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Alistair Te Ariki Campbell: A less histrionic and more tender James K Baxter

Haunted, fresh and profound: Campbell at home with his family in 1965.

When Alistair Te Ariki Campbell arrived in 1950 with Mine Eyes Dazzle, he leapt to the front of a pack of young poets nipping at the heels of Allen Curnow and the literary nationalists. The Wellington poets fought a running battle with Curnow that lasted more than a decade, a saga remembered in all its gossipy glory in the sequence Poets in their Youth.

Mellowed by age, Campbell downplays the quarrel’s significance: “What did we really rebel against?/ … What did we/hope to put in its place?” But the post-war poets did shift the mood of New Zealand poetry. And as this terrific book confirms, only James K Baxter did as much to expand its range as Campbell.

Campbell had his demons. His poems are haunted by the early deaths of his parents; his exile from the Cook Islands to a Dunedin orphanage; the death of his brother; and his own mental health. But the hard-won poems that emerge from this period, including Sanctuary of Spirits, come with a psychological intensity foreign to ARD Fairburn and Denis Glover, and evident only in the most bottled-up way in Curnow.

Equally new, and welcome, is the voice of Campbell’s love poems. He is a less-histrionic love poet than Baxter, more tender, more unassumingly candid. A poem such as Why Don’t You Talk to Me? still holds its freshness, even across half a century of gender politics.

Campbell took a long time to find his way back to his birthplace, Tongareva, and his Pasifika heritage, but when he did, the result was game-changing, and the breakthrough sequences of the 1980s, The Dark Lord of Savaiki and Soul Traps, bringing the Pacific into New Zealand verse with a new gravity and luminosity, may yet prove to be the most profound part of the poet’s legacy.

Edited by his son Andrew in collaboration with Robert Sullivan, this handsome hardback of collected poems feels built to last. And so it should. Campbell is one of our essential writers and these poems have decades of life in them.

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ALISTAIR TE ARIKI CAMPBELL (Victoria University Press, $50)

This article was first published in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.