Story: Oliver, William Hosking

W.H. Oliver, poet

Though best-known as a historian, W.H. (Bill) Oliver was also a well-known poet, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s. The photograph shows him at a poetry reading with other poets at Canterbury Museum in 1956; left to right: Denis Glover, Oliver, James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson, William Hart-Smith, Anton Vogt, and Keith Sinclair.

The 2012 recording features Oliver reading five poems from various phases of his career:

To My Mother


Till the last six months she kept

on the shelf above her bed

a tiny lighthouse carved

from a slab of Cornish granite.

Formally composed

the Longships and the Wolf

hung on the sitting room wall

keeping the harsh Atlantic

domestic and subdued.

In a photograph my uncle

posed with a penny farthing

by the stone mill where the Hoskings

for generations ground corn

in high fly-to-Jesus collars

and stiff respectable serge.

She in her severe

cloche hat well pulled down

kept a clear and level eye

steady in the merciless

blaze of the southern sun.

Into it I frown,

hair slicked flat as glass

mouth down at the corners

white shirt itching shorts

socks around the ankles.

Recorded on the back

in her careful hand

‘Bill last day at school


12 ½ years.’


(W.H. Oliver. Poems 1946–2005. Wellington, 2005, p.134)

Bill Oliver: This poem is called ‘Blue Irises’. It celebrates Lauris Edmond and remembers a visit I paid not to her funeral, but to her grave a day or so after her funeral, and left a bunch of blue irises on her still unfinished grave.

Blue Irises


After, appropriately,

several false turnings

and twice overshooting the mark

I was there, on the shorn grass

looking around at the hills

uncertain, suitably too

which of the freshly turned

patches of dirt embraced

the bodily trace you had left

cold and hard on your bed

in the red-curtained room

in the house over the harbour

and found a pile of new clay

which might have been it and would do

well enough and against it

set down the blue irises

and thought I would have the last word

for certain this once and it was

the only one spoken for you

were not here and not

as far as evidence goes

anywhere else I could think of

and look back once or twice

at the blue fleck against the drab

immensity of clay.


(W.H. Oliver. Poems 1946–2005. Wellington, 2005, p.141)


Mahina Bay


The spent waves sleep, and in their sleeping turn

Against the rocks, they murmur in the night, their cry

Rises to the forest edge, to learn

The music of leaves there, where sea-winds sigh


Between branches. And to-night there is peace

Rising from the long tormented sea; distant and tranquil

Lights glitter from the further shore; heavy black trees

Merge with the ocean, and the mountain ridges fall


Uninterruptedly to the shore-line, down

To the floor of the harbour, to the earth’s slow heart.

And as I watch, my dreaming mind is shown

This marriage mystery, and may not move apart


From land and ocean. As I’m standing here

The margins of the two worlds disappear.


(W.H. Oliver. Poems 1946–2005. Wellington, 2005, p.49)


Fire Without Phoenix


This red scabbard of rock

In hot December holds

Only a thread of water

Twisted along its folds.


The bitter summer leaves

No land unmarked, it locks

All life deep underground

Beneath the weight of rocks.


Echoes of torment travel

From hanging face to face

Over the parching gorges;

Seasons will displace


This death with chaos, though

In summer could arise

That flame-born phoenix, bright

And angered, soul’s harsh prize.


(W.H. Oliver. Poems 1946–2005. Wellington, 2005, p.19)

Oliver: This poem is called ‘To Go With a Memoir’, and that means it is to accompany, and in some way to sign off, my brief autobiography, Looking for the phoenix.

To Go With a Memoir


This little spurt of words

is to go along with a life

soon to be done but not

till all the delaying tactics

no longer do the trick

and no digression provides

an invitation to linger

and no parenthesis

proposes itself as at least

a possible postponement

and the anecdotes no longer

go on almost forever

and the paragraphs become

too long for anyone’s patience

and words no longer suffice

to qualify the silence,

and I will no longer bring

this old self dressed to kill

for, it may be, your pleasure

and in order as well to avoid

for today and perhaps tomorrow

the need to turn a blank page.


(W.H. Oliver. Poems 1946–2005. Wellington, 2005, p.146)

Using this item

Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage
Reference: W.H. Oliver oral history with Alison Parr, 2012

This item has been provided for private study purposes (such as school projects, family and local history research) and any published reproduction (print or electronic) may infringe copyright law. It is the responsibility of the user of any material to obtain clearance from the copyright holder.

Photograph: Alexander Turnbull Library, Bridget Williams Collection, PAColl-2146-009
Text: Estate of W.H. Oliver

How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant. 'Oliver, William Hosking', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 December 2021)