Stead started his career writing poetry, a protégé of Frank Sargeson and Allen Curnow, and though perhaps best known for his fiction and literary criticism, Stead insists that his poetry is what he enjoys most, finds most demanding, and takes most seriously. His evolution as a poet can be traced in the recently published Collected Poems, 1951-2006 (2009), where he acknowledges in the Foreword that his early poetry was more ‘conventional, obvious and external’ than his more mature work, but that throughout his poetic career he has been ‘obsessed’ with poetic form, which he likens to music, and the writing of which he sees as ‘an action more comprehensive, intuitive and mysterious than mere thinking’.
The eight poems chosen for the archive show something of the evolution of Stead’s poetic gift. ‘Pictures in a Gallery Undersea’ (1959), was voted the best poem of Landfall’s first fifteen years of publication in 1960, and reveals Stead, the young ‘colonial’ from the South Seas, revelling in his sensory and historical perceptions of London. The structure of ‘This Time’ (1972), foreshadows Stead’s later, more condensed poetic form, and shows a poet growing in confidence and technical mastery. In ‘Cold Moon’ (1974) and ‘This May be Your Captain Speaking’ (1982), several recurring themes are revealed. The first reflects the months Stead and his family spent living in Europe as the recipient of the 1972 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in the South of France, at Menton, and highlights the poet’s fascination with place, viewed in this case through an ethereal (or celestial) discourse between time, place and eternity; while the latter poem moves its starry firmament from Europe to the South Seas. The ironic ‘A Discursive Poem About Poetry and Thought’ (1997), reveals Stead’s often-remarked-upon frankness in confronting contentious issues, and reminds us of the troubled ride his forthright opinions have sometimes given him in his homeland. ‘Cat/ullus’ and ‘Catullus 65’ (2002) each mourns a death – the first, that of his cat Zac, the second of his friend and fellow-poet, Allen Curnow – and emulate a certain tough objective quality found in the Latin poet. ‘On Turning Seventy’ (2002), exposes a heightened awareness of aging – once more through those finely tuned Antipodean eyes – by a poet rooted firmly, from the very outset of his career, in the country of his birth.
The calmly measured tone of Stead’s voice in the recordings belies the –sometimes acute – emotion implicit in the poems presented here.