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Kendrick Smithyman

about Kendrick Smithyman


A Way of Seeing

Heather McCann

Introduction, ĎSyntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman,í MLitt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002.

Kendrick Smithyman wrote difficult poetry. There is absolutely no question about this. The question is what to do with it, how to come to grips with it. Readers tackle this problem in different ways. Traditionally the response has been to criticise the difficulty, usually under the rubric of "obscurity", and then either to pass over the poetry altogether or to ignore the central feature of the difficulty, the syntax.

Very occasionally the syntax comes under the spotlight: "Why is he so difficult to decipher? Why the tortured syntax? Why so little hard image, so much yacking?" Reginald Berry, in a Landfall article on the use of questions in the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman (388), highlights the problem, beginning his discussion with a brief synopsis of critical stances. Peter Crisp, for instance, is quoted as commenting, "ĎThe language mirrors the process of thought with its incessant commentating patterí" (388). Charles Brasch, founding editor of Landfall, commented of "Te Kopuru", that it "Ďdoesnít Ďcome offí because even after repeated reading a good many obscurities remain and thus several of the pictures, and the whole effect, are blurred and weakenedí" (389).

Obscurities, lack of hard image, tortured syntax, excessive verbal patter -- these are the points of contention that have surrounded Smithymanís work. Even those who enjoy the verbal engagement and exuberance of the work sometimes find the complexity and deviance of his syntax to be a stumbling block since the twists and turns, incomplete structures, and unusual syntagmatic choices make reading the poetry extremely hard work. Many question the necessity for a syntactic strategy that seems to get in the way of the poetryís ability to communicate. But does it? The answer surely depends on an understanding of what Smithyman is attempting to communicate in the first place as well as on how necessary the complex syntax is to the articulation of his particular concerns -- about life (the emphasis on people, places, events) and about poetry. I agree with Murray Edmondís comment in the same issue of Landfall as the Berry essay:

It is certainly time that we as a community of readers got over that self-imposed inhibition that begins with Brasch and runs down to Sharpís review and paid the poetry due attention. (451)

I want to argue that "due attention" includes a willingness to engage with the syntax; that in fact it is possible to use the syntax to open up the poetry. This involves a process of reading and reconstruction. Reading alone, as a linear process, will hardly ever work with Smithymanís poetry since much of his syntax requires reconstruction. By this I do not necessarily mean filling in the syntactic gaps for the sake of filling them in -- to make them more grammatical -- because often the gaps perform a specific function within a poem or within the corpus generally. What I mean by reconstruction is simply that some combinations of words allow multiple syntactic and interpretive possibilities and that it can be very productive to work with the new syntax Smithymanís "deviance" creates.

The question of Smithymanís "obstinate refusal" to uncomplicate his poetry is repeatedly asked by those who seem not to understand (obstinately?) that Smithymanís idea of poetry is deliberately, determinedly idiosyncratic, and that is so because the core of his poetic is the natural strength and plasticity of language. His poetic is a synthesis of many ideas-- philosophical, linguistic and poetic--rather than an adherence to any prevailing or singular model. In a letter to Brasch, Smithyman comments that he is less conscious of audience than he is of being "committed to this slogging, to finding the right way of saying what demands to be said" (in Geraets, 448; emphasis Geraets). The lack of consistent hard image is part of a poetics of relationships, a poetics which privileges the relationships between words, sounds, and ideas, in which the reader must make of the poems what he/she can: "I think of Valeryís dictum of dropping a poem like a ton of bricks and leaving the Air Raid squad to sort out the components, and weighing them to see whether the ton is short, standard, metric or what you will" (cited in Berry 389). Although the tone of this comment is close to Smithymanís usual semi-ironic self-effacement, it implies that a reader is able to make something of his poems, and, equally, that there are "components" from which something can be made. A comment by Hazard Adams concerning the poetry of Donne, could be just as applicable to Smithyman:

It is the application of abstract relationships that strikes us. The poet is not interested in the objects so much as in the relations between the objects.... Too "visual" a reading actually destroys the figure.... Donneís image must not be taken visually but abstractedly and verbally. The play is on words not primarily on sensuous images. (82)

