Monday, July 30, 2012

Is the writing on the girder for Smithyman's detractors?



In the 1930s a group of young British poets led by WH Auden started to introduce industrial imagery and left-wing rhetoric into their work, and earned the nickname 'the pylon poets' from conservative reviewers. Now Auckland has seen the birth of girder poetry, as eight of the new concrete supports of the northern side of the harbour bridge have been covered with the work of writers associated with the Shore.

It is interesting that the New Zealand Herald chose to give prominence to Kendrick Smithyman when it reported on the decoration of the girders. The Herald showed a photo of the girder covered by Smithyman's 'Building Programme', which was written in 1966 and published in his monumental posthumous Collected Poems, and quoted two lines from the text.

Kendrick Smithyman produced a huge number of poems and won a cult following during a career that lasted from the '40s until his death in 1995, but he never attracted a large public audience. Reviewers like Lauris Edmond, Peter Crisp, and Iain Sharp condemned him as a mandarin intellectual who produced intolerably obscure texts.

In the seventeen years since his death, though, Smithyman has attracted more and more attention from essayists, anthologists, and editors. Book after posthumous book has appeared, critics like Gregory O'Brien, CK Stead and Peter Simpson have celebrated the work, and the distinguished Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton has given Smithyman's epic poem Atua Wera a nod in his Blackout triptych. My own annotated selection of Smithyman's previously unpublished poems appeared in November 2010, under the title Private Bestiary. Lauris Edmond, who used a review in The Listener to claim that Smithyman was not even a poet, let alone a good poet, would not be impressed by all this activity.

My fellow Smithymaniac Jack Ross has suggested that the very complexity of Smithyman's poems - their weight of geographical and social detail, their layers of historical reference, their hidden meanings waiting to click shut like possum traps over the toes of impatient or thoughtless readers and reviewers - makes them increasingly attractive as the decades go by, and as poets who were more popular than Smithyman in their lifetime, like James K Baxter, seem to have been adequately explored and explicated by critics.

Where a poet like Baxter tends to build his poems around himself, making their images and rhythms into direct expressions of his ideology and his psychic state, Smithyman's poems move away from their author, out into the world. They may sacrifice the directness and eloquence that Baxter had, but they offer their readers much thicker slices of life than Baxter could provide. Peter Simpson perhaps made the same sort of point as Jack when he said that, like Walt Whitman, Smithyman's poems 'contain multitudes'.

Does the Herald's decision to focus on Smithyman, rather than on traditionally more famous writers like Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, and Frank Sargeson, reflect the growing interest in a poet once dismissed as unreadable, or is it simply a coincidence? Of course, literature is not an Olympic sport, and it is neither possible nor desirable to rank writers like Sargeson, Frame, and Smithyman as though they had run a one hundred metre sprint against each other. Nevertheless, I find the idea that an increasing number of New Zealanders might consider Smithyman as a writer in the same class as Sargeson or Frame exciting.

'Building Programme' is one of a number of poems in which Smithyman uses the changes to Auckland's skyline in the second half of the 1960s as a metaphor for crises in both his own life and New Zealand society. In Private Bestiary I published a poem called 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', which Smithyman wrote in 1966, and which features some of the same imagery as 'Building Programme'. Here's 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', along with the commentary I gave it in Bestiary.


Letters Fall Like Feathers

A fashion of wildness,
supporting an alley way of mirrors.

By the Central Post Office
I sat down and slept.
The new hotel is a biology;
horror has many cells.
Disposed around a rigid frame
they swell, in limits of their capital.

The alley stores keep mirror faces
clean, but trade in conscience.
Look through, and see the good you cannot buy
that waits behind the form that is not you
yet seems to be, part glass, part vision,
part illusion, mixed up with words
to tell you what was special of the day -
‘One hundred and seventy-five permanently
reduced lives.’ One of them is yours.

So by the steps I sat and slept
while letters fell like feathers to appoint
a time of meeting, terms, and some regret.
Wilderness howled in the Fun Fair.
People eat desolation, played machines,
screamed in the Room of Horrors,
voices rising to assume a place
in darkness, twinned to steel.

Time scarcely matters. The hotel
is memories before the workmen quit.
You use hotels, for sleeping, if you can.
Some people claim they live in them.

