FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Edmond, Lauris (1924– 2000), came to prominence as a poet unusually late, her first volume being published when she was 51. Twenty-three years later she is established as one of the most significant, assured and accessible of contemporary poetic voices, and as a widely read autobiographer and commentator.
She was born in Dannevirke in southern Hawkes Bay, the province whose presence colours so much of her first volume of autobiography, Hot October (1989). That volume, dramatically opening with the Napier earthquake of 1931, the election of the Labour government in 1935, and the Depression years, recreates a strong picture of the 1930s, and demonstrates the variety and importance of extensive family links, as well as the air of difference surrounding her own parents, committed to Social Credit and opposing orthodox medicine.
In 1942, she enrolled at Wellington Teachers’ Training College, and Hot October reproduces many of her letters to her mother. While she retained affection for Hawkes Bay, and spent time in Christchurch training as a speech therapist, it is clear from the autobiography and the poetry that Wellington came to be of central importance to her. Hot October concludes with the end of a war and the beginning of a marriage, and with another departure, this time to Dunedin, with her young husband Trevor Edmond. In spite of misgivings sounded in this volume, and emerging even more strongly in the second, Bonfires in the Rain (1991), the story told is in many ways a conventional one, following an unchallenged pattern, in which the needs of children (eventually, five daughters and a son) and the career moves of a husband determine family life. The university study she began while at training college was not finished until 1967, and included part-time or extramural enrolment at four different universities. Similarly, her training as a teacher and speech therapist was only occasionally put to use in paid employment during these years.
The importance of literature is clearly signalled from time to time in each of these volumes; as a child she experiments with writing her own poems and responds to the magic of reading, responses which continue through to training college, and are communicated in the impassioned letters home. Similarly, Bonfires in the Rain recalls from the early marriage a shared addiction to poets of the 1930s, recalls, too, the delight in discovering Landfall, and records the ‘completely private act’ of writing, an activity which could only be attempted during hastily snatched ‘small islands of time’. For the most part, this ‘completely private act’ involved the keeping of a diary, in which were included ‘bits of poems and stories’ and ‘very secret thoughts—like that there was plenty of time to become a real New Zealand poet’.
But the transition implicit in the change from ‘a shared addiction’ to ‘a completely private act’ affected more than responses to literature, and Bonfires in the Rain also records the growing tensions within the Edmonds’ marriage, tensions further described in the third volume, The Quick World (1992). Like the first volume, Bonfires in the Rain ends with momentous events and with a journey. The momentous events include the death of their fourth child, Rachel, and the publication of Lauris Edmond’s first volume of poetry, In Middle Air (1975), and it is this which marks the author’s realisation that writing is to be her ‘new work’, her ‘next journey’.
This ‘next journey’ is one that led her, within ten years, to extraordinary success and acclaim as a poet, with six volumes published as well as a novel, the award of the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship at Menton in 1981, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1985 for her Selected Poems (1984), the OBE in 1986 and an Honorary DLitt of Massey University in 1988. She was writer-in-residence at Deakin University, Melbourne, in 1985 and at Victoria University of Wellington in 1987. Invitations to perform at international arts festivals or on reading tours have taken her to Australia, West Germany, the United States and Great Britain as well as throughout New Zealand; and invitations to participate in creative writing courses and writers-in-schools schemes, to give talks and interviews and to contribute to university courses have been equally numerous, and have been responded to with equal generosity. In addition to the eleven volumes of poetry and three of autobiography, she has published a novel, High Country Weather (1984), written radio and stage drama, and edited Letters of A.R.D. Fairburn (1981) and Young Writing for PEN (1979).
This literary rags-to-riches story has been seen as a ‘clear-cut, not to say dramatic example’ of the difficulties faced by women in New Zealand in the 1950s–60s, postponing their own careers or ambitions in supporting those of their husbands. In some respects, the celebration of Edmond’s emergence as a writer after years of marriage and motherhood has overshadowed a proper critical response to the writing itself, as Edmond herself has sometimes complained. (Few New Zealand poets, however, have yet received sustained critical attention.)
An unusual feature of the autobiography’s narrative is the inclusion of her own poems at strategic points, which confirms for us that many poems may legitimately be read in close conjunction with the life, and that the first-person pronoun functions as more than an assumed voice. The poetry is deeply, often movingly, and at times painfully personal, from the early elegiac sequence Wellington Letter (1980) to the most recent A Matter of Timing (1996). Edmond’s work is always rooted in experience—a preference that has occasionally been expressed as something of an anti-intellectual attitude. A poem, she said in one interview, is ‘a confrontation with experience. It’s not an idea.’ That ‘confrontation’ is principally a way of ordering experience, ‘composing feelings and experiences and ideas and events that would otherwise become chaotic and at the end of writing about something I have the measure of it for a while’.
