Poetry is a universal art form and one of the oldest literary arts known to man. Early songs and hymns are what survives of some of the world’s oldest poetry. Ancient civilizations from Greece to Africa to India to China used poetry as one of their earliest forms of expression. In fact, some of the oldest written works in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tale of the Shipwrecked Soldiers, are both long form poems.
Often classified broadly as Pacific Islanders, the indigenous writers of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Micronesia, Samoa, Tonga, Polynesia and other areas of the region are connected in many ways but have also developed distinct styles of literature and culture. Just like many aspects of indigenous life and culture, poetry in this region has been greatly influenced - wanted or not - by both European colonization and migrations to the area of populations of mainland Asian countries ranging from China to Vietnam to India. Throughout everything, the people whose ancestors have long called this region home have used poetry as a way to communicate with each other and the outside world about their hopes, dreams, struggles, and identity.
Indigenous Australian Poetry
When European colonists arrived in Australia, the indigenous societies that had lived on the continent for possibly 60,000 years had developed their own intricate system of arts and culture but not one of writing in the traditional sense. While there were rock arts, songs, and oral traditions handed down from generation to generation, much of what is known about early indigenous life was recorded by European outsiders. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the first accounts of aboriginal life, history, and mythology were recorded by actual indigenous Australians.
Poetry has become popular among indigenous populations in Australia, possibly because of its connection to indigenous songs. Originally, this traditional songs followed a strict metre, rhyme, and line but as more modern influences have come into the indigenous world songs has begun to explore new modern forms with loser rhyme.
Modern poets often use tactics like changing fonts, loose rhyme, minor repetition, and fragmented lines or phrases to reflect the sounds and vocalizations of traditional songs. Songlines, also known as yiri, were songs used to pass down oral traditions, lore, culture, and storytelling. These songs also were used to identify landmarks during tracking as well as explaining the cultural history of these landmarks. Songs also detailed family history and culture and in the modern time have come to include facets like social relationships, political controversies and even popular films and music.
Indigenous Australians have also Typically published in English despite their being some 150 aboriginal languages still spoken throughout Australia, aboriginal poetry has become an important type of creative writing among the community and is often published in regional and local publications. A lot of aboriginal poetry deals with issues like health, education, legal matters, and government policy as well as appreciating nature and the beauty of life. Poetry is also used as a way of expressing experience, both positive and negative. One of the first major indigenous poets was Ooderoo Noonucall, whose 1964 book We Are Going was the first published work of poetry by an indigenous Australian writer.
A political activist, artists, educator, and campaigner for Aboriginal rights, Ooderoo became one of the best selling poets of the era but also received harsh criticism from white writers who both were uncomfortable with the subject matter she was drawing attention to - i.e. the oppression of indigenous peoples - as well as those who felt her style was non-traditional. While described as bitter and polemic by some, Ooderoo became an important figure for aboriginal writers for the way she celebrated indigenous survival despite oppression, prejudice, and adversity. In 1974, she had was held hostage as part of a plane hijacking and wrote two poems about the experience on an airline sick bag during the experience. Today, the Queensland Poetry Festival gives out a prize in her name to indigenous poets.
Other prominent indigenous poets include Yvette Holt who won the 2005 Queensland Premier’s Literary David Unaipon Award. Holt’s works have been translated into Mapuche Chile, Mandarin Chinese, and French. Holt also works with aboriginal groups as a mentor and educator based out of Alice Springs. Poet Jeanine Leane has won the Scanlon Prize for Indigenous Poetry, the Ooderoo Noonucal Poetry Prize, and the University of Canberra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Poetry Prize for her work. In 2018, Indigenous slam poet Melanie Mununggurr-Williams was also crowned as the 2018 Australian Poetry Slam Queen, becoming the first indigenous poet to hold the title.
Several resources have also been developed to highlight aboriginal poets. The Aboriginal-owned Koori Mail newspaper regularly publishes poems written by Aboriginal people while AustLit's BlackWords project provides a comprehensive listing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers. Independent Australian publishers like Readings and Red Room Poetry have also published several collections of poems by indigenous authors to help broaden the audience for this artform.
