Hone Peneamine Anatipa Te Pona Tūwhare was born on 21 October 1922 at Kokewai, a rural area south-east of Kaikohe, Northland. He was of Ngāpuhi descent, with connections to Ngāti Korokoro, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Uri-o-Hau, Te Popoto, Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Kurī hapū. Hone was the son of Peneamine (Pene or Ben) Anatipa Te Pona Tūwhare and his wife, Mihipaea (Mihi) Maihi, née Anihana (Anderson), who had Scottish and Te Popoto ancestry.
Hone was the middle child of five and the only one to survive to adulthood. He also had three older half-siblings from his mother’s first marriage: Hoana Puarau Maihi, Mingo Puarau Maihi and Eruera Puarau Maihi.
Hone’s mother died when he was five years old. In the late 1920s and 1930s, he and his father lived an impoverished, nomadic existence, initially around Kaikohe, and later in the Freemans Bay area of Auckland. Later still, they lived in Avondale, Panmure and Māngere. Hone claimed to have lived in 16 different houses by the time he was 13. His identification with working-class people and passion for social justice dated from these years.
Some time after Hone left home, his father married again. With his second wife, Mihikerei Renutai Uri Karaka Puhata of Ngāti Pāoa, he adopted a son, Tame Parata.
Hone’s schooling was sporadic and he left after standard six (year eight), having passed his proficiency examination. However, his bilingual upbringing and early love of reading made up for his lack of formal education. As a young child he was immersed in Māori language through kōrero (talk) in his home and waiata (songs) and whaikōrero (speeches) on the marae. Although his confidence in speaking Māori faded as he aged, he strongly identified with Māoritanga.
He likewise loved English – from the argot of the streets to the solemnity of the King James Bible, which he read with his father. For Tūwhare, reading was the key to a magic kingdom, ‘a little like discovering sex,’ he later said.1 As well as the Bible, his writing had many influences, including popular novels, Shakespeare, poet Federico García Lorca, Marxist writers such as Christopher Caudwell, and the writings of New Zealand contemporaries, among them Noel Hilliard, Bill Pearson, R. A. K. Mason and James K. Baxter.
Hone Tūwhare was indentured as a boilermaker with New Zealand Railways from 1939 through the Second World War, and attained his trade certificate in 1944. He joined the New Zealand Communist Party in 1942. After the war, he served in Japan with Jayforce (the New Zealand troops that were part of the post-war occupation force in Japan) and saw first-hand the ruination of Hiroshima.
Tūwhare married Jean Agnes McCormack on 13 January 1949 at Auckland. They moved to Wellington immediately after their marriage. Tūwhare was employed on the railways, briefly had a clerical position with the Department of Health, was active in the Communist Party of New Zealand, and mixed with other socialists and writers. The couple’s first son was born in 1952. In 1953 the family shifted to Mangakino in the central North Island, and later Te Māhoe in the Bay of Plenty, where Tūwhare worked on hydroelectric schemes. Twin sons were born a year later.
Tūwhare 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’.2 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.
Tūwhare’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, Tūwhare had an established following, as many of the poems had previously appeared in periodicals, and the 700-copy edition sold out in 10 days. Tūwhare 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’.3 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. Tūwhare’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 Tūwhare and his family moved to Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore, and Tūwhare 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. Tūwhare was a founding member of the Birkenhead Māori 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.
In 1969 Tūwhare was awarded the Robert Burns fellowship at the University of Otago, Dunedin. The region welcomed him and became his base for the rest of his life. He became friends with the artist Ralph Hotere, who illustrated several of his books.
Two years working in the Pacific, without his family, followed, and in 1972 Tūwhare formally separated from his wife, Jean; they were divorced on 18 October 1976. He subsequently lived with a number of women, among them Eve Davy, Yvonne de Langre and Shirley Grace. He was also loved and supported by neighbours.
