about Kendrick Smithyman
DIVAGATIONS: KENDRICK SMITHYMAN’S POETRY.
In the poem ‘One Night Stand’ in his latest book Are you going to the pictures? Smithyman is unhappily ensconced before the colour tele in a motel in an LA airport (‘The colour is awful./ I want my wife,’ he plaints). The last four lines of the poem read:
This book is full of flights (flights of planes and of mind, connections too, of mind, reruns of old movies, movements of mind) and so such lines are not a surprise. What might surprise is the connection back to the title poem of Smithyman’s 1968 volume, Flying to Palmerston, with its epigraph from Robert Lowell’s ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’: ‘his air / of lost connections.’ ‘[W]here have I seen/ … that face before’ is the opening of ‘Flying to Palmerston’ as Smithyman teases over a lost connection. Where have I seen that epigraph before? At the beginning of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Pamela Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, wrote a delightful article about myths and fairy tales and children’s literature which borrowed Forster’s epigraph, ‘Only Connect’, as its title. In it she describes Forster’s ‘programme’ in his writing to try and explain why she has used the epigraph:
Her description could apply equally well to Smithyman’s poetry. Forster himself makes an appearance in Are you going to the pictures? on page 99 in the poem ‘A Passage to India’. I thought the book contained another Smithyman poem about Forster, one which describes Forster’s visit to Thomas Hardy and how Hardy explained to him why (or failed to explain why) so many of his pet cats had been sliced in half by railway engines. But no, that poem isn’t in this book. That is the way with Smithyman’s poetry, the connections grow denser the more you read the body of the work.
The breadth and density of Smithyman’s work over the last twenty years hasn’t quite been grasped critically. Since Flying to Palmerston there have been five books including the present volume, containing a total of 237 poems. I know of no other New Zealand poet who could publish in 1985 a book of 80 pages/ 44 poems and follow it in 1987 with a book of 100 pages/ 60 poems. The quantity of work is important for several reasons. First, it is the product of years of patient crafting of a way of writing and a persona. John Geraets, in Landfall 160, quotes a letter Smithyman wrote to
Charles Brasch in 1950: ‘My work moves (I think) slowly towards reaching that standard of worth but it won’t be, what it should be, for a long time.’ Now it is possible to see how this slow and steady project of getting the way and the voice to the required standard of worth has paid off and it means Smithyman is able to write consistently well with a relaxation and freedom that was not in his early work. Secondly, the poetry of the past twenty years is markedly different from the poetry of the first twenty (1946-68) and quantity in the second twenty years in one signifier of this difference. Flying to Palmerston is a watershed in Smithyman’s poetry. Geraets calls it a ‘compendium’ volume and points out some of the poems in it were written as early as 1950. In 1969 Smithyman, aged 47, spent six months at the University of Leeds. It was his first trip out of New Zealand. Whatever the biographical reasons (travel, maturity, a grown-up family) the next book, Earthquake Weather (1972) is a different kind of book, more like the four volumes that have followed than anything previous. Travel has had its effect on subject matter. There are still the poems which dig into local history and consciousness (‘to connect the individual with the community’) but now that local familiarity is transferred to Yorkshire or San Francisco or an airport transit lounge in Singapore.
