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Kendrick Smithyman

about Kendrick Smithyman

 Reading Kendrick Smithyman 

Scott Hamilton 

Originally published in brief 26 (January 2003): 51-55 

 Currently there seem to be three basic ways of reading Kendrick Smithyman. What we might as well call the ‘standard reading’ is nicely outlined in Peter Simpson’s introduction to the Selected Poems. Simpson sees Smithyman as an essentially realistic poet whose career was a dogged struggle to ‘investigate’ New Zealand. Smithyman employs ‘a dense range of perspectives to explore the world around him’, and his poems ‘add vastly to our knowledge and our understanding of our condition as New Zealanders and as human beings’. The reality Smithyman investigated was complex, and sometimes recalcitrant, and this accounts for the obscurity of much of the poetry. Simpson quotes with approval the young Smithyman’s statement that ‘a section of the poetry of an advanced an intricated community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure’.[1]

 A second school of thought agrees with Simpson about Smithyman’s intentions, but argues that accomplishment did not match ambition. Peter Crisp’s review of The Seal in the Dolphin Pool is representative, when it argues that:

The braininess is unmotivated artistically, and self-defeating...The language mirrors the process of thought with its incessant commentating patter and lack of hard clear image, anything lucidly seeable.[2]

 A third group of critics tries to make a virtue out of the claim that Smithyman’s obscurity is not a necessary response to the demands of subject matter. For the likes of Reginald Berry and John Geraets, obscurity is the point of Smithyman’s poetry. In his essay ‘Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman’s Colourless Green Ideas’, Berry argues that:

 The point is that Smithyman’s poetry is and always has been about syntax...What makes reading Smithyman hard yakker is his creative constructing of surface structures which appear to be deviant or ill-formed...syntax is what draws the reader into participating in the conceptual activity of the poem.[3]

Sense and Sensibility 

What all three approaches seem to miss is the sheer perversity of Smithyman’s verse. Whether he delights or annoys, Smithyman is undeniably a poet who continually surprises his readers. It is not possible to talk for any length about Smithyman without talking in contradictions.

 To be sure, Smithyman is in one sense a realist, a poet for whom place and the past could not credibly be reduced to ‘raw material’ for games with language. It cannot be denied, though, that Smithyman would have made a very poor tiki tour guide. He is a realist who frequently chooses almost fantastically obscure subject matter, and who seems continually to shy away from the most obvious features of his more conventional subject matter.

 Smithyman is a poet who experiments with language, but his experiments are never systematic, let alone scientific. Berry calls Smithyman ‘a minor linguistic theorist’, but the idiosyncrasies in his syntax cannot be seen as the testing-ground for some hypothesis about language, any more than the idiosyncrasies in his depictions of ‘the New Zealand scene’ can be made to accord with any theory of society or history.[4]

 Smithyman is often obscure, but his obscurity is not a disguise for incompetence. There are a number of texts, in prose and verse, which show that Smithyman did have the ability to describe reality succinctly, and to organise facts in a more or less logical manner. Consider, for instance, Smithyman’s occasional verse. In his 1988 interview, Mac Jackson praised Smithyman’s ‘splendid occasional pieces for Departmental functions – retirements, and so on: there can’t be many poets since Ben Jonson who could have met that sort of challenge so successfully.’[5]

 If we want to understand the marvellous perversity of Smithyman’s poems, then we must examine the conflict between the man’s sensibility, on the one hand, and the literary (and beyond that social) environment in which he for a long time worked, on the other. Again and again, in his poems and his criticism, Smithyman stresses the importance of sensibility. Like Heidegger, his favourite philosopher, Smithyman held that not only aesthetics but personal identity, ethics and worldview are bound together with sensibility. ‘The final political problem is / definitively a problem of aesthetics’, he wrote in ‘Field Notes’, one of his favourite poems. Yet biography and psychology gave Smithyman a sensibility ill-suited to the literary (and beyond that social) environment in which he worked. It is important that we understand the distance between Smithyman’s sensibility and the sensibility and style of the ‘30s generation’ who laid out the framework for postwar literary endeavour in New Zealand.

