Cultural Inheritances In Polynesian Poetry Essay Research

Cultural Inheritances In Polynesian Poetry Essay, Research Paper

The poetical work of Albert Wendt, Apirana Taylor,

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Hone Tuwhare, Keri Hulme,

Gloria Rawlinson, J. C. Sturm, and Roma Potiki all have

voices that are informed by and reflect their Polynesian

cultural inheritances in various ways. The main ways in

which these inheritances can be seen to be reflected, is by

showing the poets inclusion of their culture s mythology,

customs, and civilisation. The way in which these poets

voices have been informed by their cultures, can be seen

with describing the way these poets address their culture s


Albert Wendt was born in Western Samoa. The reflections

of his Polynesian cultural inheritances is evident in the way

he uses their mythologies in his poetry. In his poem No

Return there is an obvious use of culture s mythology:

her journey to Pulotu has no dawn. (p109) Pulotu is the

spirit world in Polynesian mythology. In The Mountains of

Ta u he draws on the famous legend of Maui: like

spinning tops or Maui s endlessly / inventing mind. (p110)

Maui is an important part of Polynesian mythology; Maui is

a demigod who is used to tell of many stories.

There are also reflections of Polynesian cultural

inheritances in Hone Tuwhare s use of mythology in his

poetry. Tuwhare was born in Kaikohe, and belongs to the

Ngapuhi hapus Ngati Korokoro, Ngati Tautahi, Te

Popoto, and Uri-O-Hau. In his poem Papa-tu-a-nuku , he

uses Maori mythology. The title, Papa-tu-a-nuku , means

Earth Mother , which is part of a number of nature s

elements that are personified in Maori mythology. Hense,

the earth being personified as a mother, and the content of

the poem involving this interaction with the earth:

We are massaging the ricked

back of the land

with our sore but ever-loving feet:

hell, she loves it!

Squirming, the land wriggles

in delight. (p242)

The reflections of Polynesian cultural inheritances are also

evident in Apirana Taylor s use of Maori mythology.

Taylor is of Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Porou and Ngati

Ruanui descent. In his poem The Womb , when describing

the grievances of the land because of the settlers damaging

it, he desribes the land s retaliation in the form of a Maori

myth: that of the god Ruamoko:

I am the land

the womb of life and death

Ruamoko the unborn god

rumbles within me

and the fires of Ruapehu still live. (p101)

Further, In the poetry of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, there

are also reflections of Polynesian cultural inheritances of

mythology. Throughout the voice of Sanctuary of Spirits

many Polynesian legends are referred to; such as Te

Rauparaha, Tama, Hakitara, Pehi, Te Hiko, Tamaiharanui,

etc. Throughout the voice of The Dark Lord of Savaiki

legends such as Paroa and Paetou are mentioned. The

name in the title itself is synonymous with his culture s

mythology. In Soul Traps , the legend of Maui is present

again, as in Wendt s The Mountains of Ta u ; Maui is

often referred to in Polynesian poetry.

It is not only the poets use of mythology in their poetry

that reflects their cultural inheritances; it is also in the

content of many of their poems that show the customs and

civilisation of their culture. This is evident in the poetry of

Tuwhare; such as in Tangi . A Tangi is the maori meaning

for a funeral, which is a traditional ritual that Maoris

undertake with the goodbyes and burial of the dead. The

bowed heads / of old women (p237) invokes an image

that is synonymous with a Tangi. In the poem Dear

Cousin , there is reference to food (or kai ) that is

synonymous with Maori s preference for such. This

includes Puha, Kamokamo, riwai, etc, which is represented

in the following extract: and on it place a steaming pot of

puha, / kamokamo, riwai. (p245)

The poetry of Keri Hulme also shows a reflecting of Maori

cultural inheritances through her inclusions of their

customs in her poetry. This is evident in her poetry from

Fishing the Olearia Tree . In this, the food that is

described is synonomous with Maori kai ; such as kumara,

yams, muttonbirds, etc:

pink flesh of smoked eels, the tangy succulence of


muttonbirds grilled so their skin crackles and the sweet

fat bastes

the kumara, the baked yams, the wrinkled salmon-pink

yams. (p86)

Throughout the poetry of Gloria Rawlinson; her inclusion

of the civilisation of her culture, reflects the cultural

inheritances from her old home of Tonga. This is evident in

her poem The Islands Where I Was Born . The poem is

about the memories of her home, as suggested by the title.

