Robert Cross: Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995)
RT – Richard Taylor
JR – Jack Ross
SH – S Hamilton
RT – I found Gregory O’Brien’s essay on Smithyman, the one that won that prize in Landfall, pretty disappointing…
JR – It doesn’t help you at all. I mean, I really want someone to help me to read Atua Wera – it’s this huge poem and it’s very complex – and O’Brien doesn’t give me any help. He doesn’t actually say anything useful about Atua Wera. He spends most of the essay talking about himself. He doesn’t even seem to have read the book.
RT – The other writing on Smithy should be better known. No-one’s read enough about the old bugger. I haven’t read enough. Maybe Jack’s read enough. Maybe Jack’s read everything, Scott?
JR – There’s only a small body of criticism …
RT – More people need to read him, first. And they have to read him in interesting ways. He needs a proper fan club…
JR – The book I want to put together would juxtapose poems by Smithyman and photographs of Northland landscapes. I want to emphasise the regionalist aspect of his work, I guess. It’s not the only aspect I’m interested in, but it’s an aspect I identify with especially strongly.
SH – I don’t see it as being that useful. Smithyman was a pretty well read guy, he was a very self conscious poet, and the decisions he made regarding the style, the vocabulary, the content of his poems – these are very important. These are what interest me. Smithyman is constantly making formal and conceptual decisions. Everything he writes is, at least obliquely, about poetics, and about the role of poetry and poets.
JR – I’m not trying to say my reading of Smithyman is the only one. Many are valid.
SH – … it seems to me that too many people use that line as a way of dodging justifying the actual decisions that they make regarding the presentation of a readings. I mean, I agree with you, I believe in a plurality of reading, a number of perspectives etc. etc., but, because of the functional aspect of literary criticism or Art History or Music Theory or Sociology or whatever, you end up, inevitably, privileging some reading over other readings. If you go up to give a one hour lecture on Kendrick Smithyman to 300 first year English students, you don’t have the time or the resources to talk about, say, Smithyman as a crusty old regionalist, and Smithyman as a sophisticated satirist, and Smithyman as New Zealand’s foremost proto-postmodernist and Smithyman as a travel poet, and Smithyman as a Empsonian brainteaser, the composer of marvellous crossword puzzle clues, and so on. I mean all of these models of Smithyman have been presented, quite convincingly I think, in essays and reviews. So which Smithyman are you going to choose? Some readings are just not going to be practical. It’s not just a question of time: you can’t hope to explain Smithyman’s use of unusual rhyme schemes or metrical patterns to 18 year olds who don’t know what a sonnet is. You end up having to privilege one reading over another. I’m not criticising the making of these choices, I just think that they should be defensible.
RT – I like the way everyone disagrees. Someone should put together a book of essays on Smithyman; every writer could take a different tack. There’s plenty of room for everyone… You know his poetry’s very rich, richer than probably any other New Zealander’s poetry. He’s a cunning old bastard. He’s a fox. There are layers and layers …
JR – But you see I distrust the view of literary history you seem to hold. You seem to have this ‘golden arrow’ view of things – you seem to think that everything’s evolving towards perfection and that a poem, for instance, should be analysed in terms of the role it plays in this evolution.
SH – I don’t hold that view at all.
RT – I don’t agree with that either …
JR – I think that a poem should be seen on its own terms, not in terms of its place in some literary evolution. I don’t believe in literary evolution.
SH – You’re simplifying things …
JR – I think Smithyman is always talking about something. He is interested in things. I think one of his main themes is the isolation of New Zealand, and the strange status someone like himself has, living at the margins of Western culture …
RT – I’m not sure …
JR – … and I think he comes to terms with that fact, and he often uses landscape, the landscape of the northern part of the North Island, to get this theme across.
SH – Well, Curnow called New Zealand a “hard homeland for poets”. Poets don’t have the well-defined role that they have in other societies, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. But I think these early guys – Curnow and R A K Mason and so on, and the second generation, Smithyman’s generation, felt very self-conscious about writing poetry. They needed some sort of justification. So Curnow embraced nationalism, became, in his early works, a sort of town crier. Mason and Baxter looked for a justification in political and religious life. To some extent, I think, they thought that the validity of their work rested on the validity of their beliefs. I think that Smithyman also felt the need to justify his poems, as well as a need to differentiate himself from people like Curnow and Baxter. I think that he fell back on a certain idea of poetry. I mean Smithyman created a persona for himself as an outsider, an erudite and detached observer, and a sort of crossword puzzler cum oracle cum public bar raconteur – and that’s where the notorious alleged obscurity of his work comes from. Oracles aren’t clear, you know? So I think that Smithyman’s obscurity is strategic – I mean he’s only obscure in a certain context. He’s obscure when he’s squeezed between Mason and Baxter in an anthology of New Zealand verse.
JR – I disagree. In fact, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think Smithyman is obscure because of the complexity of his thinking. In fact, it’s better to call him a complex poet than an obscure poet.
RT – There is no obscurity …
Salt 6 (1998): 24-26.
[As “Poetics: Homages to Kendrick Smithyman (A Long Essay And A Short Talk).” Salt 6 online (9/99)]
Salt 6 (1998)