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Poetry for Sport and War

Poetry for Sport and War

Robert Kelly

“There’s a whole lot of talk
About changing of our flag.
They’ve already spent a ransom
On new fangled rags.”

Last night a reading of a poem expressing support for keeping the current New Zealand flag began to circulate around social media. The video, published on YouTube on Monday, features NZ theatre stalwart Ian Mune applying his best gravelly tones to a string of stanzas providing an extremely selective version of New Zealand history titled ‘Lest We Forget: The Real Flag’. Now while I don’t want to address the politics particularly, I do want to talk about the poetry.

Almost the entire poem is taken up with discussion of the flag’s presence at the conflicts which New Zealanders fought and died in overseas during the 20th century. Freedom and love are cited as the motivations of the flag and the loss of life in overseas conflicts is mentioned so many times it becomes tedious.

“Then the next damn war …
You’d think she’d had enough
But that old Southern Cross
Refused to give up
On those underneath her ….
Despairing …. alone..
She flew for their loved ones,
For their land and their homes.”

The other aspect of New Zealand society mentioned in detail in the reading is sport and the people who excel at it, always under the watchful eye of the flag. This poem reads like a paean to a very specific view of this country, characterised by war and sport. There is also something distinctly uncomfortable about the way the flag is repeatedly referred to as “she”. The New Zealand that the poem is referencing feels to me like the one of the world wars which it is references.

Music, culture and science are mentioned near the end of the poem but that feels like an afterthought after all the stanzas about war and perseverance against adversity. There are two Maori names mentioned and no Pacific or Asian names. It is a very white and hegemonic New Zealand that this poem’s flag flies over.

It is also not particularly well written; it seems to have been scrawled down in a real hurry. The rhymes are so obvious you can feel them coming and the attempts at personification with the flag are extremely clunky. The reading still feels compelling though because frankly you could get Ian Mune to read an eye chart and it would still be enthralling.

The reading has been shared widely by proponents of keeping the current flag. While Ian Mune’s involvement as the reader of the poem is made prominent I can’t for the life of me work out who wrote the damn thing. The video is hosted by RedSky Television but no further attribution has been provided and comments have been disabled on the video. RedSky says it was sent to them but doesn’t say by whom.

This is a very open attempt to pull on the heartstrings of people already made vulnerable to that kind of persuasion by the ANZAC commemorations happening for the centenary of WW1. It is interesting then that there is so little transparency about who wrote it and who organised the recording and filming.

‘Lest We Forget: The Real Flag’ is not alone in the world of poorly written verse supporting the current flag. ‘Why Change the Flag?’ by Hugh Wyles from 2005 lays out a similar case.

“From Antarctica to Everest and even to the Moon
this symbol of our Country went with dignity and pride.
At Olympic Games and other International Sport it’s flown
and over many battlefields where valiant men have died.”

The full poem can be found here.

While in no way a supporter of the new flag design, or the whole rigmarole altogether, the quality of the poetry on this side of the issue might drive me to voting for change.

In the interest of balance it is also important to point out there is also terrible verse being written to support the other side of the debate as well.


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