meeting manhire

We spoke with NZ’s poet laureate about the new song cycle, Ornithological Anecdotes, whose music is composed by Gareth Farr. You can hear a performance of this new work with Julien Van Mellaerts and James Baillieu.

In his lecture Dirty Silence: Impure Sounds in New Zealand Poetry Bill Manhire said “One of the strongest drives in poetry is towards purity. Poets aspire to the “shrill delight” of Shelley’s skylark, where the bird ascends into the sky, becoming a voice you listen to rather than a material thing you see: “Like a poet hidden,” as Shelley puts it, “In the light of thought.” It has been a very powerful idea, I think, this notion that the world of nature has its own pure, ultimately transcendental music — and that poetry, more than the other language arts, can aspire to make such music, or be a part of it. Poets like the thought of all that sort of thing.”

Poets do like that sort of thing. They have a yearning after wings. Bill Manhire has written a set of four poems on New Zealand Birds, set to music by our inimitable Gareth Farr, which you can hear this April, and commissioned and premiered by rising-star Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts – Ornithological Anecdotes: The Dotterel, the Huia, the Takehe and the Tui. “Poets like etherealness of birds, poets aspire to sing like birds. I think poets liken birds as being pure spirit; people think of birds as pure spirit. Poets like Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth.”

Poets today can either take that legacy, the heritage of those Romantic poets; or they can react against it. Fighting back could be Denis Glover’s “The Magpies,” whose famous refrain — “Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle” — is full of mockery. In Ornithological Anecdotes we hear echoes of Glover’s song. The Tui announces itself, fists flying and feathers puffed up:

I’m famous for my double throat
I quote and quote and quote and quote
my world is made of anecdote [my world is made of anecdote]
And I’m famous as a preacher
but I’m just a crazy creature
that is always trying to reach ya [yes I’m always trying to reach ya]

“I’ve written something which goes against the standard version of the Tui, the noble parson bird singing gloriously in a dignified manner. Instead he’s a bully boy. He’s a bad little street gangster.”

Bill Manhire also sees something of the poet in this feisty bird. “There famous statement which is sometimes attributed to Picasso and sometimes to Einstein and sometimes to TS Eliot: “Good poets borrow, and great poets steal”, I don’t believe in the whole idea of creative originality. All artists live inside the context of other artists; – they are in these communities and learn from each other like a child learning to speak, and you are eventually distinctively you. You also try and work out what the Tui’s own song is because so much of it is stolen. The Tui is very much like a poet, because the Tui is stealing and copying-and behaving badly.”

The conversation turns to music. I wanted to know, is writing for music a different process than just writing the words? “I’m thinking of the words as music, but not necessarily in terms of someone singing them – whether it be Julien or Leonard Cohen. My favourite definition of poetry is from a French poet [Paul Valery] who once said, “A poem is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense” i.e. between music and meaning,” and I think you’ll find that poetry often hovers between the two, sometimes it moves towards music, and other times more towards meaning. So yes, there’s a not quite deliberate, but a “can’t-quite-help-myself” musical element tucked up in [the bird poems].”

Little pepperpot
little run-a-lot
all a-fluttering
all a-scurrying
just over here just over here
this way please this way please
oh look I’m hurting

“Dotterel I knew about, as we had holidayed at Opotiki quite a bit, they’ve got Dotterel protected areas on the beach up there. They’re so tiny, and their eggs just lie in a little scoop of sand just above the high tide mark and are totally vulnerable. Dotterels can’t defend but they can distract. Basically, if you see a dotterel on the beach and it’s going “peep-peep” and it’s going in a particular direction, it’s moving away from the nest. It’s saying, “come and chase me.” If it’s absolutely desperate it will pretend it has a broken wing, so it’s completely vulnerable. So, I put the broken wing into the words that I wrote.”
Vulnerability also touches the Huia poem. sweetly musical and very sad. Huia, with its crescent-moon beak and faded orange wattles. Died December 28, 1907. Maori named the bird after its loud distress call, described as “a smooth, unslurred whistle rendered as uia, uia, uia or where are you?”

Where are you when you vanish?
Where are you when you’re found?
I’m made of greed and anguish
a feather on the ground

The Takehe, on the other hand, plods along, eating tussock all day, like some sort of bird-panda. Thought extinct until — to borrow Mark Twain’s celebrated comment — it was found that the rumours of its death had been “greatly exaggerated.” Bill Manhire’s Takehe is ludicrous and bombastic:

found and saved
and unafraid
found and saved
and unafraid
I eat all day
I eat all day
I’m takahe
I’m takahe
I’m feeding

“Denis Glover came to a NZ literature course and he stood in this lecture hall in front of 150 students, and said “I know a man in Auckland” (I think he was talking about CK Stead or an academic) “and he takes the poem, this beautiful bird, this glorious bird, and he pulls a wing off it and looks at it says, “Look at this lovely wing!” then he takes the other wing, then takes the beak off, “What a magnificent beak!”, and he plucks out the eyes, and he pulls every feather off. And then he says, “fly, you beauty, fly.” Glover thought a poem was like a beautiful bird that could fly, and anyone doing analysis on it would destroy it.”

So, time to stop pulling off the wings. You can hear Bill Manhire’s poems fly here:

(Excerpts of Ornithological Anecdotes poems used with Bill’s permission)

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Creative New Zealand | Toi Aotearoa