As with Donne, the images that do appear in Smithymanís poetry are there in order to support the relationships, to trace lines of thought, provide pivots for questions, platforms for leaps to related if diffuse ideas. But ultimately the words on the page are more important than the ideas they support. Concerning this "play on words" as central to Smithymanís poetry, C. K. Stead comments in a response to Lauris Edmondís review of Dwarf with a Billiard Cue:

Mrs Edmondís treatment of Kendrick Smithyman is worse than mistaken, perhaps because his poetry demonstrates so consistently something she has yet to grasp - that the poetís medium is words (not ideas, not feelings) just as the sculptorís is clay, the painterís is pigment, and the composerís is sound. Every aspect of his language, from the simply denotative to the purely aural, is beautifully patterned, and held with the overall government of a tone of voice. Smithyman never makes the mistake, common to the "real lifers" of art, of thinking a strong subject will do his work for him. Mrs Edmond mentions his "obscurity", but like most such problems in poetry it very largely vanishes when the words are taken to mean what they say and not something else. If there is a residue of difficulty after that, it is small, and Smithyman can say with Auden "our clients/at least can rune". (7)

While Steadís view goes a long way towards redeeming Smithymanís poetry, it is still inaccurate since Smithymanís poetry in many places does not stand up to the idea of complete harmony within a whole--Steadís "beautifully patterned" and "overall government". There is pattern and purpose but it is the disjunctions and dissonances that give the poetry its richness and depth. The movement between ideas, events, and people that is a major feature of Smithymanís work makes the idea of completion and wholeness not only difficult to sustain but irrelevant. Wystan Curnow also espouses the idea of the organic but acknowledges the sense of movement that is present in the poems:

By inhibiting the "once through" reading of the poem; by demanding constant reference from surface to substance; by exposing dramatically the tensions between images, Mr. Smithyman forces the reader to acknowledge the poem as an organism rather than a mere conveyor belt of ideas. (291)

So there is movement but it is not unidirectional. Curnow continues:

Those poems ... that are extended conceits with one term temporarily withheld best exemplify Mr. Smithymanís oblique strategy. He arranges a circle of images around his subject, probes it with a radial line of thought which, as it proceeds to describe that circle in the readerís mind, indicates the relevance of each image to the completed poetic statement. (291)

Thus, the margins and the center are constantly linked by movement between them, movement often forced by unexpected syntactic uses. The constant shifting that results from what Curnow calls "prob[ing] with a radial line of thought" creates a sense of imbalance, contributing to the destabilisation of "the completed poetic statement". The words themselves constitute the whole, they constitute the poem, rather than pointing to a meaning that exists outside the poem so they must be considered as contributing to the fact of the poem, to what the poem is and does, rather than as a vehicle for something definable only as "poetic statement", that is, something recoverable from a totality that exists outside the poem. Critiquing Smithymanís poetry in terms of a whole, organic or otherwise, is unsustainable because his poetic is determined towards synthesis and extension rather than containment.

Movement is a central idea in Smithymanís poetry. It is present at all levels of the poetry from the broadly thematic to the detailed phonemic. It encompasses and enacts both the idea of synthesis of "here" and "there", an important synthesis that will inform much of my discussion, and Smithymanís own movement between margin and center in terms of his placement within the the discourse of New Zealand poetry. In so doing, it works with--describes, delineates, constructs and deconstructs--ideas of space, place, and identity.

The question of theme is important. Given the premise that meaning exists in the poem rather than outside it--Smithyman agreed with Allen Tateís idea that "the form is the meaning" (WS 131)--is it fair to say that Smithyman repeatedly connects his poetry to certain underlying, but not always obvious, themes; that the poetry means because it has a connection to something deducible from it but not intrinsic to it? There is no doubt that the poetry generally articulates concerns with space, place and identity. But this is not in the Romantic fashion of emotional engagement. Rather, such themes run as threads throughout the poetry, articulated with detachment and distance. The distinction between an engagement with theme and distance from it cannot be stressed too much. Smithyman saw himself as writing from a non-Romantic orientation; he did not write themes qua themes (that is, the purpose was not to give flesh to an a priori theme).

