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Do Look Down: Surveying the Field from Aotearoa/New Zealand

Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003).
Fig. 1. Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003). Photograph courtesy of the University of Waikato.

What is this thing called modernist studies? And what does it look like when viewed from the—for most—faraway islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand?

A Bird’s-Eye View

Such a shift in perspective, I want to suggest, can prompt a new way of writing and thinking about modernism. Modernism itself is full of such shifts in perspective, of course. Think, for example, of the radical new poetic forms that Futurists such as Vasily Kamensky and F. T. Marinetti produced in response to the invention of the airplane. A view from the air can prompt not just new forms but also new ways of seeing, as in Sergei Tretyakov’s estranging, futurist-inspired description of the fertile fields of 1920s Soviet socialism as letters spelling out the text of a new communist world.[1]

In his poem “Tāmaki-makau-rau,” Hirini Melbourne (fig. 1) offers a similarly estranging bird’s-eye view of Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand’s largest city:

Kei raro ko Ākarana

Te urunga te taka

Ki te pokorua

O te pōpokoriki


Below is the town of Auckland

A trap door into

A nest

Of ants[2]

Tāmaki-makau-rau, the Māori name for the city, is often translated into English as “Land of a Hundred Lovers,” but Melbourne also uses the less romantic “Ākarana,” a Māori transliteration of the name of Lord Auckland, British Viceroy to India, whose presence in the city’s name is a symbol of the persistent colonialism that the poem seeks to oppose and overcome. Contrasting the colonial and indigenous names, Melbourne’s poem looks down on a human mass of “pōpokoriki” (ants) clambering to escape the “darkened” and “polluted” world of the modern city. Though the poem might seem far away from canonical modernism, Melbourne’s ants echo Ezra Pound’s simultaneously grandiose and self-deprecating description of himself as a “lone ant” writing from the “broken ant-hill” of a Europe in ruins at the end of the Second World War.[3] Melbourne’s description of the city equally evokes Tolstoy’s account of the rebirth of Moscow after its destruction in 1812 as being like ants returning to a ruined ant heap.[4] The giddy vertigo of this recurring ant metaphor also evokes for me the disorientating perspective of a distant, bird’s-eye view on the field of modernist studies.

The police and army personnel encircle the Bastion Point camp in May 1978 before evicting all 222 protesters.
Fig. 2. The police and army personnel encircle the Bastion Point camp in May 1978 before evicting all 222 protesters. Photo courtesy of Stuff Ltd.

As anyone working on modernism knows, it is increasingly difficult to offer an overview of our field. Today modernist studies, as represented by such institutions as Modernism/modernity and the Modernist Studies Association, reflects a broad range of approaches, across multiple media, across popular and high culture, and across languages, cultures, and geographical regions. Perhaps slightly more controversially, the temporal reach of modernist studies has been challenged and, by some at least, expanded to include works of literature and art much older and much newer than such conventional periods as the “later nineteenth through mid-twentieth century” specified by the Modernist Studies Association on its home page. Melbourne’s “Tāmaki-makau-rau” might allude to texts that bookend this period, Tolstoy’s Voina i mir (War and Peace, 1869) and Pound’s Pisan Cantos (1948), but its composition in the late 1970s excludes it from this traditional account of modernism. Nevertheless, the poem’s echo of Tolstoy’s and Pound’s texts, its wordplay (such as the pun in Māori on the word “pokorua,” which can mean both “trap” and “ants,” as Melbourne emphasizes in his English translation), and its engagement with key conditions of modernity—such as colonialism, the modern city, and environmental destruction—would make it, according to scholars such as Susan Stanford Friedman, eminently modernist.[5]

The New Modernist Studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand

This much broader view of modernism has arguably made modernist studies newly relevant to scholars working in Aotearoa/New Zealand, particularly because the changes in the scope of modernist studies have been accompanied by changes in the conceptual architecture through which modernism is understood. Theories that treat modernism as the product of the global “circulation” of ideas, texts, people, and things have begun removing the privileged position and attention accorded to European and Anglo-American modernism.[6] They offer new ways of conceptualizing modernism as a worldwide phenomenon whose form looks more like a network than a hierarchy. The change is particularly important to a country like Aotearoa/New Zealand, which under the old hierarchy model could only be considered a periphery in the world system of global modernism. Instead, New Zealand and Pacific modernisms can now be recognized as of significance to the wider field of modernist studies.

