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Sunday, 2 August 2009

Tribute to Mark Richards: Poet, Writer, Teacher, Sailor, Musician and My Grandfather

On the ferry to Waiheke Island yesterday as I watched all the Hauraki Gulf's islands pass me by I remembered the hours I had spent on those waters as a child on my Grandfather Mark's boat. I told my children as they too looked out the ferry window that I had been on that beach, climbed to the top of that island and one day I'd seen a wallaby (of all things!) on the one closest to us, Motuihe Island; it had run past our picnic and my younger cousin had chased it along the beach yelling "here wally, wally" at the top of his lungs. I remember Mark laughing and telling us that Motuihe was one of the few places in New Zealand you could find wallabies.

Being in Mark's house for the wake, I showed my kids all the little trinkets that my sister and I used to love, the strange shells, the lump of onyx and the human skull that Mark had once found, whilst walking on a beach, that he used as bookend - only Mark would find a human skeleton and take the skull home! I showed them the poems on the walls, the pieces of art and the simple way he lived and I thought about Mark and about how much time I had spent not being with him and not thinking about him. Like many grandchildren, I was too busy with my own life and yesterday as we gathered as a family and remembered him I found out things about him I had never known.

I didn't know that he was born in England which makes me only 2nd generation kiwi. I knew he wrote poetry and had a passion for the written arts, he was one of the many English teachers our family has produced, but I did not know how gifted he was or of his writing accomplishments until I saw the full array of his published works yesterday and read the Waiheke Gulf News article on him which was published on Thursday; extracts and link below.

Distinguished poet Mark Richards publishes his last volume

Mark RichardsMark Richards – poet, writer, teacher, sailor, musician – died peacefully at home on Waiheke last Sunday. He was 87. Shortly before his death, he had his thirteenth collection of poetry published.


It is fat - not a slim volume at all. An extraordinary achievement in the last quarter of his life. The book’s foreword is by New Zealand writer David Hill who notes that “the poems in this collection are vigorous, varied, quickened by verbal and intellectual energy and discoveries, just like their author.”

And looking at poet Kevin Ireland’s brief biography at the front, it’s clear that Mark Richards was no passive observer of life as it passed by.

Born in London in 1922, he was the grandson of the novelist, poet and essayist Maurice Hewlett. He arrived in New Zealand in 1927 with his parents, who farmed near Tauranga before moving to the North Shore in 1933. After an apprenticeship, interrupted by five years in the army and airforce, he became a journeyman printer on the NZ Herald. After attending Auckland Teachers College 1949-51, he graduated from the University of Auckland in 1954, then went on to teach at Takapuna Grammar School until 1977. He became friends with poets A.R.D Fairburn and R.A.K Mason, who deeply influenced his writing and he published early poems in Arena, a quarterly literary journal based in Wellington.

In 1960, he won first prize for his poem Go Back Lazarus in the Cheltenham Festival Poetry Competition, which at that time, says Ireland, was arguably the most prestigious international prize awarded to a New Zealand poet. And for the next ten years his poems, plays (mainly in verse) and talks were frequently broadcast. His books of poems were regularly published from 1958 to the present and his satirical history of New Zealand, 1840 and All That came out in 1991.

From 1996, he developed an interest in detective novels, creating a character called Simon Bridger who stars in three published novellas as an amateur detective helped by his friends. Oh and he married and had three children (and grandchildren and great grandchildren) along the way - Michael [my father], Hugh and Barbara.

His poems range across a broad canvas from war and ageing to personal relationships, visions of the future, sailing and landscapes, particularly around the North Shore of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf. In form they are also varied – from sonnets to narrative to free verse. I find his writing honest, wry and accessible – intelligent without being pompous. He is especially unflinching about the ageing process;

and tentatively alive
with one heel grazed
by the swing of His scythe
I stand unstable, bedazed
With this permit to survive.

Death passed by in nightmares
three I can recall, before
the heart took up the load
reluctantly, to do a little more,
make these lines, be here.

I’ve got no breath to strive
snail-slowly on to anywhere:
sitting still to look at trees
with birds to dance the air
will do for eighty-five.

( page 172, Collected Poems II, 1985-2008)


David Hill concludes at the end of his foreword. “These are poems of craft as well as art… They fit together nicely, as do the boats, homes and music the author has shaped in his eventful life. They’re strong, well-wrought, and written with respect and awareness. They and their maker have done a damn good job.”

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