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Manhire, Bill

MANHIRE, Bill


Nationality: New Zealander. Born: William Manhire, Invercargill, 27 December 1946. Education: Otago Boys High School; University of Otago, Dunedin, B.A. 1967, M.A. (honors) 1968, M.Litt. 1970; University College, London, 1970–73, M.Phil. 1973. Family: Married Marion McLeod in 1970; one daughter and one son. Career: Lecturer, 1973–78, senior lecturer in English, 1978–87, reader, 1987–98, since 1998 professor of English and creative writing, and since 2000 director of the Centre for Creative Writing, Victoria University, Wellington. Editor, Amphedesma Press, Dunedin, 1971–75; General Editor, New Zealand Stories series, Victoria University Press. Awards: New Zealand Book award, 1977, 1985, 1992; Nuffield fellowship, 1980; New Zealand Arts Council scholarship, 1989, and award for achievement, 1992; Buckland award, 1990; Montana book award, 1994, 1996; Fulbright Senior Scholar, 1999; inaugural New Zealand poet laureate, 1997–99. Address: Centre for Creative Writing, Victoria University of Wellington. P.O. Box 600, Wellington 1, New Zealand.

Publications

Poetry

Malady. Dunedin, Amphedesma Press, 1970.

The Elaboration. Wellington, Square and Circle, 1972.

Song Cycle. Wellington, Sound-Movement Theatre, 1975.

How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic. Wellington, Waite-ata Press, 1977.

Dawn/Water. Eastbourne, New Zealand, Hawk Press, 1980.

Good Looks. Auckland, Auckland University Press-Oxford University Press, 1982.

Locating the Beloved and Other Stories. Wellington, Single Title Press, 1983.

Zoetropes: Poems 1972–82. Sydney and Wellington, Allen and Unwin-Port Nicholson Press, 1984; Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.

The Old Man's Example. Wellington, Wrist and Anchor Press, 1990.

Milky Way Bar. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.

Hoosh. Wellington, Anxious Husky Press, 1995.

My Sunshine. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1996.

Sheet Music: Poems 1967–1982. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1996.

What to Call Your Child. Auckland, Godwit/Random, 1999.

Other

Maurice Gee. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

The Brain of Katherine Mansfield. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1988.

The New Land: A Picture Book. Auckland, Heinemann Reed, 1990.

South Pacific. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Songs of My Life. Auckland, Godwit, 1996.

Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2000.

Editor, New Zealand Universities Arts Festival Yearbook 1969. Dunedin, Arts Festival Committee, 1969.

Editor, N.Z. Listener Short Stories 1–2. Wellington, Methuen, 2 vols., 1977–78.

Editor, with Marion McLeod, Some Other Country: New Zealand's Best Short Stories. Wellington, Unwin, 1984.

Editor, Six by Six: Short Stories by New Zealand's Best Writers. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1989.

Editor, Soho Square. London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

Editor, 100 New Zealand Poems. Auckland, Godwit, 1993.

Editor, Mutes & Earthquakes: Bill Manhire's Writing Course at Victoria. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1997.

*

Critical Studies: "Pavlova and Wrists: The Poetry of Bill Manhire" by Peter Crisp, in Islands 24 (Auckland), November 1978; "The Poetry of Bill Manhire" by Hugh Lauder, in Landfall (Christchurch), September 1983; "Joker: Playing Poetry in the Eighties: Manhire, Curnow, Stead, Horrocks" by Michele Leggott, in World Literature Written in English (Singapore), 23(1), winter 1984; "Writing through the Margins: Sharon Thesen's and Bill Manhire's Apparently Lyrical Poetry" by Douglas Barbour, in Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada (Prince George, British Columbia, Canada), 4, fall 1990; "The Old Man's Example: Manhire in the Seventies" by John Newton, in Opening the Book, edited by Mark Williams and Michele Leggott, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1995; "Beyond the Brain of Katherine Mansfield: The Radical Potentials and Recuperations of Second-Person Narrative" by Dennis Schofield, in Style (DeKalb, Illinois), 31(1), spring 1997; by Antonella Sarti, in Spiritcarvers: Interviews with Eighteen Writers from New Zealand, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Rodopi, 1998.

*  *  *

From his early prominence as a student poet in The Elaboration (1972), Bill Manhire has been an ironic lyricist wryly if self-consciously poised between playfulness and nostalgia. He elaborates the formula with considerable adroitness. Characteristically, the effect is attained by setting up an expectation of conventional lyric romanticism and then disappointing it. Thus, in "Summer" the romantic connotations of the subject are subverted by a casual conversational tone—"See? / And occasionally, one supposes, / some marriage may be celebrated"—and by an intrusive self-referentiality—"… the poet sits, somewhat alone, /saying, 'Hell, another masterpiece.'"

