Page 1: Biography
Campbell, Alistair Te Ariki
Poet, playwright, novelist, editor
This biography, written by Mark Williams, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell was one of New Zealand’s most distinctive poetic voices from the 1950s to the 2000s. His work, which combined lyricism and darkness, was shaped by an idyllic Rarotongan childhood, early family tragedies, childhood exile to New Zealand, and a transformative return to Polynesia in middle age. In the shifting relations between English, Māori and Pasifika traditions in his work, Campbell expanded the scope of his own writing and that of New Zealand, the Pacific and the postcolonial world.
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell was born on 25 June 1925 on Tongareva (Penrhyn atoll) in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. His mother, Teu Bosini, was a Rarotongan woman married to a Pākehā New Zealander, John Archibald (Jock) Campbell, who, haunted by his First World War experiences, had settled in the Pacific and made a good living as a store manager and island trader. Campbell’s mother died when he was seven, possibly of tuberculosis, aged 28, and his older siblings, Margaret and Stuart, were despatched to live with family in New Zealand. His father gave himself over to drinking and died a year later, forcing Alistair and his younger brother Bill to join their older siblings with their grandmother in Dunedin. In the depths of the Depression the burden was too great for the elderly woman, who arranged for the children to be admitted to an orphanage.
Campbell spent six years as an ‘orphanage kid’, attending Anderson’s Bay Orphanage and Day School and then Otago Boys’ High School, where he excelled both scholastically and in sports.1 He nonetheless became the target of schoolyard racism, which compounded the tragedy of losing his parents and underlined his outsider status as a Polynesian in Pākehā New Zealand.
After a brief, troubled period at the University of Otago in 1944, Campbell attended Victoria University College in Wellington intermittently from 1944 to 1952. He had first experimented with poetry at secondary school and began writing seriously around the time he moved to Wellington. The death of his friend Roy Dickson in a climbing accident was the subject of his first major published poem, ‘The elegy’, which appeared in Landfall in 1949. The weight of Campbell’s grief is evident in this knotted, beautiful poem sequence. In Dunedin Campbell had befriended the startlingly talented and exuberantly delinquent young poet, James K. Baxter, and in Wellington he met other young poets and intellectuals such as W.H. Oliver, Pat Wilson, Harry Orsman and composer Douglas Lilburn.
In the early 1950s Campbell contributed to founding and editing the Wellington literary magazines Hilltop and Arachne, and, as a member of the ‘Wellington Group’ of poets, positioned himself against the localist programme for New Zealand literature promoted by Allen Curnow. Campbell, Louis Johnson, Baxter, Peter Bland and others advanced a more universalist outlook. Among these poets, Campbell was the most lyrical and romantic. His first collection, Mine eyes dazzle (1950), was lauded by Baxter, who noted its ‘capacity to draw on sources of primitive and animistic feeling’.2 Yet, in spite of its ‘animistic’ response to landscape, the book is a technically adroit literary arrival – mournful, amorous, witty, and displaying deep reading in English poetry. It had three editions and established Campbell as a significant new voice. The grief it registers does not overwhelm the collection, but the elegiac voice it contains is already accomplished at recording displacement and loss.
On 23 August 1952, in Wellington, Campbell married the poet, Kareen Fleur (Fleur) Adcock, and together they had two sons, Gregory and Andrew. The couple divorced after almost six years, and Campbell married poet and actor Aline Margaret (Meg) Andersen in Wellington on 20 February 1958. This marriage resulted in three more children, Aurelian, Josie and Mary. Though troubled by the instabilities of both husband and wife, it proved a resilient partnership.
Campbell had graduated with a BA in 1953 and a teaching diploma from Wellington Teachers’ College the following year, and taught briefly at Newtown School in Wellington before settling into a career as an editor of educational publications. Campbell was editor of parts three and four of the New Zealand School Journal at the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch from 1955 to 1972. The Journal presented a variety of New Zealand stories to school children, publishing the work of many of the country’s leading writers and artists during these years. Campbell encouraged established adult writers to write for children as well as contributing short stories and non-fiction articles himself, and worked to expand and improve the Journal’s coverage of Māori and Pacific subjects. He worked as senior editor at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research from 1972 until 1987, and thereafter wrote full-time.
The early decades of Campbell’s working life were characterised by mental crisis followed by a journey towards recovery from the weight of his broken childhood. By 1960 he was a well-established writer, but, still troubled by the crises of his youth, he had a breakdown involving hospitalisation; Meg suffered the first in a series of breakdowns around the same time, following a period of post-natal depression. Two books of poetry, Sanctuary of spirits and Wild honey, appeared in 1963 and 1964, the latter from the prestigious British publishing house Oxford University Press. A sequence in the earlier volume explored the author’s internal conflicts and challenged historical assumptions through reflections on, and exchanges with, the nineteenth-century Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Rauparaha. Living from 1961 at Pukerua Bay, outside Wellington, Campbell looked across to Kāpiti Island and contemplated the ambiguous legacy of the formidable Māori leader who had launched battles from Kāpiti and converted to Christianity in his old age. Sanctuary’s superbly balanced suite of dramatic poems gave voice to the paradoxes and contradictions of Te Rauparaha’s legacy, outside the Pākehā frame of fascinated abhorrence of his violence. Peter Smart dated Campbell’s interest in his Polynesian origins to this sequence, but it would be some time before he applied this interest to his own experiences.
