The Minstrel in The Gallery - Sam Hunt's Selected Poems
often ask me why
I write this bow-wow poetry.
And cross-my-heart it’s true
I’ve got nothing else to do.
- Four bow-wow poems
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Sam Hunt's poetry is its quality of urgent authenticity. Encountering this latest compilation, the reader is immediately struck by its easy accessibility, tonal sincerity, and lack of linguistic pretension. In eschewing complexity and difficulty for easily intelligible vernacular, colloquial, and demotic idioms, it is as though the entire literary legacy of twentieth-century Modernism and post-Modernism has somehow passed him by. This sense of untutored immediacy has made Hunt famous not only for public readings of his own verses, but also those of other poets whom he admires and respects, whether famous, obscure, or entirely anonymous.
Now seventy-two, Hunt has been a central figure in New Zealand literature since the publication of From Bottle Creek: Selected Poems 1967-69. In the early seventies, his appearance on the television arts show Kaleidoscope brought him instant fame. By focusing on the performance aspect of his poetry, he subsequently attracted a broad and appreciative audience, exposing the tendency of his more intellectual contemporaries to consider popular culture in terms of input rather than output. Many of his reading tours have been undertaken with the poet and "fellow exuberant" Gary McCormick, and much of his work is written in an informal style similar to that of Denis Glover, Alistair Campbell, and James K Baxter (all of whom were personal friends, as well as direct influences). Baxter addressed several of his poems to Hunt and (in Letter to Sam Hunt) even went so far as to provide direct career advice to the young poet. Hunt frequently recites Baxter's poems during his performances and claims to have committed over two hundred of them to memory.
Hunt grew up on Auckland's North Shore and first became interested in poetry due to his mother's influence, while his early poems featuring his elderly father are considered to be amongst his best. Educated at St Peter's College, Auckland, Hunt chafed under the Christian Brothers' strict authoritarianism, recalling on numerous occasions an incident in which he was strapped for reciting one of Baxter's poems in the classroom that included explicit sexual imagery (his classmate and fellow poet Terry Locke commented on the significance of this experience in his review of James K Baxter: Poems selected and introduced by Sam Hunt).
As a teenager, Hunt had a pronounced stutter and cultivated a highly original style of dress and deportment to express his sense of individuality and the pressures of adolescence. In his final year at St Peter's, his English master was the poet Ken Arvidson and Hunt has said that if he "had not come to the school, I would not have lasted as long as I did, and I'd just turned sixteen when I left. He introduced me to poets like Gordon Challis, who I've gone on loving ever since". Arvidson endowed a poetry prize at St Peter's which was awarded to Hunt in 1963. One of his most celebrated poems, Brother Lynch, concerns a St Peter's College teacher who was sympathetic to the young Hunt. An annual literature competition at St Peter's College is named after Hunt, and some of his earliest poems were published in St Peter's College magazines, but at the end of his sixth form year the headmaster indicated he was not expected to return to the upper sixth form.
Hunt interpreted this as a tacit request for him to leave the school - which he promptly did, leading a restless and peripatetic existence drifting around New Zealand from 1964 to 1967. He describes this period of his life In Rainbows, and a promise of snow -
Sixteen and just left school
I dumped my books and hiked
Four hundred miles south;
Hitched-up where I liked.
An abiding sense of place is pivotal to any appreciation of Hunt’s oeuvre. From the late 1960s until 1997, he lived in various locations around Pauatahanui, Porirua, and a boat shed in Paremata, vividly depicted in such poems as Bottle Creek (featuring his black and white sheepdog Minstrel), Battle Hill (where his eldest son was born), and Death's Corner (formerly a farmhouse owned by an actual Mr Death). In 1997 Hunt moved to Waiheke Island and now lives a reclusive existence in a remote location on Kaipara Harbour in Northland - “not Carthusian, but Cistercian style,” as he suggested in a recent Dominion Post interview.
Hunt spent brief periods working as a truck-driver, panel-beater, and secondary school teacher, before deciding to devote himself to writing poetry. He was among a younger generation of New Zealand poets who began to be published in the late 1960s and were interested in daily linguistic usage and natural units of speech, rather than any rarefied or academic form of poetic utterance. This approach resulted in a lasting emphasis on the oral aspects of poetic discourse and a lifelong interest in public performance.
In 2009, David Kilgour of the cult band The Clean released an album on which Hunt's poems were reinterpreted as song lyrics. Five years later, Hunt and Kilgour reunited with The Heavy 8s to create a second album, entitled The 9th, on which Hunt replaced Kilgour as lead vocalist. Released in 2015 to great critical acclaim, the recording was supported by performances in Queenstown, Dunedin, Wellington, and Auckland. Hunt is also a familiar figure in New Zealand figurative art, notably in paintings by Robin White, such as in Sam Hunt at the Portobello Pub.
