Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and occasional guest blogger Maggie Rainey-Smith on a capital tribute to Robin Hyde.

Houses by the Sea

On Thursday evening the National Library invited the public to gather and honour the poetry of Robin Hyde and the contribution of Michele Leggott to New Zealand poetry in a generous and at times quite emotional celebration.

It started with drinks and food in the foyer of the National Library and we were entertained for the first half hour with music from the poet Chris Price and her partner, Robbie Duncan. It’s always startling to find out that someone you recognise as a very talented poet is also a talented musical improviser. And then, it was announced by way of an improvised song, that we should “take our hats and coats” and head downstairs to the auditorium for the poetry.

In truth, I was curious, rather than passionate about Robin Hyde’s poetry. I am utterly captivated by her novels The Godwits Fly, Nor the Years Condemn, and her journalism as published in Disputed Ground but I had only ever very cautiously approached her poetry. I’d dragged hubby along after work, and he isn’t in to poetry of any sort really, but needed a ride home. We were both in for a nice surprise.

Derek Challis (son of Robin Hyde/Iris Wilkinson) has generously donated his collection of his mother’s papers to the Turnbull Library. He explained his reasons for choosing the Turnbull and that although Robin spent much of her time in Auckland, it was to Wellington that she turned time and time again in her poetry and prose, and so he felt it appropriate for her work to be here. And, one could add, although he didn’t, that she was born here and Wellington is pretty much the star of her autobiographical first novel ‘The Godwits Fly.’

Lydia Wevers of the Stout Research Centre who had written what she described as a small book about Robin Hyde’s poetry some years ago was the Chair of the evening. She told us that she had the good fortune many years ago to live in a caravan as a “Lady Scholar” (Derek’s words back then) and enjoyed the hospitality of both Derek and his wife while she researched the work of Robin. Lydia read The White Seat the first lines of which are
Orangi-Kaupapa; there high banks of grasses,
Heavy with seed; in the darkness castanets clicking…

It’s a most beautiful evocation of the landscape and her environment – listen to this!
…the wagoner’s words
Melt into gloom, like the late, unhearted cherries
Whose petals were bridges of the wind, nor came to ripe

I raced home afterwards to find this poem in my copy of Derek Challis & Gloria Rawlinson’s The Book of Iris : A Life of Robin Hyde.

Before the readings began, Michele Leggott introduced us to the Tokotoko made especially for the poet laureate and demonstrated how the Tokotoko could be unscrewed at both ends, that it was created with images of fire, because the carver believes that fire is generated with poetry, and indeed in the centre of the Tokotoko is a smooth, indented piece of wood on which it is possible to strike and create fire. And, beautifully, somewhere inside the Tokotoko (we looked and tried to guess), is a piece of paper containing a Hone Tuwhare poem that the carver had in his home and placed inside the carving. The Tokotoko was then handed around the auditorium for all of us to fondle in awe, as Robin Hyde’s poetry was read to us.

I was moved to tears by the reading of three smallish poems of Robin Hyde by her son Derek. He was caught by emotion in the reading of the poems and it would have been a hard heart that wasn’t engaged by that emotion and all that it represented in regard to both of their lives.

Then Michele Leggott our Poet Laureate who produced Young Knowledge: The poems of Robin Hyde which the Book Council website describes as presenting “for the first time ever a chronological record of the poems of Robin Hyde”, read I think six poems.

What was evident throughout the evening was the passion and dedication to Robin Hyde. All three on stage, had studied her life and work, and written about it. There was a moment of true reverence and piety, when Michele Leggot spoke about researching original drafts of poems and finding indentations on the page which through magnification, they were able to read and find out the process by which some of the poetry had been created. We were all there worshipping at the poetry altar when on the screen the blank white page with just the indents barely visible was shown. And, because the actual transcription had somehow been misplaced, Lydia Wevers attempted to read the indentations out to us. Perfect! It was a re-creation of the wonderful moment Michele described to us when these indents were first discovered.

Hubby is not a convert yet to poetry, but interestingly, he was fascinated with the evening, and I believe this is a tribute to the three Robin Hyde devotees, Derek, Lydia and Michele, who treated us to a passionate tribute to her legacy, making her words accessible, revering her life and her achievements. She was a beautiful and brave woman, ahead of her time.

I am now re-engaging with Robin Hyde and find the complexity of her poetry is no longer a barrier to my engagement and joy in hearing it.


Paul Reynolds said...

Did Robin Hyde keep a journal?

I know the 1934 Journalese has been put on line by the NZETC

However, my big query is whether she kept any kind of common place book or journal - and, if so, where it might be?

Mary McCallum said...

Oh I wish I'd gone to this - it sounds magic - please remind me next time, Maggie, there's something fab like this on ... I could keep you company on the car ride in...

Anonymous said...

A good question, and one I cannot answer, but possibly Michele, Lydia, or Derek (or the Turnbull Library).

But I do have a photocopy of a very interesting letter (from the Turnbull) of a letter from Robyn to Reo Fortune (once married to Margaret Mead) and sent from China in 1938 in which she says "the bombing has been hellish.." and she is writing to ensure her insurance premiums are paid primarily because "I can't let the policy lapse because of Derek." - for all her faults as a mother, she redeems herself entirely with this sentence.

I have my sister Caroline Thomas to thank for a copy of this letter - she is an avid fan and scholar of the late Reo Fortune.

Anonymous said...

Oh whoops - the anonymous post about the letter from the Turnbull is me, - I pushed the wrong button - and yes, Mary, I will remind you next time!

Anonymous said...

However, my big query is whether she kept any kind of common place book or journal - and, if so, where it might be?

Anonymous said...

a nice response to the event. minor point -- Hyde was born 19 Jan 1906 in Cape Town, not Wellington; she came here with her family as a baby later that year.
in answer to Paul;s question, yes there are journals from the mid-1930s, and very good ones. the first is her 1934 Autobiography, written during her first full year of treatment in the Auckland Mental Hospital. the ms is in the Auckland Public Library. the second is her 1935 Journal, also
written in hospital and covering the later part of her treatment. that ms is among the papers now at Turnbull. there are other smaller bits of journal keeping that lead towards the moment of /A Home in This World/, written 1937 as she left hospital. the ms is at Turnbull and was published 1984 with an introduction by Derek Challis.There are plans to publish these 1934, 1935 and 1937 writings as a composite autobiography to complement Derek;s 2002 biography, /The Book of Iris./


PSI should also point to the ATL online catalogue of the RH
material at,12

Stuart Yeates said...

At the NZETC, we have a lot more than 1934's "Journalese." We have dozens of pieces (mainly relatively short articles) by Robin and dozens more that mention or cite Robin. See