David Taylor assesses the 20/20 Poetry Collection, and what we’re exploring – and avoiding – in our literature of unease.
The 20/20 poetry project was devised in 2017 to celebrate 20 years of National Poetry Day in New Zealand. Twenty ‘acclaimed Kiwi poets’ were asked ‘to choose one of their own poems – a work that spoke to New Zealand now’. Those poets included Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Kevin Ireland, Elizabeth Smither, Paula Green, Apirana Taylor and Cilla McQueen.
That group of poets were ‘also asked to select a poem by another poet they saw as essential reading’. Many of the selected ‘second twenty’ were young, new, or underrated voices who’d published a collection or had poems included in an anthology or journal – including Chris Tse, Lynley Edmeades, Gregory Kan, Johanna Emeney, Michael Steven, John Dennison and Simone Kaho.
The resulting forty poems offer an interesting cross-section sample of the current ideas, voices and concerns in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand poetry. Many of the poets had their selected poems pasted around the country by Phantom Billstickers, current sponsors of National Poetry Day.
To comment on what these poems suggest about the subjects current in our poetry right now, and on why these poems may have been chosen, it’s necessary to make some generalisations – drawing observations from ‘repeated sightings of’ rather than from an exhaustive scientific survey. With so much diversity in our poetic voices the commonalities are not necessarily topics, themes and styles, as they once would have been. But there are definitely patterns here which are hard to ignore.
One is to do with the timeframe of these poems – in particular that many of them have very long temporal settings. The second is to do with a sense that many of these poems have an underlying sense of uncertainty – culminating in a collective sense of existential searching.
Three themes which I expected to be more prominent were very modestly represented and so some consideration is given to their absence – landscapes, cultural identity and relationships.
As a sample on which to run some quick tests, these poems suggest that we might be moving away from some more traditional areas of exploration but are not yet sure where to look or what we might be looking for, or what we are trying to avoid.
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