Hunt's ability to connect with a public audience was rewarded in 1975 with a Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University, as a result of which he spent the following year teaching in Dunedin. Awarded the Queen's Service Medal for community service in the 1985, he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry in the 2010 Queen's Birthday Honours list, and received a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2012. More recently, Hunt has released his own range of wines. Each of the five varieties features his poetry on the label and has a QR code that enable users to listen to Hunt, Kilgour, and The Heavy 8s perform excerpts from his poems. Such are the rewards for popularising poetry with the masses.
Personal experience invariably provides Hunt with his main subject matter - significant moments in his own life, the joys and disappointments of love, as well as poems about his father, mother, and two sons. Several of his works share common themes and recurring characters, such as Porirua Friday Night and Girl with Black Eye in Grocer's Shop, both of which feature the same female character. In The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Paul Miller described Hunt as "a kind of laconic Jack Kerouac" whose "roadsongs are surprised by their own powerful emotion," noting that everything he writes is "geared for personal performance: his lyrics are deliberately uncomplicated and colloquial; their traditional forms and regular rhythms allow 'the stories and myths [to be] fleshed and invested with energy and power'."
Many critics have focused on the "unabashed romanticism" of Hunt's work, comparing it to that of his contemporary Hone Tuwhare. The continuing appeal of both poets has been credited to their shared tone of unapologetic populism. A rollicking, rambunctious raconteur and unreformed pot head, Hunt sometimes states his official occupation as "sullen artist” - a reference to fellow dipsomaniac Dylan Thomas, whose In my Craft or Sullen Art speaks directly to his own poetic practice. Hunt has also expressed his admiration for WB Yeats, WH Auden, and the song lyrics of Bob Dylan, as well as such South American poets as Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, the Italian Salvatore Quasimodo, and the Hungarian Jozsef Attila. He often recites Attila's poem A Hetedik (The Seventh), with which he is familiar in both English and Hungarian, having often heard it delivered by a Hungarian friend of his family as a child.
Hunt's unflinching vision encompasses such recognizable territory as family ties, friendship, lovers, landscapes, and the play of weather, as well as the challenges of aging and mortality. After a ten year hiatus, he has continued to produce new poems almost every year since 2007 and his book sales far exceed those of most other New Zealand poets, who rarely shift more than three hundred copies. His previous book of poems, Salt River Songs, sold almost three thousand. Coming to it contains not only many of the early compositions that first gained him national attention, but also nineteen previously unpublished poems written earlier this year. It is intended to replace two previous, but sadly out of print collections - Doubtless: New and Selected and Kuncklebones: Poems 1962-2012. The title poem, written over thirty years ago, originally referred to inspiration. Now it concerns the transient nature of corporeality, characterized by the expression of deep feeling and often leading to a poignant, elegiac conclusion.
Hunt's countless readings in pubs, country halls, cafes, and theatres around the country have made him a New Zealand literary institution. With his mane of unkempt grey hair, tight-fitting, "Foxton straight" trousers, unbuttoned waistcoats, and open-necked shirts, he has been described as a “rhyming Rod Stewart.” In truth, his poems are more reminiscent of UK punk poet John Cooper Clarke, with whom he shares not only a readily accessible approach to reciting poetry, but also a politically defiant and rebellious attitude. They are delivered in his distinctive, incantatory drawl, frequently punctuated by finger taps flicked out for staccato emphasis and surprisingly deft, dance-like steps. He also shares with Clarke an affection for syncopated, internal rhythms that remain an essential component to his technique of direct audience engagement. Unlike Clarke, however, any sense of playful irony or humour is noticeably absent. Instead, an air of languid sincerity and somewhat morose melancholy is his strongest suit.
According to Oliver Stead, in Art Icons of New Zealand: Lines in the Sand, Hunt is "a bard in the truest sense of the itinerant minstrel, Hunt's turangawaewae is the public bar. Touring the pubs with bands of musos and poets, he is himself one of the national icons." Hunt’s poems are clearly written to be recited out loud rather than read and lose a lot of their intimacy and impetus on the printed page. “It was proving the old theory that poems are there to be told,” he claims. “You don’t necessarily have to see the score. A book of poems is really only a book of scores. They’re not the poems, they’re copies of the poems … I’ve always said my poems are songs for the tone deaf and I don’t want to betray my original crowd. I don’t want to start singing in tune. How uncool would it get?”
As befits his carefully cultivated image of a latter-day traveling troubadour, Hunt's poetic appeal is both limited and local, pedestrian and parochial. His avoidance of semantic obscurity, syntactic complexity, and any semblance of polysyllabic or latinate diction plays directly to the gallery. Sometimes his lines even rhyme. As the artist Dick Frizzell observed at the opening of his 2012 exhibition of a series of paintings inspired by Hunt's poems, both he and Hunt have committed the "ultimate sin of being understood." And what’s wrong with that?
Sam Hunt's Coming to it: Selected Poems is published by potton & burton as a hardback edition and costs $29.99.