Ultimately, or perhaps prior to a descriptive sense of theme, syntax is the articulator of a theme, either within a specific poem or more generally across the body of poetry. That is, the themes that exist across the body of poetry, and often within specific poems, have no prior claim but are in fact outgrowths from the level of form which in itself is the site for meaning. An emphasis on theme that does not take the idea of distance rather than engagement, articulation rather than expression, as a first principle would be too reductive. Thus, a distinction between form and meaning that exists outside the poetry is irrelevant, a distinction between form and theme that exists within the poetry is more relevant but often untenable, as the form frequently is the articulation of the theme. The idea of distance is itself a good example: Smithymanís writing is detached rather than emotional, building into the poetry a sense of distance from the subject at hand in any given poem, strophe, line or phrase. The subject may itself be "distance"--geographical, emotional, temporal, or spatial--which this distancing in terms of form is able to support and inform. In this sense it is important to see the form as the essence rather than as a container for something else. Smithyman notes that

the poem as "thing" has a stubborn life of its own, which endures in its own autonomous realm, as it were. Within its limited universe the poem derives vitality from the tensions which are set up within its contained system. It has as well a fashion by which it lives; it has its method of development, its structure, it[sic] symbolic energies, its manoeuvres and shifts of tone. In short, it has its style not as something grafted on. It is its style, which we as readers have to penetrate and assimilate. (WS 166)

Style unites form and theme--one is not predicated or predatory on the other. So theme is important and will certainly play a major part in my discussion, but I do not want to imply that certain poems embody exclusively certain themes, that is, that there is a fixed correspondence between a particular poem and a theme or a particular syntactic strategy and theme. It could, for instance, be tempting to discuss "Reading the Maps" solely as an articulation of the difficulty of maintaining a stable sense of place, but to do so would be to miss the other themes threaded through the poem. One-to-one correspondences do not work well with Smithymanís poetry. Instead, the process of reconstruction inherent in Smithymanís syntax creates constant revisitation to certain themes that appear repeatedly throughout the poetry, resulting in what Robert Chapman called a "reiterative musical style." Concerning Smithymanís treatment of themes in the earlier poetry, he comments:

... the themes are treated and retreated, moved about in the fabric, combined and developed, as though he was refusing to listen to the prosaic demand for a story or argument which would go one step at a time, one foot after the other to the terminus. (93)

Smithymanís later poetry pays more attention to the idea of story-telling but even so, the concept of straightforward linear narrative never sits comfortably with the web of images and ideas and the exuberance of sound patterns and syntactic deviations that comprise Smithymanís preferred "way of saying". Consequently, even the most story-like of the poems, particularly those of Dwarf with a Billiard Cue and Stories About Wooden Keyboards, never surrender wholly to the temptation of narrative simplicity. Instead the poems engage in narrative displacement: the "storylines" are interrupted by unexpected syntax that interferes with the forward movement of the story and creates a jerky movement around and across the, usually multiple, stories woven into each poem. Thus, the syntax often functions to disrupt both in terms of location along the narrative and in terms of its articulation. This is related to the way time works in the poems as a synthesis of "now" and "then" which is the temporal correlative of the "here" and "there" synthesis Smithyman uses to conflate place. Paradoxically, the disruptions, which could be thought to throw into relief the ideas of past, present and future, actually serve to compress the temporal continuum into a continuous present. The narratives thus do not move forward because temporally speaking, forward does not exist. Smithymanís use of juxtaposed tenses--such as "are/were"--and creation of novel phrasal verbs is a productive way of reconstructing the link between time and place. These reconstructions are useful for enacting processes of history and myth making and for exposing the correlation between the two.

Linguistic reconstruction is also useful for interrogating the nature of perception. The question of how we relate to and define for ourselves the nature of what we perceive is very much an important part of language. What we call reality needs some kind of description. Language is the tool we use for making sense of the world, for deciding what we will call reality, for encoding and decoding the space we live in and the time we live in in relation to other pre-existent times and co-existent spaces. Smithymanís syntactic strategies enact perception in the sense that when they are not overtly interrogating it, they foreground for us the process of perception and allow us to rework, reconsider, and reconfigure our relationship to the world.