Like Australian indigenous peoples, the Maori of New Zealand also have a long history of oral traditions where narratives, songs, and chants were used to pass down culture, history, and traditions. Speechmaking has an important ritual role in Maori culture that requires the use of traditional narrative techniques and allusions as well as proverbial sayings known as whakatauki.
Songs, calls, chants, haka, and formalized speech patterns have all been used to preserve history and tradition. Music, story, and poetry all remain important aspects of modern day Maori culture. Like a lot of Maori literature, poetry has traditionally always been sung or chanted with musical rhythms rather than linguistic devices used instead of techniques like rhyme or assonance. There is a large store of traditional songs and chants that are considered poetry and still handed down today, and those who study the language can see the stylistic differences between Maori poetry and Maori prose based on diction, theme, the use of synonymous and contrastive opposites, and the repetition of key words. Maori poetry written in the traditional form also still contains archaic words that have lost specific meaning but gained a religious mystique over time.
Maori poems in the traditional sense cover a wide variety of topics from romantic love to war songs to dirges to chants used to help canoers work in time to sacred charms to larger mythological and religious narratives. Maori pakeha poets often recite long elegiac poems that detail history, social customs, romance, and religion. Some of the earliest known examples of these songs outside the oral tradition were a set of songs or waiatas published in 1853 by European colonists.
Two of the more prominent modern day Maori poets were Rowley Habib and Hone Tuwhare. Also known as Rore Hapipi, Rowley Habib was a poet, playwright, and author of Lebanese and Maori descent who identified with the Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi. When he got a job as a television writer in 1971 he became the first person of Maori descent to write an original television drama and many of his television projects revolved around Maori issues and culture. In 2006, he published a poetry anthology titled The Raw Men and he was a regular contributor as a poet and short story writer to the Maori magazine Te Ao Hou The New World.
Hone Tuwhare was part of the Ngapuhi tribe who learned his storytelling and oration skills from his father had a young age. He began writing seriously in 1956, publishing the 1964 collection No Ordinary Sun, which still remains one of the most widely read poetry collections ever published in New Zealand. His poetry showed a departure from the traditional poetry of New Zealand and provided a distinct, uniquely Maori perspective on issues and life in the country. Tuwhare also showed a talent for being able to move between different topics, changing up the tone of his poetry, and still being able to write in a way that appealed to a widespread audience. He would publish three further collection of poetry that often reflected his home in the Catlins area.
In 2014, the first anthology of Maori poetry published by Maori writers, Puna Wai Kōrero, was made available. While Maori culture has a longstanding poetic tradition, Maori writers still often struggle to gain attention from the mainstream in both New Zealand and worldwide. Groups like the Maori Literature Trust have worked to create more recognition for Maori writers both within the Maori community and outside of it. The organization also holds workshops and conferences for writers within the Maori community.
Technically including the island of New Guinea, the Oceania subregion of Melanesia includes the islands of Nauru, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Located in a triangle between Australia, the region of Micronesia and the region of Polynesia, Melanesia was a term coined in 1832 to note the distinct ethnic commonalities shared by islanders in this region which were distinct from those of neighboring Micronesia and Polynesia. The region has more than 1,300 languages including numerous pigdins and creoles that have developed as the result of trade with other areas.
Like many countries in the region, Fiji’s literature began as oral tradition handed down through the generations. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s around the time the country transitioned into independence that works by Fijian authors in the language of Fiji started to be published. At the same time, many countries around Melanesia were also developing written languages and traditions from oral ones. One of the first Fijian poets to see work published as Pio Manoa, who published work in both English and Fijian. The founding of the University of the South Pacific in Suva in 1968 as well as the South Pacific Arts Society founded at the university in 1976 helped publish anthologies of Fijian poetry as well as the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly, which also prints poetry.
Well-known Fijian writers include Satendra Nandan who is known for his poetry, short stories and semi-autobiographical novel The Wounded Sea. Musician and writer Daren “D.K.” Kamali has published numerous poetry collections as well as two albums that combine metaphors, imagery, rhyme, rhythm, and from Fijian, English, and Maori. Poet and academic Sudesh Mishra was born into an Indo-Fijian family whose has published two volumes of poetry, Rahu in 1987 and Tandava in 1992. Another prominent Indo-Fijian writer is Jainan Prasad, a civil servant who also serves as President of the Hindi Writers Forum Fiji and has published Hindi literature in Fiji including poetry for youngsters and adults.