I want to divert my focus from the book under review, Are you going to the pictures? to look briefly at the poem ‘Transit Lounge, Singapore’ from Earthquake Weather. It is a poem which can be taken to mark the major transition in Smithyman’s poetry. A new humour arrives with the new subject matter:
The verse is less regulated, the stanzas conscientiously uneven and connected by split lines which finish one stanza and begin the next. And the now characteristic Smithyman persona begins to take over the poems:
This is the same voice which in ‘One Night Stand; declares, ‘I am an underachiever’, and which worries about getting to the terminal on time. It is also the voice at the end of the magnificent ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’ which is the last poem in Earthquake Weather:
It is the voice of the historian as comedian, the voice of the poet as Woody Allen, curious, garrulous, knowledgeable, (notably less neurotic than Allen, only mildly so) anxious, surprised and quite capable of making a hoot of a movie (Play it Again, Sam) or an hilarious poem like ‘Propositions about Jelly Beans’, or a deeply moving kind of American Bergman film such as Interiors, or a poem with the depth of feeling and cultural integration of ‘Pieces’ (last poem in Are you going to the pictures?). Of course, to fully enjoy a serious or comic Woody Allen movie you do have to understand Freud and have a mildly kabbalistic line on Judaism and the history of Hollywood. So it is with Smithyman. This is educated art in the sense you do have to know something, but the point is that the persona of his poems doesn’t actually know enough himself, and this is the joke too (didn’t Allen make a movie, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex and were Afraid to Ask and was anyone the wiser about sex afterwards?). Here is Smithyman as archaeologist in ‘Tomarata’, a major poem from the 1974 volume, The Seal in the Dolphin Pool:
The epigraph to this poem reads: ‘Learning teacheth more in one year, than experience in twentie…’. Smithyman’s mode is ironic. The major characteristic of irony is that you can’t explain it without it disappearing.
The allusiveness was always in Smithyman’s poetry, pre-68 as well as post-68. The persona only achieves its potentiality post-68. Irony too has always been present, but the new persona with the liberated verse forms gives the ironic mode and the allusions another universe next door to operate in.
Irony, allusiveness, persona – these three are the major ingredients of the modernist revolution in poetry. Smithyman belongs centrally to modernism. His work constitutes our most fully achieved modernist output. Geraets’ article in Landfall goes some way to making this clear and fascinatingly points up the differences that arose between Charles Brasch and Smithyman during the 40s, 50s and 60s. Geraets’ conclusion is more or less that Brasch couldn’t handle Smithyman’s modernism: ‘Brasch regarded as suspect any poem which did not accede fairly readily to logical statement.’ I would have hoped by now that readers and critics would have overcome this anti-modernist stand, but Iain Sharp’s simplistically tendentious review of Smithyman’s last book, Stories About Wooden Keyboards, in Landfall 156, again uses the old Braschian romantic myth of ‘the magic ingredient’, which Sharp terms ‘the lyric impulse’ or ‘the poetry itself’: ‘Smithyman has all the ingredients of a great poet, except the poetry itself’. Without sidetracking to question the bankruptcy of terms such as ‘great poet’ or ‘the poetry itself’, I find it simply disappointing that such a substantial book as Stories About Wooden Keyboards (and it is a powerful book, more so than Are you going to the pictures? whose tone is lighter and more occasional) can be dismissed in this way.
Rodney Pybus reviewing Stories About Wooden Keyboards in Stand (Summer 1988, Vol. 29, No. 3) had this to say:
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 Sharp’s review and paid the poetry due attention.
It is time now to turn to the book in hand. In his article Geraets comments that in Smithyman’s practice, ‘… each poem as an entity does not represent a distance traversed so much as an extensive grid of intersecting remarks.’ This idea is immediately applicable to the poem ‘Propositions about Jelly Beans’. Here we find Wallace Stevens’ ‘bawds’ are transmuted into ‘boards’ and his ‘blackbirds’ into black jelly beans and black sheep:
Stevens has been a companion of Smithyman’s before (v. ‘About Setting a Jar on a Hill’ in Dwarf with a Billiard Cue) and he makes another appearance in this book, in the third to last line of the last poem, ‘Pieces’:
You can run the syntax back and forward along that first line. Behind this line may lie Stevens’ poem ‘A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’ ( … to feel that the light is a rabbit light … the little green cat is a bug in the grass.’) or ‘The Green Plant’ (‘ … the barbarous green/ Of the harsh reality of which it is part.’). My general ignorance of Stevens’ poetry almost certainly means I have failed to pick up the obvious reference, yet does it matter, since the dense grid of allusions must leave room for error as much as it does for hard work. This poem, ‘Pieces’ I will come back to.
