The Latest On The Literary Scene

Putting together the column

By Gill Ward


Well with any luck you will be reading this before the winter solstice.

I enjoy the thinking and writing that goes with the ‘making’ of my column.

So here is a mid-winter effort, although mid-winter is still a way off.

The literary scene has lost many stalwarts these last few months.

Barbara leaves a big gap

Barbara Murison died on May 17th.  She had retired to Waikanae and over the last few years it was good to be able to see more of this friend who always saw humour in situations and was passionate about children’s literature.

For her services for this she was awarded Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit which is high up in the scale of NZ awards.

Her funeral was held at Old St Pauls and Barbara had done something wonderful! She had made a tape which began Well you all know how I like the sound of my own voice so I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this pass.

Yes, it is possible to laugh and cry at the same time. She faced death bravely and with acceptance. I cannot do Barbara justice in this short tribute but many of her friends and colleagues talked about her very full life and her involvement in mentoring and supporting authors. Barbara leaves a big gap.

Stalwart of children’s literature passes on

Quite soon afterwards we heard of the death of another children’s literature stalwart, John  McIntyre, proud owner with his wife Ruth of a children’s literary paradise, The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie.

They are (were) passionate advocates of books and reading, and regular and popular speakers at library meetings and conferences and literary events throughout the country.

John and Ruth were awarded the Betty Gilderdale Award for Service to Children’s Literature in 2011, the first time the award has been made to booksellers.

He will be greatly missed.

Loved and respected friend passes on

John on the left (Credit Upper Hutt City Library)

Another friend who left us was John Haxton. John was a former Head of English at Tawa College and was intensely interested and knowledgeable about literature, particularly poetry which he also wrote.

One of his own poems was read at his funeral. The farewell was a strong indication of how much John was loved and respected by his family and friends.

I wrote a poem for John which I gave him a couple of weeks before he died and the family asked me to read it at the funeral. It was a privilege . It went through my head that everyone writes poems for and about people before they die and I knew John with his love of the word would appreciate it.

He was an involved member of our U3A NZ Poets and Poetry group right up till almost the very end. We valued his contributions and his wisdom so the poem was from us all really, he knew that.

Coming to terms with sadness

These events started me thinking about poetry, both reading and writing it, as a form of coming to terms with life’s sadness.

I thought of the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art. The first line reads: The art of losing is not hard to master.  The poem seems at first to be about losing things but at the end you realise it is about losing a person. (In this case a lover.)

Some years ago I read an editor, poet James Brown’s report about selecting NZ poems for collections. He commented on strong last lines, how important they are. Because I seem to be invoking a theme of loss I began looking at, last lines in, I shall call them – “grief poems”.

Last lines have so much meaning

I focused on New Zealand writers from a collection Moonlight (Godwit 2008) edited by Andrew Johnson. The lines, of course are taken out of context but I hope the poets will excuse me; just this once!

Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt wrote a sequence of poems, Summer, as the family sat through a hot New Zealand summer as her father was dying. Exactly as we did with our father. I was so moved by this book that when a young friend was rushing off to England to farewell her father, I ran into the airport book shop and to my relief there was a copy of the book which had just come out.

My friend took it on the plane for the long journey. She said it helped.

From: Things We Didn’t  Do One Summer – A Survey

We did swim once – once –

in the sea. Mostly though we stayed at home fully clothed

and waited for news of our father

who was many miles from shore

 and drifting.

Hone Tuwhare’s poem for James K Baxter Heemi

come simply to call

on a tired old mate

with no money in the pocket

no fancy halo, no thump left in the old


Geoff Cochrane in Whispers as he stands by his father’s coffin

I knock on my father’s gleaming lid.

I think of his abandoned wardrobe,

the suits and shirts on hangers,

the garments he’ll never fill again.

There are so many more incredible poems in this book which was published for Hospice New Zealand, Wellington. It is a beautiful consoling book and I hope it is still in print. All the poets waived their fees and Random House donated the royalties to the hospice.

Mandy’s new book

Something more cheerful!

Today local writer Mandy Hager had her new book reviewed on RNZ. The reviewer said all the things I thought about the book.

It is a meticulously researched novel based on the life, writings and letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argentieul. A forbidden love in the 12th Century.

Heloise is published by Penguin Random House New Zealand (2017).

Congratulations to Mandy for such dedication and tenacity in bringing to light such an intriguing and absorbing story.