Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Remembering Tuwhare

I work part-time at the information desk beside the Maori Court in Auckland's museum; I wasn't there when Tuwhare died a couple of weeks ago, but one of my co-workers commemorated him by placing piles of copies of 'Rain' and 'No Ordinary Sun' on the desk, and by laminating and mounting this timeline of the man's life. When I came to work the next day, I noticed a group of the museum's security guards huddled in a corner, passing Tuwhare's poems around and discussing them excitedly. I can't imagine poems by Allen Curnow or Kendrick Smithyman or any of New Zealand's other great twentieth century poets getting the same response.

Tributes to Tuwhare have tended to focus on the wide appeal of his poems, and on his 'man of the people' persona: Hone Harawira said that he 'could say what people felt in their bones'; Willie Jackson noted Hone's chiefly lineage, and told talkback radio listeners that the poet was the embodiment of Maori culture; and the estimable Tim Bowron told readers of his Socialist Democracy blog that Tuwhare was amongst the first Kiwi writers to 'find a voice' which was 'rooted in the people and landscape of New Zealand'.

It's easy enough to complicate the stock tribute to Tuwhare. Those who imagine the great man as some sort of straightforward Maori nationalist might be surprised to know that his first-ever publication was a shrill, strange letter to The People's Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of New Zealand, in which Hone condemned his own father for planning to run on a Maori nationalist ticket in the Northern Maori electorate during the election of 1943. Toeing the party line, which was to give total support to Labour and the war effort, Hone argued that his 'crackpot' Dad's candidacy would give heart Hitler and set back the cause of the Soviet Union. I'm not sure if Field Marshall Stalin was losing too much sleep in his dacha on the night they counted the Northern Maori ballot.

And anybody who believes that Tuwhare was some sort of intuitive, strictly vernacular poet - a sort of Maori John Clare - ought to examine his early work more closely. The poems in his first book No Ordinary Sun were published three decades after Frank Sargeson and other members of the 'thirties generation' vernacularised NZlit, yet they are very formal both in language and design:

Your sap shall not rise again
to the moon’s pull.
No more incline a deferential head
to the wind’s talk, or stir
to the tickle of coursing rain.

Your former shagginess shall not be
wreathed with the delightful flight
of birds nor shield
nor cool the ardour of unheeding
lovers from the monstrous sun.

Not exactly the sort of talk you hear down the Mangakino Tavern, is it, Tim? It was only in the 1970s, when a new generation of poets fed on the Beats and Black Mountain had brought the ampersand and the four-letter word into the canon, that Hone really let his hair down, and achieved the casual yet lyrical tone which marks his best poems.

I've talked about Hone's 1943 letter and the extreme artifice of his early poems because they are puzzles that can only be explained with reference to his membership of the Communist Party. A lot of the obituarists have neglected this subject, preferring to focus on 'safer' aspects of his political history, especially his involvement in Maori land rights activism and his campaigns to protect the environment. Those were and are very important causes, but I think the neglect of 'Hone the commie' is a mistake because, even if he eventually rejected some of the party's core ideas, Tuwhare was in many ways formed intellectually by his time in the organisation. But I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual. I'll save the details of the argument for another day. I was going to post a poem which I wrote a couple of weeks ago.


Tangaroa scuttles whales
and beaches fleets of dolphins,
Rehua flies moreporks
into an overpass,
Tane sends chainsaws
to chew on totara:
let’s face it, Hone,
the Gods are bloody stupid.
They give, and they take
away. They were stupid
again, this week.

I’m drinking Hone Hikoi
in the Harlequin Bar,
watching the TV,
watching them dig your hole.

Hine-nui-te-po was a bird
in the pub at Mangakino.
Not the blonde,
not the brunette, whatever
their names were –
the other one,
the one with the dampness
of the earth in her veins
The one with the blackhead
on her chin -
the one filling an ashtray
in the corner of the pub,
under the dartboard
that had lost its numbers.

