Jillian Taylor: Ti Point
At Ti Point
The Pacific as itself, a state of dream.
Provisional the islands in-shore, poised
upon some wish, some urgency, not disclosed
thus far, the dramas not resolved which stream
5 tides through an almost-sandchoked harbourmouth,
gentling bland airs moved on us from the south
or making plump such oystercatcher flocks
as stump the bared rich flats.
on a headland, like menhirs, we are disposed
to doze according to the Ocean’s need
to dream us idling here, who, God knows, agreed
hitherto how we should do worse and praised
the worse as virtue’s industry. Just down
the slope are middens, ovenstones in brown
loam, an industry of rejected shells
we puzzled over. Lie back. Seawind swells
nothing to importance meanwhile nor the cloud
mushrooms above our yet to be shattered
complacent city, dear, vulgar, desecrated
daily in other ways, where still a proud
flesh does not connote the smart pride of pain.
Afternoon soothes our part in guilt again
while elsewhere – Saigon, Hanoi – children scream
subscribed to dreams of power they do not dream.
You may not realise it, but you’ve never seen the poem quite like this before. The text you are reading is not the one published in Earthquake Weather (1972), but the last one corrected by Kendrick Smithyman before his death in December 1995. Does it make any difference? You tell me:
- l.2: “Provisional, the islands offshore,” has become “Provisional the islands in-shore”.
- l.13: “hitherto that we should do worse” has become “hitherto how we should do …”
- l..18: “nothing to consequence” has become “nothing to importance”.
These, it must be said, are fairly typical of the revisions made for that huge multi-volumed (alas, as yet unpublished) Collected Poems which occupied the poet after his retirement from Auckland University’s English Department in 1986. Like Yeats and Auden before him, he seized the opportunity to rewrite the past. We will come back to the effect they had on the poem in a moment.
Right now, I want you to observe the various methods of reading already adumbrated in these opening sentences. First of all, I have asserted the importance of textual correctness, which will sooner or later involve us in the science of textual criticism, with its paraphernalia of copy-texts, stemmas of descent, accidentals, substantives, and mechanisms of transmission. This is a background to any interpretation which we ignore at our peril.
“True, but uninteresting,” I hear my audience riposte at this point. The next method of reading which I have ushered in is perhaps more controversial: the biographical. Personal experience should tell us that it is very difficult to interpret the events of any life simply by adhering to plausible chronological sequence (he was in such-and-such a place at this time, so that probably gave him the idea of saying that). Such conjectures are often incorrect when it comes to points of detail, which should lead us to be extremely chary of this line of enquiry.
And yet, common sense tells us that this poem probably commemorates a visit by the poet to Ti Point, north of Leigh, on the coast above Auckland, in the year 1968. These deductions may go against the grain of New Critical close reading as practised in most of the English Departments in the Western World, but I don’t feel any particular awkwardness in making them. They may or may not prove useful to us.
Which brings us to our long-deferred close reading. Given the amount of ink that has been spilled on the subject of the complexities of Kendrick Smithyman’s syntax (oh dear, my historicism is showing again – not only have I mentioned the history of the text and its author, but now I venture into the history of Smithyman criticism), we might expect to have to elucidate some difficulties there. Are there any?
Well, the first sentence has no verb, of course.
The Pacific as itself, a state of dream.
What precisely do you mean by that, Dr. Smithyman? Presumably, that the action in the sentence is an implied copula: a verb “to be,” an implicit equals sign. By being itself, the Pacific is a state of dream. We need not state this stasis: in fact, we are forbidden to do so.
The next sentence, too, appears to lack a main verb: the “islands in-shore” [are] provisional … poised upon some wish, some urgency not disclosed so far; the “dramas” [are] not resolved which – introducing a relative clause – “stream tides through an almost choked harbourmouth”. The question then arises: is it these dramas [or tides] which are “gentling” the bland airs and “making plump” the oystercatcher flocks, or is “gentling” to be taken here as an adjective qualifying the bland airs? Grammatically, the first reading makes most sense, as “making plump” must be read as a separate action in the sentence; but the natural tendency of the reader is, I think, to take “gentling” as an adjective first, and then reread it as a verb.
