New Zealand has a wonderfully long and colourful list of poets who've studded the social justice movements of Aoteroa's history. We seem to ooze literary talent, and so choosing just three poets and poems to share was excruciating. But I would consider the follow poems to be cornerstones of our literary history, and besides that, they're just really great to read and revisit.
One of my personal favourite poets is Eileen Duggan. Eileen was an unmarried journalist who wrote poetry from 1917 - 1951, and became New Zealand's best known poet in the 1930's, with an Eileen Duggan Society Society created in America in her honor. She was considered an unofficial laureate of the Catholic Church.
The Tides Run Up The Wairau
The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow.
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.
For though I cannot love you,
Yet, heavy, deep, and far,
Your tide of love comes swining,
Too swift for me to bar.
Some though of you must linger,
A salt of pain in me
For oh what running river
Can stand against the sea?
James K Baxter is one of New Zealand's best known poets, enviously being published at the tender age of 17 in 1944, he provided political narration of both the conservative and liberal movements as well as exploring both faith and cynicism during his journey. Speaking at a writer's conference in 1951, Baxter claimed it was "reasonable and necessary that poetry should contain a moral truth and that every poet should be a prophet."
Ballad of Calvary Street
On Calvary Street are trellises
Where bright as blood the roses bloom,
And gnomes like pagan fetishes
Hang their hats on an empty tomb
Where two old souls go slowly mad,
National Mum and Labour Dad.
Each Saturday when full of smiles
The children come to pay their due,
Mum takes down the family files
And cover to cover she thumbs them through,
Poor Len before he went away
And Mabel on her wedding day.
The meal-brown scones display her knack,
Her polished oven spits with rage,
While in Grunt Grotto at the back
Dad sits and reads the Sporting page,
Then ambles out in boots of lead
To weed around the parsnip bed.
A giant parsnip sparks his eye,
Majestic as the Tree of Life;
He washes it and rubs it dry
And takes it in to his old wife -
'Look Laura, would that be a fit?
The bastard has a flange on it!'
When both were young she would have laughed,
A goddess in her tartan skirt,
But wisdom, age and mothercraft
Have rubbed it home that men like dirt:
Five children and a fallen womb.
A golden crown beyond the tomb.
Nearer the bone, sin is sin,
And women bear the cross of woe,
And that affair with Mrs Flynn
(It happened thirty years ago)
Though never mentioned, means that he
Will get no sugar in his tea.
The afternoon goes by, goes by,
The angels harp above a cloud;
A son-in-law with spotted tie
And daughter Alice fat and loud
Discuss the virtues of insurance
And stuff their tripes with trained endurance.
Flood-waters hurl upon the dyke
And Dad himself can go to town,
For little Charlie on his trike
Has ploughed another iris down.
His parents rise to chain the beast,
Brush off the last crumbs of their lovefeast.
And so these two old fools are left,
A rosy pair in evening light,
To question Heaven's dubious gift,
To hag and grumble, growl and fight:
The love they kill won't let them rest,
Two birds that peck in one fouled nest
Why hammer nails? Why give no change?
Habit, habit clogs them dumb.
The sacred Heart above the range
Will bleed and burn till Kingdom Come,
But Yin and Yang won't ever meet
In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.
Hone Tuwhare liked to be known as the people’s poet. He was an active member of the political and social justice cityscape, and was most active in the 1970s when, among other things, he was an organiser of the first Maori Writers and Artists hui at Te Kaha and walked in the Maori Land March in 1975. His poem, No Ordinary Sun, has become a famous representation of Aoteroa's Nuclear Free Movement.
No Ordinary Sun
Tree let your arms fall:
raise them not sharply in supplication
to the bright enhaloed cloud.
Let your arms lack toughness and
resilience for this is no mere axe
to blunt nor fire to smother.
Your sap shall not rise again
to the moon’s pull.
No more incline a deferential head
to the wind’s talk, or stir
to the tickle of coursing rain.
Your former shagginess shall not be
wreathed with the delightful flight
of birds nor shield
nor cool the ardour of unheeding
lovers from the monstrous sun.
Tree let your naked arms fall
nor extend vain entreaties to the radiant ball.
This is no gallant monsoon’s flash,
no dashing trade wind’s blast.
The fading green of your magic
emanations shall not make pure again
these polluted skies . . . for this
is no ordinary sun.
in the shadowless mountains
the white plains and
the drab sea floor
your end at last is written.