Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Two nights ago, a palpitation of poets at the National
Library. There seemed to be some reason, which
escaped me, for bringing together all those who had
held the title of New Zealand’s “poet laureate” since
the position was unofficially created in 1996 thanks
to the sponsorship of the Te Mata winery. Since then,
Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither,
Brian Turner and Jenny Bornholdt have each held
the position for two years at a time. Last year the
Government formalized the job and appointed
Michele Leggott the first official Poet Laureate at a
cool $50,000 a year. So she was there, along with all
the others, except, of course, Hone, though he was
there in a way, because each laureate has a tokotoko
carved by Jacob Scott, and Hone’s was passed
around the audience. I held it briefly in my hand and
thought inevitably of that extraordinary journey of his
through Northland in 2002, which I was lucky enough
to accompany him for the first week of. Unforgettable.
There was a sort of uber-tokotoko too with, Scott said,
a poem of Tuwhare’s embedded inside it: I meant to
ask him which one but nevermind. As for the poets,
there was a smell of history about them, together like
this in one place, and, as you do on historical occasions,
I nodded in my seat. And why hasn’t Sam Hunt yet been
laureatified? Bring it on. But it was a fine thing to hear
Brian Turner, looking like he’d been hewn out of the
landscape of Oturehua, charged with the cold of Central
Otago, reading his poems to an ill-dressed audience of
the Welligentsia. And to see Michele reading her poems
from a large-print laptop, her head held high in the way
of the blind or the weakly sighted. Her mate Mark,
a former Listener colleague of mine, had prepared the
screen for her, and handed her glasses to her. My heart
went out to them. These are great days we are living in,
and nodding off in. Poetry fizzes and jerks like a live wire
flailing loose. It may stun or electrify.

1 comment:

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Denis. I read and enjoyed your post on the 'palpitation of poets' and put a link on my laureate post to yours - without having any idea who Opposable Thumb was - then returned to discover the blogger is you. Lovely stuff - especially the closing lines. Thank you. I didn't make the event but wished I had. Your post did the job nicely.