16 Feb 2019

Fleur Adcock on her life in poetry

From Saturday Morning, 11:15 am on 16 February 2019
Fleur Adcock

Fleur Adcock Photo: Jemimah Kuhfeld

New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock turned 85 this month and is marking this milestone with the publication of her Collected Poems.

Adcock, who lives in England, talks to Kim Hill about her work and reads some of her favourite poems from the book.

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Adcock, who also a highly regarded editor and translator of medieval poetry, tells Kim Hill that she resisted the idea of collecting her own works into a book for a long time out of fear that it would "feel like a tombstone".

Then she started to think it was a good excuse to come back to New Zealand and see family.

The former University of Otago librarian was born in Papakura but moved to England at five and spent part of her childhood there.

She says she didn't regard writing poetry as a political act in 1950s New Zealand.

"There weren't many women poets around so I just did it ... Feminists had been getting the vote and important stuff – not getting little poems into magazines."

By the time she was 28, Adcock had been married twice before realising she wasn't cut out for it.

"I'm too selfish and independent and impatient and bossy."

Celebrated NZ poet James K Baxter was a guest at Adcock's 1952 wedding to fellow poet Alistair Campbell.

Baxter's mention that he raped his wife Jacqueline Sturm in a recently published letter is "not entirely surprising" to Adcock, she says.

"He was such an awkward man around women. I used to think all his talk about his women was in his head. I didn't think he had any affairs. Who would fancy him? He wasn't a very attractive man."

"[Sturm] probably didn't want to [have sex] more than once a month because… it was Jim. She was a scholar and she had two children and goodness knows life was hard enough with this drunk."

An image of poet James K. Baxter.

James K. Baxter Photo: James K Baxter. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1971/1098-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23120359

In those days, there was no law against rape within a marriage, she says.

"It was taken for granted that people had their marital rights. You could divorce a woman if she didn't give you your marital rights – it was grounds for divorce."

Baxter was a brilliant poet who Adcock says she is grateful to for putting her on the map as a writer in the 1950s.

"If it hadn't been what he wrote about my poetry I wouldn't have got so far in New Zealand… I needed that encouragement because it was hard."

Fleur moved to London in 1963 after her marriage to writer and performer Barry Crump, an occasion she describes with: "registry office, deeply hungover with a black eye".

Adcock is still writing and says the size of her Collected Works confirms that she has "suddenly became embarrassingly prolific".

  • Listen to Fleur Adcock talk about her 2013 poetry collection Glass Wings here.

Fleur Adcock's numerous honors and awards include the New Zealand National Book Award, the Cholmondeley Award, the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. In 2008 she was awarded the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.