In 1976 Campbell returned to Rarotonga, where he experienced a cultural, personal and familial epiphany. He rediscovered the Polynesian world of his childhood and re-connected with his Rarotongan family. He subsequently referred to himself as ‘Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’, embracing the middle name given to him at birth, signalling high rank, which he had stopped using after he moved to New Zealand. He overcame the childhood shame he had felt at his Polynesian identity in Dunedin, and observed that those who had remained in Rarotonga possessed an ‘inner peace’ he had never experienced.3 Confronting his childhood in its idyllic and traumatic aspects led Campbell to a reorienting of the deep sources of his poetry, so that what he called the ‘Polynesian strain’ became central and transformative.4 More than a New Zealand writer with an exotic Polynesian background, he became, as Albert Wendt observed, ‘a pioneer of Pacific literature’.5
Important here was the 1980 volume, The dark lord of Savaiki, in which Campbell vividly re-entered the world of his mother and his maternal ancestors, notably his grandfather Bosini, a gentle ghost who haunted his life and writing. Here Polynesian and English traditions met in the structure of the poetry, allowing Campbell to adapt oral tradition to a contemporary poetic. In terms of his development as a poet, Campbell converted his facility and range – the voice able to shift from lyric to elegy, sensuousness to wit – into a broader register of cross-cultural experience, moving between islands, peoples, ghosts and memories. Five years later the lucent sequence Soul traps drifted across ancestors, seductions, tempests, myths and voyages evoking a Polynesian magical reality.
From Mine eyes dazzle in 1950 to Stone rain: the Polynesian strain in 1992, Campbell anticipated and responded to shifts in cultural understanding in Aotearoa New Zealand and in the Pacific. That he was an outsider to all those understandings made his work more, not less, significant. He expanded the cultural intelligence of what New Zealand and Pacific literatures might include. In his poetic engagement with pre-colonial and colonised Pacific worlds, Campbell offered a personal and communal history of the problems of belonging and displacement in his native, adoptive and rediscovered countries.
Campbell’s legacy lies primarily in his poetry, but he was also prolific in a variety of genres from children’s literature to autobiography. His memoir, Island to island (1984), tracked the shaping contexts of his work and thought with his return to Tongareva, disclosing his early experience of community and family as well as the cruel separations that followed. Poets in our youth (2002) consisted of four verse letters to celebrated literary comrades of 1950s Wellington. As a playwright he was notably represented by the expressionistic When the bough breaks (1970), set inside an asylum, and by The suicide (1966), which also evoked mental distress. He also edited a poetry programme for radio in 1958, wrote six radio plays between 1963 and 1979, and featured in the television documentaries Island of spirits (1973) and Like you I’m trapped (1975). His novel The frigate bird appeared in 1989, followed by Sidewinder in 1991, and his writing for children and young adults included the novels The happy summer (1961), Tia (1993) and Fantasy with witches (1998).
War was a compelling theme in Campbell’s later work, which drew on his father’s tragic experiences in the First World War and the death of his brother Stuart while serving in the Māori Battalion in Italy during the Second World War; Gallipoli and other poems appeared in 1999, and Māori Battalion: a poetic sequence in 2001. In 2007 he revisited the pleasures and harmony of his Tongarevan childhood in Just poetry. Fittingly his last volume of poems, It's love isn't it? (2008), a poetic dialogue between Alistair and Meg Campbell, was an honest affirmation of love, including its betrayals. Meg had become a notable poet in her own right since the 1980s.
The enduring quality of Campbell’s work was recognised in a series of awards and distinctions. His Collected poems (1981) won the New Zealand Book Award for poetry in 1982, while The frigate bird was a regional finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. He received the Pacific Islands Artist Award in 1998, and an honorary doctorate in literature from Victoria University of Wellington in 1999. He was made an ONZM in 2005, the same year Helen Clark presented him with a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell died in Wellington Hospital on 16 August 2009, aged 84; Meg had died in 2007. In 2016 Victoria University Press published Collected poems, a handsome edition covering the full span of Campbell’s career, arranged thematically and autobiographically by Campbell himself. In his foreword, Robert Sullivan observed that ‘Campbell’s dual Polynesian and Pākehā heritage makes him a foreparent of bicultural and multicultural writing in Aotearoa’.6 One might add that, more than a ‘foreparent’, Campbell was an active shaper and enabler of those fundamental cultural redirections.