Poetry NZ, New Zealand’s foremost poetry magazine, guest-edited by Nicholas Reid, presents the finest in new writing from home and abroad. Each issue offers poems by talented newcomers and developing poets as well as already acclaimed and established writers. Issue 43 features the work of Anne French, one of New Zealand’s foremost lyric poets. Three sample poems can be found here: Icy boyfriend by Anne French, Continuing the line by Noel King, and Appointment in Samarra by Karen Zelas.
What is the role of structural form in poetry now? Few questions are as certain to get rolled eyes, exasperated sighs and groans of disbelief from any representative group of modern poets. People who stress about form in poetry are often people who hanker for traditional and largely discarded forms — rhyming couplets, sonnets with octet and sestet properly in place, etcetera. They are easily seen as people whom all forms of Modernism and Postmodernism have passed by.
About a decade ago, I sat at a table opposite a distinguished literary academic and put the question to him, ‘What is the role of structural form in poetry now?’ Sighing a little wearily, he replied, ‘All we really have left is the line,’ and went on to explain theories of poetry as voice production and control, an essentially aural medium where pauses are dictated by breath and lung-power. Forget how it looks on the page. Think only about how it sounds.
Yet in his weary sigh I distinctly heard a note of nostalgia. Breath and free-lineal expression may be the new orthodoxy, but if poetry is really an aural medium, isn’t there much to be said for the recognisable rhyme scheme, the recognisable (and therefore repeated) rhythm?
Of course these things present dangers. Any poetry editor is familiar with those submissions that employ a forced, unnatural and often archaic vocabulary simply for the purpose of producing strict metre and rhyme. In short, doggerel. On the other hand, the general absence of recognisable rhythm-and-rhyme from most published poetry may have had a role in the decline of poetry as mass literature. Those millions who hunger for clear patterns of sound turn to popular music, not to poetry journals. This is part of the Great Divorce of popular and elite cultures.
In a former life I was a secondary school teacher, cramming adolescents for English exams and drilling into them such terms as alliteration, assonance, half-rhyme, para-rhyme, onomatopoeia, crossed rhyme, trochee, spondee, iamb and anapaest. I think I’m well beyond such rule-book approaches now, and know how much they stifle the writing of poetry. I do not see (indeed have never seen) poetry as residing in doggerel, jingles, greetings-card effusions, agitprop rhymes and other such debased genres. Structural form is only one part of the beast called poetry.
Invited to write an essay for this issue of Poetry New Zealand, Iain Sharp was told he could write on any subject he chose. He chose to write on rhyme. On a matter that is still live, his views are refreshingly sane.
— Nicholas Reid
There is no point in complaining.
He turns up every few days, brings
relief to nerves jangled by the warm
dusty nor’wester, piling up
damp grey clag, and blustering
about the Big Country.
He speaks with the cool voice of reason, the glass
dropping, half-empty, no better than it seems
and quite possibly worse. He inserts cold fingers
through warm openings, insists steadily,
implacably, on the hard facts, and if ever
he speaks poetry, he tells stories of the furious fifties,
the far-off ice, the green heart of the continent
buried under half a mile of old snow.
No complaints, then. Brace yourself; shout
him glad welcome; then admire how well
he does what he is.
You must love him
for himself, for the way his chilly blast
stiffens the grey sea into whitecaps.
Your icy boyfriend is always in character.
— Copyright Anne French, 2011.
Tonight she will be impregnated
by a red Indian man, but he will stay,
protect, provide, defend her. A hue
of blue will braven her homestead.
The trees he’ll grow around her house
will shelter their grandchildren.
All this cycle will start tonight.
She is pouring a tin bath,
she is peeling off her marriage gown,
letting down rich auburn hair he’d fallen for her in.
His red fingers will touch her whiteness later,
follow her lines, her genealogy; tuming it on its head.
She hums gently as she bathes.
Naked, she steps out on the cold homestead
hard earth; in the window she visions her father again
chopping logs after the railways job, before his back gave up.
His memory protects her but she must have an alive man too.
The railways killed her father’s health, during the laying
of tracks from New York to California.
She made him resign and take this homestead:
Montana, a piece of West they’d grown to love.
Smiling, she dries herself with a flannel, her eyes closed.
Her man is gone to catch a rabbit to stew for dinner;
here he comes now! But he kicks the door in!
She turns to see a stranger, his back already turned,
his stride already mounting his mount, three horses galloping,
then she spots, screams at the fresh blood
dripping from the scalp they’ve thrust on her floor.
— Copyright Noel King, 2011.
Today I saw death
advance along our street
between parked cars and leafy driveways,
anticipated its trajectory,
the force of impact, the cat
arcing, each ginger hair
afloat like dandelion seed,
into the gutter.
She lay as if asleep
the sweep of her back
inviting me to wrap
a hand, stroke and smooth.
I wanted to rewind the tape, see
four hydraulic limbs retract,
body coil, rise, fly backwards
like a ninja.
It seemed my foresight had caused
this synchrony, frozen
the minuscule adjustments we make
moment by moment, blink by blink
to thwart death.
— Copyright Karen Zelas, 2011.