Over the following decades Tūwhare made a sporadic living from grants, fellowships and readings in schools. He travelled as a writer to Hawaii, China, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Australia and Germany. He was a member of sell-out Student Arts Council Tours in 1975 and 1979, and convened the first Māori writers’ and artists’ conference, held at Te Kaha in the Bay of Plenty in 1973. He also took part in the hīkoi (Māori land march) of 1975, which covered the length of the North Island from Cape Rēinga to Parliament in Wellington, and in the 1984 hīkoi, which aimed to draw attention to Treaty of Waitangi grievances.
After No ordinary sun there were a further 12 volumes of poetry: Come rain hail (1970), Sap-wood and milk (1972), Something nothing (1974), Making a fist of it (1978), Selected poems (1980), Year of the dog (1982), Mihi (1987), Short back & sideways (1992), Deep river talk (1993), Shape-shifter (1997), Piggy-back moon (2002) and Oooooo......!!! (2005). Shape-shifter and Piggy-back moon won national awards for poetry in 1999 and 2002.
Tūwhare wrote a number of short stories in the middle of his career, one of which, ‘Taniwha’, became the short movie Eel. His full-length play, On ilkla moor b’aht’at or In the wilderness without a hat, explores Māori identity in a non-Māori world through the lens of tangihanga and was produced to acclaim in the 1980s.
When it was first published, Tūwhare’s work was seen as a departure from traditional New Zealand poetry. His were the first poems to address Māori issues, and their subjects ranged from landscape and the sea to love, protest and dispossession. Tūwhare constantly experimented with styles and voices, and in his later years many of his poems were conversational and prose-like. He wrote unselfconsciously for a New Zealand audience, and most poems required annotation for overseas readers because of their dense cultural allusions. Tūwhare’s poetry also appealed to ordinary New Zealanders because of its social themes and familiar locations.
Hone Tūwhare’s achievements as a poet were recognised with many awards and honours. He was twice Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (1969 and 1974); Hocken Fellow (University of Otago, 1983); German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Fellow (Berlin, 1985) and Writing Fellow at the University of Auckland (1991). He received Te Waka Toi Award (1991) and a Leading Writers’ Grant (1992). He was twice awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Literature (University of Otago, 1998, and University of Auckland, 2005).
Tūwhare was New Zealand’s second poet laureate, from 1999 to 2001. The Arts Foundation named him one of 10 living icons of the New Zealand arts in 2003, the same year that he, Michael King and Janet Frame received inaugural Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. A selection of his poetry was set to music and sold on CD in 2005, and there were full-house arts-festival tributes to him in Wellington in 2006 and Auckland in 2007.
Hone Tūwhare was one of New Zealand’s best-known and best-loved writers, who stood at the intersection of two cultures, Māori and Pākehā. Tūwhare, the writer, was admired for his honesty of expression. He powerfully dramatised his poems, bringing them to life for thousands who heard him read, in schools and community halls, art galleries, literary festivals, pubs and lecture theatres over the course of a career spanning nearly 50 years.
Tūwhare, the man, was a larger-than-life personality. He had an enormous appetite for food and especially enjoyed mutton birds and seafood with a glass of red wine. He also had a good singing voice, loved music, particularly jazz, and had a discerning eye for art. He was inflamed by injustice and could be unpredictable, irascible and protective of his privacy. Equally, he was known for his humanity, generosity, humour and compassion. He inspired and was inspired by a network of writers, musicians, artists and academics both in New Zealand and overseas. Tūwhare also took pleasure in teaching and working with young people.
In 1992 Tūwhare purchased a cottage overlooking the ocean at Kākā Point on the South Otago coast and hunkered down to write. His last tour, in 2004, took him back to Northland. He died on 16 January 2008 in Dunedin and was buried on a hillside in his family’s urupā (cemetery) near Kaikohe. His grave is marked by a simple river stone inscribed by his friend, the sculptor Chris Booth.