 Taking its cue from texts like Pound’s ‘A Few Don’ts for Imagists’, mainstream modernist poetry in English scorned the ‘artificial, the superfluous, and the abstract’. In place of the dandyisms of the decadents, the haunted utterances of Symbolism, and the delicacies of Georgianism, many English modernists sought a mean, lean language capable of evoking ‘real life’ in the twentieth century. A moderate version of modernism was adopted by most of the ‘30s generation’. In his Whole Men: the Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, Kai Jensen notes that:

the latest overseas influences in the 1930s and 40s were modernism, tough romanticism (such as the later poetry of WB Yeats) and social realism... Male writers wished to persuade society that they weren’t contemptibly effeminate, and at the same time reach ordinary Kiwi men as readers.[6]

 Where writers like Curnow, Sargeson, and Glover were almost anti-intellectual, valuing ‘practical’ knowledge over ‘ivory towers’, Smithyman flaunted his uneven learning, and delighted in the odd or useless fact. Where Curnow and co, in their early careers at least, valued the ‘fit’ between language and life, and wanted to disguise their artifice in their subject, Smithyman was attracted to baroque, self-referential art. Where Curnow and co aimed at a large audience, the young Smithyman admitted that he might never have an audience ‘but myself or perhaps a few’.[7] Where Curnow and co filled their works with practical, manly objects, Smithyman was drawn to the odd or fusty objects associated with pre-modernist poetry.

 Smithyman’s sensibility, then, had much in common with the ‘contemptibly effeminate’ literature the ‘30s generation’ had rejected.

Detour through a myth

Let us return to Peter Simpson’s introduction to the Selected Poems and put that text in its proper place, as one of many variations on what we might call ‘the modernist origin myth of New Zealand poetry’. According to the most popular version of this myth, which has its classic expression in Allen Curnow’s introductions to his anthologies of New Zealand verse, generations of hobbyists and dandies struggled unsuccessfully to find a language suitable to the ‘New Zealand scene’, but produced only bathos or tweeness. Finally, in the 1930s, a group of hard-nosed young men succeeded in ‘introducing the landscape [human, as well as natural] to the language’. Numerous variations on the origin myth have appeared, as later commentators have looked to wrap their own enthusiasms in its sanctified folds. Ian Wedde, for example, updates the myth in the introduction to his 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Wedde makes the 70s rather than the 30s into his golden decade, a time when the poets of Wedde’s generation achieved the ‘natural sense of relation’ that the young men of the 1930s had lusted after. Like Curnow, Wedde assumes a continuity of concerns and intentions between pre and post-30s poets. The work in Kowhai Gold and the work in the anthologies of Wedde and Curnow differ in competence, not concern.

 As we have seen, Peter Simpson sees Kendrick Smithyman as engaged in his own ‘hard slog’ to introduce the landscape to the language, a hard slog that ‘surely did pay off, in the end’. Like Curnow and Wedde, Simpson provides us with a pleasingly Whiggish narrative of progress, a literary equivalent of the liberal nationalist narratives of historians like Smithyman’s old mate Keith Sinclair.

 The neat narratives of progress have of course bred a reaction, in the form of a self-consciously ‘postmodern’ criticism which denies the value of all critical narratives, Whiggish or otherwise. It is in this rather paradoxical ‘tradition’ that John Geraets’ and Reginald Berry’s writings on Smithyman make their homes.

 One thing that the Whigs and pomos share is a lack of interest in the sociological underpinnings of New Zealand literature. Neither tendency is capable of making use of the sociological and historical materials unearthed by ‘revisionist’ studies of the origins of ‘official’ New Zealand literature like Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision and Jensen’s Whole Men. By showing the blatantly constructed nature of the categories of ‘official’ New Zealand literary history, studies like these offer evidence for a radical disjunction between the concerns and intentions of the pre and post-30s literary establishments. We can use them to argue that the poems of Kowhai Gold and the poems of Phoenix and Tomorrow were in an important sense incommensurable. In other words, we can argue that a yawning gap existed between the concerns, intentions, and basic aesthetic assumptions of the poets who wrote Kowhai Gold, on the one hand, and the poets who published in Phoenix and Tomorrow, on the other.

 Let us try to make this gap clearer by discussing the professionalisation of New Zealand high cultural and intellectual life in the 1930s and 40s. The process of professionalisation had as a stimulus the first Labour government’s efforts to create an institutionalised national intelligentsia, and it involved the creation of an arts bureaucracy, the setting up of national cultural institutions, the expansion of humanities departments, and the commissioning of ‘foundational’ works like Curnow and Lilburn’s ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’. Professionalisation did not make many New Zealand poets into professionals, but it did cement a profound shift in the focus of New Zealand poetry.[8] For all his or her fondness for ‘local colour’, the typical pre-thirties poet had taken London as the centre of his or her literary universe, looking to the old country for language and manner, and for critical encouragement. Even Domett, the most wildly ambitious self-consciously New Zealand poet imaginable in the nineteenth century, had looked to London for salvation.