In my coarse, vulgar, essentialist way, I am tempted to say that the complex subordinations of the sentence – confusion of subjects and dependent clauses – are meant to denote the complexity of the scene before us: islands, harbourmouth, and flats, connected by tides, airs, and sand in as many diverse concatenations as possible. It works for me, anyway.
We now drop down a line, and enter the poem ourselves: “we are disposed” among the rocks, or rather, “we are disposed to doze” – does that mean that we want to, or that we are arranged in an appropriate fashion for doing so? – “according to the Ocean’s need to dream us, idling here”. Like the Red King’s dream in Through the Looking Glass, the Ocean (the capitalisation makes it seem rather Greek: the Ocean-stream, the Sea of Darkness) is dreaming us, and it is presumably this “us” who “agreed hitherto how [or “that”, the original reading] we should do worse” – a straightforward reversal of the conventional phrase “agreeing to do better.”
A tyrant asked a philosopher what he should do for the betterment of mankind. The philosopher replied: “Sleep longer, so that for that space of time mankind will not be plagued by you.” By the same token, the Ocean needs to dream us lying idle, we who have hitherto so abused our time by industriously serving and praising the worse.
Now comes the first plain, declarative sentence. Would any Smithyman poem be complete without midden-stones and shells? What’s more, as so memorably in “Tomarata” (written two years later about a fossil lake-bed a little inland from this same spot), they must be puzzled over, probed for meaning. Hang on a second, though: Is this “industry of rejected shells” the same as “virtue’s industry” above? The one which we mispraised as being better when in fact it was worse? Is all our building – “Feed, propagate, be fed on; please someone; die” – in vain, then? “Lie back,” we are told. It is a command, an imperative.
The reader is only implicitly included in this “we”, though. “We” are now defined as the people who puzzled over middens earlier, and you and I haven’t been doing that, except by analogy. Meanwhile, seawind is not swelling anything to importance [or “consequence”], nor is our city under a mushroom cloud, though it is “desecrated daily in other ways”. “We” are proud – we on the headland? we Aucklanders? we New Zealanders? we Westerners, even? – but that does not yet “connote the smart pride of pain” [a pun here on “smart”, of course].
And now for the moral:
Afternoon soothes our part in guilt again
while elsewhere – Saigon, Hanoi – children scream
subscribed to dreams of power they do not dream.
But hang on a bit, wasn’t it the Ocean which needed us to lie back, idle here? Was that all a pathetic fallacy from the beginning, then? It seems now that the Ocean doesn’t dream us; on the contrary, we dream it to justify our own actions. Right now those actions include newsreel shots of napalmed children running for cover on the devastated roads of Vietnam.
So now we understand the poem. Or do we? Well, no, of course not – we’ve hardly begun to understand it. What does “Pacific” mean, actually? Peaceful (Balboa got it wrong, it must be said). Still, that may be why the Ocean is urging us (in the poet’s imagination of its imagination) to “lie back” and “idle here”. The dramas on this particular stretch of coast are “not disclosed thus far”, and we are disposed to doze “like menhirs”. Asterix and Obelix haven’t done a great deal for the resonance of the word “menhir”, but of course we can recognise it as a stone – as at Carnac in Brittany – set up to honour the divine. Perhaps, also, a stone of sacrifice.
“God knows” that we’ve been listening, so far, not to the better angels of our nature but the worse. Our city may be “complacent … vulgar, desecrated” but it is also dear to us. It’s not yet suffered the fate of the Cities of the Plain. However, those cities’ descendants: Saigon, Hanoi, the warring capitals (perhaps also Hiroshima, Nagasaki, also on the Pacific rim), are now seeing their children sacrificed to “dreams of power.”
1968 was the moment for political statements, for making a stand. “Get clean for Gene,” chanted the American college kids supporting Eugene McCarthy’s doomed run on the Presidency. All that ended in the nightmare of the Democratic convention in Chicago, as much of a watershed in American letters as in political life, judging by the endless descriptions of the event by Norman Mailer, Jean Genet, Robert Lowell, Hunter Thompson, Arthur Miller, et al.