Of one writer, Roland Barthes spoke of the idea of a "paradise of words", a linguistic "elsewhere":

Language reconstructs itself elsewhere under the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure. Where is this elsewhere? In the paradise of words ... all the signifiers are here and each scores a bullís-eye; the author (the reader seems to say to them: I love you all (words, phrases, sentences, adjectives, discontinuities ... a marbled iridescent text; we are gorged with language .... [It] is the pledge of continuous jubilation, the moment when by its very excess verbal pleasure chokes and reels into bliss. (8)

Smithymanís poems do constitute a "kind of linguistic pleasure", a "paradise of words", when the words are allowed to say what they say, and mean what they mean in the context of the poem or even simply in the context of whatever surrounds them, even down to the phonemic level, and most importantly, in the context of the universe of discourse Smithyman has created. The "flux", the constant flow of words seems to be one of the features that his detractors dislike, however. Brasch, in particular, felt that some of the poetry was "like K.S. talking on and on - no beginning, no end, no shape" (cited in Berry 389), not realising that the shape is in the relatedness between elements, and in the flow of language itself. Brasch wanted a coherent whole; elements should relate not just to each other but to an overarching scheme of organisation. Brasch could not interpret Smithymanís poems because he constantly sought for a sense of completion. In this respect Smithymanís poetry foreshadowed the practices of post-modernism in which closure (and therefore the containment of the piece within a whole, completion) is not the desired end since it could never be obtained anyway. For Smithyman, language is open-ended; it is all we have but it is inadequate to the enterprise of containing our experience, therefore it makes sense for poetry to engage with the multifarious possibilities inherent in language itself. That is why more than any other New Zealand poet, Smithymanís poetry must be seen in the context of the discursive universe he has created: "This is a world of its own, a microclimate, an ecology" ("Field Theory Above Ahipara", A/B, 29).

Barthesí comments concerning Philippe Sollersís Lois are also applicable to Smithyman in this respect:

[E]verything is attacked, dismantled: ideological structures, intellectual solidarities, the propriety of idioms, and even the sacred armature of syntax (subject/predicate): the text no longer has the sentence for its model; often it is a powerful gush of words, a ribbon of infra-language. (Barthes, 7)

Smithymanís use of deviant syntax is itself an attack on the prevailing poetic ideology in which the cry seems always to be for simplicity or ease of reading. Smithyman refused to engage in the duplicity/complicity required by a market-driven poetic, such as that noted by Roger Horrocks:

A great deal of New Zealand art and literature looks as though itís based on the strategy (or compromise) of two readings - a straight-forward reading for the "ordinary person" as well as a more complex reading for the intellectual. The work has a disarmingly direct, up-front style of presentation - a sense of solid ground - but there are also as many deep connections as you wish to dig up..... Not that the artist is necessarily setting things up in this way, nor is it merely a box-office ploy, for basic pressures and values are involved. (130)

The pressures Horrocks speaks of have to do with the division between high and popular culture that has always been a fundamental in the ideology of art in the New Zealand context. In a sense Smithyman has sacrificed his poetry because he would not serve at the altar of popularity. Thus his poetry does not have the immediate (surface) accessibility (compromise) Horrocks mentions. Instead, his refusal to restrain his language to the level of least resistance is an engagement with the fact of the construction of discourse. Here again, Smithyman pre-empts a development in discursive theory by integrating into his writing an understanding of marginalisation and construction of discourses that are central ideas in post-coloniality.