Consequently, many aspects of her cultural inheritances

from Tonga s civilisation are reflected. The imagery is

synonymous with Tonga s culture, in which there is much

imagery of coral, palm trees, and the ocean: When I saw

the Pacific skyward beyond our coral; / Farewells fluttered

… palm-trees turned away (p394) There are also islands,

whales, etc: Once on an island voyage / A mating of

whales. (p395)

More particular, in describing the poets use of their

culture s customs and civilisation, there is their use of

language. Wendt s cultural inheritances from Polynesia is

reflected in the way he incorporates Samoan language into

his poetry. This is evident in his poem The Mountains of

Ta u . A lot of the words used are of the Samoan dialect,

such as aitu and atua . Many of the nouns that are used

are also of Samoan origin; such as the the sweet black

berries of mosooi and the laumaile leaves. (p110)

Tuwhare also reflects his cultural inheritances by

incorporating his culture s language into his poetry. This is

evident in his poem Sun o , where the speaker uses an

informal style of speaking, synonymous with some Maoris

way of speaking the English language. The informal

pronunciations and morphology of words can be seen as

distinctively inherent with some people of his culture:

Gissa smile Sun, giss yr best

good mawnin one, fresh n cool like

yore still comin – still

half in an half outa the lan scape? (p242)

Despite the reflections of the poets Polynesian

inheritances, the way that they have been informed by their

Polynesian culture must be discussed. The way in which

these poets voices have been informed by their cultures,

can be seen by describing the way these poets address their

culture s concerns. It is evident that the voice of Wendt s

poetry is informed by his Polynesian culture, with his

concern of the way that the Settlers have forced

Colonialism upon them. This is a view held by many people

because of the injustices that occured with it. He indicates

this in his poem Colonialism: Independence . In this poem,

Colonialism has attempted to mould the natives into the

same shape as the Settlers, while rejecting their beliefs:

The palagi Governor, he teach

me the white face of his God

and Government.

I learnt that.

The palagi governor slyly tries to acheive this by giving

him gifts, such as the materials to build him a strong house

and the following: Then the palagi Governor, he reward /

me with a musket. The over-persistence in which the

Governor is trying to mould the natives into the shape of

the settlers culture is indicated: when he refused / for to

leave my house. The natives defiance to the Government

trying to shape him into somebody else is indicated: I shot

to him / and he is dead. (p108)

It is evident in the poetry of J. C. Sturm, that she is also

informed by Polynesian culture, with her concerns for

them. In her poem Maori to Pakeha it is evident that she

is concerned with the settlers forceful colonialism. It is

asserted that the settlers have been colonising too much

and that they do not belong; while the Maori assert their

place in having every right to live their way on their land:

Where do you think you re going?

You must be colour blind.

Can t you see you ve strayed

Into another colour zone?

This is brown country, man

Brown on the inside

As well as the outside

Brown through and through

The unjust way in which the europeans have colonialised is

described. The Maoris are being held captive by the

invading settlers:

Meanwhile holding me gently

Firmly captive

Here, in the tight curve

Of your alien arm. (p75)

Throughout the poetry of Taylor, it is evident that he is

informed of Maori concerns, in that he also addresses the

injustice of the settler s colonialism. This is evident in the

poem The Womb . In The Womb the speaker is the

native land, and is describing the way in which the settlers

wrecking it; this is addressed in the following:

Your fires burnt my forests

leaving only the charred bones

of toara rimu and kahikatea

Your ploughs like the fingernails

of a woman scarred my face

It seems I became a domestic giant. (p101)

Taylor addresses the concerns of Maoris, also in the way

that the langauge and culture of Maoris is dying. This is

evident in the poem Sad Joke on a Marae . In this poem,

the speaker is Maori but the only maori words that he

knows is Tihei Mauriora ; implying that the language is


though I said nothing but

Tihei Mauriora

for that s all I knew. (p99)

In his poem Taiaha Haka Poem , he implies that Maori

culture has become artificial. It is implyed that there is no

longer any authenticity or spirit to their cultural customs;

but only plastic maoridom . So, Maori culture has been

reduced to merely aesthetics with no soul:

I am the taiha left among people

who dance and twirl poi

in gaudy halls

of plastic maoridom. (p100)

Taylor further emphasises the loss of Maori culture and

spirit in his poem Te Kooti . The legend of Te Kooti with

his rebellion on the settlers and his enigmatic spirit is

described as dead. In other words, what he is implying is

that the spirit of the Maori people today is spent. This is

made clear in the following extract:

Now the stones are cold.

Te Kooti is dead

under incubus earth.

We are ashes of his fire

dead a hundred years. (p99)

This can be further elaborated, by discussing the poetry of

Roma Potiki. Her poem Compulsory Class Visits

suggests that maori culture is falling because their own

people are being moulded into the shape of the settlers:

and even the maori start to call themselves new

zealanders. The only interest in maori culture now only

comes through compulsory class visits . Further, the class

visits are suggested as simply aesthetic, synonymous with

plastic maoridom :

at the powhiri they are directed to sing

there is no kaea there is no ihi.

holding their papers, they look at the words -

Ao-te-a-roa. (p9)

It is now evident, in the work of Albert Wendt, Apirana

Taylor, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Hone Tuwhare, Keri

Hulme, Gloria Rawlinson, J. C. Sturm, and Roma Potiki,

that their Polynesian inheritances to their poetical voices

are from their culture s mythology, customs, civilisation,

and language. Following this, their voices being informed

by their Polynesian culture, has been shown to be from

their addressing of their culture s concerns.


Bornholdt, O’Brian, and Williams (eds). An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.



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