May 1968 in Paris saw the kids joining the workers for a brief revolutionary honeymoon – until de Gaulle put a stop to it. We know all about that; we’ve seen it on the movies. In Prague, the façade of Russian imperialism seemed ready to crumble for a moment before the tanks came rolling in. That, too, had everybody polishing up their ink-stones.
And in New Zealand … what? Oh, protest marches like everywhere else. Not so virulent as in Australia, of course, where the fact of conscription made the Vietnam war a more vivid reality. It seems no accident that this should be the Smithyman poem chosen for the Australian journal Meanjin Quarterly’s last issue of that pivotal year of ‘68. In retrospect, it is clear that this was our 1848: the same dawn of hope, the same bitter disappointments. “Saigon, Hanoi” – that was the mantra to invoke that year.
Don’t think that I’m unaware of the superficiality of this little thumbnail sketch of 1968 as I write it down. I hear the older members of my audience yawning or sniggering by turns as they hear the old, old story trotted out once more. It’s more frightening, though, to think that some of it may be news to some of my readers. News from nowhere. We live in such a chaos of competing information systems that it’s no longer safe to assume that anyone knows anything about anything.
So, do we need to think about 1968 in reading “At Ti Point”? Well, no, probably not – except insofar as the mention of Vietnam’s two warring cities invites us to consider the poem’s meditation on the merits of action or inaction in terms of contemporary history. I wonder, myself, if I am hearing some echoes of Auden’s Sonnets from China (1938) here:
Think in this year what pleased the dancers best:
When Austria fell and China was forsaken,
Shanghai in flames and Teruel re-taken,
France put her case before the world: ‘Partout
Il y a de la joie.’ America addressed
The earth: ‘Do you love me as I love you?’
Thirty years on, it seems only too relevant. The names (half-forgotten, both of them, though the bombing of Shanghai was in its time as much of a cause célèbre as that of Hanoi a generation later; Teruel, part of the Republican defence of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, is even more obscure) resound like the remnants of a dark age, reminders of places where “life is evil now: Nanking; Dachau.” That last name at least needs no gloss, I hope.
And yet, Auden’s sonnet seems, paradoxically, more relevant here than Kendrick’s intricately patterned octets (complete with Shakespearean double couplets at the close of each stanza). In 1968, France was still asserting free love from the barricades; America was still uneasily aware that the global policeman inspires little affection in his constituents. In Kendrick’s poem, the names are simply far-off rumours, unreal beside the reality of the midden-strewn sandhills and the oystercatchers down on the flats.
As you will have gathered, I am no enemy to history as a constituent feature of poems, but I feel too much is left unsaid by this invocation in “At Ti Point”. Smithyman’s subtlety may have seemed a potent reproach to the stridency of Baxter’s Pig Island Letters (1966) and the other “engaged” works about the war, but I fear he is having his cake and eating it too. In succeeding in making the Vietnam and atomic bomb references seem like afterthoughts, rather than the culmination of this Ti Point reverie, I see him as too reluctant to be accused of crassness. I’d rather see him more crass than this if he’s going to bring up Vietnam at all, but of course he was never that sort of poet. He could never descend to the vulgarity of a Ginsberg, or even a Lowell or an Auden (at their worst). This is both their curse and their saving grace.
To sum up, then, I’ve talked about the poem’s text (though the changes proved not particularly significant in this case – the change from “offshore” to “in-shore” islands seems to denote merely that precision of evocation which we find in all of Smithyman’s mature work). I’ve also discussed, in passing, the poem’s form (rhyming pentameters, with a sonnet-like ABBA scheme at the beginning of each stanza perhaps simply to avoid the eighteenth-century associations of heroic couplets), and have found little to say about it. It’s a conveniently loose long line, giving him a chance to expand his ideas through enjambement, as well as providing an excuse for that one Audenesque omission of article: “Seawind” rather than the sea-wind. The half-disguised rhyme-scheme may be meant to give us the sense of another world intruding – an Elizabethan intricacy of politics and language intermingled: something we see in all the plays, the public poetry, of that era.
