Ian Wedde

FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature

Wedde, Ian (1946– ), poet, fiction writer and critic, was born in Blenheim and lived there until the age of 7 when he travelled overseas for eight years with his parents, living first in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) then in England, where he attended boarding school. He returned at the age of 15 and went to King’s College and the University of Auckland (MA in English 1968).

From 1966 his poems began appearing regularly in periodicals, including Landfall and Freed. He edited the New Zealand Universities Literary Yearbook in 1968. After graduating he travelled extensively, living for periods in Jordan and, from 1970, England, where he wrote criticism for London Magazine and published a first pamphlet of verse, Homage to Matisse (1971).

He returned to New Zealand as Burns Fellow in 1972, living in Port Chalmers until moving to Wellington in 1975. His first substantial volume of verse, Made Over (1974), collected poems from the years 1967–72, including those written in the Middle East and England. In a note for The Young New Zealand Poets, ed. Arthur Baysting (1973), Wedde wrote: ‘My own instinct is to write longer poems. I tend to quest about like a dog backtracking; crisscrossing a terrain in search of an odour’s source. Most of my poems begin as enquiries of a personal nature, attempts to explain myself to myself. Most of my poems are concerned with how we live, how we should live, and are political in these senses. At the same time I think I seldom tell; I enquire.’

Poems from his Otago sojourn were collected in several books published in quick succession. Pathway to the Sea (1975), a long poem dedicated to the American poet A.R. Ammons and protesting against the planned siting of an aluminium smelter near Aramoana, was included, despite its length (46 nine-line stanzas), in several anthologies. Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos (1975) is a sequence of sixty sonnets spanning the first year of life of his first son. Other poems from this period were collected in Spells for Coming Out (1977), co-winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. Like other poets of his generation, Wedde was especially interested in the experimental tradition in American poetry, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan and John Ashbery being some of the many American voices he attended to.

As well as poetry Wedde also regularly published fiction, influenced in part by the Americans William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. In 1977 he won the Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, Dick Seddon’s Great Dive, which strongly evoked the atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s and which shared many locations and concerns with his poems of that period. It was initially published as complete issue of Islands (16, 1976) and reprinted in The Shirt Factory and Other Stories (1981), which collected stories published through the 1970s. Castaly: Poems 1973–1977 (1980) incorporated the pamphlets Pathway to the Sea and Don’t Listen (1977) and covered the transitional period between Otago and Wellington, encompassing a noticeable shift in tone towards irony and satire.

New poetry volumes appeared regularly though with less frequency after the mid-1980s, namely Tales of Gotham City and Georgicon (both 1984), Driving into the Storm: Selected Poems (1987), Tendering (1988) and The Drummer (1993). Two further novels appeared in the 1980s, Symmes Hole (1986) and Survival Arts (1988), a shorter comic novel. Symmes Hole, one of the most important novels of its decade, is of epic scope, sustaining a prolonged parallel between the nineteenth-century plot which involves the activities of James ‘Worser’ Heberley, an early whaler, and a contemporary plot-line concerning a researcher who is investigating aspects of nineteenth-century New Zealand settlement with a particular focus on the whaling industry. There are many points of connection between the novel and the poems written during the lengthy period of its composition and revision.

Another major undertaking of the mid-1980s was the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (co-edited with Harvey McQueen) which included substantial quantities of Maori poetry both classical and contemporary, and in both Maori and English translation. Wedde’s introduction argued for language grounded in the realities of location as a key defining characteristic of New Zealand poetry. A second anthology, The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, focusing on poetry of the 1980s (for which Miriama Evans joined Wedde and McQueen), followed in 1989. Between 1983 and 1990 Wedde was art critic for the Evening Post in Wellington, a position which led to a progressive reorientation of his career towards the visual arts. He curated several exhibitions which were accompanied by book-length catalogues, notably Now See Here! Art, Language and Translation, co-edited with Gregory Burke (1990) and Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them? (1994), for a touring retrospective of Tony Fomison’s work. A large sampling of Wedde’s critical writings was published as How to Be Nowhere: Essays and Texts, 1971–1994 (1995).

In 1994 he became arts projects manager at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. His grants since the Burns include the Writers’ Bursary 1974, the Scholarship in Letters 1980, 1989, and the Victoria University writing fellowship 1984. He was a member of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee 1977–79, and of the Queen Elizabeth II Visual Arts Panel in 1990. Wedde’s literary versatility and significance established him as a leader among the generation of writers born in the immediate post-war period.


Note to the Oxford Companion Entry: Wedde’s Te Papa job description is incorrect – Wedde was head of art and visual culture, and for a time of humanities, but not a project manager.

Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).
AWRF2012: IAN WEDDE – THE PLEASURE OF POETRY from Auckland Writers & Readers Fest on Vimeo.

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