Impressive collections of poetry

Poets of a certain vintage, Ian Wedde and Elizabeth Smither offer  collections that confirm their place in the sun, writes Hamesh Wyatt.

Ian Wedde
Auckland University Press

Ian Wedde. Photo: NZ Herald
Ian Wedde. Photo: NZ Herald

Ian Wedde: Selected Poems is an impressive collection, the bulk of which concentrates on his last few books.

One of our favourite poets, Ian Wedde is the author of 16 collections of poetry. Through the years he has constantly experimented and pushed boundaries of form and influence. Cherry-picked poems have been chosen right across his long career.

Over the years Wedde has won many awards and honours. In 2011 he was New Zealand Poet Laureate. In 2014 Wedde received the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement.

In saying all this, Wedde is still one of our most underrated poets. His poems radiate care. Way back in 1972, Wedde was Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. For three years he lived in Port Chalmers and produced some of his best work, including "Pathway to the Sea'' (1975), a sustained piece featuring 46 nine-line stanzas that see Wedde protesting against the planned siting of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana.

Completing this trilogy, Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos (1975) comprises 60 sonnets spanning the first year of life of Wedde's first son; and Spells for Coming Out (1977), which features "Leaning into the breeze'', "Cold snap: 3 sonnets'' and the aforementioned magnificent "Pathway to the sea''.


"Lonely & afraid up here'', from Tales of Gotham City (1984):

How cool her skin was then and now
six years later it's her daughter who's laughing
playing peep under the table.
The way time played peep with me.
If I wanted to cry I would have to remember the cue.
If I want to laugh I can always find a reason.
This sadness is because it took so long.
One day I looked round the corner
and all the familiar faces
weren't on the side either
& they weren't hiding. Boredom
had claimed them for some other game.
Why don't we trust each other?
A little tenderness and less velocity.
It's so lovely to see her again.
Why did it take so long.
(That's the first line of the song.)

The Commonplace Odes (2001) was Wedde's first poetry collection in eight years. It had so many contemporary concerns: family life, friends, food and domestic activity.

"To Autumn'':

How to prepare stuffed green peppers:
In plenty of green olive oil, cook
Garlic and onions, with a couple of red chillies.
Add the Arborio rice and give it a stir.
Some cans of cheap Italian tomatoes are good,
A glass of red wine, and a huge handful
Of chopped parsley. Stuff the partly cooked
Rice into capped green peppers, and let
The rest stew slowly in the pot with the dolma.
When you lift the lid, praise the commonplace world
Where everything ends and then starts again
Where are the songs of spring? I heard them at the end
Of last winter, they were starting to struggle out
Of the wet paddocks, they were choking in unpruned trellises.
And now a year later, like a good bourgeois,
Like the Sabine farm's wry proprietor, turning
My back on landscape, I approach with sharp secateurs
The yellowed vine that runs round the verandah
Above the deck stained with summer's libations.
Smoke from the house-fire blows away
Into the rainy mist on Mount Victoria, the place
I take my bursting heart on autumn mornings
So gorgeous I almost believe that beauty's
All I need to know on earth, that my song
Can be without weariness, fever and fret.


Time does not diminish the power of Wedde. Now in his 70s, this man keeps growing. The results are formidable. There is no preponderance of generalities, cliches and small-picture metaphors. Despite the ugly chalk-drawing cover, Selected Poems is a real case of an oft-ignored legacy. This book should help Wedde's reputation grow.


Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press

Elizabeth Smither. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Elizabeth Smither. Photo: Gregor Richardson

Night Horse is the 18th collection of poems from Elizabeth Smither who, like Wedde, is another accomplished wordsmith.

It has been a long time since Smither released Here Come the Clouds (1975) but the New Plymouth librarian still produces thoughts, associations and ponderings. Her poems still look at mothers and daughters, cats and horses, books and bowls, slippers and shorts. Smither knows how to be surreal, funny and enchanting.

Her last collection, Ruby Duby Do (2014), talked about the fierce love of a granddaughter. Ruby makes another appearance in "An apple tree for Ruby'':

You can run as fast as Atlanta
who bowled three apples at her suitors
Double Red Delicious
with skin that blushes, almost empurpled
incarnadine on the grass
causing them to bend and stumble
and with strong white teeth bite into
flesh so juicy their chins glisten
as they raise their eyes to catch your heels.

In this latest collection the most important animal is a dominant mare, liable to throw a rider or bite.

"Alice and the carrots'':

We three advance across the uneven field
to where Alice, the horse, with one white sock
and forehead blaze comes forward to take three carrots.
Two are experienced carrot-givers. I stand awed
by a mouth so removed from the grinding jaw
and that my carrot must be inserted.
A fool, Alice thinks. In need of training. Yet
my carrot is the fattest, biggest. And I turn back
and look at her, longest.

Night Horse has poems from the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, judged by Paul Muldoon and announced at the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival. A good book always has the power to convert, to seduce. This is one of those.

If you like your poems tender and sweet, yet stately and sometimes coy, there is still an unmistakable stamp towards the sacred here, too.

Hamesh Wyatt lives in Bluff. He reads and writes poetry.

Win a copy

The ODT has three copies each of Ian Wedde and Elizabeth Smither’s collections to give away courtesy of Auckland University Press. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Poetry’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, June 13. Note: readers are welcome to choose which collection they would prefer; simply add the poet’s name to the entry.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, The Gamekeeper, by Portia Simpson, courtesy of Simon & Schuster: Fiona Hancock, of Waiareka Junction, Georgina Luby, of Dunedin, Irene Brown, of Millers Flat, Ken Cook, of Alexandra, Nick Wilson, of Mosgiel. 

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