Several times since I arrived in New Zealand, people have characterized my manner as refreshing and open. Leaving aside my obscure alarm at the word “refreshing”—am I reminding people of American soft drinks?—I think a lot about what that comment means, especially since at home, on the east coast of the U.S., I’m told I seem reserved. Because the Kiwis I talk to are mainly poets, references to conversational style often lead to a discussion of American poetry versus poetry in New Zealand, sometimes with Australia or England thrown in as a third term.
Although these writers learned a British canon at school (if they were taught much poetry at all), they read a fair amount of American verse. It’s not the same selection you’d see on a U.S. shelf. Robert Creeley, who spent a fair amount of time in New Zealand, is important; poets identified with the Language School visited and influenced the Auckland scene; several women poets say that the daring verse of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds holds great power for them. American music reverberates in local writing. In Anna Jackson’s American Poetry and Poetics course at Victoria, a wavy line connects Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Carson. There are threads between those three, but one link is their expatriatism and ambivalence about national identity. I don’t know many U.S. poets and scholars who read Pacific verse as widely and thoughtfully, but when they do, it’s often in the context of postcolonial studies. I also see strong mutual interest between some indigenous American and Maori and Pacific writers, though getting the books across the water can be a challenge.
Since Bill Manhire has written about nearly every issue that interests me in New Zealand poetry, here’s an excerpt from his take on the relevance of U.S. poets to New Zealand writing, from the 1987 essay “Breaking the Line”: “I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader… This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s.” The rest of the essay is well-worth reading; it gives a useful account, for example, of the particular anthologies of American verse that reached these islands in the 60s and 70s. His comment about conversation, though, particularly interests me because it’s a key term in how I’ve come to define community. A sense of belonging is a side-effect of frequent, substantive talk among a group of people, often via multiple media. Talk might not always result in a “we-feeling,” but it’s probably a prerequisite.
The problem with thinking about poetry as conversation is that it’s generally one-sided, not responsive to talk-back. Yes, living poets exchange drafts and those verses exhibit cross-influence. Page poets revise for their editors and performance poets adjust their set-lists for live audiences. I’m guessing that writers just as often get a charge of connection, though, from the solitary reading of printed text by authors long dead. Whitman, eerily, addresses future readers, reversing the usual flow, and perhaps Manhire is correct that this is an American way of writing. The talkiness of some contemporary U.S. verse owes a debt to Whitman. There’s a surreal, jumpy, elliptic mode that’s popular too, though. And a stream of sound-driven poetry that captures my ear.
While I worry this over, I notice that I sound increasingly strange to myself, my vowels and r’s oddly exaggerated. Not bubbly and corn-syrup sweet, though, and I haven’t yet confessed any family traumas on syndicated talk shows or reality TV. Why are my poem-drafts developing that self-correcting tic that started with Bishop (say it!)? Who do I think I’m talking to?