Imagining ecologies : traditions of ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand : a thesis submitted to Massey University in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Massey University of Palmerston North. EMBARGOED until 1 January 2022.
New Zealand ecopoetry tells the stories of connection with and separation from the
land. From the late nineteenth century until the present, opposing and changing notions
of ecological loss and belonging have underlain New Zealand’s long lineage of
ecopoetry in English. Yet, from a critical perspective, such a tradition is essentially
invisible. Scholars have tended to fragment New Zealand ecopoetry according to
themes and time periods. But taken as a whole, the tradition not only provides local
stories of human relationships with nature transformed by colonialism, it challenges
some established conceptions of ecopoetry.
Discussions within the relatively new field of post-colonial ecocriticism reveal
the importance of local writing. Scholars have emphasized that particular national
histories especially in places of settler colonialism have “contributed to the
hybridization and creolization of plants, peoples, and place in ways that profoundly
denaturalize absolute ontological claims,” (DeLoughrey 2014 325). This approach
recognises that rather than a global framework of ecological change, experiences differ
according to specific locations and across different timeframes.
With this approach in mind, the critical component of this thesis investigates
the field of ecopoetry and maps New Zealand’s ecopoetic lineage. It reports on close
readings and analysis of contemporary ecopoetry by three New Zealand poets: Brian
Turner (b. 1944), Robert Sullivan (b. 1967) and Airini Beautrais (b. 1982). It finds that
New Zealand ecopoetry portrays particular tensions about understandings of nature and
the human relationship with it. These tensions challenge in specific ways some of the
homogenizing, Eurocentric conceptions that prevail in foundational work carried out in
the field of ecopoetry since the 1990s.
The creative component is a collection of original ecopoems entitled Anti-
Pastoral. These poems reflect on my own connection to land through farming over
four generations of European settlement in New Zealand. Some poems focus on the
degrading effects on people and animals of relatively recent shifts towards large-scale
In the critical component I ask: How do we define and depict New Zealand’s
long tradition of ecopoetry? How does that tradition speak back to and challenge existing definitions of ecopoetry and of ecology? In the creative component, I ask:
How do I, a Pākehā poet and farmer, join that tradition?