Harvey McQueen, 1934-2010. An appreciation.

Harvey McQueen, poet, teacher, editor, 1934-2010.

I never met Harvey, but talked to him once on the phone, when he was looking – typically – for permission to publish another poet’s work in a new anthology of poems on gardens and gardening. He knew that I was close to Peter Hooper, and had contacted me to see if I knew who had the rights to a poem of his that he wanted to include. I happened to have the address of a next-of-kin, so was able to help. The Earth’s Deep Breathing: Garden Poems by New Zealand Poets duly appeared in 2007.

My first encounter with his work as an anthologist came when I was given a copy of the seminal 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, co-edited with Ian Wedde, and Margaret Orbell. She provided the Maori poetry with her own translations, plus a brilliant concise introduction to the Maori tradition that opened this unique collection. The fat 575 page paperback still looks striking today, with its red New Zealand Railways guards van parked up on a siding at Kaikoura (I think) gracing the cover – and the insert photo of an ancient railways’ points switch on the back.

Two working poets and the country’s leading scholar and translator of traditional Maori waiata had broken some completely new ground. Not only had they shifted the foundations from Allen Curnow’s pre-war generation of white males (with a smattering of women), to a include new voices such as Keri Hulme and Apirana Taylor, they had begun the conversation where it needed to begin – with Maori voices, hearking back to the early 1800s.

There were more women than ever, and a good number of babyboomer poets who would go on to justify their inclusion, some writing into the new millennium. But it was the decision to include Maori poetry that got up some people’s noses – including, famously, the contrarian critic C. K. Stead, who attacked with gusto in a Landfall review the whole idea of Maori poetry in translation belonging in an anthology of English poetry.

The editors were right: these poems belonged to the New Zealand English verse tradition as much as Maori and Pakeha now belonged to each other, and it was here, post-Baxter, that I got my first real exposure to the Maori tradition. I never got the chance to thank Harvey, or Margaret Orbell, for what they achieved; I have managed to tell Ian Wedde how grateful I am – so I think they are thanked in him.

Certainly, Margaret Orbell’s work in the Maori Department at the University of Canterbury paid rich dividends for me, when I was fortunate to be taught by two of her former pupils, Lyndsay Head and Jeanette King. Doctor Head supervised my thesis on Elsdon Best, which has led to book on his work appearing in the marketplace. We are all in debt to such profound ancestors who whose love for poetry, history, for scholarship itself – and the Maori language and its speakers – have helped to hold back the tide of linguistic oblivion that has been the fate of so many indigenous languages in the post-colonial era.

Harvey read and enjoyed my recent book of poems, Fly Boy, and said so in an entirely gratuitous and gracious review on his blog, Stoat Spring. I am delighted the book gave him pleasure; his whole approach to poetry, his enjoyment of it and his generosity in appreciation of the medium shine through in what he has to say:


Anthologists – good editors – are a generous and necessary bunch. Harvey has done us all proud. Even though I never met you, sir, I am going to miss you.

E te rangatira, e te kaituhituhi, kua wheturangitia i te rangi, haere ki to atua, moe mai, moe mai, moe mai ra! Chief, writer, a star shining in the heavens, go to your god, sleep, rest, sleep!


About paparoa

Writer and researcher.
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2 Responses to Harvey McQueen, 1934-2010. An appreciation.

  1. Pingback: Reading Janet Frame « Homepaddock

  2. Gerry Webb says:

    Hi Paparoa,
    Trying to contact you. Can we talk by email?


    Gerry who you met at Home and Away

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