The short-lived magazine The word is freed (usually abbreviated to Freed) marked the arrival on the poetry scene of the generation born after the Second World War: the so-called ‘baby boomers’. Like The Phoenix, Freed (1968–73) emerged from the University of Auckland, and its originators set out to make a similar break with the past.
This break would be affirmed by an anthology, The young New Zealand poets (1973), edited by Arthur Baysting, and by a new quarterly journal, Islands, established in 1972 by Robin Dudding.
The next 15 years or so in New Zealand poetry would be dominated by the rise of these confident young writers. Their work reflected a turn towards American poetic influences, as well as the cultural and political energies of the late 1960s: sexual and ‘chemical’ liberation, opposition to the Vietnam War, television, rock music and American counter-culture.
Wedde and Manhire
The outstanding writers to emerge from this group were Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire. In some ways they seem like opposites. Wedde is expansive, often talkative, sometimes polemical; Manhire is the minimalist, wry, enigmatic perfectionist. But what they shared in the 1970s, and shared with other poets of their cohort such as Sam Hunt and Murray Edmond was a new tone, a new warmth and intimacy. Their focus on personal relationships, on direct address, and on the private sphere, distinguished their writing quite clearly from both Allen Curnow’s and James K. Baxter’s.
Ian Wedde, ‘Earthly: sonnets for Carlos 31’, 1975
Diesel trucks past the Scrovegni chapel
Catherine Deneuve farting onion fritters
The world’s greedy anarchy, I love it!
Hearts that break, garlic fervent in hot oil
Jittery exultation of the soul
Minds that are tough and have good appetites
Everything in love with its opposite
I love it! O how I love it! (It’s all
plus Carlos: a wide dreaming eye
above her breast,
a hand tangling her hair,
breath filling the room as blood does the heart.
We must amend our lives murmured Rilke
gagging on his legacy of air.
Hang onto yours Carlos it’s all you’ve got.1
Wedde quickly established himself as the generation’s most dynamic figure. After a series of outstanding books in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was a natural choice to co-edit and introduce the new edition of The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1985). This appeared to indicate that Wedde was approaching Curnow’s status of 25 years earlier.
At this point, however, Wedde took a job as a curator at the Museum of New Zealand and for a decade or so ceased to publish poems. His down-time coincided with the emergence of Bill Manhire as a more public figure, particularly in his role as founder and director of the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington.
While Manhire published excellent work in the late 1970s, it is the work in the 2000s, including Lifted (2005), that has won him increasing recognition, both in New Zealand and overseas.
As Manhire’s career progressed, his work became less private and perhaps less intense, becoming more a poet of language than of personal intimacy. However, his craft and his verbal finesse remained constant.
New women poets
The initial Freed moment was very much a masculine affair. The young New Zealand poets included just one woman, Jan Kemp, among its 19 contributors. But 1975 marked the arrival of a new wave of women writers.
Women poets who published first volumes that year included Fiona Kidman and Lauris Edmond, who succeeded in making poetry out of family experiences. Another distinctive poetic talent to emerge was Elizabeth Smither. While most of her male contemporaries embraced openness, expansiveness and formal freedom, Smither followed the opposite direction.
Elizabeth Smither, ‘The creative writing course faces the sonnet’, 1986
Something formal, say a silver jug
By Cellini or espaliering apples
Can be approached by two methods:
Usefulness: Cellini was known for spouts
And espaliering apples is practical
In a narrow garden with one wall
Or envy: Who gave the popes these millions
Who left these fossils of great beauty
Which still fruit in irony?2
Her poems are tight and formally exact. She likened the sonnet form to an espaliered apple tree (its branches trained to grow flat), a suggestive image for her own highly cultivated structures. A typical Smither poem is marked by verbal wit, and an intense delight in metaphor with its ability to deliver surprising revelations.
Cilla McQueen first appeared in 1982 with the sparkling landscape poems of Homing in. The fizzing energy of her work has kept her in the forefront of local poetry ever since.
McQueen, who is also a multimedia artist, is one of a number among her generation to have earned reputations as live performers. It was during the Freed era that public poetry readings first became commonplace.
Perhaps the most charismatic of all live readers was Alan Brunton who, with his partner Sally Rodwell, gained a cult following for the performance troupe Red Mole.
But none enjoyed the sustained success of Sam Hunt, who achieved the seemingly impossible in earning a living as a professional bard.