The ‘for a while’ is important. The process of ordering is primarily heuristic: ‘every poem is the end of a discovery’. An early review of In Middle Air spoke of the ‘series of delicate epiphanies’, and that feature has remained distinctive, achieving a status that a reviewer twenty years later could describe as a ‘stylistic signature’ (and drawing some criticism elsewhere of an apparent sameness of technique). She acknowledged this primacy of the moment of vision, in naming one collection Catching It (1983), and affirming in its title poem that ‘In all of the ticking of time / it can never have happened before, / not like this, not exactly’. Typically, her poems make use of familiar scenes and images (in that poem, ‘three small brown foxy Frenchmen’ on a sea wall), everyday experiences and relationships, finding in them sudden moments of significance. Poetry is ‘partly idea, partly emotion, and partly a sense of surprise — seeing familiar things in different ways’. To capture that difference in familiarity, she relies for the most part on an urbane simplicity of diction and syntax, allowing herself full use of the rich resources of language that she possesses (what has been described as ‘civilized middle-class discourse’), avoiding arcane word games, private spheres of reference or experimental forms.
Edmond’s poetry deals, as Fleur Adcock has neatly expressed it, ‘with topics people care about’, which partly explains why she has found a wider audience than is usual for poetry. In her handling of such essential subjects as love, friendship and death, ageing, family relationships, children and grandchildren, the transience of natural beauty and of human happiness, she returns again and again to what Baxter called ‘the big states’. But where Baxter employed myth and rhetoric to address such themes, Edmond prefers a more natural, relaxed, if always articulate and controlled speaking voice, one that generates conversational intimacy, warmth, humour and humanity. Poems quite often open with an invitation to conversation: ‘Let me tell you of my country, how it / suffers the equivocal glories ’ (‘Wellington Letter XVI’); ‘Think of her coming in from the garden ’ (‘Eden Cultivated’); ‘I want to tell you about time, how strangely / it behaves when you haven’t got much of it left ’ (‘In position’).
She also writes often and well about response to place, most often Wellington, as in her celebratory Scenes from a Small City (1994): ‘This is my city, the hills and harbour water / I call home, the grey sky racing over headlands, / awkward narrow streets that stirred me long ago ’ (‘Round Oriental Bay’). Travel poems recur, responses to scenes or encounters from Dunedin to Delphi, from Bywell with its ‘squat Saxon tower’ to ‘the seething footlights of Fifth Avenue’ (‘Green’).
Of all of the big subjects that her carefully measured words explore, it is perhaps death and the awareness of death which most command attention, whether seen as part of the natural process, witness to our common mortality, or confronted in the harsher circumstances of untimely illness or suicide. But there is no morbidity or dull fatalism in this. The best of the poetry (even in its grieving) is strongly life-affirming. The shift in ‘The Quiet Populations’ from grief to the early budding of spring is characteristic. Her poetry is vigorously intelligent, sane and clear-eyed. The essential human mortality recognised as our inheritance forms a backdrop against which the positive forces celebrated—love, compassion, friendship, sympathy, the beauty of the natural world (albeit fragmentary), family—all stand out in sharp relief and are welcomed as part of that same inheritance.
Other collections of poems not mentioned above are The Pear Tree (1977), Seven (1980), Salt from the North (1980), Seasons and Creatures (1986), Summer Near the Arctic Circle (1988), New and Selected Poems (1991) and Selected Poems 1975–1994 (1994). Edmond frequently publishes articles and reviews, most often now in New Zealand Books, of which she was one of the founders; she contributed guest editorials to NZ Listener 1976–77, and was guest editor of Landfall 125 (March 1978). Interviews include David Dowling in Landfall 144 (1982) and Harry Ricketts in his Talking About Ourselves (1986). Her graduation address, Imagining Ourselves, was published by Massey University (1988). PW
Lauris Edmonds death on the 28th of January 2000 was a huge loss to New Zealand literature.
A compact disc featuring Lauris reading a comprehensive selection of her own work, The Poems of Lauris Edmond, was released on the 16th of March 2000. The CD also features Lauriss daughter, actor Frances Edmond, reading Lauriss poems, and clarinet music by Dorothy Buchanan. A booklet accompanying the CD features a commentary on the work by Ken Arvidson, and a biographical note written by Lauris.
Carnival of New Zealand Creatures (2000) is a collection of Lauriss poems also set to Dorothy Buchanans music.
New Zealand Love Poems: An Oxford Anthology (2000), edited by Lauris Edmond, was published after her death.
Late Song (2001), also published posthumously, was shortlisted in the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).