Written literature did not begin in the Solomon Islands until 1960s when it began to emerge from oral literature as Pacific Islander literature as a whole was being developed throughout the region thanks to the development of the University of the South Pacific. Established in 1976 at the university, the art and literature journal Mana became the first to publish work by writers from the Solomon Islands and also published the first anthology of Solomon Islands poetry. Some notable writers from the Solomon Islands include John Saunana and Celo Kulagoe.
Jully Makini is a well-known Solomon Islander poet and women’s rights activist who received the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Secretary of State in 2017 for her work. She began her literary career after attending a literary workshop for women held in the Solomon Islands in 1980 and published her poem Civilized Girl the following year, which critiqued how women in the islands were becoming westernized. She published the first anthology of works by female Solomon Islanders, Mi Mere, in 1983.
One of the major literary figures to come from Vanuatu was the feminist poet Grace Molisa who died in 2002. Her work was often social commentary on the island’s patriarchal society as well as the issues facing the country after colonization. A groundbreaker in many ways, Molisa became the first woman from Vanuata to earn a university degree when she graduated from the University of the South Pacific. Molisa wrote both in English and in the Bislama language. Molisa spoke five languages total and was an important figure in the country’s independence movement. She published three major poetry collections: Blackstone in 1983, Colonised People: Poems in 1987, and Pasifik paradaes in 1995. She also created a literary press that published primarily indigenous female authors from the Pacific region.
A subregion of Oceania, Micronesia includes the around 607 islands affiliated with the Federated States of Micronesia as well as independent nations like Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Guam, Wake Island, and the Mariana Islands. Settlement in this region began about the year 2000 BCE, and while the first European contact was made by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, it wasn’t until the early 1600s that colonization of the region began. Since that time, the islands have seen a large migration of both European and Asian populations to the region.
Most of the cultures and ethnic groups that inhabit Micronesia have strong oral traditions and are still developing written literary traditions in the modern era. There have been few published writers from the Federated States of Micronesia with Emelihter Kihleng becoming the first writer from the country to publish a collection of poetry in English in 2008. A member of the Pohnpei people, she is was born in Guam where she still lives and works. Her work often touches on the tragedy of colonization while still implementing indigenous humor and culture.
Teresia Teaiwa is the most notable writer and poet to be produced by Kiribati. Teaiwa, who died in 2017, was a groundbreaking scholar in terms of Pacific Island culture and published her collection of poetry Searching for Nei Nim’anoa in 1995. She became one of Kiribati’s national icons for her work in literature, culture, history, and politics. Original from Palau, poet Valentine Namio Sengebau lived in Saipan in the North Mariana Islands were he wrote poems discussing the political and cultural climate of Micronesia. An anthology of his work was published by the Northern Marianas Humanities Council after his death in 2000 and a poetry competition aimed at cultivating young poets has been established in his name as well.
Born in the Marshall Islands and raised in Hawaii, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and climate change activist who performed her piece “Dear Matafele Peinem” at the opening ceremony of the United Nations in 2014. She has been invited to participate in other international cultural events. When she published her first poetry collection Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter in 2017 it was widely regarded as the first piece of literature published by a Marshall Islander. Jetnil-Kijiner is still active as a poet and performance artist, working in spoken word and other forms.
Nauru has produced two well-known Micronesian poets. Margaret Hendrie wrote the lyrics for the country’s national anthem and has written other works in the Nauruan language. Nauruan poet Joanne Ekamdeiya Goburne, meanwhile, writes largely in English and her poem “A Beautiful Prayer” has garnered international attention after it was published online because of its religious vocation.