 Most pre-30s poets constructed their aesthetic around their self-perception as colonial poets. Consider, for instance, Edward Tregear, whose ‘Te Whetu Plains’ pops in Whiggish narratives as an amateurish precursor of the ‘empty landscape’ poems beloved of many of the 1930s generation. For critics like Wedde, the difference between ‘Te Whetu Plains’ and a poem like Brasch’s ‘The Silent Land’ is one of competence, not concern. But Treager’s poem is not the result of incompetence – it is the result of an aesthetic grounded in a literary self-conception very different from Brasch’s. Tregear writes as a self-consciously isolated European, whereas Brasch writes as an alienated New Zealander. ‘Te Whetu Plains’ is shot through not with existential anguish, but with exoticism. Tregear’s isolation is finally cosy, because it is isolation at the edge of an order which gives him social and literary identity.

 It was in the 1930s and 40s, in the era of professionalisation, that writers began to understand their New Zealandness in terms of criteria developed in New Zealand, not England. What I want to underline, before these notes turn into an essay in cultural history, is the newly contradictory position this change in focus forced writers into in the 30s and 40s.

Intellectuals in the era of professionalisation had simultaneously to be part of and apart from the ‘New Zealand scene’. If they were to justify their ‘separate’ status, and the new privileges that went with it, they had to capture something of the reality of New Zealand life. They had to be, to some extent, representative. They had to prove that they had something useful to say about the ‘New Zealand scene’: about the ‘local and special’, to use another Curnow phrase. ‘Capturing’ the ‘local and special’ meant being answerable to the reality – intellectual and social, as well as natural – familiar to most New Zealanders. What else could a national intelligentsia aspire to do, in a country like New Zealand? Just as importantly, though, they had to transform that life, as they brought it into the realm of high culture. The image of Sargeson sitting alone in a 30s pub, scribbling down overheard bits of ‘authentic’ dialogue, is evocative of the contradictory position of the 1930s writer. Like the Labour MPs and union bureaucrats who owed far more lucrative careers to the 1935 election, Sargeson had simultaneously to represent and stand apart from his hitherto-despised constituency. The uneasiness this sort of contradiction bred is expressed in reified form in ‘The Silent Land’ and so many similarly gloomy poems and stories produced by the members of the ‘30s generation’.

 The 30s writers tended to identify themselves with their constituency by their choice of subject matter and style. In a language influenced by New Zealand vernacular, they wrote in a very selective way about New Zealand ‘reality’, honouring some ‘real life’ subjects while ignoring or neglecting others.[9] If they indulged fantasy and the imagination, they did so to produce a solemn nationalist mythography, not explore individual subjectivity. It was their competence in handling their chosen subject matter and language which they hoped would distinguish them sufficiently from their constituency to justify their status as a distinct strata of society. By producing fine literary treatments of realistic subjects in the vernacular, they hoped to ‘improve’ the real-life perceptions and judgements of their audiences. Here is how Curnow put it, in a discussion of D’Arcy Cresswell and RAK Mason, two slightly older poets he cited as inspirations:

 [They] insisted that, as poets and because they were poets, they remained responsible adult New Zealanders: more responsible because set apart for a special task...Neither has written a great deal; but to belittle their achievement would be to deny New Zealanders the possibility, not of ‘nationhood’, but of manhood itself.[10]

 We can see that the sensibility and style nowadays associated with the generation of the 30s and 40s were not the product of chance or whimsy, but of the necessity of simultaneously representing and standing apart from life in a small, backward white settler colony emerging from serious social crisis.

Abstractitis: an infantile disorder? 

We have noted that Smithyman’s sensibility was ill-suited to the literary (and beyond that social) environment in which he worked.[11]

 How could he reconcile his love of baroque imagery and witty wordplay and obscure allusion with the slightly dour social realism and the solemn mythography that characterised postwar New Zealand literature? Smithyman’s was not the only talent confronted by this question: we might consider Janet Frame, or Louis Johnson, or the lesser-known but equally important Charles Spear. Smithyman admired Spear, a dandyish mandarin whose poems crossed AE Housman, Ronald Firbank, and Wallace Stevens. Spear published one small book of poems notable for their complete lack of reference to ‘the New Zealand scene’, and thereafter fell silent. In the 1940s and early 50s Smithyman found a less drastic way of resisting the claims of his environment. In the books Seven Sonnets and The Blind Mountain and a swag of uncollected poems he deployed a vocabulary so abstract that his subjects floated serenely over the minutiae of the ‘New Zealand scene’. Consider these lines, from a poem called ‘The Cloud, the Man, the Dream’:

The cloud, the man, the dream are locked
coeval in one tangible knot of time
when frozen in a huge and ignorant unity
all distinct visible members like swans upon
a motionless winter lake in their death die.