Returning to ‘Propositions about Jelly Beans’, which is in danger of becoming the party piece from this book (party pieces are not one of Smithyman’s party tricks, his general consistency meaning that in five selections of poetry anthologies between 1958 and 1986 only one Smithyman poem – the beautifully honed and balanced ‘Hints for the Incomplete Angler’ – appears in four out of five selections) – as far as jelly beans go it’s definitely the black ones which Smithyman prefers because they’re both rarest and best. Other rarities can be found in Are you going to the pictures? Plague is a rarity in Auckland. Even the other rats don’t want to know about the plague-bearing ones in the poem ‘Pests’:
There is a connection between rats and jelly beans. Jelly beans also give you a good run for your money – ‘have jelly beans anything to do with constipation? … Fundamentally?/ I’m not bound by them seriously.’ But how do rabbits connect? Well, rabbits also run. To Marathon in this case:
This is the last of a sequence of four poems under the summary title, ‘Constitution Hill and Thereabouts’. There really are rabbits living on Constitution Hill between the new Marae and the old Station Hotel, beneath the High Court and above the Beach Rd Service Station and these rabbits even appeared in a photograph on the front page of the Auckland Star being fed by none other than Anne Audain (who lives nearby) pausing from her training run. It may not be generally known that the present Head of Auckland University English Department, Professor Don Smith, ran as a New Zealand rep. in the same 800 metres contest at the Rome Olympics that Peter Snell eventually won. He is also running in the sequence of run-rabbit-run poems:
The other runner is undoubtedly Mac Jackson, Associate Professor of English at Auckland, a keen runner, and interviewer of Kendrick Smithyman for the interview in this number of Landfall.
Before this all becomes too involuted, let’s note that rabbits make other appearances too, this time in the poem ‘Pieces’ which I have already mentioned:
So the rabbit turns out to be a verb in this poem and the cat is Greek. No matter. Need it be said that there is delight in reading – and rereading – these poems?
‘Pieces’ is a poem about married love:
It’s also a poem about language: ‘Language of love is always/ a foreign language.’ The difficulties of reading and understanding, the interrogative aspect of love (and love is a kind of interrogation), make a sound, if predictable metaphor. A similar problem of knowledge occurs in the poem, ‘Schooling’. Here Smithyman as child reads the gaps between the words, lines and paragraphs in the writing on the blackboard – ‘all sorts of roads and rivers … ‘ – rather than the signs themselves. This leads him to a conclusion:
Pamela Travers, in her essay, ‘Only Connect’, cites Whitman’s line from ‘On the Beach at Night’: ‘I give you the first suggestion, the problem, the indirection.’ And this too could be an epigraph for Smithyman’s work. In commenting on this Travers writes: ‘ … all things are separate and fragmentary until man himself connects them, sometimes wrongly and sometimes rightly.’ She is quite correct to lay this stress on the act of connection itself rather than on ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’. It is this power and value of indirection which Iain Sharp fails to grasp in his comparison of Smithyman and Levertov in his review of Wooden Keyboards.
Smithyman confesses to lack of schooling, inability to read the language in the poem, ‘Pieces’: ‘… and those too who (like me)/ don’t know any Latin.’ Again Sharp’s schoolboyish characterisation of Smithyman as fount of endless arcane knowledge misses the point and fails to read the persona. The Latin Smithyman uses in ‘Pieces’ is noted as coming from ‘Pervigilium Veneris’ or ‘The Vigil of Venus’ an anonymous Latin lyric translated by Allen Tate (among others) and which has a famous refrain (‘cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet’) which Tate translates as – ‘Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love’. But what really interests Smithyman is failure:
Failure is interesting. Misreading is fascinating. This is the point. The other stuff, the full-blown lyric truth you can get anywhere; as the poem ‘Suitable Intervals’ observes in its opening: ‘Bullshit you can pick up anywhere.’ Smithyman is a poet who offers us the privilege of a wise misreading in preference to ‘bullshit’. Knowledge in the poem ‘Pieces’ becomes the ‘operation’ of this ‘ignorance’ or fragmentary knowledge in the context the poem makes at it goes. It is not far from Elizabeth Bishop’s wise caution in her poem, ‘At the Fishhouses’: ‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be.’ She suggests that that is as close as you might ever get. As Smithyman would add, without kidding yourself or picking up bullshit on your tyres, or even dropping some.
