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Ian Wedde: Selected Poems – poetry review

Ian Wedde. Photo/David White

Five decades of some of the most complex poetry written by a New Zealander.

He may be one of our most honoured writers, but Ian Wedde has never been an easy poet to just jump straight into.

The retrospective Ian Wedde: Selected Poems is an expanded update: five decades of some of the most complex poetry written by a New Zealander.

The poetry is grounded in the open form of American experimental postmodernists such as AR Ammons and Charles Olson, with some New York School (stream of consciousness and observational), some Black Mountain (form is an extension of content) and a hint of avant-garde “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poetry’s emphasis on language dictating meaning rather than vice versa, and is as eclectic in interests and experiences as its author.

Complex, yes, but not inaccessible. The collection starts in 1971 with the Homage to Matisse, written in his twenties and flush with youthful cockiness and freedom, the sort of poetry that would see him grouped with Alan Brunton, David Mitchell and Mark Young, rebelling against a transplanted Anglophile tradition.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Wedde’s Ted Berrigan-lite Sonnets to Carlos are a personal favourite and a diary of sorts recording the first year of life of Wedde’s firstborn. You can just immerse yourself in the paternal pride, warmth and affection. Earlier that year, he had published Pathway to the Sea, both a homage to AR Ammons and a protest at plans for an aluminium smelter at Aramoana.

Connection flows easily even if you don’t understand all the postmodernist tics and stutters or the big-brained allusions. While he absorbed the slippery Americans going back to Ezra Pound, Wedde always kept a foot in the recognisable.

Around 1980, Wedde hit poetical puberty, and earnestness gives way to more irony, pastiche and self-aware satire – perhaps more directly obvious in his novels than the poetry. He became less prodigious. The 90s were altogether too quiet, but then in 2001 came the extraordinary and game-changing Commonplace Odes. These poems summon up the shade of Pablo Neruda and a desire to think about things rather than abstractions, but Wedde is a philosophical poet and all is rarely as it seems.

It’s a full circle … But then the circle takes a sharp turn back on itself. The Lifeguard poems of 2008-2013 show the Middle Eastern influence, falling into tidy English bastard-ghazal couplets, concluding with Shadow Stands Up, which finds Wedde reviewing a career of philosophical and critical concerns, never worrying about distinguishing prosaic from poetic.

One annoying aspect of the book is that several of the sequences were originally meant to be taken in collaborative tandem with work by a visual artist. With a couple of rare exceptions, these have been shorn away, and one must contend with a lot of enthusiastically scruffy John Reynolds graffiti I can take or leave.

Even without being mindful of the prizes and accolades of Wedde’s career, the poetry speaks for itself. No library of New Zealand poetry is complete without it. Your bookshelf and soul need this.

Ian Wedde: Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, $39.99)

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.