new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Mary Stanley, 1919-80.

Jill McLaren

From The Book of New Zealand Women, ed. Macdonald, Penfold and Williams.Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991. Pp. 616-8.


Mary Stanley was a poet whose talent manifested itself briefly in her collection Starveling Year (1953). This minuscule thirty-one-page booklet is all but invisible on the library shelf between the solid collected works of her male contemporaries.

Born in 1919, Mary grew up in Thames, the eldest of four. She became an ardent girl guide, sang in the church choir, played the piano well, and was ‘always writing’. A strong character, close to her mother, she fought continuously with her father who would not brook opposition. Dux of Thames High School, she went to university in 1935 and later trained as a teacher. She married a young accountant shortly before he was killed in the war.

Mary was lovely, her expression serene, her hair honey-coloured. She had a beautiful speaking voice which she never raised in class. After the war she married teacher and poet Kendrick Smithyman. For a time they lived with their son Christopher in a fibrolite bach on Pine Island (now Herald Island) in Auckland Harbour. Mary had already developed the arthritis which was to cripple her increasingly; coping was a struggle but she was happy writing. The poem "Householder" says:

          And yet I like this house under the pines.
          We have mended the roof, painted the walls, set all
          in order. Only the garden will not be tamed.

Settled finally on Auckland’s North Shore with three sons, Mary made their small house a pleasant place with books, pottery, flowers, and her family piano. Mary and Kendrick shared a passion for gardening, gourmet cooking, and literary discussion – her sister found them talking to each other in rhyming couplets.

Mary resumed teaching in the 1960s. Colleagues appreciated her personality and ability to involve children in her love of the arts. Her rich experience of life is reflected in poems which celebrate passion and conjugal affection, but also convey the pain and separateness of romantic love:

          …At the end we come home
          to the same bed, fallen like stones or stars in a country
          no one travels.

Mary’s poetic use of the particularities of a woman’s life was unusual in the 1940s. Her work includes "For My Mother", a deceptively simple portrait of a complex relationship, and salutes to her sons. "The Wife Speaks", classically balanced, crystallises a moment in which the speaker feels herself at one with the cycles of nature and all men and women leading domestic lives. As A.W. Stockwell wrote in 1953: "Poetry of her quality, written from a woman’s point of view, is sufficiently rare to make it doubly welcome in this country".

Why did she stop writing? Lack of organisation? Or feeling overwhelmed by close contact with male writers who, she believed, trivialised her work? There are no simple answers. Housework is demanding, but Mary grew up in a household where tidiness was an obsession. Her father used to polish his gardening fork until it shone; his daughter insisted on ironing the family pyjamas.

Forced by poor health to stop teaching in the 1970s, Mary fought her arthritis bravely with doctors and fringe cures – lecithin, diets, gold, copper, mussels, acupuncture – but lived in pain. For the most part Kendrick contrived to nurse her at home as she wished. She died of a heart attack in 1980.


poems quoted are from Starveling Year.
A.W. Stockwell: review, Landfall 26, 1953, p. 140.

Unpublished sources:
Interviews with Ruth Evans, Kendrick Smithyman, Bernard and Barbara Stanley.

Published sources:
Riemke Ensing, Introduction, Private Gardens: an Anthology of New Zealand Women Poets, Dunedin, 1977.
Michael Joseph, "Mary Stanley, 1919-1980", Islands 28, 1980.
Mary Stanley, Starveling Year, Christchurch, 1953.

Last updated 02 December, 2002