Fri | Feb 21, 2020

Poems that grow from the personal to the universal

Published:Sunday | September 8, 2019 | 12:24 AM

Sam Hunt is considered New Zealand’s most popular poet. His latest book, Coming to It: Selected Poems, brings his published work up to 23. Released in 2018 by Potton & Burton, New Zealand, Coming to It is a selection of the poet’s work from his earliest publication at age 23 – Bottle Creek: Selected Poems 1967–69 (1969) to the 2016-published Salt River Songs. The collection also includes previously unpublished works.

As the 131 poems in the collection attest, Hunt has spent copious time honing his writing craft. There are various rhyme patterns, poetic forms, and attention to each line and the image portrayed. It is these same things, the melodies in the rhymes and coupling of words and how the lines are formed, that allow most of these poems to soar and resonate on stage. In short, Hunt’s Coming to It, could be the go-to book for the poet who wants to both be great on paper and on stage.

Having been compared to Jack Kerouc, considered the founder of the beat poets in the United States in the 1950s and considering Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, among others as influences, Sam Hunt, in interviews and even in the poems, speaks of revisiting his poems, that is editing and more editing.

Hunt would not be considered a ‘political poet’ such as, for example, Pablo Neruda, who was also famous for his love poetry. Herein lies another discussion point: they are hardly one dimensional. Neruda and W.B. Yeats are known for both their political and romance and love poems.

Personal experiences

Instead, Hunt writes of things he experiences or confronts. If he was a war veteran, be sure, war poems would be forthcoming, but he seems to be from the school that writes from the place of personal truth. That personal truth, when coupled with a well-honed craft and keen ears, results in intimate poems of universal appeal.

We all have personal experiences with love and death, for example, but can we all transfix a reading or listening audience with our written expression of these? Well, Hunt can, and he does it well both on stage and on paper. He brings the stage to the paper and vice versa.

One of the human race’s shared experience is the moment we are awed by nature.

As of now

They make me want to believe in God –

or Gods if it be –

a bird in silhouette

thanks to the sun setting behind it:

a song-thrush, and later

its mate. They listened out

the Schumann piano concerto:

and the moment it was over

the stage was theirs.

they made it so:

the power lines they sat on

singing in perfect pitch.

They made me want to believe in God.

Which I do,

As of now.

Bows to nature

Always at some point, living very close to nature, Hunt, who now lives on what is considered a far reach of the Kaipara Harbour, which constitutes the book cover, constantly bows to nature through his poetry. In Six sestets, for example Hunts tells us, the world is held together by cobwebs. What is striking about it, though, is the writer’s conviction, which comes from a place that we can only describe as ‘spiritual’, is enough to convince us of the revelation below.

Six sestets (excerpts)


You get up early, you see

The world is held together

by cobwebs

and on morning clear as this –

this, the start of winter –

you can see how it works.


You can see how it works,

how the spin of the Earth

is all to do with the spiders

spinning the webs

so delicate

they trap the light:

In Not in This Weather, we see Hunt again coming to a revelation from deriving truths from the aspect of nature observed and relayed to us

Not in this weather

The hand is not a fist

Until that hand is clenched.

Like this frostbitten fist of winter

clenched at the windscreen.

There is no driving back.

And if there were

I couldn’t; and wouldn’t.

Not in this weather.

Hunt juxtaposes the calm, peaceful state of the hand until it becomes a fist with that of snow until it becomes a ‘fist of winter clenched at the windscreen’?

Born in 1946, Hunt has lost family, friends, schoolmates, and acquaintances to death, so there are quite a few exceptional poems on this subject matter. Hunt never approaches the poems from a distance or from the theme or concept only.

It starts first from the personal, then through the expert treatment of the personal, grows to the universal. Below is an excerpt of I was waiting, a poem written in memoriam of Graham Brazier, the deceased fellow poet and front man for the New Zealand rock band, Hello Sailor.

I was waiting (excerpt)

I was waiting for the phone to ring.

You were busy dying.

Connections never happened,

door left unopened.

You were waiting for the angels to sing

but could only hear crying.

Do we see each other again?

I guess, by now, you know

Answers to the questions

we spent lives looking for.

The wind’s a sou’wester –

it’s pummelling the totara,

prize-fighter it is.

Totara don’t stand a chance!

And you’re busy dying.

And I don’t know if it’s

the wind in my eyes, or rain,

but I can’t stop crying.

This is an example of how Hunt does not fully ignore sentiments as some schools of poetry seem to insist poets do. Some pundits may frown on using words like heart, love, cry, or crying, but in the poem above, the person cries, and the poem is not weaker because of it but in fact, is authenticated by it.

In this respect, Hunt reminds of Neruda, who believes in the perfection of imperfection when it comes to poetry, which, to paraphrase, makes it more human. This is not to be confused with carelessness. As said before, Hunt believes in editing, but as his works prove, he also believes in the triumph of the human over the technical.

This, I think is at the core of Hunt’s collection, Coming to It – humanity. There’s humanity in the imperfect individual living his life experiences and documenting them in verse that sings to the human soul and also in a serenade to life.

Some favourites in the collection include the ones mentioned above and Wave Song, Rainbows and a promise of Snow, You house the moon, Running scared, Working the Genesis week, Dead bird, New words, Words for Tina, Bottle to Battle to Death, Chord I, Salt River songs; Death called by and Lyn.

Coming to It: Selected Poems

Sam Hunt

Potton & Burton (New Zealand): 2018

ISBN: 9780947503802

Rating: Highly Recommended



- Ann-Margaret Lim is a published poet. Her collection of poetry, ‘Kingston Buttercup’, was among the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books, which include ‘The Festival Of Wild Orchid’, are available at Bookophilia, and