brief 26: Editorial (2003)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 26 (February 2003)

Critical Vistas Family Tributes

Margaret Edgcumbe: study, typewriter, banana palms (1996)

The room’s empty. There’s a desk, an old portable typewriter, packed bookshelves. Light glances in from a northwest-facing window. It’s as if he’d just stepped out for a moment, to take a turn in the garden, or greet a guest, or drive down to the nearby shops.
If I stepped outside there would be no light to surprise my body
making demands.

In 1993, two years before his death from cancer, Kendrick Smithyman wrote a poem describing his own working environment: this basement study, the “cave of making” in the split-level Northcote house he shared with his wife, Margaret Edgcumbe.
I crouch in my cave
under the house, basement solitary. Anachronist,
on the look out: it cannot be like this downtown in the city.

No, it’s certainly not like this in downtown Auckland, a short way away over the bridge. Here, “nothing goes / visibly traded between pine, lemon and silver dollar.” It’s a pleasant wooded garden (now, alas, encroached on by North Shore in-fill housing) where, “without given notice rain surprises, rain tilts headlong / into fall, past rata, past silvery gum, oleander, Norfolk pine …” Where, when you go outside, only
light flows, pure enterprise.

As for the label “basement solitary,” those of us who knew him, or were taught by him, can testify that Kendrick was no recluse but the most gregarious and clubbable of men, a master-storyteller and talker. “Anachronist,” though, perhaps. It translates as one who looks into the past, making patterns from his own and others’ histories.
Mirrorglass towers squinting all ways into themselves
discover they are heartless, at best coldhearted,
never forthright, only arrogant.
(Last Poems, 11)

It’s a curious room, this one – heaped with the detritus of a writer’s life: books, page-proofs, manuscripts, notebooks … the discarded cicada-shell of a lively, witty spirit. Forthright, though, not “arrogant”: what’s been left behind here is very real …

Well, anyway, that’s how I started an abortive article (“In the Smithyman Archives”) for the Sunday Star Times in 1998. A recent editorial in that ghastly rag e.g. – the one part of the NZ Herald I read with devoted attention – quoted Gregory O’Brien to the effect that the opposite of television was poetry. “Or more specifically … the poetry of the late Kendrick Smithyman.”

“Host Kim Hill thought she got it:” the writer continues, “Smithyman’s poetry is dense and difficult and rewarding. Telly is, well, stupid stuff for stupid people.” (Michele Hewitson, “Poetry in Commotion,” e.g. [November 28, 2002] p. 3).

Having heard a fairly spirited paean of praise from Kendrick, almost the last time I saw him, on the merits of Destry Rides Again, an old Jimmy Stewart western he’d been watching on television the night before, I can’t help feeling that this high art / low art dichotomy might have seemed a bit simplistic to the man himself.

That was, in fact, one of the motivations for compiling this posthumous Festschrift or symposium of views on his life and work. I’ve included unpublished pieces from the archive (a selection of Northland poems omitted from the otherwise monumentally inclusive Collected Poems; an essay on Bruce Mason, and a note on Sargeson); bibliographical and critical essays by Scott Hamilton, Heather McCann, Theresia Marshall, Mark Pirie and Peter Simpson; poems by Grant Duncan, Bernard Gadd, Anna Jackson and Richard Taylor; and, finally, some biographical materials: an interview with his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe, an exchange of letters with Judith Binney, some occasional verses offered by Professor D. I. B. Smith, and a tribute from his granddaughter Alexandra Smithyman.

I would have liked to put in more, but the pages are looking dauntingly full already (as it is, I’ve had to shrink the longer essays to A5). I guess that serves to illustrate the fecundity and variety of the work he’s left us. “Would he had blotted a thousand,” said Ben Jonson of the thrifty ways of the similarly prolific Shakespeare. Maybe so, but what a writer leaves behind contradicts that old cooking adage: You can add but you can’t take away. We can select, prune, read judiciously, but there’s no more to come.

Like those television sets that reign in our living-rooms like little lares et penates, Kendrick’s work is a baroque compendium of stories. Their significance can be oblique at times, they do require some reading, but then so does Shortland Street. I’d lay a bet that there’s been more academic ink spilt about that than any NZ littérateur bar none.

(Friday the 13th December, 2002)

brief 26 (2003): 3-4.

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brief 26 (2003)

Robert Cross: Kendrick Smithyman

I’ve been an enthusiast for the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995) for quite some time, and I’m convinced that more people would enjoy it if they appreciated the sheer range of his interests and achievement. At any rate, that was my principal motive for compiling a posthumous Festschrift or symposium of views on Smithyman’s life and work. Smithymania, a special issue [# 26] of the literary magazine brief (formerly A Brief Description of the Whole World) appeared in February 2003. Many of the pieces were co-listed on the nzepc website.

You’ll find here:

In the magazine itself (still available from the address below, for $NZ12 plus postage) you’ll find much more: further unpublished pieces from the archive, including an essay on Bruce Mason, a note on Sargeson’s “Hole that Jack Dug,” and some occasional verse; critical essays by Heather McCann, Theresia Marshall, and Mark Pirie; poems by Grant Duncan, Bernard Gadd, Anna Jackson and Richard Taylor; photographs by Michael Dean; a tribute by his granddaughter Alexandra Smithyman; and a chronology of his life and work.

brief [ISSN 1175-9313]
is published by the Writers Group
6A Hastings Rd, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1311, New Zealand
Subscription rates: $NZ30 for 3 issues in NZ / $60 for institutional addresses
$50 for Australia / $65 elsewhere
$12 for single and back issues
Cheques should be made payable to The Writers Group


[Available at:]

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