New Guinean Poetry
The island of New Guinea is divided politically into the countries of Papua New Guinea and the Western New Guinea region administered by Indonesia, but the island’s indigenous Papuan and Austronesian groups have long occupied the region. The Papua were the first, arriving somewhere between 40,000 and 21,000 years ago to the islands while the Austronesian group came later around 3,500. Despite some minor linguistic and cultural differences, the people native to both sides of the islands share a lot in common.
While oral literary traditions on both sides of the island are strong, written literature is comparatively recent in the culture. The establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea in 1966 and the writing courses it promoted were among the first to stir written literary works in the area. These courses were founded by Ulli Beier, a German Jewish editor who also founded the Papua Pocket Poets series and the literary magazine Kovave, the first in the country. Many of the country’s most well-known writers got their start submitting to the magazine. One of the most well-known writers from the island is John Kasaipwalova who was originally destined to be a tribal chief but ended up going to a Catholic school and eventually becoming an anti-colonial activist when he attended the University of Papua New Guinea.
He has released two major collections of poetry since 1972 and has also written plays, folk operas, short stories, and other works as well as served in local government and tribal political roles. Politician, poet, and singer Loujaya Kouza began publishing poetry as a student in the 1980s and earned the nickname “PNG’s youngest poet.” By 1985, she began a career as a gospel singer/songwriter and also pursued a career in journalism before turning to politics. Allan Natachee became the first Papuan poet to ever be printed when he published Mekeo Poems and Legends in 1951 and earned the nickname “the Papuan Poet Laureate” because of this. He also worked as a translator before his death.
Nora Vagi Brash is a prominent educator from the area who has held several positions in the public and private sector. She has also published and performed in numerous plays dealing with PNG traditions, land issues, culture, and the transition between colonialism and independence. She has also published works of poetry and served as a participant and judge at several literary competitions across Oceania.
A subregion of Oceania containing some 1,000 islands, Polynesia technically includes New Zealand but also spreads as far east as Hawaii. Countries including Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Tuvalu, Rapa Nui, the Marquesas, and several other islands are also part of this region. While the peoples of Polynesia have a shared culture, mythology, and elements of language, they have also become very diverse as a result of the separation and relative isolation of island life. Still, modern forms of communication are allowing peoples from these regions to reconnect culturally with each other.
Like much of the literature of the region, the literature of the island of Niue didn’t begin to develop its literary tradition as something distinct from oral literature until the modern era. One of the major writers to have been produced from Niuean literature is poet and novelist John Pule who has published several works in both English and the Niuean language. Outside of literature, he is also a well-known artist working in painting, drawing, printmaking, filmmaking, performance, and the traditional Polynesian art form of bark cloth painting.
Samoan literature includes traditional oral practices like solo or poetic narratives, folk tales, songs, theatre, and other recited works like family genealogies, histories, and religious legends. Like many other countries in the region, the development of written literature in Samoa didn’t begin until the 1960s. Since then, work has been done to both preserve the oral literary traditions of Samoa as well as utilize written language and new forms of storytelling and writing.
One of the early prominent Samoan poets after the development of writing was Savea Sano Malifa who also founded the Samoa Observer, the island’s main newspaper, in the 1970s. He also written novels, articles, and essays about the rights of Samoan people. Other poets of his generation include Ti Saaga and Sapa’u Ruperake Petaia. Saaga was born in Samoa and studied throughout Oceania and has also worked as a journalist in addition to as a poet. Petaia published his first poetry collection in 1980 and has published several works in the Samoa Observer.
Members of Samoas younger generation of poets and writers include Sia Figiel, who won the Polynesian Literary Competition in 1994 and the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her works have been translated into French, German, Catalan, Danish, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Portuguese and often incorporate elements of Samoan culture and poetic tradition. Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard has appeared in national and international journals with her book of poetry Alchemies of Distance published in 2002. Dan Taulapapa McMullin is an American Samoan visual artist, filmmaker, and poet who deals with both Samoan heritage and gender identity while living as an indigenous person but in a westernized world.
Tongan literature was also relegated to mainly oral traditions until written language was developed in the 1970s and 1970s. Konai Helu Thaman is one of the most popular poets of Tonga, and she has published five collections of poetry since 1974. Her works have since been translated into multiple languages and have been included in several English-language anthologies of Pacific Islander poetry.