You ignored her,
but she was watching.
At closing time she sidled home
to sew you a suit.
She had to leave room,
knowing you’d fill out,
with Common Room sausage rolls
and literary dinners,
with Kaka Point homebrew
and with hot air.
Years, decades passed,
but the suit was waiting.
You’re wearing it now
as they squeeze you into the hole.

To write is to take
some little thing from death,
from Hine-nui-te-po,
'the Great Lady of Night'.
You took a dozen toi toi
and the rain on
a corrugated roof;
the Southern Ocean
and the walk down Highway One.
You left her a mound of earth
on the edge of Kaikohe,
and noon traffic backing up
to Ngawha Springs.


Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

"Not exactly the sort of talk you hear down the Mangakino Tavern, is it, Tim?"

I guess I'll have to take your word for it Maps, never having been to Mangakino!

But yes it's certainly true that Tuwhare's writings, unlike Sargeson's, couldn´t really be said to express a "NZ vernacular", however I still think the sense of people and place in volumes such as No Ordinary Sun is unmistakable.

Also unlike his friend RAK Mason and other earlier NZ poets, Tuwhare did not write his poetry in a classical frame derived from Vergil and Horace (not that I think this makes Mason´s poetry inferior at all - in fact he is probably my favorite NZ poet!).

But I definitely agree that the political dimension to Tuwhare is absolutely crucial, and much more significant in terms of reading him than his nationality or ethnicity.

One of the things that really annoyed me about Tuwhare´s funeral was the way in which despite Tuwhare´s express wish to have be cremated and have his ashes scattered into the sea after his death, some kaumatua basically kidnapped his body and arranged a burial up in Northland.

They claimed that Tuwhare's wishes in his will should not be followed because all they showed that he "didn´t know how to come home to his people", but not to worry they were going to take care of that for him!

Basically a load of racist essentialist crap!

9:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes - Hone - as a Socialist - didn't want Maori protocol - it is a bit tedious the way they took his body - I doubt any of them even know his poems.

Not sure if it's quite racist...but Hone saw himself not essentially as a Maori...he was wonderfully irreverent, a Communist, a poet, a human, an individualist like Fischer, not boring like Hillary, and a true rebel...not a Maori...

Good poem by Maps!! I first appeared mysteriously and anonymously on Comrade Jack Ross's Blog...

12:16 am  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Another sad instance of a renegade from Stalinism never getting back into the heart of working class politics. Where do you go in NZ when the CP has failed you and your kinfolk are fighting imperialism's wars. Yeah, what about indigenism?
Maori radicalism was coopted by the Treaty process. Honouring is the new business model. Gager and he were mates in the 60s but Hone was not one for a life of Trotskyist splits and fusions. By default he was adopted as the honorary peoples pet poet and hegemonised.

11:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think calling Tuwhare a Stalinist really explains much about his politics. It's like calling EP Thompson a Stalinist and leaving it at that.

From what I have read, Tuwhare had a really original and interesting take on Stalinism. He saw it as a type of Eurocentrism, and he interpreted the invasion of Hungary as an extension of the policies of the Russian domination of nonRussian parts of the Union of Stalin's behaviour in Georgia in the '20s, for instance (ironic, of course, that Stalin actually was a Georgian!).

Tuwhare liked the Chinese because he thought they were more radical than the Moscow bureaucrats, and also because he saw them as representatives of the Third World, and indigenous peoples like the Maori. He also had connections with the Chinese community in NZ because his Dad had worked in the Chinese market gardens of Auckland.
Tuwhare grew up knowing more Chinese Kiwis than white Kiwis.

Of course I don't go along with everything Tuwhare believed. I think the 1943 letter (which I found in the biography by Jane Hunt) was pretty silly, and so was his apparent agreement with Mao's claim that the USSR was more of a danger to the world than the US.

But I think that we would find some valuable insights as well as some wrong turns in his political career and political writing, if we looked closely (I haven't had the chance to do this, but I hope someone will do so and write an essay or something). I certainly wouldn't begin a consideration of Tuwhare with a blanket dismissal of the man. That's the way to learn nothing.

12:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah sorry Dave, I thought that was the same comment as the one someone put on indymedia a week or so again - dismissing Tuwhare as a Stalinist. Your point was more subtle. Memo to self: must read comemnts properly before I respond to them!

12:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Another sad instance of a renegade from Stalinism never getting back into the heart of working class politics. Where do you go in NZ when the CP has failed you and your kinfolk are fighting imperialism's wars. Yeah, what about indigenism?
Maori radicalism was coopted by the Treaty process. Honouring is the new business model. Gager and he were mates in the 60s but Hone was not one for a life of Trotskyist splits and fusions. By default he was adopted as the honorary peoples pet poet and hegemonised."

Can you or Maps expand on this? This will be confusing to many looking on here. A another post with more detail of Hone the poet, Hone the Maori, Hone the man and the politician...I knew there was biography..but some history of Hone and his political views, alliegences etc, and actions - I know that he went to China and Germany and Mason was his friend - Mason started as an academic - that I know as my father knew him. And Mason was my favourite poet as a teenager apart from the Romantics and T S Eliot...I used to read his poems over and over.

But the very fact that he was a strong Socialist is down played by the academics such as Edmonds, Jack Ross and Leggott is very significant.

Clark shook hands with Hone the poet, but she would be very uncomfortable if someone had come up and said (in all sincerity if naivety): " Oh you are shaking hands with a great communist poet!" And many just want the "pet Maori aspect" - let us look Hone in the eye. (Remembering of course that all of us make wrong decisions - etc etc do "bad" and "good" things...and remember the complex inter-feuding of the Left that continued thru Hone's life. The communist, the man, the poet. Sure it will embarrass some Clarkian bourgeois and the academics...but...

1:01 am  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Here's something that will appear in the next issue of Class Struggle

"Who's a national hero then?

The one who famously "knocked off" Mt Everest and then spent the rest of his life 'nation building' in NZ, India and Nepal?

What about the other bloke, the boiler maker who, joined the Communist Party and wrote great working class poetry for fifty years?

When he died, Hillary got special newspaper supplements and dedicated programs on TV and Radio, and a state funeral. Tuwhare got a few articles and notices in the media and a special mention from the PM who loves 'the Arts'. But middle NZ did not queue in their thousands to be photographed viewing his coffin.

It says something sad about NZ that ordinary people invested such value in the humble beekeeper as their examplar of NZ before sport was mixed with politics and international brands.

What they forget is that in his day Hillary was sponsored by the British Empire. He played the role of the kiwi colonial who scaled Everest 5 years after India's independence to become an instant Knight of the Garter. He was the handsome poster-boy for the British way of life even while he seemed to thumb his nose at it.

The humble beekeeper became the model of the 'better Brit" in NZ. Such national pride when he beat the Brits at their own game and stole a march to the South Pole in his converted farm tractors. He converted the sponsors when he went to look for the 'Yeti' in the upper Ganges. His national fame wasn’t the celebrity of personal gain but selfless sacrifice. That’s why the Sherpas made him a God.

In NZ Hillary had to be a God too as he straddled an ever-widening social crevasse. On the one side the working class, on the other the ruling class.

He projected on the world stage the Labour Party ideology of 'nation building'. But this Labourist ideal was always utopian. NZ has not de-colonised, has not settled the Treaty grievances and land loss, still has the British Queen as head of state, and the SAS troops in Afghanistan kill freedom fighters on behalf of US imperialism.

Any embodiment of this impossible dream in the life of one man has to fail. We can understand why this must be so by looking at the life of the 'other' hero, Hone Tuwhare.

Tuwhare is the 'other' hero, a Maori in Aotearoa, the working class poet, who gives the rude ‘up yours’ to Labour's nationalist fantasy. Unlike the Nepalese who survive as an independent kingdom, his Ngapuhi iwi, has lost most of its land and some of its mountains. There are no Hillary's patronising this rural poverty.

