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No. 71 (1973)
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The Maori Contribution
To New Zealand Literature

Members of the New Zealand Women Writers' Federation meeting on two successive nights at Wakefield House in Wellington seemed at first interested, then surprised, astonished and delighted at the revelation of the quality of Maori literature, both in its ancient and traditional oral forms, and in the more modern work of today's poets and story-tellers.

In the distinguished presence of Her Excellency Lady Porritt, Mr Bill Parker, University Extension lecturer in Maori Studies, and a group of Maori readers presented selections first from ancient writings and then from contemporary authors. Beginning with a classic chant ‘Piki mai, kake mai’, as a tribute to writers who ‘bring light’. Mr Parker described oral or folk literature as the only literature much of the world has ever known, and said, ‘Overseas scholars who have studied Maori oral literature are astounded by the variety of literary forms and devices, by the depth of speculative thought, the vividness of imagery, the wealth of cultural allusions, and the rhythm of tragic and beautiful phrases. Two world-renowned scholars. H. and N. Chadwick, in their world survey of oral literature, assure us that we in the Pacific

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Author Rowley Habib chats with Her Excellency Lady Parritt at supper time

are heirs to a great literary tradition when they say:—“The Polynesians seem to have devoted more attention and to have exercised greater intellectual activity in connection with the whole subject than any other peoples included in our survey…. The Pacific is rich in possession of a vast body of oral prose, which is distributed throughout the whole area… almost every kind of prose narrative is represented in all stages of development…. Everywhere we meet with a great wealth of saga, and a high standard of art and technique.”

‘Maori poetry is distinguished from prose by:—


the fact that it is fixed-form—once the composition has been set in its frame and polished by the author, it is repeated word for word in song form, subject occasionally to slight modifications (a word is changed or a line is dropped), due to errors of memory or dialectical differences.


by its manner of delivery, which is essentially musical.


by certain distinctive stylistic features such as the stylisation of metaphor, symbolism, allusion and ellipsis.

‘Maori poems abound in these, be they dirge, lament, lullaby, ditty, love song or derisive song. They all breathe the spirit of place, evoke the very clap of thunder, flash of lightning, lash of wind and rain, caress of zephyr, moon and sun, pungent sense of environment and climate, intimacy in the colour and drama of landscape. Although there are some fine translations of Maori song poetry, ritual chants, watch alarms, etc, they do not always capture the rhythms of speech, the undulations of melody, the music of words that soothe the ear, move the mind, rouse the spirit and stir the imagination.’

Then examples of karakia, canoe-launching chants, poi chants, watch alarms and

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Rowley Habib. Don Selwyn, Pam Ormsby, Bill Thomas, Bill Parker and Tim Te Heu Heu join in read extracts from the work of Maori authors.

laments were presented by the group. Highlight of this part of the evening was the chanting of a lament by Mrs Rangi Dewes—Harata Tangikuku's lament in which she likens herself to a cicada—short-lived and very soon to die. She was a poetess who was so emaciated by asthma that she could lived in the early nineteenth century, and not join a party of women on their way to the rocks to dive for crayfish and gather sea-eggs and pauas.

In many examples, the group showed how every part of Maori life had its chant, evocation, good-luck rhyme or brief lament. One reference was to the late Sir Apirana Ngata, who, when paying his respects to his illustrious countryman. Sir Maui Pomare, in the House of Representatives in 1930 said:—‘I cannot conclude my contribution to the tributes that are being paid to his memory this afternoon without quoting these few lines from a poem composed by members of his own tribue…

Then was the plume of my canoe broken
The anchorage of the fleets from north and south
And of Te Rauparaha:
The rock at Rarotaka has overturned.’

The traditional examples ended with comments about and then performance of extracts from three hakas, and examples of Sir Peter Buck's writing, beautiful in its imagery and musical in its flow. Then came excerpts from the poetry and prose of contemporary writers Hone Tuwhare, Rowley Habib, Sid Mead, Harry Dansey. Arapera Blank. Witi Ihimaera and Colleen Sheffield. It was quite evident that the music, rhythm and metaphor are still there with these modern authors.

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Koro Dewes assists his sister-in-law Rangi Dewes with a chant