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Kendrick Smithyman

about Kendrick Smithyman



Peter Simpson, 1989.


Among New Zealand poets Kendrick Smithyman is a singular and somewhat paradoxical figure. In the later 1940s he rapidly became established as a leading member of the post-war generation of poets, a position he has maintained until the present day. He has published eight substantial collections, as well as several minor ones. He has also published extensively in periodicals throughout his forty-five year career, and has been included in every significant anthology of New Zealand poetry since 1950. But among the general public he is undoubtedly the least known of the important New Zealand poets; few of his individual poems have become established in the public consciousness, and even anthologists have failed to agree on his best works. There are a number of explanations for this state of affairs. One is undoubtedly the admitted complexity and difficulty of much of his work; he eschews the ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’ mode which most easily makes for popular recognition. In addition no substantial and comprehensive selection from his work has hitherto been available. This Selected Poems should therefore lead to both wider recognition and better understanding of this masterly writer.

The hundred poems in this selection cover the full range of Smithyman’s career thus far. The arrangement is broadly chronological in order of composition rather than publication. Included in the selection are poems from all eleven of Smithyman’s separate publications – two (much changed) from Seven Sonnets (1946), six from The Blind Mountain (1950), one from The Gay Trapeze (1955), one from The Night Shift (1957) (a joint publication with James K. Baxter, Charles Doyle, and Louis Johnson), twenty-two from Inheritance (1962), twelve from Flying to Palmerston (1968), eight from Earthquake Weather (1972), eight from The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974), eleven from Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978), fifteen from Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985), and seven from Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987). Seven other poems are previously uncollected. These hundred poems represent only a small fraction of Smithyman’s published work, which amounts to some 400 poems in his own books and at least 200 further poems published in periodicals or anthologies. There is also a substantial body of unpublished material. Smithyman rivals his contemporary James K. Baxter as New Zealand’s most prolific poet.

The poems here were chosen from a considerably larger selection made by the poet himself. Although this meant leaving out some personal favourites, I felt that the poet’s own choice had an authority worth preserving. It will be noticed that the volumes most heavily represented are Inheritance (1962), Flying to Palmerston (1968), Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978), and Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985); well over half the selection comes from these four volumes. It is my impression, having read through all of Smithyman’s published work, that thus far his career demonstrates twin peaks of accomplishment, the first in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the second in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The earlier of these two periods is somewhat confused because poems were not always published in order of composition. The two volumes published in the 1960s, Inheritance and Flying to Palmerston, both include work written at widely varying intervals. The poems in the first part of Inheritance date in their original versions from the 1940s and appear to have preceded the poems included in The Blind Mountain (written between 1945 and 1948), whereas the remainder date from the late 1950s / early 1960s. Most of the poems in Flying to Palmerston, on the other hand, date from the 1950s, many of them preceding in composition the later poems in Inheritance; only a few were written close to the volume’s publication date in1968. Publication dates obscure, therefore, the fact that, compared to the decades which preceded and followed, the 1960s were a somewhat unproductive period in Smithyman’s work. Since the 1970s the chronology of publication has been much more straightforward.

Assumptions based on chronology, however, must take into account the poet’s habit of constant revision. Like W. H. Auden, Smithyman justifies this practice by reference to Valéry’s dictum that ‘a poem is never finished; it is only abandoned’. A couple of examples will serve to illustrate the kinds of changes Smithyman effects through revision. Here are three versions of the first and last stanzas of ‘Walk Past Those Houses …’ . In the version published in New Zealand New Writing (1944), one of his earliest publications, Smithyman wrote:

Walk past those houses on a Sunday morning
with the piano stumbling in the front room
where the mechanic freed from tools takes shears
to clip his hedges, talk of politics. …

Somewhere there is value to them. Like
       the piano stumbling
something is cast into being that will
       take shape in the end.

When Smithyman revised the poem for inclusion in a 1956 Oxford anthology the last stanza was altered as follows:

Somewhere there is value to them. As the piano stumbles
something grows into being. It will take shape in the end.

The latest version is subtly different:

Walk past those houses on a Sunday morning
where pianos stumble in front rooms,
mechanics freed from tools take shears
to clip their hedges, talking politics. …

Somewhere there’s value to them. As a piano stumbles
something comes into being. It will take shape in the end.

Sometimes revision is more thoroughgoing than this sort of minor verbal tinkering. Compare, for instance, the text of ‘Time in Your Maiden Head’ (p. 28) with the version published in The Blind Mountain under the title ‘Time’ (perhaps the change in title signifies Smithyman’s awareness that revision has created a virtually new poem):

Time in her maiden head
sits attentive as a mirror
or entering as a river
threads landscapes of her bed
with a dew brightened aspect
nor ever arbitrates upon
her near and darkening prospect
but whiter winds between
foreground and horizon.

