Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rugby bard Ernest L. Eyre’s NZ cricket poem

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing further research on forgotten bard Ernest L. Eyre’s poetry after I recently made a list of New Zealand poets from 1915-1930, a period I have not looked into in much detail previously. It’s an interesting period after and during the First World War and up to the Great Depression.
One poet who has emerged as significant from this period is Ernest L. Eyre. Eyre (December 1885-1968), a poet, rugby player and official for the North Shore Rugby Club was born in Dunedin and lived in Devonport, Auckland much of his life and was a wandering bard who at one stage pedalled a push bike across rugged terrain to sell his wares in small townships. Niel Wright has written about him in the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa’s newsletter, Poetry Notes (Spring 2011).
He wrote popular verse since age 14 and started publishing his work in book form at the age of 20. He was widely published in newspapers in New Zealand (Auckland Star) and Australia (The Bulletin) and by 1940 he said he’d sold around 30,000 copies of his books and pamphlets across New Zealand.
These stats and his habit of wandering make him a precursor to the modern day great Sam Hunt who similarly travels across New Zealand and has been officially recognised by the Queen for his services to poetry. Like Hunt, Eyre was a professional poet and made his living from poetry. Eyre’s feat is plainly remarkable given the difficulty of getting poems printed back then and of travelling, yet in contrast Eyre has received no formal recognition.
This year, Tony King succeeded in reprinting a pamphlet of Eyre’s rugby poems from his book Camp-fire Rhymes (1923) called Versus: New Zealand rugby in verse 1909. It’s a beautifully printed collection published to coincide with the IRB Rugby World Cup 2011.
There’s no doubt Eyre was our first prominent rugby poet, whose knowledge of rugby as a player has gleaned some of the best poems written on the subject in this country. He also played hockey, golf and lawn bowls and wrote on a variety of sports, including steeplechasing, athletics, tennis, cricket and rowing. Strangely, his work has fallen off the radar. Eyre appears in no major anthology of New Zealand’s poetry.
In Eyre’s 1938 collection of poems and prose, The Wreck on Opotiki Beach, (copy found by Dr Michael O’Leary for the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa), there is one cricket poem and a quatrain on cricket in the poem ‘Christmas Time: By Bush and Beach’:

     Then on the cricket fields – in summer heat –
            The cricketers are seen, a healthy band
     Of vigorous youths, who bowl their “overs” neat,
            Or smash a glorious “sixer” o’er the stand!

Eyre’s cricket poem, ‘A Plunket Baby’, was ‘written for The Weekly News’ in Auckland, published from 1934 to 1964, so the poem was published in the 1930s.
Cricket was not such a great love for Eyre as rugby but his poem is worth sharing as it makes a comic connection from an American visitor’s remark between the Plunket Shield and Plunket babies. While I’m sure our anti-smacking laws may make the poem’s humorous ending somewhat incorrect now, it can nevertheless be enjoyed for the period in which it was written.
The names mentioned ‘Gilbert Jessop, Trott or Bonner’ appear to be English or Australian players from the late 1890s to early 1900s. Gilbert Jessop played for England and was an all-rounder (Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1898); Albert Trott played several Tests for England and Australia (Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1899). Trott and Jessop were probably big names when Eyre was following cricket as a boy. I’m not sure who Bonner is, but there was a batsman John Bonner playing for Essex in this period (1896-98). It's probably the Australian slogger George Bonnor misspelt.
These player dates clearly suggest Eyre’s poem was written much earlier. The Plunket Shield began in New Zealand from 1906/07 when Canterbury defeated Auckland, so it’s possible Eyre’s poem dates from 20 or more years before its Weekly News publication when Eyre was still a young man. It suggests the poem by Eyre could’ve been republished from an earlier publication (The Weekly News was known prior to 1934 as The Auckland Weekly News (1877-1934)) or Eyre could’ve withheld its publication for some years. However, cricket players can become forgotten so it’s more likely Eyre may have published it in an earlier edition of The Auckland Weekly News.


A Plunket Baby

(“These Plunket babies know their cricket, I guess. They’re nearly as good as our baseball stars. They’re grand!” An American’s comment in the pavilion during a Plunket Shield match.)

When he batted in the Plunket we knew he wouldn’t funk it;
He’s a baby, maybe, plainly oversize.
When deliveries were bouncing they, not he received the trouncing
As in style, not bib-ulous, he made them rise!

He drove them fast and willing, then he nursed them, with some frilling,
Or perambulated them on either hand.
He’s not spoon fed, on my honour. Gilbert Jessop, Trott or Bonner
Never smacked up better sixes to the stand:
For it’s smacking makes a Plunket baby grand!

Poem © Ernest L. Eyre

(Sources: Cricket Archive; Camp-fire Rhymes by Ernest L. Eyre (Auckland: Leightons Ltd printers, 1923); Versus: New Zealand Rugby in Verse 1909 by Ernest L. Eyre (Greytown: Cobblestones Early Settlers’ Museum, 2011) and The Wreck on Opotiki Beach by Ernest L. Eyre (Devonport: North Shore Gazette Ltd, 1938).

Article © Mark Pirie, 2011

Versus: New Zealand rugby in verse 1909
by Ernest L. Eyre
(Greytown: Cobblestones Early Settlers Museum, 2011)