‘Pieces’ is also a poem about interruptions. Muldoon is interrupted by the Bible, dream is interrupted by waking, birds interrupt the Bible, Latin interrupts English, an airplane flight interrupts the birds, but the flight is actually in a book, and the poet reading the book is interrupted by Hecate the cat and Wallace Stevens interrupts Hecate. Interruptions are both connections and indirections. Broken syntax and broken image, the thing stopped and restarted as something else, lead to the consideration of what is real and what power the poem has to say so – which connects to the other theme of love and knowledge. This is not something as self-conscious as ‘I am aware of myself writing the poem as I am writing the poem’. The statement ‘Pieces’ makes is that the realm of experienced love and the realm of imagined love (‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be’), the realm of green and the realm of blue, the realm of dream and the realm of waking, of the language we speak and the language we can’t, each member of each pair is equally real – ‘Stevens made green work out with real’. In a sense the contract of making the poem which the poet takes up with the reader demands that they must be.
Such a realisation may help to point up the significance of the many poems in this book about films. As Smithyman asserts, philosophically, in the poem ‘Meeting Feodor First’: ‘That was life being lived,/ truly. I was there.’ The movies are also real.
The five poems under the general title ‘Silent Movies’ bring into focus the extra-reality of the movies for the patients at the local Asylum when the mysterious propaganda film really (sic) gets inside the head of one of the inmates:
And technology can enhance reality too. The shift from black and white to colour builds expectations that cannot be removed. Even pornography in black and white isn’t the same after colour. And sex and religion are the realm of the movies, cinemas functioning quite efficiently as church-substitutes in the twentieth century. The five poems of the ‘Silent Movies’ sequence successfully juggle with these themes. It is the father of Franky, friend of seven-year-old Smithyman, who realises the threat art constitutes to reality (or unreality): ‘My father says moving pictures are Works of the Devil’ is Franky’s reply to the title question of the book: ‘Are you going to the pictures tomorrow?’
Tourism is another kind of movie – flying in aeroplanes, visiting foreign places. The majority of travel poems in this book are poems about Canada. As in the past Smithyman treats these ‘foreign views’ with his established mix of irony and surprise. Also familiar in this new volume is the continuing use of the other arts, especially music. Perhaps the least familiar note is sounded by the inclusion of quite a bit of personal childhood reminiscence. This source of subject matter began back in Dwarf with a Billiard Cue with poems such as ‘Circus at the Barber’s Shop’, and it now seems to be an increasingly important aspect of Smithyman’s poetry. It certainly has begun to add a dimension of humour and reference to the well-established persona, so that when he ends the poem ‘Meeting Feodor Second’ with the lines, ‘I’d seen what I was growing up to be,/ an operatic basso, six foot six at least’ it is impossible for any reader to miss the joke. It is the same kind of gap in perception that Woody Allen also utilises to comic effect.
What needs to be said in summary is that this is a successful book and a wholly enjoyable read. But I also want to point out that the poetry in this volume is the result of a long and careful development – not so much a culmination as an achievement. What can be said is that the point he was aiming for in 1950 when he explained his proposed poetic journey to Charles Brasch has now been reached: ‘In honesty I hope to write some day poetry with various characters and as worthy of regard as the poetry or our time or of our history which I regard as worthy … . I seem to be committed to this slogging, to finding the right way of saying what demands to be said.’ Smithyman’s poetry over the last twenty years has been as worthy, in the modernist tradition, as any other of our time. Both his commitment and his achievement are unique in New Zealand literature. Are you going to the pictures? is another fine addition to his poetic work.