I’ve talked about syntax; I’ve talked about public events. I see no need to bring up any further biographical heavy artillery because most of the cultural and geographical points which could be thus made are fairly obvious to Aucklanders familiar with the coast north of the city. Come and visit if you want to find out more.
In conclusion, you will have gathered, I hope, that I yield to no-one in my admiration for Kendrick’s poetry, but that I have reservations about this particular example because of that perhaps-too-resonant coda. Which brings us to part two of this perhaps-too-protracted reading:
Puriri Trees at Ti Point
Tides below flex their habitual muscles.
At times immensely Ocean abrades
a boulder shore, the alternate dunes
across the estuary. Our lives comprehend
sea mist, sheen of salt and wit’s ruin
which aches at our boles. Compassion
we are not required to understand.
Beyond and above preternaturally graze
old stones among exotic grasses,
semblance of consolation in their crowd
upon the slope. They resist falling.
Falling is germane to our nature.
We also endure in company.
We are most plurally ourselves, strengthened
by a coarse conceit of root and branch.
Thus we remain, without need of prim
fantastics, wishes of virgins or matrons,
or a bravo’s masculine assertions
to fertilise the very ground. We bury
ambitious projects, skilled to make modest.
Our roots give order to middens.
We are not celebrated. Poets do not attend
at designated seasons in our grove.
We bulwark a spring, muddying its issue;
the gut of a venous stream we deplete.
Birds people us. Use us. We do not mind.
The next day (if one can rely on the dating in the Collected Poems) Smithyman had another go. This time he chose the Puriri trees at the Point as the vehicle for his voice. As in the earlier poem, this “we” becomes ambiguous at times: “Falling is germane to our nature.” Well, yes, to ours too. We, too, are not rocks, which seem to “preternaturally graze” among the exotic grasses. “Semblance of consolation in their crowd” gives so much stronger a sense of the effect of these randomly grouped stones than the “menhirs” of the earlier poem. It’s nice to see them together, to feel that one can rely on them.
Everything here, in fact, seems “habitual.” “At times” Ocean (capitalised still – as firmly personified as the day before) abrades, wears down the shore, but it makes little difference. “Compassion we are not required to understand.” Unlike humans, who are required to (and yet who do not) understand compassion?
The trees seem at times intended as an example to us – all of us: “virgins”, “matrons”, or “bravoes” – in that they “bury ambitious projects, skilled to make modest”, but the poem does not insist on the identification. They are simply trees. This is what they do. “Use us. We do not mind.” They take. “The gut of a venous stream we deplete”. But they give in return. “Birds people us.” Not that it’s always that easy to tell: “We bulwark a spring, muddying its issue”. We guard the spring, and guarantee its banks, but its waters are muddied as a result. What did that anonymous American officer have to say? “We had to destroy the village in order to save it”?
But that reflection is intrusive here. I can make it, but I feel somehow rebuked by the poem’s reticence, by its own skill in “making modest”. The two “Ti Point” poems, putting it differently, make up a diptych, like Hieronymous Bosch’s two gardens. In the first, the times intrude over the horizon of the verbless Pacific. In the second, we are all verbs – active as dancers: Tides flex; Ocean abrades; stones graze; roots give order; even the abstract “wit’s ruin” aches at our boles. Yeats found words for these cycles of natural, right action in “Among School Children”:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair.
These trees do not need to be “celebrated. Poets do not attend at designated seasons in our grove.” We come back, perhaps, to the Druidic ceremonies suggested by the earlier “menhirs”. 1968 was a hard row to hoe. Poets did a good deal of “attending at designated seasons” back then, and perhaps they had to. Who could now have the arrogance to criticise them for it? Lowell, in “Waking Early Sunday Morning” tries to pity the whole planet, “all joy gone / From this sweet, volcanic cone” – but even there the grand Marvellian gesture must be coupled with images of the truer, more private life: a President (LBJ) “sick / Of his ghost-written rhetoric.”
