A poet, fiction writer and librettist, Kevin Ireland grew up in Auckland. He lived in England for 25 years, though he has consistently identified himself as a New Zealand poet. He has published numerous collections of poetry and his first book of prose was released in 1995, followed by his first novel in 1996. He was awarded an OBE for services to literature, and received a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2004.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Ireland, Kevin (1933 – ), poet, short story writer, novelist and librettist, was born Kevin Jowsey in Auckland. In his 20s he lived for a time in the army hut of his mentor Frank Sargeson, that Janet Frame once occupied. Co-founder of Mate, Ireland headed for England in 1959, remaining there for twenty-five years (with the exception of a short interval in Bulgaria, translating Bulgarian poetry into English). For two decades he was employed by The Times.
Reviews of Ireland’s verse tend to mention his spare and witty style, his resolute minimalism, his regular use of imagery and extended metaphors, his carefully patterned forms and recurring themes of love. In interviews he characterises himself as a fossil; a lyricist of ‘the Glover, Fairburn, Mason tradition that he feels is now decidedly old hat’; part of a generation with an ‘anxiety about identity’ obsessed ‘with what it meant to be New Zealanders’.
Even in self-imposed exile, Ireland considered himself a New Zealand poet and published all of his work here. But distance exacted a cost, and much of the poetry written outside New Zealand attempts to anchor identity by focusing on detail; as if to recapture the people and the country through a collage of remembered impressions.
In Face to Face: Twenty-Four Poems (1963) and Educating the Body (1967) there is the growing impression of identity coming adrift. Familiar places and people become necessary touchstones around which a nagging current of placelessness flows. By the third collection, A Letter from Amsterdam (1972), a pervasive sense of isolation is evident: the title city has little apparent significance, the poet’s lover is distant and anonymous, and the sense of loss is crushing. In Orchids, Hummingbirds and Other Poems (1974) the craving for direct contact with New Zealand contemporaries is made poignantly obvious by ‘A Way of Sorrow’, dedicated to James K. Baxter. With no one who knew Baxter to grieve with, the shock and grief are necessarily private: ‘I did not weep / or talk at length or write / but read the poem you sent’.
Ireland has published nine further volumes of poetry. A Grammar of Dreams (1975) was followed by Literary Cartoons (1977)—winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry—a witty donning of a poetic mask through which the author drolly examines the ironic correspondences between loving and writing. Next came The Dangers of Art: Poems 1975–80 (1980), Practice Night in the Drill Hall: Poems (1984) and The Year of the Comet: Twenty-Six 1986 Sonnets (1986), an exploration of the poet’s past through a humorous evocation of the cinema heroes of his childhood.
Ireland’s return to New Zealand was marked by Oxford University Press’s publication of his Selected Poems (1987), and then a volume of finely crafted political satire: Tiberius at the Beehive (1990). Skinning a Fish (1994) is arguably Ireland’s first substantial collection of poems written, as well as published, in New Zealand, to represent the full range of his verse. In comparison with the poetry written in ‘exile’, Skinning a Fish evokes a society, and a poet immersed within it. Anzac Day: Selected Poems (1997) is Ireland’s selection from earlier volumes, with a few recent poems—for example, a series to ‘mother’ and one called ‘Mururoa: The Name of the Place’.
Ireland has begun publishing prose. Sleeping With the Angels (1995), a collection of short stories, is reminiscent of his lighter, wryly ironic, verse. These dozen fables are written by a raconteur who delights in placing his characters in idiosyncratic situations. Similarly, Ireland’s first novel, Blowing My Top (1996), is comic fiction—a satirical look at events surrounding Auckland’s 1951 Waterfront lockout through the eyes of testosterone-afflicted student Darby Fulljames. Neither the bolshie Waterside Workers’ Union, nor the Holland government, escape Ireland’s look at one of the defining moments in New Zealand labour relations.
Ireland has edited The New Zealand Collection: A Celebration of the New Zealand Novel (1990) and published two autobiographical essays, one in Islands 28 (1980) and the other in One of the Boys? (1988). He received a New Zealand 1990 Medal and an OBE for services to literature. He was writer-in-residence at Canterbury University in 1986, the Sargeson Fellow in 1987, the University of Auckland’s writing fellow in 1989, assistant editor of Quote Unquote, and, in 1990–91, president of PEN.
Kevin Ireland's Literary Cartoons received the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry at the 1979 New Zealand Book Awards.
was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in 1987, and the Auckland University Literary Fellowship in 1989.
Ireland's memoir Under the Bridge and Over the Moon (Vintage, 1998) won the Montana Award for History and Biography at the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
His poetry collection Fourteen Reasons For Writing was published in 2001. Backwards to Forwards (2002), is the second volume of Ireland's autobiography.
Walking the Land (2003) is a collection of forty poems, in which Ireland reflects on his life walking the land of New Zealand literature for most of his seventy years. His three subsequent collections are Airports and Other Wasted Days (2007), How to Survive the Morning (2008), and Table Talk (2009).
His fourth novel, Getting Away with It (Hazard Press, 2004), is a shrewd, searching and unpredictable romantic comedy about the absurdities we create when we try to tell the truth about our lives.
In 2000 Kevin Ireland was made a DLitt by Massey University, and in 2004 he received a $60,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for poetry.
Ireland's nonfiction book, How to Catch a Fish (2005) was published by Awa Press in 2005 as part of its Ginger Series. Packed with glorious fishing stories that will have you laughing out loud, Ireland also gives advice on how to get started and, on a serious note, warns of the effects of over-fishing, which threatens our oceans and rivers. It was followed by an extended essay On Getting Old published by Four Winds Press, also in 2005.
In 2006, Ireland received the A.W. Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature, recognising him as a writer who has made an outstanding contribution to the New Zealand literary community.
Ireland had a poem included in Shards of Silver (Steele Roberts, 2006), a book investigating the interplay between photography and poetry. His fifth novel, The Jigsaw Chronicles, appeared in 2008.
In Table Talk (Cape Catley, 2009), Ireland's poetry collection describes an evolving conversation between friends across a table. Dreamy Days and Nothing Done was published by Steele Roberts in 2012.
Two further poetry collections, Just Like That and Shape of the Heart, were published by Quentin Wilson Publishing in 2021 and 2020 respectively.
In 2022, Ireland's A Month At The Back Of My Brain: A Third Memoir and a new collection of poems, Just Like That were released by Quentin Wilson Publishing.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- ANZL profile
- Kevin Ireland in Best New Zealand Poems 2003
- Kevin Ireland on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre site
- Interview with Iain Sharp
- Kete review of Just Like That
Updated January 2023.