 Peter Simpson correctly argues that the ‘metaphysical abstractions’ that dominate Smithyman’s early work represent a “need to swerve away from his predecessors and their preoccupation with the “local and special”’. What Simpson perhaps fails to see is that it was not youthful contrariness but the conflict between sensibility and literary convention that accounted for Smithyman’s ‘swerve’. Diagnosing Smithyman’s abstractitis as an infantile disorder means missing the fact that the same problem stimulated what Simpson calls the ‘vivid particulars’ of the later books and the abstractions of their predecessors. To be sure, though, the early abstractions were a dead-end: Smithyman was a poet, not a philosopher, and his best work confronts rather than avoids the problem we have been discussing.

Space for Sensibility

 What can we say, then, about the books that followed The Blind Mountain, the books where ‘vivid particulars’ took the place of ‘metaphysical abstractions’?

 If Smithyman was to make progress as a poet (the term is necessarily vague, because it denotes aesthetic as well as institutional success) he had to find ways to honour both his idiosyncratic sensibility and the demand that New Zealand poets doff their hats to the aesthetic of the ‘local and special’. In mid-century New Zealand, Smithyman’s sensibility dictated a certain distance between reality and poem. At the same time, the relevance of his poetry depended importantly upon his ability to ‘capture’ something of the ‘local and special’, as defined by Curnow et al. Smithyman tackled his task by finding ways of playing his sensibility and the ‘local and special’ off against one another. Reading the Smithyman of ‘vivid particulars’, we may note an array of devices which put the ‘local and special’ in the centre of attention, yet allow for an acceptable distance between subject matter and the poet’s thought and language. It is this distance which infuriates Smithysceptics like Peter Crisp, and which opens the door to the fancies of John Geraets and Reginald Berry.

 Let us resist the temptation to launch into a taxonomy of Smithyman’s ‘reconciliations’, and instead glance at a couple of reasonably representative examples. In Tomarata, which is rightly regarded as one of his greatest poems, Smithyman counterposes nature-as-sensibility to contemporary New Zealand society. Nature, in the form of an outwardly undistinguished dune lake and its raw environs, possesses an intelligence and subtle artifice that Smithyman finds lacking in the human society that surrounds and threatens it.[12] Instead of turning his language to the job of seamlessly expressing the poverty of ‘the local and special’, as Curnow did in ‘House and Land’, Smithyman projects the sensibility of an absent culture into his natural setting, and proceeds to play the poverty of narrow realism off against the richness of nature-as-sensibility. In doing so, he gives himself space to indulge an ambiguous, allusive, playful language, a language very different to the laconic mimesis of ‘House and Land’. In a significant passage, Smithyman recalls a piece of the Old World:

Not wholly incongruous, then,
to remember the first time I went into 
York Minster, just after the excavators
uncovered Roman brickwork
which had not been suspected. You looked up
where scaffolding went, watching
men at work in the church, building;
down, through medieval, through Saxon,
to the Roman, speculating
what water-goddess’ site lay further.

 Here the dune lake and its environs are linked to a rich, sophisticated, ancient cultural setting – the sort of setting that could more easily host a sensibility like Smithyman’s.

 In ‘Field Theory Above Ahipara’, a late but very representative poem[13], Smithyman plays the minutiae of an acutely but very selectively observed regional setting off against the preconceptions literary nationalism makes for such a place. In this and countless other poems, regionalism is at once an acknowledgement of and escape from the myth-making nationalism of the Curnow generation. Smithyman’s sensibility plays in the space between local detail and nationalist generalisation, as minutiae gently mocks the myth-makers in lines that look all the way back to passages from A Way of Saying.[14] Here as elsewhere, there is a strong element of perversity in Smithyman’s regionalism. Sometimes Smithyman seems to stress the local at the expense of all generality:

This is a world of its own, a microclimate, an ecology

 As the poem progresses perversity turns to Smithyman’s distinctive blend of pedantry and fantasy, or pedantry pushed into fantasy, as sensibility outstretches local resources, and imagination begins to take over: 

                       We understand life:
life goes on at the escarpment’s northernmost lip,
an old man’s clutch of shacks, on a good day
hang-gliders flippant as peasant angels.