Erin Carlston and I had this new understanding of modernism in mind when we established the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium (NZMSC) in 2015. Erin initially proposed the group after moving from the United States to take up a position at the University of Auckland. Understandably, Erin wanted to meet scholars in her own field locally and to establish connections between modernist studies internationally and the work in the field being done in her newly adopted country. She approached me with her idea, and the NZMSC has gone on to run symposia and workshops of work-in-progress at universities around Aotearoa/New Zealand on an initially biannual and more recently annual basis.

As NZMSC has developed, so too has work that seeks both to redescribe Aotearoa / New Zealand, Oceanic, and Pacific modernisms through the new modernist studies, and to show how these Pacific modernisms might alter our understandings of the networks of global modernism at large. This work has been led in part by NZMSC participants like Erin and Maebh Long, along with Matthew Hayward and others. We have already seen historians such as James Belich and Tony Ballantyne help reshape understandings of modern global history by reframing Aotearoa/New Zealand’s seemingly peripheral position within the global colonial system as part of mutually shaping and interacting networks of global modernity. A similar sea change in modernist studies is now possible as a result of the increasing interest in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Pacific, and Oceanic modernisms signaled by several recent or forthcoming books and special issues on the subject.[7]

Cultural Cringe and Mimetic Desire

Initially, however, in trying to get others involved in the NZMSC, Erin and I encountered several difficulties that are revealing not just of the nature of modernist studies in New Zealand but also of modernist studies and modernism at large. On the one hand, we had to overcome older, more traditional understandings of modernist studies. Scholars from various disciplines outside literature and working in fields such as postcolonial and indigenous studies were initially—and some continue to be—understandably wary of a discipline that they saw as only concerned with European and Anglo-American high modernism. On the other hand, for those more concerned with these perceived European and Anglo-American cultural centers, New Zealand modernist studies was not close enough to those centers to satisfy their gaze northward and their felt need to establish their scholarly work in those same cultural centers. This looking north shapes many aspects of the academy in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where there is institutional and social pressure to attend conferences on the other side of the world and to publish with so-called international, as opposed to local, journals and presses.

These pressures have been negotiated in quite a different way by our historians. Not only is Aotearoa/New Zealand history arguably a far healthier field than Aotearoa/New Zealand literary criticism (when measured, for instance, by the number of books published), but it has also (to use the rhetoric of internationalism so common in this country) gone global: historians have used the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand to make much larger claims about global history, the nature of the modern world, European empires, and global interconnectedness.[8] Such insights emerge partly from historians of book history and print culture, and a few historians have begun to apply these approaches to Aotearoa/New Zealand literary modernism.[9]

Despite the efforts of these historians, the New Zealand cultural cringe about locally organized events that Erin and I encountered persists. It reflects a historical colonial mindset that is hard to shrug off and that continues to shape parts of the academy here. We still have, for instance, a graduation ceremony in May for students who have completed their courses in October or November of the previous year. The reason: exam scripts used to be sent to Britain for marking. No one has done that for decades, but the tradition remains.

