19 November, 2012
All of us had particular interests in Hyde’s poem. Apart from Derek Challis seated in the audience, the two with the most obvious authority to talk about ‘Young Knowledge’ were Michele Leggott, editor of Hyde’s collected poems; and Mary Edmond-Paul, editor of Hyde’s autobiographical writings. Michele detailed the painstaking editorial work involved in assembling the poem from typescript pages whose coherence had been compromised; and locating it in the circumstances of Hyde’s life. At an early stage, then, we encountered the puzzle of what might appear to be two separate poems or at least two separate impulses spliced together; Michele argued for their coherence. So, by implication, did Mary, in terms of subjective or psychological coherence rather than manuscript evidence – though of course the text and its affects are not separate.
Though Iain Sharp modestly disclaimed any such direct connection with Hyde’s poem, he too had good credentials for talking about it. As the author of a superb illustrated biography of the explorer and artist Charles Heaphy, Iain was able to map the historical circumstances of the poem’s strange ‘turn’, the moment when its succession of intense, sometimes hallucinatory takes on what constitutes knowledge abruptly shifts to two historical moments and places in the nineteenth century. The first of these picks up and even cuts-and-pastes a fragment of Edward Markham’s account of settlers felling ship-building timber in Northland; and then relocates without transition to a place near the Arahura River on the South Island’s West Coast, visited by Heaphy in May 1846. Here, while looking for good arable land, the explorer seems to be ambushed by the poem at the moment he encounters a Maori community of ‘Greenstone people’ until then unknown to European settlers.
It’s at the moment of this encounter, at once vividly imagined by Hyde and factually documented in Heaphy’s journals (which Hyde had read close to the time she wrote the poem), as well as in a subsequently published magazine account, that Hyde’s poem releases its extraordinary burst of energy – its key moment of ‘mindfulness’, as Mary described it. Mindfulness is a concept used in modern clinical psychology since the 1970s, but related to much older Buddhist concepts of knowledge as acute awareness of and attention to the presentness of things, the present moment – sati in Pali, in Sanscrit smrti. Ranged against sati are the kinds of negative forces of anxiety and delusion with which Hyde was familiar.
Full piece at NZ Poet Laureate