September 1966

Note 

This is one of a series of poems which record Smithyman’s wanderings through Auckland’s central business district, which is bordered on the east by the university where he spent so much time. At about the time that ‘Letters Like Feathers’ was written, the French philosopher and political provocateur Guy Debord was popularising psychogeography, which he defined as the ‘study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment’ on ‘the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. Whether or not Smithyman was familiar with Debord, ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ could be considered one of the first psychogeographic poems to be written in New Zealand.

The lines ‘By the Central Post Office/ I sat down and slept’ allude to the Anglo-Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s book-length prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which in turn alludes to the famous phrase ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ from Psalm 137 of the Old Testament. Smart’s poem records the breakdown of a relationship in extravagantly melancholy language; Psalm 137 laments the exile of the Jewish people in more solemn language. Smithyman’s marriage was in trouble by the time he wrote ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ in 1966, but he was too ironic and self-deprecating to channel Smart’s furious regret. Where she weeps loudly, he is content to sleep.


Moving toward the university, Smithyman observes the brand-new Hyatt Hotel on the corner of Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant, but is unimpressed by the building. For him, it symbolises the inauthenticity of Auckland, a city which prioritises the interests of ‘capital’ and offers its visitors ‘mirror faces’ rather than genuine encounters with other human beings. Some people may claim they can ‘live’ in hotels but, as Smithyman’s favourite philosopher Martin Heidegger liked to point out, there is a difference between living and merely ‘dwelling’. Heidegger dismissed modern cities as ‘machines for dwelling’ rather than places where people could feel genuinely at home; in ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ Smithyman seems to agree with him, at least so far as New Zealand’s largest city is concerned.

When Smithyman writes ‘The hotel/ is memories before the workmen quit’ he seems to allude ironically to TE Hulme’s one-line poem ‘Old Houses’, which reminded its readers that ‘Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling’. A pioneer member of Britain’s modernist movement, Hulme was a man who took an almost futurist delight in modernity and its technologies. If Hulme’s poem ennobles the messy business of construction by reminding us that it is a prerequisite for the beauty buildings may acquire in their maturity, then Smithyman’s poem seems to condemn the Hyatt as doomed to ugliness and a kind of obsolescence even before it is completed.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

12 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Smithyman is indeed a great poet but I can understand people being frustrated by some of his stuff, as he is or can be very difficult.

This poem also has another element in Smithyman - his continuing use of dream and ambiguity (and of course as you say by your examples there are many levels operating).

Note how he sits and sleeps and also dreams, I think, about his time as a child, at say The Easter Show where he went into the House of Horrors...(?)

Note the way Smithyman like Eliot re-uses things - the Babylon thing but also note also his fascination of mirrors and:

A fashion of wildness,
supporting an alley way of mirrors.

Knowing Smithyman this will be a remake of Eliot's "A wilderness of mirrors." (Think of that poem and also Eliot's phrase "chilled delirium"). And in the Room of Horrors etc and in such things there were those many mirrors, distorted..

And Smithyman in that poem, Like O'Hara in some of his "Lunch Poems" he goes a long way in a short "time" in the poem. I remember the Old Post Office, I used to work for the C&M branch of the PnT and we often had lunch there...but it is some few miles from the Hyatt which was originally The Hotel Inter Continental.

As you mention of course he uses "mirror faces" ...

But one brilliant line that takes it away* from "social comment" is:

The new hotel is a biology..

!! Smithyman shows in many many poems an ambiguous feeling toward the world and indeed toward people..(I don't think that comes only from Heidegger, I think he recognised things about himself in some of Heidegger's writing). In many many poems "nature" (the total world) (but often when he is "in nature" his poetry shows almost a horror of nature, or at least his feelings are often quite dark...I don't mean that as a criticism it adds depth but it is significant.

Baxter's Jerusalem Sonnets etc are different poems. Baxter was a different poet. Smithyman developed a unique style and was revolutionary in NZ(and potentially the world's) poetry ...Baxter in many ways only continued the tradition. But he also was a very significant poet (and very erudite in fact also).

Smithyman's attitude to The Hotel seems on a superficial level to be not very logical (after all a hotel is a hotel, and being what it is it will be what it is...one's view of it is coloured by one's pocket size)), his emotional-intellectual response is more complex. He takes it wider than the Hotel in front of him however.

