Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Futa Helu on Tongan poetry

[I'm off to Tongatapu, the sacred south, today, along with some friends. I'll be dropping in to the 'Atenisi Institute tomorrow afternoon to talk with Michael Horowitz's sociology students about Marx's late, heretical works, and then giving an informal talk tomorrow evening about what the ideas of Futa Helu and Epeli Hau'ofa can mean in a New Zealand context. During my talk I'll read from the Oceania issue of the Kiwi literary journal of brief, which appeared a few months ago, and pass around some copies of On Tongan Poetry, the book of Futa Helu's writing which Atuanui Press recently published down here.

On Tongan Poetry won't be launched officially in Tonga until November, when Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's cinematic tribute to Futa Helu, has its Nuku'alofa premiere, but I want to get some copies of the book into the hands of Helu's old collaborators at 'Atenisi. I hope that they won't complain too much about a monolingual palangi, who can't even pronounce the names of well-known Tongan islands and villages without blundering, helping to present their old teacher's lapidarian study of Tongan traditional art to the world.

Here's the introduction to On Tongan Poetry, in which I apologise for my unsuitability as editor, along with a few photos I took during my last visit to Tonga. The blog post which became the afterword to the book can be seen here. - Scott Hamilton]

This book collects six of the late Futa Helu’s essays about Tongan poetry. The piece on ‘Laumatanga, Pride of Locality, in Tongan Poetry’ was delivered at an academic conference in 1986 and included in Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives on the South Seas, the selection of Helu’s writings published by the Journal of Pacific History in 1999. The other essays first saw the light of day in Faikava, the little literary journal that flourished in Nuku’alofa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. None of these texts has ever been published before in New Zealand, and they appear here with the assistance of Futa’s daughter Sisi’uno Langi-Helu, who has taken responsibility for his literary estate since his death in February 2010.

I might seem like a peculiar person to write an introduction and an afterword to a book about traditional
Tongan poetry. I am a palangi New Zealander who had not visited Tonga or heard about Futa Helu until 2009. Although I’ve done my best to make up for lost time over the past three years, by reading through Helu’s oeuvre, visiting the ’Atenisi Institute, the legendary university Helu founded in Nuku’alofa, and talking with many Tongan writers, I am far from being an expert on things Tongan, and my knowledge of the country’s language might politely be described as embryonic.

Over the past three years, though, I have become convinced that palangi New Zealanders need to understand both the thought of Futa Helu and the history and culture of his society. I have campaigned for the publication of these essays because I think they are a door through which palangi like myself can enter the world of Futa Helu and the world of Tonga.

As a scholar and poet, I have spent much of my time writing about New Zealand history and society, and about the history of Britain, the country that has cast such a shadow over New Zealand. Like so many Kiwi writers, I have often been preoccupied with the difficult relationship that Pakeha and Maori have had over the past couple of centuries. I’ve wondered whether the indigenous and colonising peoples of this country can ever transcend the conflicts of the past, and create a genuinely bicultural society. When I discovered Futa Helu and his ’Atenisi Institute, and Tongan society as a whole, I realised that I had found an example, on New Zealand’s very doorstep, of healthy biculturalism.

Futa Helu often proclaimed that he wanted to bring together Polynesian and European culture, and he put
his rhetoric into practice by becoming an expert on Western traditions like classical philosophy, grand opera,
and English literature, as well as Polynesian taonga like Tongan poetry, music and dance. ’Atenisi put Helu’s
words into practice by teaching Shakespeare, Plato and opera alongside Tongan history, literature, and dance.

In his splendid new movie Tongan Ark Paul Janman shows how Helu inspired many intellectuals to chuck in their well-paid jobs at First World universities and come to work for a pittance at an impoverished school on the swampy outskirts of Nuku’alofa. In an era when corporatised universities emphasise financial outcomes over scholarly values and reactionary politicians build walls around cultures, Helu’s intellectual adventure has been inspiring.

Because of his passion for free thought and free speech, Futa Helu often offended Tonga’s rulers. After Helu’s school became the headquarters of Tonga’s pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, the government banned ’Atenisi graduates from working in Tonga’s public sector. Helu’s insistence on questioning the dogmas of Tonga’s powerful churches sometimes prompted clergymen to denounce him from their pulpits.

It seems to me, though, that Futa Helu was in many ways a distinctively Tongan thinker, and that the school
he founded could only have thrived in Tonga. Tonga was the only Pacific society to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth century. Although the country suffered a long civil war in the early decades of that century, it eventually united under the leadership of King Tupou I, who created, with the help of the Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist Shirley Baker, a modern state and a constitution that guaranteed Tongans liberty and land. Tupou I was able to import Western social and technological innovations into Tonga without giving up his country’s sovereignty.

Tonga’s unbroken history of independence has given its people an extraordinary confidence in their culture,
and this confidence is reflected in the scholastic success of young Tongans. Despite the very limited resources of its schools, Tonga has a literacy rate of almost one hundred percent, and produces more PhD holders per capita than any other nation in the world. Futa Helu’s love of learning, confidence in the strength of his own culture, and curiosity about the wider world were all distinctively Tongan. If Tupou I fused the best of Tongan and Western institutions, then Helu spent his long career bringing together the best of European and Polynesian art and thought. In their different ways, both men were exponents of and advocates for biculturalism.


The essays in this book make a good introduction to traditional Tongan poetry, and an equally fine introduction to Futa Helu’s intellectual methods. Helu guides us through the different periods and genres of Tongan verse, showing how closely the art has been connected with dance and music, and what an important role bards play in traditional Tongan society. Nobody who reads these essays can doubt the antiquity, intricacy, and seriousness of Tongan poetry.

But Helu’s texts also include numerous entertaining detours, as he discusses the ancient history of the Pacific and the literature and ideas of distant societies. I love the way that Helu leaps without warning from Polynesia to Europe, as he alludes to one of his beloved Greek philosophers, or compares an ancient Tongan poet to Milton or Blake. Helu’s biculturalism gives him rare insights into both Tongan and European literature, and his essays send me back, again and again, to writers in the English-language canon, and make me read the famous poems of that canon with new eyes.

Tonga’s traditional poetry ought to help New Zealanders think in new ways about our national literature.

The Tongan tradition of laumatanga should resonate with Kiwi poets, who have so often been preoccupied and perplexed by the challenges of putting the landscapes of their own country into verse. The Tongan tendency to bring poetry, music and dance together, and to ask dancers and musicians to improvise interpretations of the words of poets, might make New Zealand bards think in new ways about the possibilities of live performance.


In the decades since Futa Helu wrote the essays collected in this book Tongan poetry has continued to thrive.

Some poets, like the ’Atenisi graduate and distinguished anthropologist ’Okusitino Mahina, have continued
to work in traditional forms, and to compose for public occasions; others, including many brought up in Australasia and America as part of the Tongan diaspora, have written in English, and have aimed their work at the page as much as the stage. Karlo Mila, whose first book Dream Fish Floating was published in New Zealand to critical acclaim in 2005, is perhaps the most prominent member of this new generation. Futa Helu might be puzzled by the colloquial language, loose forms, and pop cultural references of younger Tongan poets like Mila, but he would surely recognise and applaud their adventurousness.


Blogger skalusanini said...

You made up for the lost time: It is through your blog that I first heard of Futa Helu and got deeply interested at what was going on in Tonga. Keep us informed and have a good stay there.

1:48 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for your kind words Skalusanini. The folks at 'Atenisi are really encouraged by the interest that you and others like you are taking in Futa Helu and his ideas.
It makes them feel less isolated!

3:43 pm  

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