David was born in Wellington in 1940. He was a keen sportsman in his younger years. His biographers Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts note: ‘He enjoyed cricket, rugby, fives, swimming, diving and water-polo.’ At Wellington College in the 1950s, New Zealand captain John Reid named Mitchell as one of Wellington’s five outstanding schoolboy cricketers. At rugby, he was a second five-eighth and coached by Sam Meads, cousin of Colin and Stan.
His first poem publication was in the Wellington College annual The Wellingtonian. After school he attended Victoria University (1958-59), then graduated from Wellington Teacher’s College in 1960 and taught his probationary year at Upper Hutt Primary School, before leaving New Zealand for London in1962 (doing casual and relief teaching) and travelling to Europe. Overseas his experiences drastically altered his poetry and he returned to Wellington in 1964 somewhat ahead of his time.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s Mitchell quickly established himself as a leading poet on the New Zealand poetry scene (especially with the publication by Stephen Chan and later Trevor Reeves of his collection Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby (1972, 1975). In 1975, he received the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship to Menton in France. Mitchell was often the iconic poet of the period, as Peter Olds wrote: ‘David was good with the girls, he looked good, he dressed well, he spoke well…while people admired him I think they secretly envied him.’
Throughout this time, he lived variously across the Tasman (Sydney, Wellington and Auckland) and worked briefly in the Education Department in Wellington in the mid 1970s.
Perhaps health issues and concerns or retreat from literary fame dogged much of his life after the 1970s. His poetry output was seldom in print. However, he worked as a teacher for 30 years and in the 1980s co-founded the successful poetry readings at the Globe in Auckland (now continuing at various venues as Poetry Live), completed a BA at Victoria University, and he kept up his cricket interest playing club cricket mostly for the Grafton Club until 2002. His biographers note: ‘Cricket was poetry, David said.’
Despite publishing little, his poems made their way into major Oxford and Penguin anthologies of New Zealand poetry as well as specialist anthologies like James Bertram’s New Zealand Love Poems, Alistair Paterson’s ‘open form’ 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets or Alan Brunton, Michele Leggott and Murray Edmond’s Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-75 as well as journals like Printout and Poetry NZ in the 1990s.
Yet it wasn’t until 2010 when his friends Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts put together his selected poems, Steal Away Boy: The Selected Poems of David Mitchell (Auckland University Press) that he again appeared in book form. That same year, in declining health, he was also very happy to be included in the anthology ‘A Tingling Catch’: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009. More of his recent poems appeared on his blog: http://davemitchellpoetry.blogspot.com
Mitchell is survived by his two daughters: Sara and Genevieve.
David’s presence will be missed. Like Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd founder, who in some ways mirrored aspects of David’s life towards the end: ‘his crazy diamond will shine on.’ Wish you were here.
(Obituary written by Mark Pirie for The Lampstand 2011 (Wellington College Old Boys’ Magazine))
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