Smithyman’s Achievement

 Why do we value Smithyman’s poetry? Why do most of us finally find his perversity delightful and instructive, rather than irritating? By refusing the ‘fit’ between language and the ‘local and special’ institutionalised by the ‘30s generation’ Smithyman was able to give his work of the later 50s and the 1960s a richness, complexity and openness unrivalled in New Zealand poetry of the time. Curnow did not achieve a similar richness and variety until he embarked on his ‘second career’ in the 1970s. Smithyman’s originality extends to subject, as much as style: by playing the ‘local and special’ and ‘New Zealand scene’ off against the selections of his sensibility, he was able to show up the limits and the lacunae of ‘official’ literary constructions of the time. Because Smithyman’s ‘answer’ to these constructions made extensive reference to the minutiae of past and present New Zealand reality, it avoided the pitfalls of other rebellions against narrow official realism. Not for Smithyman the silence of Spear, or the near-impenetrable subjectivism of Frame, or the second-hand internationalism of the so-called ‘Wellington school’.[15] Because he rejected official realism without rejecting reality, Smithyman is at times able to get us closer to reality than any other New Zealand poet. 


[1] The Selected Poems were published in 1988 by Auckland UP. Simpson’s introduction argues, reasonably I think, that Smithyman’s poetry became less obscure from the late 1960s, but does not deny that the later poems ceased to pose difficulties unusual in the canon of New Zealand verse. Even with the increased accessibility created by a new reliance on ‘persona’ and ‘voice’, they still ‘carried an immense weight of knowledge’ and employed a ‘dense range of perspectives’.

[2] Peter Crisp, Landfall 82 (1974): 363-67.
[3] Reginald Berry, Landfall 168 (1988): 388-402.
[4] Berry’s essay is only able to align Smithyman with Chomskyan linguistics by neglecting to give any information about the propositions of Chomskyan linguistics. For Berry, Chomsky is nothing more than the author of the picturesque phrase ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ and the nebulous ‘theory’ that ‘apparent nonsense can be read into meaning’.
[5] Jackson, Landfall 168 (1988): 403-20.
[6] Jensen, Auckland UP, 1996: 92.
[7] Smithyman is writing to Charles Brasch, in a letter quoted in Simpson’s introduction to the Selected Poems.
[8] Of course, it would be absurdly simplistic to explain the changes in New Zealand writing and high culture in the 1930s and 40s as some sort of automatic response to professionalisation. It is notable, for instance, that the publication of Phoenix preceded the beginning of professionalisation. The idea of a New Zealand intelligentsia preceded the institutions which gave this idea great strength, and both the institutions and the idea were tied up with the crises of New Zealand society in the 1930s. The Labour government was elected on the back of a widespread belief in the bankruptcy of the country’s political and economic institutions, and in a ‘revolution from above’ it set enforcing economic collaboration between the working and capitalist classes by involving them both in the new institutions of a massively expanded state. ‘State capitalism’ replaced the Hooverite liberal capitalism that had been so ineffectual as a response to the Depression. The intersection of intellectuals and the new state was complex: some were required for the new nationalist rituals which celebrated the class compromise; others were absorbed into a greatly expanded bureaucracy; still others found employment in an expanding tertiary education system.
[9] An obvious example, which Jensen of course makes much of, is the prominence given the ‘masculine’ over ‘feminine’ activities and interests. It should not be considered, of course, that nationalistic treatment always meant positive, approving treatment. Often the 30s writers bewailed the philistinism of their country. They tended to do so, however, using the language and images of that country.
[10] Quoted in Jensen 50.
[11] There is no reason to think that Smithyman’s sensibility was intrinsically hostile to nationalist myth and to the narrow sort of the realism the 30s generation established. Looking at some of the poems he wrote during his sojourns in the citadels of the Old World, one is struck by the extent to which relatively straightforward realistic description can satisfy his sensibility.  Smithyman found New Zealand realism and nationalism constricting because of the shortness of the history and the relative thinness of the culture it selectively represented.
[12] Smithyman visited Tomarata partly because he wanted to see the area around the lake before it was covered by a pine plantation. He emphasises the youngness of the lake and the vegetation around it, but this only increases the relevance of the contrast between the lake and its environs, on the one hand, and the human society that threatens it, on the other.
[13] Smithyman kept kicking against the bogeys of nationalism and narrow realism long after they had been killed off, and this is one reason why his late work sometimes lacks energy or apparent purpose.
[14] Consider, for instance, the discussion of Brasch’s poem ‘Rangitoto’ in A Way of Saying. Smithyman gently mocks Brasch’s reductionist mythologising of the island, suggesting that the native poets of Auckland are more interested in contingent local detail than ageless myth.
[15] Because he rejected official realism without rejecting reality, Smithyman’s best poetry reconciles the warring and supposedly irreconcilable ‘traditions’ of ‘classical’ New Zealand literature. Smithyman’s is a poetry of barbed wire and mirrors.


Last updated 10 March, 2003