Friday, 12 December 2008

Eileen Duggan: stunning poetry

Eileen Duggan (1894–1972) was well-known in New Zealand in the 1930s and 1940s as a leading poet; she supported herself full time as writer for 50 years, producing not only poetry but essays, reviews and journalism.

I first came across Eileen Duggan's work in the beautiful anthology My Heart Goes Swimming: New Zealand Love Poems , which also contains other New Zealand greats such as Katherine Mansfield, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Cilla McQueen, James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire, Fleur Adcock, Lauris Edmond, and many others. Unfortunately this book is currently out of print.

Duggan's poetry is polished and formal, which will alienate some readers, and at its worst can be sentimental and contrived, but at its best I think it's breathtaking! I haven't been able to locate any of her books of poetry still in print, but some can be found in libraries. Meanwhile here are three poems to whet your appetite:

The tides run up the Wairau

The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.

For though I cannot love you,
Yet heavy, deep and far,
Your tide of love comes swinging,
Too swift for me to bar

Some thought of you must linger
A salt of pain in me
For oh what running river
Can stand against the sea?


You are the still caesura
That breaks a line in two;
A quiet leaf of darkness
Between two flowers of blue

A little soft indrawing
Between two sighs;
A slender spit of silence
Between two seas of cries.


The leaf was dark until a wind
Flung it against the living sun
And all the little cells behind
Were lit up one by one
Lord, if my green has power of fire,
Fling me against you love or ire
That I may give you out again
In one green, luminous amen.

You can read more about Eileen Duggan on her Book Council page, and there are some photographs of her here.


Anonymous said...

Yes, exquisite at her best. I recall learning at school, "Why do you sit, so dreamily dreamily, Kingfisher over the stream, Silent your beak and silent the water, What is your dream?"

My father gave my mother a copy of 'Poems', out in 1937, which I lent to Jim Baxter in 1960. James K. returned it in '72 when I came back to NZ and died soon after. He used to quote from 'St Peter' which [he said] was his favourite Duggan poem. She'll come again, I'm sure. TM

Gerardine said...

We learned the long poem 'A New Zealand Christmas"
at my convent Secondary School, and presented it as a dramatic verse presentation at a school concert. (1955) I have never forgotten my solo lines, as I was a very nervous 14 year old. I have Grace Burgess's "A Gentle Poet: a portrait of Eileen Duggan", signed by the author. She and E.D. were close friends. The book contains some photos of E.D. She was very beautiful, in a spiritual and ethereal way. I also own "Eileen Duggan" by Frank MckAY (New Zealand writers and their Work series).

jim mora said...

It is a shame that fashion has relegated her. She had the gift. Thank you for this page.