The military powers displace
familiar agencies of earth
and gravely from the seaward capes
westward turns the morning light
upon each popular disgrace.
The pitiably savage step
and stagger and lie down at night.
Time enters and is white.

Now below my hands there lie
warm peninsulas and bays
while the cold wind blows without
searching limits of my praise.
Risen is what commends, and die
the sycophant and enemies
whose aggressive mouths must shout
speech our indignant hearts deny,
blown by surprising gales of love
from credible infirmity.

In this instance, as with some of the later versions of Yeats, the new poem amounts to a kind of commentary from the perspective of ‘elder wit’ on the romanticism of its predecessor, though a desire to get rid of some derivative stylistic effects (especially of Auden) may also have motivated the changes. One presumes that it was to such acts of reconstruction that Smithyman was referring when he spoke in a recent interview (Landfall 168, December 1988) of ‘going back and having another dig at things to see whether they can’t be made more respectable’.

Kendrick Smithyman was born in Te Kopuru, a small milling village south of Dargaville in Northland, in 1922. The only child of a late marriage, he moved with his parents to Auckland at the age of about ten during the Depression. He has lived in Auckland ever since, while the Northland of his childhood remains a continuous preoccupation of his writing. Smithyman attended Auckland Teachers’ College, and spent four years in military service from 1941 to 1945, before embarking on a career as a primary school teacher with a special interest in slow learners and other aspects of special education. After eighteen years in primary teaching Smithyman joined the teaching staff of the English Department of the University of Auckland, a position from which he retired in 1987. He married the poet Mary Stanley in 1946 and has remarried since her death in 1980.

Smithyman began his career at a critical moment in the development of New Zealand poetry. His earliest publications coincided with the publication of Allen Curnow’s seminal anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, which gave to New Zealand poetry for the first time a substantial and articulated identity. The achievements of R. A. K. Mason, A. R. D. Fairburn, Ursula Bethell, Denis Glover, Robin Hyde, Charles Brasch, and Curnow himself, gave writers of a new generation something solid to build on or react to. This point was made by Charles Brasch when he included in Landfall in December 1948 a ‘miniature anthology’ of poets who had emerged since Curnow’s anthology. Smithyman’s work appeared here, along with poems by Ruth Dallas, Louis Johnson, W. H. Oliver, Keith Sinclair, and Pat Wilson. The older poets had given poetry in New Zealand a local habitation and a name, but they had also imported, and adapted and made available for local consumption and use, a version of the Modern, represented most powerfully by T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. Traces of, or in places contamination by (in Allen Curnow’s word), these powerful influences are clearly evident in Smithyman’s early work. Less evident was any clear relation to his older New Zealand contemporaries. The overt ‘nationalism’ (in the sense of a conscious attempt to express a ‘national identity’) that characterised the work of Fairburn, Curnow, Brasch and others was something which Smithyman and his contemporaries avoided, either by narrowing the focus to a concern for the local and the personal or by widening it to include international or ‘universal’ concerns. Where Smithyman differed from Baxter, who faced an almost identical predicament, was in poetic methodology and technique. Baxter shared his interest in Yeats, Auden, and Dylan Thomas, but was more susceptible to the Romantic and nineteenth-century elements in modern poetry; for Smithyman the Modernist tendencies of Eliot and the Americans proved increasingly to be key models, not only in technique but also as an alternative to the romantic nationalism of the older New Zealand poets.

Discussing regionalism in post-war New Zealand poetry in his critical work, A Way of Saying (1965), Smithyman distinguished between the Wellington poets (notably Baxter and Louis Johnson) – ‘neo-romantic’, ‘personalist’ and ‘domestic’ – and the Auckland poets (M. K. Joseph, Keith Sinclair, C. K. Stead) – ‘academic’ in character and writing work which was asocial, oblique, intellectual, and attending ‘to the surface finish and manner’. Academic poetry as defined (and practised) by Smithyman displays a consciousness of poetic tradition, a preference for complex verbal structures, the exploitation of verbal ingenuity and wit, a liking for irony and the play of ideas, and for learned and sometimes esoteric information. Smithyman has often been criticised for a tendency towards excessive obscurity. The Listener reviewer who remarked in reference to Smithyman’s first publication, his Seven Sonnets of 1946, that ‘deliberate obscurity is not a virtue. Mathematics are to exercise the intellect – poetry to satisfy the soul and senses’, was setting out on a path which many later reviewers, likewise ignorant of Smithyman’s poetics, would follow. A useful disclosure of the issues at stake here is provided in John Geraets’s article, ‘Kendrick Smithyman and Brasch’s Landfall’ (Landfall 160, December 1986), which explores the correspondence between contributor and editor. Brasch wrote:

I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but I must protest that for me at any rate you’re not putting your gifts to good use by wrapping up your meaning so darkly. I work on your poems because I believe you’re a serious writer, but I’m sure that most readers would give these pieces up in despair much sooner.

