-61.]

"My father was a king, the famed Coroneus
of Phocis; and I was a lovely princess
with many suitors (do not laugh at this!).
My beauty was my ruin. For, in fact,
while I was walking on the shoreline sands,
as I still do, the sea-god saw me and
grew hot with love; his pleas and honeyed words
were useless; he made ready to use force.
He chased me; as I ran, I left behind
the hard-packed sands and staggered wearily
along the soft and yielding shore -- in vain;
then I invoked both gods and men. My voice
could reach no mortal. But, a virgin, I
did stir the virgin goddess with my plea.
And as I stretched my arms out toward the sky,
they started to grow darker, sprouting feathers.
I tried to free my shoulder, flinging off
my robe; but it, too, had become a cloak
of feathers, rooted deeply in my skin.
I tried to beat my bared breast with my hands:
but I, by now, had neither hands nor breast.
I ran, but now my feet no longer sank
into the sands; I skimmed along the ground,
then I flew off, on high, into the sky:
there I was taken by Minerva as
her stainless, blameless comrade.

But by now
to what does all my serving her amount?
I am supplanted by Nyctimene,
one who became an owl because of her
outrageous sin. Have you not heard men speak
of what is known to all of Lesbos -- how
Nyctimene defiled her father's bed?
And as a bird, yet conscious of her crime,
she flees men's eyes and flees the light: she hides
for shame among the shadows; she has been
cast out by all and exiled from the sky."

The crow is flying along with the raven, Phoebus Apollo's bird, who is anxious to tell his master about his mistress Coronis' adultery. They're gossiping to pass the time away. The number of stories within stories and stories melting into other stories at this point in Ovid's epic is literally beyond exact computation: speakers quoting speakers quoting speakers.

Two points might repay investigation here:

1/ Mandelbaum's translation, "fluid, readable, and accurate" according to his fans -- clunky and uninspired to his rivals, is justified by its author as follows:

... all that is here is not all that semes [sic]. Ovid's fictions form a bacchanalian narrative revel, in which each element may be drunk or delirious, but which -- in its endless deceptions -- provides truth. (Ovid read not only his Gorgias but his Hegel carefully.) [558]
I'm an ignorant man. I'll grant you that. But what precisely does that mean? I guess he intends to say that Ovid's as interested in the facts as he is in the delirious "revel" of language, but it still seems (or semes) an extraordinarily opaque way of putting it. Perhaps that's the point.

To me, I'm afraid, the translation seems a bit clunky: too many internal rhymes and limping pentameters: "on high, into the sky" ... or "And as I stretched my arms out toward the sky." It's a fantastically difficult and finicky task to convert so much verse into other verse, though, so I wouldn't want to overstress such deficiencies. The real worry is when Mandelbaum goes on to quote some verses of his own composition:

The-Copious, the Ever-Swift,
and Sad-Seigneur-of-Scrutinists ...
"Prelude" to The Savantasse of Montparnasse (1988) [555]
Fucking hell! I thought that kind of thing went out with Lionel Johnson and the poetes maudits of the 1890s. It raises that old issue about whether indifferent poets can make good translators. To some extent, of course, this whole set of meditations on the Metamorphoses is designed to look at that question from a number of different angles.

2/ I guess, however, I mostly chose to reproduce the crow section of Ovid's epic because of my interest in Crow the trickster figure. Not just the one in Ted Hughes' book Crow (1970), nor even the version in The Crow (1994), that dodgy proto-Emo movie Bruce Lee's son Brandon got killed making, but (above all) that Anansi / Maui / Brer-Rabbit-like antihero of the Inuit and other northern cultures.

Crows are battlefield scavengers, cunning and resourceful rather than brave and forthright. The constellation "Corvus" is supposed to be named after one of Apollo's crows who decided to wait for some figs to ripen, rather than hastening back to his master with the water he was supposed to be collecting. He blamed his dilatoriness on a watersnake, but the god saw through the ruse at once.

One wonders if there's some connection here with Noah's raven, sent out from the ark to test the reappearance of dry land. The snake, too, seems to suggest certain Biblical parallels.

Montana Poetry Day (July 27)

Poetry Central
Montana Poetry Day
Friday 27 July, 6 pm

Auckland City Libraries
& Auckland University Press


The dual-launch of
Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance
edited by Jack Ross & Jan Kemp

The Pop-up Book of Invasions
by Fiona Farrell

& the nzepc 6th birthday celebrations

MC: Iain Sharp

Readings by Fiona Farrell, Jan Kemp, Michele Leggott, Jack Ross, Bob Orr, Janet Charman, Martin Edmond and others
+ the announcement of the winner of the

Be there for a good time ... Drinks and snacks will also be served.