Brian Turner was born in 1944. An outdoorsman, a mountaineer, a national representative hockey player, a keen cricketer, and an avid senior road cyclist he has made a unique career in New Zealand letters as a celebrated sports journalist, an author of a standard trout fishing guide among many other works, who is also a regular fixture in New Zealand poetry anthologies, an editor and a critic in his own right, and a playwright, art critic, environmentalist commentator and television writer to boot. His first collection of poetry, Ladders of Rain (1978) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and in 2003 he was appointed Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate.
Turner has always been something of a contrarian in the New Zealand poetry scene, ironically, perhaps, by being something of a traditionalist. At a time when most younger New Zealand poets were consciously turning their backs on the New Zealand Nationalist preoccupations with the landscape and the New Zealand identity, Turner maintained an intensely concrete focus on place. The Otago landscape is his great recurring theme (see “Training on the Peninsula” for example). Everywhere in his poetry we find an attempt at rigorous authenticity of utterance, a poetic language that knits a specific experience to a specific time and place. If this occasionally veers into a somewhat self-conscious parading of his true son-of-the-soil authenticity, it has to be said that he comes by it honestly. At his best, and this is not seldom, his poems crackle with the intensity of their sheer power of observation. Turner is not a “poet’s poet” — although he experiments with a wide range of forms, one does not feel that complex prosodic effects are a primary concern — what captures and holds our attention in his poems is the singularity and clarity of individual vision:
He lies and swings
with the current. He
pumps like a bellow, slowly.
The water swirls
and purrs over him. (“Trout”)
Turner’s devotion to authentic experience underlies, too, the strong vein of social and moral criticism in his poetry. The postindustrial, post-everything modern world is a frequent foil, held up as essentially artificial in comparison with the world of nature. “Panoply,” for example, is a powerful lament for the depredations that humans have visited upon the environment.
As a reader, Turner is much what you would expect from his poems: intense, precise and inclined to linger lovingly on moments of particular affective power.
1979 Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Ladders of Rain
1984 Robert Burns Fellowship, University of Otago (NZ)
1985 J. C. Reid Memorial Prize
1993 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, Beyond
2003 Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate
2009 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry
2009 New Zealand Prime Minister's Award for Achievement in Poetry
2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (winner), Just This