Sam Hunt is a rare commodity in New Zealand: a ham actor playing to the gallery and willing to go out on a limb; he’s also a highly-effective poet, wise about his craft, while being a national icon. Partly this fame tends to obscure the achievement of his verse, partly it glamorises it. On stage, Celebrity Sam hunches over like a mean old blues singer, a compendium of poems in his head. He’s the lead performer in his own narratives. It’s a rare individual who can get us to accept his self-mythologising — most don’t manage it.

Born in Auckland in 1946, Hunt was introduced to poetry at an early age; both of his parents were interested in the arts and loved to recite poems. At his Catholic high school, Hunt was unconventional and anti-authoritarian; and eventually he was asked to leave. In the 1960s, Alistair Campbell’s slim collection of poems Wild Honey, and Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited were the poet’s twin beacons in the affirmation of his conviction that poetry was what mattered most.

In recital his voice is memorable. It evokes at one and the same time a wheezing harmonica and a raucous seagull.With bouffant hairdo like an exploded wool bale, bony bangle-clad wrists and fingers restlessly in motion, this is the poet as rock ‘n’ roller, affirming the power of performance.

His radar-like ear attuned to the Kiwi vernacular, he is able to plumb the depths that lurk in seemingly straightforward phrases. There is sharp observation in his lines; things being said no-one else can quite manage. And while the rich rumble of Hunt’s voice speaks volumes from the stage, there’s a different kind of richness to be had on the page. The poet packs a remarkable amount into each spare phrase, offering complexity of sensation while cultivating the illusion of simplicity.

Whether romantic or elegiac, he’s an essentialist, offering aphoristic, pithy phrase-making in short poems which have the clarity of classic song lyrics — all wiry, concise, snap-shut lines: the metre sure, the assonances neat, the stanzas tidy. Generating poetry from specific instances, Hunt plays artful games with syntax and imagery that tease both ear and eye. Nursing rhymes at once primal and primitive, he makes verses into charms and chants so as to invoke the land, and then there’s the interior landscape of childhood, with its lupins and sand-dunes and tree huts in pine trees.

Imbued with a sense of awe or at least respect for those outside forces which influence human destiny, Hunt, brought up a Catholic, also unmistakeably crafts poetry which draws on the Christian tradition in English literature: poems as chapels of devotion — part confessional, part pulpit, part altar, part choir stall. Hunt the huntaway — a round-up merchant and back-country shepherd of sorts — dispenses his gnomic observations, personal reflections and cleaned-up car-wreck salvage as a kind of sweet music: Pied Piper tunes whistling on the wind.

Recordings here are from the Waita New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive 1974 and the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive 2004

Poems by Sam Hunt

Books by Sam Hunt



Burns Fellowship, University of Otago

Prize website

Queen's Service Medal, contributions to New Zealand Poetry


Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, services to poetry


Prime Minister's Award for Achievement in Poetry

Prize website