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Spectrum Special: Our Glorious Heritage of New Zealand Verse

‘Consider for a moment the benefits that our ancestors brought to New Zealand – income tax, sewage outfalls, gorse. And in the realm of literature; when our forefathers came to these shores they brought quill and ink with them as a matter of course. Every conscientious Victorian wrote voluminously. They spent their time vigorously splitting shingles by day and infinitives by night.’

Alwyn Owen, introducing his 1972 Spectrum ‘Our Glorious Heritage of New Zealand Verse’. This always-popular Spectrum has lost nothing over the years, perhaps because the poetry it highlights is even more gloriously bad now than it seemed 40 years ago.

Every settlement had its sensitive soul who could ‘produce a couplet about the Kowhai or, in a few deft words, turn a local calamity into a literary catastrophe’. Nothing escaped the attention of our colonial bards: the Maori race, Queen Victoria, the Dunedin Fire Brigade – all would be bombarded with wretched puns and rhymes so stretched as to bring tears to the eyes.

Alfred Domett (1811 -1887), friend of English poet Robert Browning, achieved notoriety as one of our most prolific poets and also managed to find time to become New Zealand’s 4th premier. Domett displayed his energy in his epic poem Ranolf and Amohia, a South Sea Day Dream. The plot is essentially boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl but Domett manages to string this out over 488 pages. In the process Ranolf establishes himself as one of the most monumental bores of literature, ready to philosophize at the drop of a hat. Here he is in full philosophical flight... ‘Thoughts are the same as things, and what is true of one must be of the other too. None-existence as a thought must be like pure existence a reality, being absolute and uncombined with qualities of any kind... It says much for Amohia’s stamina that she’s still around after 488 pages of this kind of thing.