Tuwhare does not leave his farm to climb mountains in other countries. He is separated from his mountain by empire and does not subscribe to the myths of de-colonisation. He trains as a boilermaker in NZ Railways and joins the Communist Party. He joins the movement for Maori self determination in the land march of 1975.

He rails against racism in NZ and South Africa. He sides with workers against the classless utopia. He takes his poetry into the factories, schools and the pubs. He leaves the CP because he objects to the Red army invading Hungary in 1956. He rejoins and travels to China, and is expelled for some beach of Stalinist discipline'.

In one of his better known poems, he laments the Maori figure standing in the gully at the bottom of Queen St and not beside Micky Savage on Bastion Point commanding the view of the Waitemata out to the Pacific. He rubs the nose of the prudish patriarchy in his raw sexuality. His is an art of insidious cultural resistance and his audience is the mass of workers who instinctively respond to his rude, honest, full-on fingering of capitalism.

That is the heroic difference; Maori self determination and the working class life disrespectful of bourgeois pieties, the cult of the individual, and the myths of national unity and international social welfare.

The working class heroes are those who fight the battles of workers and who sing the praises of workers. The bourgeois heroes are those who glorify the self-important citizen of ANZAC, defender of empire, the modern missionaries and standard bearers of barbarous ‘civilisation’.
Hillary is a 'national hero' because he stands astride the class divide of the bourgeois nation and injects some humanity into the alienated individual in capitalist society.

Tuwhare is the working class hero because he puts a fist up to strike such myths and lies and reveals the true ideas and repressed feelings at the heart of existence. Centuries after the statues of Hilary have been drowned by the sea, the words and gestures of Tuwhare will live on.

11:21 am  
Blogger Richard said...


- excellently put. It puts in words my own feelings. I was annoyed that relatively little attention was payed to the death of a great poet and a member of the working class as against the rather conventional Hillary - and he did do all those things - he is a working class hero and a hero (or perhaps a model or an inspiration) to young Maori (or young others - to anyone) and others in NZ - that he was socialist or a communist should not be down played by nervous or "politically correct" academics rushing to tell us the obvious - that he was Maori - and other bourgeois - I am not saying all academics are bourgeois or that Hillary is "bad" - your point is sufficient here ...the other hero -yes!

I never met Hillary - I have no doubt he was a great and decent fellow - if overdoing the "White Man's burden role" - but I met Hone - he was a great character - we both worked - at different times - in the Railway Workshops I also worked in many places similar to Hone - in other words with workers - I also protested the Vietnam War, Apartheid (when I was battened in the face) and did many other things) my work or my writing gets divided between the political and other - it is in fact an attempt at a very intense kind of "realism" [but it is not primarily political per se ] - and as a poet I am of course quite different (in style) to Hone - once I read poem i used to perfom to him and he listened politely - and then gave a great belly laugh - which was ok - different poets and cultures - but still we had much in common...

I remember Hone reading about the Maori warrior at university in 1991 or so when I was there as an adult student, it was well received - I like that poem.

I am also reading his poetry just now: "Piggy back Moon" 2001.

Very earthy, sensual, and strong.

Cheers, Richard

*BTW I wonder how much of Brecht he read as Brecht also wrote a great poem about a doomed tree - pre the nuclear age - I think in his case it was a metaphor of fascism...Hone may have been inspired by it - or maybe not.

1:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have just read this thread.
Good poem, Maps! I had admired it earlier on Jack Ross's blog.

And thanks too to you all for that interesting left look at Hone Tuwhare.
And other Maori leftists of yore?

I remember hearing Tom Poata singing "There'll be pie in the sky when you die" on a bus going down to Wellington for an anti-apartheid-Rugby protest in 1970.
I heard the song once and never forgot it.
Years later, (92?) Tame Iti, while cooking s delicious venison stirabout, told me he had been in the CP member, after getting to know Tom. Was this the same Tame who warns Paakehaa that they should get used to the idea of having new "landlords"?
I would love to read an analysis of rangatiratanga which anchors power in the community and not in the upper echelons.


4:28 pm  

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