The poet was born in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, in 1925. His mother Teu (nee Bosini) was a descendant of the Tongarevan ariki or high chief Paroa. His father Jock Campbell was a successful island trader from Otago, New Zealand, who emigrated to the islands in 1919 after his service in the Gallipoli campaign. Teu died when Campbell was six years old. His older siblings Margaret and Stuart were sent to stay with relatives in New Zealand. Within a year, his father died, and he and his younger brother Bill were sent to their paternal grandmother in Dunedin and then, when she could no longer cope, to a Dunedin orphanage, all in the midst of the Great Depression. These heart-breaking childhood events figure prominently in Campbell’s poetry and in his memoir Island to Island. His dual Polynesian and Pakeha (European) heritage makes him a fore parent of bicultural and multicultural writing in Aotearoa. At times there is an apparent concern with cultural identity in his work, at other times the concern appears to be focused on ‘pure’ aesthetics: le mot juste, the romantic lyric, elegies of loss, structural grace. Campbell’s poetry is multi-faceted: he wrote over nearly six decades the ‘Polynesian strain’, and as the New Zealand Romantic poet, the lyric poet, and the historical poet.
Oppositions, both direct and indirect, fuel much of Campbell’s poetry. While it is relatively easy to find English and European influences on his early work, it is also possible to find Polynesian ones too. Nature imagery, especially its larger than life scale as expressed in “The Return”, and its companion emotional states, are the closest elements to this Polynesian heritage. Roger Robinson writes in his “Introduction” to the Pocket Collected Poems: “... we can recognize how long Campbell has been making the effort to record such fundamental Polynesian images as the encounter of the ocean with the land, the sound of the Pacific shore ...”
The recordings from 1974, ‘The Return’, ‘Why Don’t You Talk To Me?’ and ‘Love Song for Meg’ sound more formal than the 2002 recordings, perhaps reflecting a less rhetorical and more conversational tone in his later work.