A similar relationship to London and other Anglophone centers inflected the development of New Zealand literature in ways that will be familiar to many scholars of modernism. New Zealand writers sought both to emulate the innovations of London and, later, New York, and to develop a distinctively local modernism. Eric Hayot has written about this tension as the “mimetic desire of modernism”: the desire to copy from elsewhere in tension with the desire to assert the novelty of one’s work.[10] This tension shaped New Zealand modernism enormously. For instance, it produced a form of modernist nationalism that sought to associate aspects of the New Zealand landscape with the coldness, hardness, masculinity, and alienation of a particular brand of Anglo-American modernism.[11]

Modernist studies has in recent years grown through a similar tension between the desire to find the same modernism everywhere and the desire to explore its myriad differences. The title of this blog itself points to this tension. On the one hand, the term “field report” suggests an anthropological report from the field—implying a far-flung object of study that sits at a safe distance from the center of the Anglo-American academy. In this respect, it reinforces the center-periphery binary, even as it, admirably, sets out to rectify the lack of attention to much of the world’s literature and art by scholars working in the Anglo-American academy. On the other hand, a “field report” might also be a report on the field as a whole, that is, on modernism in toto. Read in this second way, the field report does not so much reinforce the center-periphery binary as invert it by implying that we can only truly comprehend the field of modernist studies if we see it not from the midst of the Anglo-American academy but from elsewhere. Sitting on what is still popularly imagined as the bottom of the world, New Zealand might offer the perspective necessary to survey the field and to reveal the collective actions of its, at this distance, ant-like inhabitants.

Turning Modernist Studies Upside Down

Aotearoa/New Zealand occupies an insider-outsider position in this respect, given that, as a former British colony with a large British settler population, it is both in a privileged position within a global academy and cultural economy dominated by English and Anglo-American institutions and at a geographic and, in part, cultural remove from the assumptions of those institutions. As Shu-mei Shih has suggested of the similarly in-between island of Taiwan, such places might be fertile grounds for new ways of thinking about literature and culture precisely because of their inside-outside position with respect to global languages and superpowers.[12]

Robin Hyde, also known as Iris Guiver Wilkinson, on November 4, 1936.
Fig. 3. Robin Hyde, also known as Iris Guiver Wilkinson, on November 4, 1936. Photography by Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew. Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-043599-F.

What happens, for instance, asks Alice Te Punga Sommerville, if we take the book The Erstwhile Savage: An Account of the Life of Ligeremaluoga (Osea), a Papua New Guinean conversion narrative from the early twentieth century, and place it in the library of modernism?[13] This text, published in the 1920s, like canonical modernist works of the same decade, such as “The Waste Land,” mixes multiple belief systems, temporalities, and cosmologies and deploys disjunctive shifts in writing style and perspective.

Or what happens when we trace the networks of poet, fiction writer, and journalist Robin Hyde? Hyde’s short but productive and diverse career encompasses not only an extensive body of fiction and poetry, but also journalistic campaigning against the theft of Māori land in Auckland and work as a war correspondent in China at the same time as Auden and Isherwood, whom she met and whose travel diary “disappointed . . . badly.”[14]

These engagements were by no means separate. One poem originally written about the theft of Māori land has also been read as addressing Western and Japanese imperialism in China (Boddy and Matthews, “Introduction” 130). Hyde’s work, which spans several continents and mixes divergent genres and styles, is a particularly good example of the networks of global modernism and their enmeshment with the networks of news media—a nexus that Rachel Galvin’s recent book News of War has traced in the same period but in a different part of the world.[15]

Hyde wrote in the late 1930s about the attempt of the government to seize land at Takaparawhau—or as it was renamed by the British colonial settlers, Bastion Point—from the local people or iwi, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. In the 1970s Takaparawhau was again the site of a major confrontation between the government and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, involving a 506-day occupation that ended in a violent eviction at the hands of the police. Many songs and poems were written about this momentous struggle. Among these works of protest was the poem by Hirini Melbourne with which I began, “Tāmaki-makau-rau,” a work that, like Hyde’s, engages with issues of indigenous rights, settler colonialism, and imperialism that are at once local and central to both global modernity and global modernism.