“Think in this year what pleased the dancers best,” returning to Auden’s 1938. What pleases me best (in 1998) about Smithyman’s 1968 is “Puriri Trees at Ti Point.” It may not have got printed in Meanjin Quarterly, but it seems to me bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. 1968 was a difficult time to make sense of, but years pass and people (and trees, and harbours, and even stones) remain. “Puriri Trees” can live with or without a gloss. “At Ti Point” is more contingent. It does credit to its author’s compassion and sense of occasion, but it seems to me flawed by a reluctance to submit to the inescapable arrogance associated with grand, historical gestures. “All the attitudes I struck in the 1930s did not save a single Jew,” as Auden remarked later on in life. Smithyman already inhabits this reticence.
Of course, it is also true that the second poem lacks a rhyme-scheme, thus allowing a more thorough celebration of the flexibilities of English of syntax than its predecessor. It seems less studied, less artful as a result. That probably makes it easier for a modern to like.
All I really want to do in this essay, though, is to try and point out the implications of any choice between these two poems. You may like both, or neither, or prefer the first to the second. It’s of little importance. What I want you to feel is the pivot of technical and ideological decision-making which balances these two readings of Ti Point, made by the poet Kendrick Smithyman on two successive days in May 1968.
A month later Kendrick returned to the subject of the Point in a poem called “Hail.” He said, then:
this earthquake weather. We may not be wrong.
1968 was earthquake weather with a vengeance.
1. Text taken from Kendrick Smithyman, Collected Poems – henceforth CP IV: 1965-69 (14/5/68). The poem was first published in Meanjin Quarterly 27 (1968): 454; then in Earthquake Weather (Auckland: Auckland UP / Oxford UP, 1972) – henceforth EW, 23.
2. See, most notably, Reginald Berry’s “Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman’s Colorless Green Ideas,” Landfall 168 (1988): 388-402. There is also relevant material in John Geraets’ “Kendrick Smithyman and Brasch’s Landfall,” Landfall 160 (1986): 443-57.
3. Kendrick Smithyman, “Tomarata,” The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (Auckland: Auckland UP / Oxford UP, 1974): 47-53. Included in Selected Poems (Auckland: Auckland UP, 1989): 94-99, the poem has recently been reprinted with an interesting “Afterword” by Peter Simpson (Auckland: Holloway Press, 1996).
4. Kendrick Smithyman, “Gathering the Toheroa,” Flying to Palmerston (Auckland: Oxford UP, 1968): 33; also Selected Poems, 48.
5. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson, 1977 (London: Faber, 1986): 260.
6. Auden, 257.
7. EW, 57. Also CP IV: 1965-69 (15/5/68).
8. Yeats’s Poems, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (London: Papermac, 1989): 325.
9. Robert Lowell, Near the Ocean (London: Faber, 1967): 16.
10. Kendrick Smithyman, “Hail,” EW, 37. Also CP IV: 1965-69 (30/6/68).
- Auden, W. H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 1977. London: Faber, 1986.
- Baxter, James K. Pig Island Letters. Auckland: Oxford UP, 1966.
- Berry, Reginald. “Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman’s Colorless Green Ideas.” Landfall 168 (1988): 388-402.
- Geraets, John. “Kendrick Smithyman and Brasch’s Landfall.” Landfall 160 (1986): 443-57.
- Lowell, Robert. Near the Ocean. London: Faber, 1967.
- Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems IV: 1965-69. (Unpublished: 58 poems)
- Smithyman, Kendrick. Flying to Palmerston. Christchurch: Auckland University & Oxford University Press, 1968.
- Smithyman, Kendrick. Earthquake Weather. Auckland: Auckland University Press & Oxford University Press, 1972.
- Smithyman, Kendrick. The Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Auckland: Auckland University Press & Oxford University Press, 1974.
- Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Edited by Peter Simpson. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.
- Smithyman, Kendrick. Tomarata. Afterword by Peter Simpson. Tamaki: Holloway Press, 1996.
- Yeats, W. B. Yeats’s Poems. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Papermac, 1989.
Salt 6 (1998): 27-36.
[As “Poetics: Homages to Kendrick Smithyman (A Long Essay And A Short Talk).” Salt 6 online (9/99)]
Salt 6 (1998)