This understanding of the essence of language--its strength, plasticity, possibility, rather than its purely communicative value--is at odds with the limited view of commentators such as Lauris Edmond who require the simplicity of "passionate responses to a world full of wonder" (69) in which the world is merely responded to rather than engaged with. Smithymanís is an intellectual response, couched in language that partly mirrors, partly distorts, what he sees, and always questions it, but it is also playful. Smithyman accepts that language in itself is unable to contain that which it describes. There is always a discrepancy between what we see (physically) and what we perceive (mentally). Smithymanís response is passionate, in the sense of being active rather than passive, but it is not romantic, as Edmondís is. His poetry encapsulates the discrepancies, distortions and disjunctions as much as the "wonders"; the wonders are not merely described they are also interrogated, and both description and perception are integrated at the level of form. Critics such as Brasch could appreciate Smithymanís poetry only when it denied to itself this integration into form; only at the point at which form gave way to a merely descriptive level could the poetry be said to "come off" for Brasch, hence the comment about "Te Kopuru" quoted earlier.

The dissonances in Smithymanís poetry--the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, the distortions in syntax--are intended to do more than serve a communicative function. Smithyman comments: "The literary work uses language at a stage beyond native expressiveness or communicativeness" (WS 181). Language use, the vehicle for the communication, is as important than the message it contains. Communication does take place however; a message is sent; the bricks are dropped. But what they communicate is not straightforward or easily perceived by the resisting or unenlightened reader. Smithymanís language is not necessarily informative in the sense of providing information but it is informative in that it provides form for the articulation of "what demands to be said". Where the dissonances work best is in their provision of what Barthes calls a "site of loss" (7): "what pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss." The dislocations then communicate the loss from within the form, by virtue of the form--the dissolve occurs in Smithymanís poetry at the point where the expected is missing. This creates a tension between that which is present and that which is absent, invoking yet another synthesis of apparently opposing ideas. Throughout the poetry the absent draws attention to loss; loss is not articulated in romantic or emotional evocations. The distorted syntax keeps the reader constantly engaged not just with the idea of loss but with the constant experience of it.

Within Smithymanís poetry, syntax also functions as a series of signposts--a significant idea, given Smithymanís concerns with spatiotemporal relations. The signs--articulations, markers--are positioned, have their relevance, only in terms of their relationships to each other. This is what it means to function syntagmatically. Smithymanís syntactic gaps (ellipsis, deletion of major elements especially subjects or complements) embody a silence and create a "withheld" element around which the ideas present in the forms radiate and which articulates the difficulty language has to provide a complete representation of reality. The silence that is so much a marker of Smithymanís syntax is especially interesting in terms of deixis. In any poetry deixis is problematic. In writing, deixis, the "pointing" function of "this" and "that", pronouns, prepositions and articles, is removed from the optimum situation for its expression, that is a context of speech, hearing and sight (Lyons 637). Within poetry, deictics need to be anchored into some kind of plane of referentiality--a spatio-temporal context elicited from other referential markers. But Smithyman does not always provide these. His use of deictics that "hang in the air" so to speak, unanchored, has the effect of freeing his poems, especially his narratives, from dependence on any one spatio-temporal context. Thus the resulting tension between the contextualising provided by geographical and other more concrete frameworks for reference and the decontextualising of unanchored deictics dissolves ties of location in the same way that the deictics themselves along with other sites of syntactic loss dissolve ties of locution.

There is a sense of play here, albeit of an intensely intellectual nature. Smithyman makes a distinction between a romantic evocation and an academic "play on words" The key difference is that academic poetry "hints pretty loudly that a good poem is an experience in itself more interesting than a lot of the experiences which naive realists take as their standard" (WS 133). Academic poetry is complex because it incorporates into the poetry itself complexities of knowledge. In this, academic poetry is essentially epistemological. Smithyman notes that the accompanying anxiety over language "issues not from earnestness but scepticism" and this scepticism has nothing to do with questions of religion or faith. Rather, "scepticism ... has a lot to do with a cultivated objectivity in judgement or appraisal and with delight in play of ideas. It has to do with the attitude of literature as a game of knowledge" (WS 131-2).

