By C.K. Stead
AUP, $59.99 | Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

‘I HAVE tried, on the whole, to represent my own history as it occurred, and not make it look better, or myself wiser, more mature, more adroit, than I was at the time.’

C.K.(Christian Karlson) Stead was born in Auckland in 1932 and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s greatest living poet. A student of Allen Curnow and Frank Sargeson, he has published fourteen collections of poetry, eleven novels, seven books of literary criticism, two collections of short stories and edited a number of other collections. He has won many literary prizes, honours and fellowships, including the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship in 2005, during which he created this collection. Collected Poems 1951-2006 brings together his published poetry as well as 22 previously uncollected poems. A thick hard-backed volume, it comes in at just over 500 pages including a foreword and extensive notes and annotations written by Stead.

Collected Poems follows the order in which Stead’s books of poetry were published, although he does state in the foreword that there are some overlaps. The chronological ordering of the book shows how Stead’s work progressed during his career. While the earlier collections are more traditional and constrained, a noticeable shift in tone and form starts with the 1979 collection Walking Westward. After this, a fresh and clear voice starts to break the rules and Stead just keeps on going. The title poem of this collection has the speaker describing the experience of viewing a Picasso:

       ‘I stood breathless before it
       knowing that room although I’d never been there
       where the sun lay on its back and with delicate strokes
       painted light over light on the ceiling
       above the brooding lovers.’

The sentiment expressed in these lines could be an analogy for Stead’s own preoccupation with language and the sudden stomach-grab and wonder of words that is a recurring theme throughout his work. Known for his wordplay and focus on sound, Collected Poems showcases how, over time, he has experimented with these aspects of poetry through using a diverse range of forms. This makes his work appealing to the eye as well as the ear. There is a real sense that Stead, as a craftsman, has used these different forms to teach himself his craft, although not to the detriment of the reader. Stead aims for clarity; he wants to be understood and his work is very accessible.

The themes of Stead’s work are as wide ranging as his form and although it is hard to generalise over five hundred pages of poetry, themes of love, protest, family and death are common. There is also a sense of place (and time) as the poems address topical issues of the day. They celebrate, investigate and mock, through both satire and comedy, the act of living and of writing. Many of the poems start like an easy conversation before suddenly pulling the reader into an unexpected moment.

My favourite of the collections is The Black River (2007) which Stead wrote after experiencing a stroke that left him able to write but unable to read (which he has since recovered from). This collection is darker than the others and there is a vulnerability that is not as present in his earlier work. The work is still witty and sharp but the reader can see a man who is questioning his mortality and – even at a time of ill health – the way words still demand his attention. It was incredibly enjoyable and engaging to read.

I saw Stead speak about this experience at a writers’ festival but still found it hard to get an idea of what he is like as a man, and if that man is like his writing. His answers were sometimes offhand but then in the next breath serious. Although his poetry can be confessional, I am not sure if the man can be found in this book. At times the author felt aloof, his work disregarding the reader, but his relationship and life-long obsession with language was clear. Stead himself explores the idea of the man and the writer in the poem, ‘C.K.’ as he describes meeting himself:

       ‘One day I’ll meet
       the bastard, surprise
       him, introduce

       myself. ‘Hullo, C.K.
       I’m Karl. We haven’t
       met.’ ‘Let’s

       ‘keep it like that,’
       he says, unfriendly,
       and turns away.

It would take a year to read this book and do it justice and because of this it is hard to write a meaningful review. In short: the book will have something for anyone who likes poetry because it is a diverse and accomplished collection by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers. Collected Poems would be especially enjoyed by a reader who wants to see the way a poet’s work can change and grow throughout their career. This is not to say Stead’s has ended; apparently at the book’s launch he said that although the book looked like a tombstone, there is more to come.