M. K. (Michael Kennedy) Joseph was among the foremost New Zealand writers of his generation, both as poet and novelist.

Born in Chingford, Essex to Catholic parents, who, after some years in post-war Belgium and France, immigrated to New Zealand in 1923, he gained degrees at Auckland and Oxford before serving in World War II with the Royal Field Artillery. In 1946 he joined the Auckland University English Department, retiring, as a professor, in 1979.

Joseph’s war experiences form the basis not only for some fine poems but also for the novels I’ll Soldier No More and A Soldier’s Tale. His works include science fiction, a university novel, historical romance, and a major study of Byron.

Joseph’s preferred definition of a poem was an old-fashioned one: “it is an artefact made with words.” This, he said, corresponded to his sense, in composing poetry, “of dealing with something which has a distinct shape, and in which the effort of shaping is itself the general, controlling activity.” In short, inclining neither to the confessional nor the prophetic, he is the poet as “maker.” But his craftsmanship serves meditations on the seen and the unseen that are rich with sensory content and fully engage the reader’s intellect, feelings, and imagination. He can conduct a logical argument on freewill to a fervent climax and elucidate abstract concepts by way of exempla from the material world.

Steeped in the literature and art of Western high-culture, Joseph draws also on popular fantasy of his day; movies, comics, radio drama. Typically “Mars Ascending”, with its contrasting halves of turbulence and peace, is “for” Jet Morgan, the BBC’s fictional space traveller of the 1950s, and Sandro Botticelli. Joseph’s repertoire includes witty pastiches of Chaucer and Blake, the brilliantly sportive “The Rosy Cats of Dr Paracelsus”, and the satire on Kiwi philistinism “Secular Litany”. Identifiable New Zealand subject-matter is rare in Joseph’s verse, though the Mercury Bay of his seaside “Eclogue” is where Captain James Cook put ashore to observe the transit of Mercury in 1769.

“Drunken Gunners” (one of three sonnets read here) is energized by its paradoxes and sense of the disproportion between cause and effect: soldiers “pickled to the gills” move with the choreographed precision of dancers as an artillery captain’s calm connecting of two dots on a map foreshadows the destruction of a faraway target. In other poems Joseph’s own perspective on cityscapes, people, art, events, and places is apt to move, like a cinematic camera’s, from close-up to distant long shot. Time and the heavens brood over all. Joseph’s cultivated, undemonstrative voice matches the tone of his poems, allowing their significance to build quietly in the listener’s mind.

Recordings are from the Waiata New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive 1974

Poems by M. K. Joseph

Drunken Gunners - M. K. Joseph
Cinderella - M. K. Joseph
Below the Sierra - M. K. Joseph
Madrid, Prado Museum - M. K. Joseph
Mars Ascending - M. K. Joseph
Chronosemasiology - M. K. Joseph
Girl, Boy, Flower, Bicycle - M. K. Joseph
The Dancing Ploughmen - M. K. Joseph

Books by M. K. Joseph


1953 Landfall Poetry Award

Prize website