Page 2: Early writing and publication
Ngāpuhi; boilermaker, poet
This biography, written by Janet Hunt, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Tuwhare began to seriously write and publish in 1956 after he left the Communist Party in protest at the Russian invasion of Hungary. His resignation left unanticipated time on his hands and ‘suddenly I found, by God, that I had a liking for writing and putting down my thoughts’.1 He had been flirting with poetry since his teens, chalking lines on the sides of railway wagons and once timidly showing his efforts to fellow trade unionist and poet R. A. K. Mason. However, he dated what he considered his first significant poem, ‘Thine own hands have fashioned’, to the day his father died in 1957.
No ordinary sun
Tuwhare’s debut collection, No ordinary sun, was published in 1964 by Blackwood and Janet Paul. It was a landmark event, coming as it did from an unlikely author: a Māori boilermaker with no secondary education. However, Tuwhare had an established following, as many of the poems had previously appeared in periodicals, and the 700-copy edition sold out in 10 days. Tuwhare gained recognition and began increasingly to perform his own work at readings, conferences and festivals.
His popularity also coincided with, and contributed to, early stirrings of Māori self-determination. Mason acknowledged this in the foreword to No ordinary sun with: ‘Here – and I think this is for the first time – is a member of the Māori race qualifying as a poet in English and in the idiom of his own generation, but still drawing his main strength from his own people’.2 The collection became a publishing phenomenon, running to three editions and 12 reprints over three decades.
No ordinary sun is Romantic in stance and dramatic in style. The thundering anti-nuclear title poem and mournful anti-apartheid ‘O Africa’ sit next to reflections on childhood, love songs, elegies and lamentations. The landscape, mythic and personified, is a central character. Tuwhare’s voice in later collections did not lose its fondness for oratorical flourish but was additionally characterised by wit, sensuality, eroticism, invented words and incongruous juxtaposition, usually for comic effect. His poems have been much-translated and anthologised.
In 1964 Tuwhare and his family moved to Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore, and Tuwhare took employment at the Devonport Naval Base, working by day and writing in the evenings. He was increasingly drawn to literary events – readings, an appearance at an anti-Vietnam War rally with American folk singer Pete Seeger, meetings of the writers’ organisation PEN, and pub life. Tuwhare was a founding member of the Birkenhead Maori Committee and an elected member of the Birkenhead Borough Council for a brief period. He wrote more, sometimes dictating poetry down the telephone line to Janet Paul.