new zealand electronic poetry centre


Kendrick Smithyman

essays, interviews

Kendrick Smithyman, 

introduction to his poems in Recent Poetry in New Zealand, chosen and edited by Charles Doyle.
Auckland: Collins, 1965.

       Writing about another's poems is seldom easy. How does one write about one's own when they are now far enough away to seem as though they may be another person's? Indeed, they are in fact the poems of several people, none of whom one has any wish to meet again. Not that they can be disclaimed, that pseudonymous company of unlimited liabilities for whom I am, in their way, responsible. One does not admit at all readily to the responsibilities which go with writing and publishing poems, for they are demanding and embarrassing, and they embody obligations which most of us would rather be without. Moreover, as though responsibilities were not in themselves enough, there must be considered all those motives, some of them pretty well incompatible, which one would rather not examine. Why were those poems written? Why did one go on? What did one hope to do?

       We are the victims of our ambitions, even the quietists among us, dupes of every set of ambivalent ambiguous attitudes which we fancy we command. The arch-figure of the Poet is Janus, not in any ivory tower but stranded on a desertscape of his own making, full of the words which he needs but never getting his speech right, as he clamours to an air of tangible silence, unsure which mouth is sounding or which is taking its rest without being in repose.

       It seems now that for only a few poems could I give any sort of factual answer to Why was that written? and about the question Why did you go on? I cannot give any clear answer at all.
What did you hope to do? I think that can be answered more definitely: To amuse, to interest, to entertain a few people, or to give someone a little pleasure for a little while. But what about yourself, whichever self you were for whatever poems? Once the years of one's juvenilia were passed - never very good at growing up, I cannot say when, if, they did pass - I realised that whatever I had to say about anything was not going to matter much. Contrary to my earlier expectations, the world had in me no clear-headed forceful thinker, an insufficiency which I had to learn to live with; nor was I living or going to live a life that would of itself provide inherently interesting material for poems; nor had I sui generis a character which would vitalise a set of lines. But these are deficiencies, one eventually appreciates, which a good many other poets now and hitherto suffer and had to suffer, and there were some among them who learned how to be poets nonetheless. They did it by being other than themselves in what they wrote. They learned to be humble about what they wrote, and how they wrote it. 

I think I tried to do likewise for most of the time I believed, more or less strongly, that poetry did matter (quite a different thing from believing that my poems mattered). I tried to be concerned with the poems rather than with me. Perhaps this is why too many of them today seem impersonal in the wrong way. If my betters learned and practised to be craftsmen, then I too had to learn what I could about the craft. Often enough I wrote a poem because I proposed to myself some technical problem for which the equivocal solution was a piece of writing. Such writings were not inevitably poems. 

About influences I can say nothing. There are too many of them. My enthusiasms have spread fairly wide. They are evident in what I have published. I feel no impulse to defend or to justify my practices, and I do not want big audiences, which is just as well. 

Last updated 11 May 2001