Along with conventional poetic language, wistfulness, loss, and the dying fall recur, identified by Ken Arvidson as "a rather sad diminuendo." Manhire's pose is often that of a reluctant romantic writing of stars, moon, clouds, light, love, children, and solitude but hoping that no one will notice. The connotations are knowingly interspersed with whimsy, inconsequentiality, puns, jokes on grammar, and scraps of pop culture and New Zealand vernacular. The mix has become so familiar as to set something of a local fashion, as has the mannered tone of shy tentativeness, an apologetic hesitancy about both language and emotion. As Macdonald P. Jackson has noted in his overview of Manhire in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998), these "hesitancies are subsumed within an elegant music, marked by artfully sliding cadences."

Although this approach can become mannered and coy, in Manhire's middle, and best, period it produced poignant insights and a poetry that was both playful and felt. "Zoetropes," for instance, purports to be a jest about the frustration often felt by exiled New Zealanders on glimpsing the letter z in a foreign newspaper, but it develops into a wistful statement of nostalgia and evocation of New Zealand's remote and fragile place in the world:

The land itself is only
smoke at anchor, drifting above
Antarctica's white flower,
 
tied by a thin red line
(5000 miles) to Valparaiso.

There is a fineness of small effect in this that commentators frequently identify as Manhire's greatest strength. The "fizz of flowers in a vase" ("A Scottish Bride"), "the modest glow /of a radio at night" ("The Voyeur"), or "watching the small explosions /under your wrists" ("The Song") are often cited as evidence.

If Manhire's later work has become more consciously portentous, that may be through the pressures of the poet's public role and the prescription that "playfulness" must be mixed with "deep seriousness." At his best he attends with fine care to language, placing weight in unexpected places, seeking to give value to the trivial or banal. He fills his poems with clichés and catchphrases, giving them resonance by repetition or incantation and sometimes turning them over and over so that they catch new light: "But what a day! The favourite lost /by a neck"; "Loosen up, chum"; "Weary, stale, flat, unprofitable / World …" Sometimes whole poems—"The Pickpocket," "The Poetry Reading," "Vanessa's Song"—are only the slightest step from total parody or pastiche. When the formula works, Manhire can surprise and shift gears and tone, as in "The Swallow":

John Keats,
what is he counting on,
his fingers? No
 
John Keats is counting on
the morning—the clouds rise
skyward one by one
from all his fingers

The procedure, of course, involves risk. Evasions and puzzles can frustrate, for the reader must submit to the implication that the reward is greater than the game. The surrealistic shifts in reference and idiom are often puzzling, but perhaps only that: "Music is this task you undertake. /It is not painful, more like eating crayons /while you lie in bed with the children."

Manhire draws his "lyrical foliage" from many sources and models, often American, as the mock gangster story "On Originality" acknowledges. He commonly gives a literary-intellectual spin to an item of popular culture or vernacular idiom, a habit that some find problematic. Interests in horse racing and slang or grammatical errors ("Declining the Naked Horse") are mocked in a way uncomfortable to readers less sensitive to what used to be called "vulgarity." "Visiting Mr Shackleton," for instance, compiles a poem from a collage of phrases written by enthusiastic Antarctic tourists in a visitors' book:

Cool! Wow! Beautiful! Awesome!
Like going back in time.
Amazing! Historic! Finally
I am truly blessed.

Implying as this does the poet's intellectual and verbal superiority, if only in arranging the phrases into poetic form, it seems supercilious as well as revealing of an ear less well attuned to American than to New Zealand idiom. The same element of patronizing mockery detracts from the treatment of such popular celebrities as Billy Graham ("An Amazing Week in New Zealand") or the explorers of the Antarctic that have become a well-publicized interest ("The Adventures of Hillary," among others).

Manhire's later work has often become more expansive, with a narrative or dramatic dynamic and a concern for topical events that may reflect his experiments since the late 1980s with short fiction. His most successful and characteristic form is still the enigmatic miniaturist lyric, and there are good examples in his 1999 volume What to Call Your Child. After an almost untainted early career, critical opinion in New Zealand has moved against him, perhaps because of his public prominence as New Zealand's first poet laureate, although the title has no official status and was conferred by an enterprising commercial sponsor. Nicholas Reid criticized the formula of approaching "the big themes apologetically, with puns and wordplay and colloquial jokes and pop-culture allusions," and Luke Strongman found the later work "superficial" and expressive mainly of "the literary machine that he's patiently helped construct." Arvidson similarly wrote of "a Manhire species of poetry to which he is of course still the main generic contributor," comparing the "somewhat diaristic" Antarctic poems unfavorably with those of a younger poet, Chris Orsman.

—Roger Robinson

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