Criticism of this sort provoked Smithyman to a spirited defence of his approach:

In honesty I hope to write some day poetry with various characters and as worthy of regard as the poetry of our time or of our history which I regard as worthy. … There may never be an audience but myself or perhaps a few. My poems may not deserve even that. But I seem to be committed to this slogging, to finding the right way of saying what demands to be said.

In a more public statement published in the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook (1954) Smithyman argued:

Society is complex in its activities and its relationships, and the members of a community are complex. A section of the poetry of and advanced and intricated community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure – which is not to say that most of the obscurity cannot eventually be understood in the major part. …

We have to reckon in short that the mirror which art holds to nature may be a dark glass reflecting a paddock where undoubtedly dark horses are capering.

This argument resembles and no doubt derives in part from a famous statement by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Although Smithyman now alludes to his obscurity in more self-deprecating terms, there is no doubt of the tradition in which he saw himself working. Smithyman brought this phase of his work to a climax in the series of splendidly intricate and subtle poems written in the late 1950s, which include ‘Parable of Two Talents’, Climbing in the Himalaya’, and ‘Waikato Railstop’.

I referred earlier to a kind of watershed in Smithyman’s poetry in the 1960s with a lessening of output after the publication of Inheritance in1962. It is possible that some of his energies may have been absorbed by writing criticism. A series of four articles entitled ‘Post-war New Zealand Poetry’, published in the journal Mate (at the instigation of the editor Robin Dudding) between 1961 and 1963, was later expanded to a book-length study, A Way of Saying (1965). This is a fiercely idiosyncratic but often penetrating study of New Zealand poetry, particularly valuable for its implicit revelation of the poetic thinking behind Smithyman’s own writing. Change of tone is certainly evident in his public statements about his own poetry from the 1960s, as in his introductory note to the selection from his work in the anthology Recent Poetry in New Zealand, edited by Charles Doyle in 1965:

Once the years of one’s juvenilia were passed … 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 clearheaded 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 … 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.

It would be fatally easy to mis-read the self-irony in such passages, but a significant if not profound change is discernible in Smithyman’s verse from the late 1960s, and this may partly reflect a dissatisfaction with the mode of his earlier work.

A pivotal poem at this point is ‘Flying to Palmerston’, title poem of his 1968 volume, and one of the few recent compositions in that book. A number of things make this poem significant. Its epigraph – ‘his air / of lost connections …’ – is taken from a poem in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), a volume which signified a notable change of direction for that poet, whose dense and compressed and highly intricate early manner had exerted some considerable direct influence on Smithyman. The more open, personal, direct, accessible style adopted by Lowell in Life Studies is paralleled by a similar change in Smithyman’s style, a change of which ‘Flying to Palmerston’ is one of the earliest indicators:

Queen Street, horror
of what is altogether
bearable, where have I seen
that girl’s face, that face, before?

Flight 523 departs twelve-forty-five.
Potplants in the Airways lounge
do not breathe; immobile, they flower
in an air of being suspended.
A quarter after one you will take
one pill to keep away a certain situation.

Do not be nervous, I write to myself.
The flowers have not fallen however
pallid are the stalks of the lily.

The shorter lines, the open texture of the verse, the simpler syntax, the conversational tone: all of these suggest a new beginning for Smithyman. Increasingly, as Murray Edmond has noted (Landfall 168, December 1988), ‘the characteristic Smithyman persona begins to take over the poems’. Edmond dates the ‘major transition’ from Earthquake Weather (1972), but I suggest that it begins somewhat earlier in ‘Flying to Palmerston’. It is even tempting to read into the subject of that poem – flight – a consciousness of starting out again:

No longer a person. Y ou are now
in flight.  A flight.

As Murray Edmond shows, a major impetus to change in Smithyman’s work was six months spent at the University of Leeds in 1969, together with brief visits to Canada and the USA on the way home. From these experiences emerged a flood of poems which dominated his next two books – Earthquake Weather (1972) and The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974). Smithyman recently remarked on the impact of these new experiences:

How was my writing affected? By an over-plus of subject matter, the excitement of the new experience and the old world I’d only heard about … I was too busy to bother about experimenting with forms, I was going mad with seeing – and touching; you know, the things, to be seen that you had seen as two dimensional had a third, solidity. And a fourth, history. (Landfall 168, p. 418)

What is interesting here is the way the new subject matter opened up by travel is associated with a new style, confirming directions which had already begun in recent compositions such as ‘Flying to Palmerston’.

