Acts of Confidence
Often a poet leaves a whole book or more of unpublished work - a pile of promising early poems which later became an embarrassment, or a sequence of love lyrics too autobiographical to be published without the threat of lawsuits, or a last testament written in the throes of sickness and old age.
After Kendrick Smithyman died at the end of 1995, many observers would have expected a posthumous publication or two. Few, though, could have predicted the speedy appearance of a poem with a size, scope, and ambition unrivalled in the history of New Zealand literature. A sequence of two hundred and ninety-six pieces that cover two hundred and sixty-one pages and over one hundred and fifty years of history, Atua Wera had taken Smithyman decades to research and write, and still preoccupied him as he lay dying of cancer.
As a young man in the early 1950s, Smithyman had conceived of writing an epic poem set in his native Northland region of New Zealand. In the 1970s he seems to have decided to build his poem around the dramatic but mysterious figure of Papahurihia, the prophet who fused Maori and Christian beliefs and acted as tohunga to Hone Heke during the wars of the 1840s. Atua Wera - the words translate as 'fiery God', which was one of the names for the deity Papahurihia claimed to represent - makes a virtue out of the mystery that surrounds the prophet by supplementing the few reliable facts of his life with excursions into the history and landscapes of Northland, discussions of British imperialism and the complex dialectic between Pakeha and Maori cultures, and investigations into the many prophets who followed the tohunga of the north. The poem begins in 1814, and ends in the late twentieth century.
Anyone who writes an epic poem must have confidence - confidence in their ability to write with grace and with stamina, confidence in the importance of their subject matter, and - perhaps most importantly - confidence in their readers. As anybody who has slogged their way into the interior of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Milton's Satanic masterpiece can attest, an epic poem makes special requirements of its audience, as well as its author. When he wrote Atua Wera, Smithyman was betting that some of us would be prepared to follow him into the hinterland of New Zealand history, through a chaos of violent yet obscure events, fragmentary texts, and contradictory interpretations.
When it was published by Auckland University Press in 1997 Atua Wera received respectful, if slightly bewildered reviews. Writing in Metro, Smithyman's old friend Michael King called the book 'astonishing' and 'without precedent in New Zealand', but refrained from offering any detailed account of its contents; in Landfall, WH Oliver said that he'd enjoyed the text, but wasn't sure whether it constituted a poem or not.
In the last decade several more 'new' Smithyman books have appeared, and the man's reputation has grown steadily, to the point where his name is now invoked along with those of Baxter and Curnow when critics discuss New Zealand's greatest poets. Smithyman's poems and his literary criticism have attracted an increasing amount of academic attention, and a Masters paper based around his work has been taught at the University of Auckland.
Despite the growing renown of its author, Atua Wera has attracted little scrutiny from critics and academics. For all its size, the book is a backwater in the Smithyman oeuvre. It is true that in the late '90s Gregory O'Brien won the Landfall essay prize for a piece with the title 'A Journey Around Kendrick Smithyman's Atua Wera'. O'Brien spent part of his youth in Dargaville, just down the road from Smithyman's old hometown of Te Kopuru, but his exuberant, episodic essay is a nostalgiac road trip with the occasional rather throwaway reference to Smithyman's epic, rather than a close reading of the poem.
Atua Wera may have exerted more influence on visual art than on literature, thanks to the way it has been incorporated into several works by Shane Cotton, the celebrated Nga Puhi painter. In his Blackout Movement sequence, Cotton has brought Papahurihia into a pantheon of heroes that also includes Hone Heke and Hongi Hika.
The tepid response by the New Zealand literary industry to Atua Wera deserves to pondered. In New Zealand's major universities, students can study long poems by foreign English-language poets. Pound's Cantos, TS Eliot's The Wasteland, Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth's Prelude can all be found on reading lists. Students can invest in concordances, which remorselessly track the obscure allusions and now-obsolete expressions that haunt these epics, and choose from competing biographies.
Outside the academy, epic works of verse and of poetic prose are also celebrated: professional and amateur actors alike perform Shakespeare in community halls across the country, fans of Joyce gather in an Auckland boozer once a year to celebrate Ulysses, and Tolkien's translations of medieval Norse epics are displayed prominently in mainstreet bookstores like Borders and Whitcoulls. Why is it that we can consume and discuss these epic works by foreign writers, yet ignore a long and masterful poem by one of our own - a poem that surely speaks to our own concerns far more directly than the products of Milton or Pound?
Isn't it time that we justified some of the confidence that Smithyman placed in his readers by producing an introduction and guide to Atua Wera? I have been engaged in researching a book on Smithyman for Titus, but I've come to believe that a separate, complementary project should be set up around Atua Wera.
What is to stop a group being formed to read through Smithyman's epic and produce a sort of concordance to the poem, which could then be published in book form along with a series of essays by a range of contributors about aspects of the work? A collective approach would be well-suited to a poem that demands knowledge of subjects as diverse and complex as nineteenth century history, the evolution of the Maori language, Christian theology, British imperialism, botany, and millenarian religious movements.
Well, my friends - any volunteers? If you're new to Atua Wera, then you can encounter the work online here, as part of Holloway Press' magnificent electronic edition of Smithyman's Collected Poems.