He may have been a bit over-influenced by H's dislike of 'techne' etc or his views thereof.

*More accurately it "splits his themes" here, he is comparing it to a being or perhaps a beehive etc with "many cells" (of people, or just of cells)...which is very clever.

10:30 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

You've made some good finds there, Richard! As I think I said in the introduction to Bestiary, my annotations really only picked away a few layers from each poem, to get business started.

11:57 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

As far as Smithyman's difficulty goes, I think we should celebrate rather than apologise for it.

Smithyman does include references in his poems which we sometimes have to hunt down using an encyclopedia or some similar work, but he isn't isn't like an exam setter or cryptic crossword puzzler, who recognise only a single correct answer to their questions.

Once we've realised that Smithyman's made a reference to, say, Psalm 137, in the poem in this post, we're free to interpret his reference however we like. Is he using the Psalm to say that the homelessness of humanity in the age of modernity and capitalism is like the homelessness of the Biblical Jews? Is he talking about his own homelessness, as he wanders Auckland miserably, escaping a disintegrating marriage? Is he taking the mickey out of himself by contrasting his sleeping with Elizabeth Smart's wild weeping? The answers we give to questions like these will depend partly on the preoccupations and worldviews we bring to Smithyman's poem.

Smithyman is trying to make us think, not to make us think one specific thought. And we should thank him for trusting that we're capable of thinking - not much of the public discourse we encounter these days shows us that level of respect!

There are a couple of quotes from Geoffrey Hill which sum up the democratic qualities of complexity and difficulty:

“But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.”

and

"the word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms which lie behind most people's use of the word.’

“`In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.’”

12:45 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I agree majorly. The "reference" to 'Gerontian' is perhaps is possibly a sly joke by Smithyman but it also confirms his wide learning (of course he taught Eliot and others): the 'wilderness of mirrors' it is speculated comes from a play by Ben Jonson 'The Alchemist', the idea is hat hte mirrors reflect the person so eh or she can self-admire...for Eliot "knowledge while important becomes also a possibility of spiritual corruption and so on...so Smithyman is not quite down that line but some of these "putated" rich people who might inhabit certain 'souless' hotels might be a 'target'..

But these things are what add depth...film was also important to Joyce who atone stage wanted to open a movie theatre in Dublin but couldn't get finance / approval.

Pound also wanted the simultainiety of all history, and it's seen in Eliot and possibly Olson and Williams in Patterson and many others. Joyce (T.S. Eliot almost certainly took lines from Joyce as he was reading the manuscript before he wrote many of his great poems including the Waste Land) also.

Faulkner's 'Light in August', 'As I Lay Dying' and 'The Sound and the Fury' are surely essential reading.

But there is also a place in literature for less riddling, or near metaphysical stuff. Too far down the Smithyman line leads (or can) to a kind of intellectual snobbery. Sometimes such complexity and density is failure as Smithyman more or less conceded in an interview. Sometimes.

I mean sometimes his poetry is virtually indecipherable (and that is because it is simply bad). J.H.Prynne just about takes the cake for obscurantism though (although he is surprisingly popular).

For me Smithyman is harder work than Ashbery or Eliot but in small doses he is clearly great. He certainly blows the idea of NZ as being simply a bunch of morons and rugger buggers and people who live in a green clean simple place right out of the box. That is, you might find him a chore or not, but you admire his depth wit and intelligence.

Michelle Leggott and such as Elizabeth Smither are examples (there are quiet a number of others) of very very good NZ poets. Both, to me, give me more pleasure to read than Smithy but I admire his achievements. He is easily as important as Frame, Sargeson, Mansfield, Baxter, Curnow and others of the "NZ Canon".

I think you will find that Mao tse Tung wrote what you said eh said a few years before Trotsky did...and Trotsky stole it.

2:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'The hotel
is memories before the workmen quit.'

A reference to strike action?

8:26 am  
Blogger Richard said...

It's always hard to know what Smithyman is on about, but here he sees just to be musing on the hotel and change, and the nature of life etc (and perhaps some social-political issues). I don't think he was big on politics etc but "political" issues come into it.

