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Tuwhare, Hone
Writer's File

Hone Tuwhare

Tuwhare, Hone
In brief
Hone Tuwhare was New Zealand’s most distinguished Māori poet writing in English. He was born in Kaikohe into the Ngāpuhi tribe (hapu Ngati Korokoro, Ngati Tautahi, Te Popoto, Uri-o-hau). He began writing during his apprenticeship on the railways, where he became involved in trade unions. He was an organiser of the first Maori Writers and Artists Conference at Te Kaha in 1973 and participated in the Maori Land March of 1975. Tuwhare won two Montana NZ Book Awards, was Te Mata Poet Laureate, and held two honorary doctorates in literature. In 2003 he was among ten of New Zealand’s greatest living artists named as Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artists. Tuwhare passed away in 2008.


Tuwhare, Hone (1922–2008), is New Zealand’s most distinguished Maori poet writing in English, and also a playwright and author of short fiction. He was born in Kaikohe into the Nga Puhi tribe (hapu Ngati Korokoro, Ngati Tautahi, Te Popoto, Uri-o-hau). When his mother died his father moved to Auckland, where Hone attended primary schools in Avondale, Mangere and Ponsonby. He spoke Maori until he was about 9, and his father, an accomplished orator and storyteller in Maori, encouraged his son’s interest in the written and spoken word, especially in the rhythms and imagery of the Old Testament. During his time in an apprenticeship (1939–44) at the Otahuhu Railway Workshops Tuwhare met the poet R.A.K. Mason, who encouraged him to write, and like Mason he became politically involved in trades-union organisations. For much of the 1950s he worked on hydroelectric projects on the Waikato, and until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 was a member of the Communist Party.

In this year Tuwhare began writing seriously. His earliest poems appeared in Northland Magazine, the NZ Listener, the New Zealand Poetry Yearbooks, Te Ao Hou (though the Maori Affairs Department initially banned his work because of his Communist affiliations). His first published collection, No Ordinary Sun, appeared in 1964 to widespread acclaim and was reprinted ten times during the next thirty years—one of the most widely read individual collections of poems in New Zealand history. From the late 1960s he began a long association with the Otago region when he was awarded the Burns Fellowship in 1969—and he held it again in 1974. In Dunedin he met the Maori painter, Ralph Hotere, who provided illustrations for his next four volumes—Come Rain Hail (1970), Sap-Wood & Milk (1972), Something Nothing (1974) and Making a Fist of It: Poems and Short Stories (1978).

In the 1970s Tuwhare became actively involved in Maori cultural and political initiatives. He was an organiser of the first Maori Writers and Artists Conference at Te Kaha in 1973 and participated in the Maori Land March of 1975. There were also invitations to Germany and to China, both of which he revisited in the 1980s. His earlier poems were kept in print (and new ones added) through Selected Poems (1980), Year of the Dog: Poems New and Selected (1982) and Mihi: Collected Poems (1987). In 1983 he worked on the Edward Shortland papers as Hocken Library Fellow, and this revitalised and extended his interest in Maori history and language. His full-length play, In the Wilderness Without a Hat (perf. 1985), is a highly original, deeply personal, marae-based tribal drama, begun in the wake of his participation in the Land March and published in He Reo Hou: 5 Plays by Maori Playwrights (1991). Short Back and Sideways: Poems Prose (1992) was new work prepared during his tenure of the University of Auckland’s Literary Fellowship in 1991. A second collection with new poems, Deep River Talk (1993) was followed by Shape-Shifter (1997), consisting of poems and stories.

When Tuwhare’s poems first began to appear in the late 1950s and early 1960s they were recognised as a new departure in New Zealand poetry, cutting across the debates and divisions between the 1930s and post-war generations. Much of their originality came from the Maori perspective. This was not simply a question of the subject matter of some poems (‘Lament’, a reworking of an older waiata tangi, ‘Tangi’ and ‘Mauri’), but of their direct lyrical response to landscape and seascape, their vivid evocation of Maori myths and images (‘A burnt offering to your greenstone eyes, Tangaroa’), and their capacity for angry protest at the dispossession of Maori land and culture (‘The mana of my house has fled, / the marae is but a paddock of thistle’). The poems were also marked by their tonal variety, the naturalness with which they could move between formal and informal registers, between humour and pathos, intimacy and controlled anger (as in the anti-nuclear theme of the title-poem of the first volume, ‘No Ordinary Sun’) and, especially, in their assumption of easy vernacular familiarity with New Zealand readers.

