Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Acts of Confidence

No matter what age he or she dies at, a poet generally leaves behind unpublished works. Poets are usually less fastidious than publishers, if only because it is publishers who stand to lose money from poetry: even the most successful poet, then, is likely to have a few hundred lines he or she has failed to place in a journal, or sneak between the covers of a collection.

Often a poet leaves a whole book or more of unpublished work - a pile of promising early poems which later became an embarrassment, or a sequence of love lyrics too autobiographical to be published without the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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not a NZer but it sounds like a big waste of time. If you need to write pages and pages ABOUT this guy and his poetry then he must have done something wrong because poetry is supposed to be hardhitting communication of the immediate facts of life. Even a child knows this. I recommend that you stop criticising Jared Davidson and look at some of the inspirational poems that he publishes in RIVET 4. Unlike your bourgeois friend who seems to have been in love with religious the poets that serve the working class hit out at the bourgeoisie and all its servants without fear or favour. This is one poem Jared publishes it is real revolutionary poetry...

They have carved you into a stone face, Tom Mooney,
You, there, lifted high in the California
Over the salt wash of the Pacific,
And your eyes...crying in many tongues,
Goading, innumerable
Eyes of the multitudes,
Holding in them all hopes, fears, persecutions...
Forever straining one way.
Even in the Sunday papers,
In your face, tight-bitten, like a pierced fist,
The eyes have a transfixed gleam
As they had glimpsed some vision and there hung
Impaled on a bright lance.

That poem is an inspiration for the masses! But of course all the bourgeoisie's servants in academia and in 'literary' magazines (most of which are probably funded by the CIA!) have suppressed its author Lola Ridge and promoted meaningless bourgeois writing instead!

US anarchist

9:19 am  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Do I detect a hint of deliberate satire/parody in the comment posted above (from "US anarchist"), or do some leftists actually write like this?

11:55 am  
Blogger Edward said...

Surely it's the former. It seems too absurd for this particular mixture of paranoia, machoism, and delusions of anarchistic granduer to be real.

Interesting post Maps, i'll try and have a read of some of his work when I get the chance.

12:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote the piece on Lola Ridge referred to by the un-named US anarchist above, and disagree entirely with his/her comments.
"Atua Wera" is one of my favourite books of all time (have you even seen a copy, let alone read it, Anon?) Lola Ridge is an interesting figure, and deserves to be better known, which is why I wrote about her - although originally it was a paper for a labour history conference - Jared asked me to reprint it in his magazine.
Ridge, for all her personal qualities, is a second-rate poet at best and that, rather that any nonsensical CIA cover-up, accounts for her obscurity among the literati, in my view.
You say you are not an NZer, Anon, but you are also not a very bright person, to judge from your tin-eared comments above. I'm confident that Lola Ridge would have thought very highly of Smithyman's rampagingly marvellous poem "Atua Wera", and would have regarded you as narrow-minded philistine.

1:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'US anarchist' = John Strand of Oakland.

2:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anonymous" author of Lola Ridge article - Mark Derby, Wellington

2:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ezra Pound - a poet that both Maps and Kerry Bolton praise! Yes that's right, Kerry has written an article about Pound -

strange company???????????

2:55 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

I've just about finished 'Redemption songs' after reading your great, previous post, this sounds very interesting and I'm looking forward to meeting the poem soon. I'll check out the online resource but jeepers it's nice to hold the book in your hand.

Great work maps, it's a real pleasure reading your posts.

7:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - as you know I am very interested in participating. I've worked through many of Smithyman's books (making notes as I went) - I was doing this in 2004 - I haven't got much into Atua Wera but it looks very good.

A lot of highly intelligent and informed people really enjoy the depth and beauty of Smithyman's work. Many have read Atua Wera

I recall you saying in 1994 or so how Smithyman interested you - I said I found him difficult and you replied that there are: "Many ways into (his work)". A good point.

You are right we need to shift attention away from Pound etc - although not to neglect - as Pound and Milton et al are great poets, in fact Milton could well be a poet (or one of the many poets/writers - Sir Philip Sidney is another) quite necessary (or helpful) to know somewhat, to get strong or deeper appreciation of Smithyman - Milton, Pound, other modernist poets, and much much else... botany, geology, art, archeology, history, ideas ... these were some of the things that fascinated Smithyman.

Sounds like a great project.

11:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...
I am not a NZer but it sounds like a big waste of time. If you need to write pages and pages ABOUT this guy and his poetry then he must have done something wrong because poetry is supposed to be hardhitting communication of the immediate facts of life..."

In which manual is written of poetry that it should be so? What are these "immediate facts"? He must have done something wrong?!!

I am yet to meet an interesting or worthy person who has never done anything wrong!!

11:57 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Marty,

very pleased you're enjoying Redemption Songs - it's perhaps my favourite book!

9:41 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Marty Mars" the book shop Hard to Find of NZ have a copy of Atua Wera -(Google) search ADD ALL

Their price is NZ$30 - offer them NZ$25.

10:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the Earth was created exactly as it says in the Bible, in 6 days. There is a way for all of these to be true. It doesn’t say exactly how long Adam and Eve lived in the garden. God designed them to live forever. Because he designed them to live forever, an untold number of years could have passed before they were banished from the Garden. This also explains Methuselah. He lived for over 900 years. His ancestors lived for multiple hundreds of years as well. When Man was banished from the Garden they didn’t immediately have the same bodies as us that wear out sooner. I don’t remember where it says but it does say in the Bible that a man’s days are numbered at approx 120 years, but this wasn’t stated until after the Flood. The Bible states that Adam lived for 930 years, but I don’t think that those years started until the day he was banished from the Garden.

Sorry I kind of hijacked the thread a little here. :)

12:16 am  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

Thanks maps and richard

I have checked the online resource and was immediately moved by the small part of the poem that i met. And in the appendicies of redemption songs are a couple of parts of Smithyman's Te Kooti poems... I feel very abundant at the moment.
Might try the local library to get a hardcopy version as I have a strong urge to get to know these works.

11:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Ananymous - no one knows really why we are here in space and time so the Christian biblical explanation - at perhaps as metaphor -is as good as any. Evolution deals with 'reality' as we know it. But there is huge doubt. Who re we? Even - who is God - did he or she or whatever being or thing test us - set us a test? No one knows.

It could be that all of evolution "proof" or evidence as found was put there by God to further test us.

I don't know - one theory is that there is a God, but he has gone to sleep!

1:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

By the way Smithyman would have been interested in theological speculation I am very sure.

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