Smithyman had always been intensely susceptible to place and history. The Norfolk Island sequence Considerations anticipated by more than two decades the later travel poems from Britain and Canada. But the place which mattered most for Smithyman was the region of his birth and domicile, the northern part of New Zealand. In ‘Bream Bay’, a somewhat isolated piece among the mainly existential abstractions of The Blind Mountain, he writes:

What place means is always a turning
ignorantly, beyond defining?
We have no right words to speak by that Bay
where the dead rise on their hills, looking north.

Effectively these lines might be said to define prospectively Smithyman’s major theme – looking north in search of the right words to speak, to define what place means.

In the fifties, poems like ‘Incident at Matauri’, Vignettes of the Maori Wars, ‘Muriwai 1957’ and ‘Waikato Railstop’ extend the concern; but it was the excited exploration of place opened up by overseas travel that released Smithyman fully into the major works of his maturity, such as ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’, ‘Tomarata’, and ‘Reading the Maps’, his finest and most characteristic poems. To some extent, I feel, Smithyman was held back from his major subject by his need to swerve away from his predecessors and their preoccupation with the ‘local and special’ (in Allen Curnow’s well-known phrase). Only after the intergenerational conflicts of the fifties and sixties had been resolved or exhausted was he able to explore the theme which was his necessary angel. This is where Dwarf With a Billiard Cue and Stories About Wooden Keyboards become the full achievement of Smithyman’s maturity, his inevitable material finally realised.

My argument that Smithyman’s work reached a watershed in the 1960s is strongly endorsed by two essays in Landfall 168 (December 1988). Reginald Berry’s article, ‘Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman’s Colorless Green Ideas’, claims that ‘Smithyman’s poetry is and always has been about syntax.’ Murray Edmond’s article (already referred to), ‘Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman’s Poetry’, argues that the main identifying characteristics of Smithyman’s verse are irony, allusiveness, and persona, but that after 1968 (publication of Flying to Palmerston) persona becomes increasingly dominant.

Significantly, Berry takes most of his examples from early Smithyman, whereas Edmond consciously develops his argument with reference to the later part of Smithyman’s career. Taken together, the two articles confirm the shift from syntax to persona as the central strategy of Smithyman’s poetic technique and as the most clearly identifiable sign of the watershed I have been discussing.

With the development of persona in Smithyman’s poems other characteristics have emerged, such as the growing importance of a comic perspective (revealed, for instance, in the choice of comically self-referential titles to his later books The Seal in the Dolphin Pool and Dwarf With a Billiard Cue) and the increasing reliance on voice. Any randomly chosen sample will reveal what I mean. For example:

Today when I was leaving you were gone
to the Library, hunting. So I couldn’t say
what I wanted to say. No matter.
At nine I phoned about the mice and rats
which infest us, and departmental cats.
Are they procurable or not? No matter.

With increasing reliance on voice has come, too, a growing anecdotal tendency; more and more of Smithyman’s poems give an impression of told stories, a development recognised in the title Stories About Wooden Keyboards. The interest in ‘story’ has meant a greater consciousness of audience, another factor which has reduced the sibylline complexity of his earlier manner. There has occasionally been some loss of tension and shape in this development and a tendency to garrulousness needs to be held in check. But the best of Smithyman’s recent poems show him to be a master of a subtle and flexible medium, relaxed, engaging, accessible, and yet carrying an immense weight of knowledge and insight into the ways of the world, whether this be a scrap of literary biography or the contours of an apparently insignificant lake somewhere in Northland.

Through his exploration of place and locality in particular, Smithyman has become a kind of archaeologist of consciousness at local, national and global levels. His poetry demonstrates the truth of Charles Olson’s statement in A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn:

Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it. And then U KNOW everything else very fast; one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.

For Smithyman, the places where he found himself living – Northland, Auckland, the North Island, New Zealand – supplied the material for the saturation job of a lifetime. Literature and art – the culture imported from the world beyond New Zealand – plus occasional overseas journeys have given Smithyman a dense range of perspectives with which to explore the world around him. His investigations add vastly to our knowledge and understanding of our condition as New Zealanders and as human beings.

Poetry is made out of words and Smithyman is a wordsmith of great ingenuity and panache. A learned man, he has kept himself up to date with poetry and contemporary thinking generally. He was well placed, for instance, to be able to take advantage of structuralist and post-structuralist innovations; see, for example, ‘Deconstructing’. The meshing of language and the sensations delivered by the senses and the intellect is the poetic task Smithyman has with great persistence set himself: ‘If we live we stand in language’, as he says in ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’. The slogging to which Smithyman committed himself forty years ago, ‘to finding the right way of saying what demands to be said’, has well and truly paid off. Through more than four decades of thumping the keyboard Smithyman has made something rich and impressive come into being. It surely did take shape in the end.

©Peter Simpson

Last updated 13 July, 2001