The Hotel Intercontinental (later the Hyatt) was the scene of a protest (March 1970) against the US Vice President's visit here and also thus the Vietnam war.* I am reminded by KS's poem of it. At that protest, at which I was present, the police charged the crowd, after giving a a very brief warning that could only be herd by few and allowed no time for anyone to reply or respond (as I heard the police "command" and then they attacked - in the process they very badly beat up many many people. The US Secret Police (or similar) also attacked. A friend of mine filmed the whole event. I tried to take photographs and there is a picture of me in "Bullshit and Jelly Beans" by Tim Shadbolt, and I am half standing with my Pentax. In the event I had to employ Falstaff's philosophy that "Discretion is the better part of valour." Later when I got back to my car I found that some right winger had ripped all the wiring out of the inside and under the dash board of my old car...an A40. I had it to get a crankshaft for another one! The protest and related events were pretty disconcerting to say the least. I escaped injury but a lot of people were badly injured in brutal police attack.

Many students and even journalist and other who were just passing were beaten up. The attack was really vicious. I suspect they were egged on by the US goons. But it backfired as a lot of people then realised the real nature of capitalism, that political power ultimately comes out of the barrel of a gun, or at the end of policeman's boot, but it depends who has the gun or kicks the boot. That is, the workers or the "ruling class", who will go to any extreme to maintain their class power and position.

Smithyman in tutorials (1968) wasn;t happy that the poet R A K Mason had become a communist and (musing aloud) he speculated that

I saw C.K. Stead that day. He was involved in a lot of political protests to his credit. He was even on the rugby field at Hamilton in 1981.

But Smithyman was never involved to the extent that Baxter, Stead and others were. But many people were wary of direct protest, seeing it as somehow wrong. And the atmosphere was very hostile to protest in NZ. NZ slavishly followed US and British anti communism, war mongering and genocide etc, and the general degeneracy of US culture.

Smithyman's poem has nothing to do with all this as it hadn't happened when he wrote the poem! But the Hotel was built for Big Money as one can read perhaps as a subtext in his poem here.

*Spiro Agnew was big on "law and order" as was Hitler, but later had to resign for tax evasion and other dubious activities. He was typically of such US politicians, quite corrupt.

3:57 pm  
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5:11 pm  
Anonymous jumping joe said...

Sorry you are wrong. Poetry seemed always contrived and not straight forward enough for me. It's too structured having to rhyme and have a meter, and it's so tedious with no guarantee of a payoff, since you may not understand it. Then you have to read it again and again and then you still may not get it. Not unless you're literate and academic, it doesn't matter to you. Reading a story could be better and even then, what's the point when seeing a movie is quick, has the images, has the words and the intent and meaning already done so you don't have to think about what the story or the poem means to understand it. In a movie, it's all right there with just the story itself ready to enjoy, the way stories are intended to be.

1:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They may sacrifice the directness and eloquence that Baxter had, but they offer their readers much thicker slices of life than Baxter could provide.

Do you mean by this "thicker slices of life" that the external world is larger than the internal world? Blake would surely disagree with you

10:19 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi anon,

I think the external and internal worlds are ultimately hard to distinguish, because we can't access reality except through our minds and bodies.

I think Smithyman gives us thicker slices of life than Baxter not just because he dwells of sociology and history in greater detail but because he shows us the processes of his thinking in a way that Baxter perhaps doesn't. I get the sense that Baxter has already worked out what he feels about a subject and what he wants to say about it before he writes a poem; I don't get the same sense reading Smithyman.

But I'm not denying that Baxter wrote some fine poems, and I'd be interested to hear an argument from someone who thinks that he is a more substantial writer than Smithyman.

12:23 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But he is quite a different poet to Smithyman. Hard to argue he is better.

Smithyman was less of a "showman", which is to some extent what Baxter became in his later years. One thing Baxter gained from was his wrestle with religion and his alcoholism. I agree with Stead that his later poems as in say The Jerusalem Sonnets are very good, some of our best poems.

Smithyman is still less lauded than he should be though. He had his strangeness, but he needed to shoot his wife like Burroughs or do crazy things like Rimbaud...Baxter became a kind of guru, almost a Christ figure. Paradoxically Smithyman had less formal academic qualifications than Baxter who had an M.A, (I read a biography of Baxter once) while Smithyman had a Teaching Certificate (I think this is so).