For instance, the distinction between romantic/realist treatments of alienation and isolation, based primarily in most early twentieth century New Zealand poetry on the hostility of the landscape, and an academic treatment of these ideas can clearly be seen in Smithymanís discussion of exile:

Perhaps, indeed probably, our so often debated feelings of alienation and isolation go back in the long run to an acute and fairly widespread feeling about our lack of community, about the instability of our community which is historically the product of social mobility. (WS 113)

Alienation is thus always situated in a complex interplay of place and time and is predicated on a state of identity. This can include the idea of the self as Other, which Smithyman makes explicit through his use of boundaries and reflective surfaces thematically and syntactically. Smithyman makes syntax both reflect and deflect, and creates a synthesis of sentence types (declaratives function interrogatively and vice versa) which itself interrogates power relations between those who must ask and those who can answer. The boundaries and surfaces function as dividers, but it is never clear who is where in relation to inside and outside, just as the syntax often makes the distinction between question and statement a dubious one. Demarcations, boxes, containers, specifiers in terms of identity are fragile and contingent, just as they are in experiences of space and place.

The themes of isolation, alienation and separation that are embodied in a concept of distance and its relations to identity and place run as threads through the poetry, but this Smithyman does not intend a romantic attachment to them as themes per se:

Separation as a theme or property, is not invariably attached to the romantic or to what retains an obvious residue of romanticism. The writer who feels no commitment to the theme may use it in an academic context to give body to his fiction, as I have occasionally done myself. (WS 112)

Thus, although such themes are recoverable from Smithymanís poetry the poetry is not centred on nor does it lead unequivocally to them. My treatment of theme will be as it is manifested in the poetry because the form (particularly the syntax) indicates that it is relevant. To this end, much of the discussion of theme will take place in the context of particular syntactic structures, although the discussion will not be limited by any sort of one-to-one correspondence between particular forms of syntax and particular themes. Rather the syntax will function as indexical of the concerns of the poetry, as a way into the poetry--a way that is clearly indicated in the form itself, rather than imposed from outside.

Using the syntax to identify the way rather than looking for themes and then noting their specific articulations within given poems is useful for two reasons. First, it is completely within the spirit of Smithymanís own approach to poetry, in which he follows Allen Tateís dictum that the form is the meaning (WS 131). Secondly, it allows me to engage with the poems at every level--from the large scale or macro level of corpus, book, poem, to the micro levels of sentence, phrase, word, phoneme--in order to more clearly see the relationships between the various elements within a level and across the levels themselves, rather than looking at the poems as discrete wholes from which coherent meanings can/should be deduced. In a sense, the comments of Brasch et al hold true--some (perhaps most) of Smithymanís poems do not readily accede to paraphrase.

My way of proceeding is indicated I believe by Smithymanís belief that he was searching for a more accurate degree of articulation. If as critics we consider all the things that go to make up his "way of saying"--the individual elements of the macro and micro levels and their combinations and relationships--across the corpus as a whole, we will finally come to a greater understanding of what he was attempting to achieve within the individual poems. What I present here is a beginning. It is not so much an argument for a particular interpretation as it is a strategy of reading with which to approach the text, a strategy that pays attention to both intellectual engagement and the necessity of play.

List of references

  • Adams, Hazard. The Contexts of Poetry. London: Methuen. 1965.
  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. trans. Richard Miller. New York: Noonday. 1975.
  • Berry, Reginald. "Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithymanís Colorless Green Ideas". Landfall 42. 1988. 388-401.
  • Chapman, Robert. "An Approach to the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman". In Louis Johnson. ed. New Zealand Yearbook 5. 1955. 90-101.
  • Curnow, Wystan. Review of Inheritance by Kendrick Smithyman. Landfall 17. 1963. 290-295.
  • Edmond, Murray. "Divagations: Kendrick Smithymanís Poetry". Landfall 42. 447-456.
  • Geraets, John. "Kendrick Smithyman and Braschís Landfall". Landfall 40. 1986. 443-457.
  • Horrocks, Roger. "No Theory Permitted on These Premises". And 2. 1984. 119-137.
  • Lyons, John. Semantics. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Auto/Biographies. Auckland: Auckland University Press. 1992.
  • ---. A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry. Auckland and London: Collins. 1965.
  • .---. Dwarf With a Billiard Cue. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford University Press. 1978.
  • ---. Stories About Wooden Keyboards. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford University Press. 1985.
  • Stead, C. K. Letter to the editor. NZ Listener. 19 May 1979. 7, 8.

Last updated 10 March, 2003