As Friedman and others have argued, this nexus of the local and the global is both typical of modernism and extends beyond its conventional periodization. Such examples also illustrate the problem with the field divisions between postcolonial studies, national literatures, and so-called Anglophone literatures—the latter being a colonialist division that, absurdly, categorizes as “other English” anything written outside Britain and the United States. As scholars such as Simon Gikandi and Jahan Ramazani have argued, a global modernist perspective allows us to get out of these silos and to recognize the competing local and global forces that are constitutive of modernist works wherever they occur.[16]

I write as a descendent of those very British colonizers whose “abuse and destruction” (“I te hē, i te mate”) of Aotearoa/New Zealand—of its land and people—Melbourne’s poem records. Mindful of this history, I remain acutely aware that global modernist studies can end up looking like just another norm imposed by the West on the rest, a scholarly recapitulation of artistic colonialism. This risk applies particularly if the Anglo-American academy merely condescends to look down to the South Pacific or, even more so, to other parts of the global south (of which Aotearoa/New Zealand both is and is not a part) without fully understanding the reconfiguration of the field that such a change of perspective requires.

Tame Iti and Hirini Melbourne.
Fig. 4. Tame Iti and Hirini Melbourne.

I have cited Hirini Melbourne here as a modernist poet, but he is far better known in Aotearoa/New Zealand as a songwriter, composer, and a key figure in the reassertion of Māori language, art, and culture that began in the 1970s. This so-called Māori renaissance is rightly celebrated, but the term’s implication of a rebirth perhaps carries the wrong connotations. On the one hand, this moment marked the stemming of the tide of colonial efforts to diminish the role of Māori language and culture and to deprive Māori of their land and other rights. But in this respect, it was not so much a rebirth as a continuation of what had never gone away: a people, language, and culture who were always there—if the European settlers and their descendants had only thought to look.

Similarly, this post offers not so much news from the field as recognition of what was always there if we had only thought to look down.


[1] Sergei Tret΄iakov, “Skvoz΄ neprotertye ochki: Putevka,” Novyi Lef 9 (1928): 20–24.

[2] Hirini Melboure, “Tāmaki-makau-rau” / Tamaki of a Hundred Lovers,” in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, ed. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen (Auckland, NZ: Penguin, 1985), 498–500.

[3] Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, ed. Richard Sieburth (New York: New Directions, 2003), 36.

[4] Lev Tolstoi, Voina i mir, vol. 4 (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literatura, 1968), 221.

[5] See, for example, Susan Stanford Friedman, “Periodizing Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 425–43.

[6] On such circulation theories, see Susan Stanford Friedman, “World Modernisms, World Literature, and Comparativity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 499–525.

[7] Maebh Long and Matthew Hayward, ed., New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific (London: Routledge, 2019); Maebh Long, ed., “Oceania in Theory,” special issue, symploke 26, no. 1–2 (2018). See also the upcoming special issue of Modernist Cultures on “Modernism in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific Islands,” edited by Erin Carlston, Matthew Hayward, and Brian Reed.

[8] See James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-world, 1783-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams, 2012).

[9] For example, Christopher Hilliard, The Bookmen’s Dominion: Cultural Life in New Zealand, 1920–1950 (Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press, 2006); Helen Bones, The Expatriate Myth: New Zealand Writers and the Colonial World (Dunedin, NZ: Otago University Press, 2018).

[10] Eric Hayot, “Chinese Modernism, Mimetic Desire, and European Time,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 149–170.

[11] For one of the most astute recent accounts of this form of New Zealand modernism, see John Newton, Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908–1945 (Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press, 2017).

[12] Shu-mei Shi, “Theory in a Relational World,” Comparative Literature Studies 53, no. 4 (2016): 722–46.

[13] Alice Te Punga Somerville, “An Erstwhile Savage and a Wannabe Modernist,” paper presented at the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium 2019 Symposium, University of Waikato, Hamilton, May 18, 2019.

[14] Quoted in Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews, introduction to Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde, Journalist, (Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press, 1991), 133.

[15] Rachel Galvin, News of War: Civilian Poetry, 1936–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[16] Simon Gikandi, “Preface: Modernism in the World,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 419–24; Jahan Ramazani, “Modernist Bricolage, Postcolonial Hybridity,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 445–63.