Mansfield died of tuberculosis (which for some perverted reason is considered romantic, Susan Sontag writes about this phenomena and compares it to the less romantic phenomena of poets etc dying of aids or cancer), but she also got the nod from Virginia Woolf (another mad genius and suicide herself)...Dylan Thomas for me was great poet and he drank himself to death much like Berryman (possibly a greater poet but he committed suicide which has its merits in terms of career opportunities but the drawback that you might not get enough publicity! It's a gamble!) Plath took the plunge and it paid off for her... she was some kind of nutcase also which helps (and they all had talent of course!): Thomas did the right thing by drinking himself to death (as (almost) did Jack Spicer (that is he drank himself to death but missed the gold!) but he is one of those important poets who also missed History's boat). Smithyman and Duggan etc tried hard with boozing but didn't quite make it. Frame was the archetypal mad person...

8:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Smithyman is just not "cool" unless he is (as he is) pushed by University people such as Simpson, wheneas he gains some kudos (especially if he makes it to the required reading lists). There is no doubt that some of his poems are almost the work of madman which is good if this is publicised but English Departments these days prefer the "cooler" more laid back to "theoretical" approach (they are nervous of "mad geniuses", such as the Clares, Celines, Holderlin's, Mitchells, Artauds et al) which is exactly what I think Smithyman was (in part, as he managed his life and career and various difficulties well), he was NEVER politically "caring" or correct (but he was personally and “humanly” caring), he was a deep intellectual and he was strange (but then all human beings are strange creatures); he struggled with ideas such as regionalism versus provincialism and reality and language and mind; and he wrote about dreams, he had a strange oblique multi-dimensional approach to his writing, as did say T.S.Eliot or even Yeats, or other modernists and he was - to use Scott's phrase " a proto-Postmodernist...He used Difficulty as Method. He invented a totally unique style not seen anywhere else in anytime or place. He was or could be bloody frustrating to read, but if you worked at his poetry, the rewards are or were, or can be great (although you are often in for a hard ride, that said many of his poems have lyric beauty admixt) he basted of getting 8 to 20 types of ambiguity (contra Empson): he was a brilliant riddler, he was a Mandarin who descended to examine the earth, the weeds, the sand dunes, and he would haunted lonely towns where he was often sleepless, writing about their “nowness” and their history (he haunted and probed at NZ’s “body”, its Heidegerian World(ness) and its "worlding", its revealing Earth-ness and its reactive secretiveness: its psyche, its psyho geography: but he came down like Zoroastra only after he had read vastly in all areas of study, and one of his most prized possessions was "The Buller's Book of Birds" (they weigh in at about $1000.00 if you can find one), he liked Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Heidegger, Sartre (but he was notorious for having read (or at least perused) just about everything in the University of Auckland's library), he was keen on movies, strange images, he had read the deluges of Thomas Wolfe's chaotic neo-Lawrentian prose, the Metaphsyicals, Shakespeare, Joyce, Ashbery, Timothy Findley,Pasternak, Eudora Welty, D'Arcy Cresswell, and much else: he had a clear eye for arcana and the unusual, and the ordinary as well as the bizarre, and he wanted to know everything...) ... and despite the odds Smithyman, is gaining support, but hasn't quite got Gold. He is liked very much by Science professors, Sociologists, Historians, PhD students, or well-educated teachers and other professionals. Some 'ordinary' people are starting to like him also.

But a (new?) study of Baxter, Alan Curnow, and others of that general age group (Curnow lived quite long so he seems to loom through the 20th century as major poet or editor) – and there are others such as Witheford and Charles Spear – would be intriguing indeed.

It is perhaps wrong to say he was not "political" or concerned about people and history as his poetry moves in it's focus from the more direct writing to his use (more or less) of Brechtian techniques or Yeats's masks, or Eliot's "objective correlative", but we also see the influence of modern US, British, Italian (and clearly many other European, and no doubt outside Europe) and Canadian writers and poets, and his deep interest in the local / universal, and hence in history and Maoritanga or the Maori-Pakeha "connections" and differences is shown in many of his poems and in his last work, on a Maori prophet Atua Wera...

9:08 pm  

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