In his next three volumes (of the earlier 1970s) Tuwhare added to this repertoire a distinctive longer form of ‘conversation’ poem, often deploying narrative elements but containing the same variations of tone, feeling and register: playful humour, edged satire and moments of sustained elegiac intensity. Some of these poems were elegies (like those for his mentor Mason, and for James K. Baxter)[Author]; others were intimate ‘conversation poems’, like ‘Country Visit’ (a visit to his sister’s family), ‘Sandra’ (a birthday poem) and ‘A korero on the beach with Phyllis’); yet others (‘occasioned by the newness and press of contrasts’) were sparked off by places visited overseas: including Western Samoa (‘Village on Savaii’) and China (‘Kwantung Guest House: Canton’). In one of his best known poems, ‘To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland’, the same elements were deployed in a dramatic monologue, remarkably rich in its edged allusions to the political, economic and class contexts of race relations in New Zealand, and in its imaginative play with formal and colloquial English and Maori idioms, and with the cultural meanings carried by particularities of location in urban and suburban Auckland. The assumption of a familiar context shared unselfconsciously with his New Zealand readership is crucial to the effect of this poem (as in all Tuwhare’s mature work); because of the density of local allusion and idiom almost every line would require annotation for overseas readers.

Tuwhare’s later poetry continued to expand the range and subtlety of his distinctive style. His interest in Maori self-determination was intensified by participation in the Land March, which produced a series of celebratory poems in Making a Fist of It (1978), alongside that volume’s angry political title-poem, on South African atrocities at Soweto and elsewhere. Yet Tuwhare’s work resists identification in terms of any separatist notion of ‘Maoriness’. Increasingly, especially at the level of language, his poetry represents (and often playfully invents) moments and scenes of (multi)cultural exchange and interaction, suggesting a local world of shifting, multiple identities and identifications. His affiliations to the language and aspirations of ordinary working-class New Zealanders have remained strong, however, and his major, recurrent concerns—emergent through the extraordinary cultural diversity of the poems’ occasions, the richness of their sense of location, and their highly inventive use of New Zealand demotic idioms—have remained those of the age-old lyric tradition: love, friendship, the life of the feelings, the experience of loss and death.



Hone Tuwhare was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1974. He also was the Auckland University Literary Fellow in 1991.

In 1998, he received the Montana Award for Poetry for Shape-Shifter at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

He named New Zealand's second Te Mata Poet Laureate in 1999. Administered by the National Library of New Zealand and funded by the New Zealand Government, the Poet Laureate is selected biennially and receives an award of $50,000 per year. At the end of his two year term, he published Piggy-Back Moon (2001), which received the Montana Award for Poetry at the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Tuwhare was among ten of New Zealand's greatest living artists named as Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artists at a ceremony in 2003. Also in 2003, Tuwhare was awarded one of the inaugural Prime Ministers Awards for Literary Achievement for poetry. The other winners were Janet Frame of Dunedin for fiction; and Michael King of Opoutere on the Coromandel Peninsula for nonfiction . Each writer received $60,000. The awards are aimed at New Zealand writers who have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand literature.

Tuwhare received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Auckland in 2005.

Oooooo......!!! , Hone Tuwhare (Steele Roberts, 2005) presents diverse new poems alongside earlier unpublished work. It is a wild, unpredictable expression of exuberance for words, love, and social justice. The poems are about the act of writing; about Tuwhare's beloved Shirley Grace; about his hunger for the bounty of Tangaroa, music and sex. They reflect with humour and raw candour the challenges of aging while having an unquenchable lust for life.

In 2007, Hone Tuwhare's words were put to music by some of New Zealand's leading musicians.

Hone Tuwhare passed away at Ross Home in Dunedin on 16 January 2008. The Book Council gives its condolences and best wishes to Tuwhare's friends and family, and all the people throughout New Zealand who were affected by and enjoyed his work.

A limited edition hand-set printing of Hone Tuwhare's classic poem 'Rain' was completed as part of the 2007 Printing in Residence Programme at the University of Otago Library. Eleven other poems were re-printed from Tuwhare's Come Rain Hail (1970) and produced in a large format portfolio production. It was printed by Dr John Holmes, under the University Library's Otakou Press. 'Rain' was illustrated by Olav Nielsen, a Dunedin printmaker-artist. Six other Dunedin artists were involved in the project: Inge Doesburg, Simon Kaan, Mary McFarlane, Kathryn Madill, Jenna Packer, and Marilyn Webb. All the copies printed have been sold. 

NB: The book is available* in the Alexander Turnbull Library Rare Books & Fine Printing Collection (fRPrNZ OTAK TUWH 2007). 

*Items from the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection are made available by appointment only. Upon receipt of a request, the Curator will make contact to arrange a suitable viewing time.


    Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Poems by Hone Tuwhare was published by Random House in July 2011. This volume showcases his early and late poetry as well as a handful of previously unpublished poems. It features a number of poems translated into Maori by Pat Hohepa, Selwyn Muru and Waihoroi Shortland.

      November 2023
      November 2023