Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Smithyman's Christmas riddle

I was looking for some sort of festive communication to pass on, and felt challenged - most of the odes to the season are awful, and though The Pogues' 'Fairytale in New York' is a decent track, if I have to hear it one more time - when I had the idea of visiting Kendrick Smithyman's online Collected Poems and using the search engine. Old Kendrick seemed to find the time to write about every conceivable and inconceivable subject under the sun, from the angels in the thinner layers of atmosphere to the stones of the pavement, so I thought he'd have something to say about the time of Yuletide. I wasn't disappointed. This poem comes from his 1974 collection, Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Explications in the comments box.

A RIDDLE AT CHRISTMAS

Say that I talk in riddles.
We shall, Caesar Augustus, if I talk
to you this Christmas Day, passing
by way of Jerusalem.
Shifting camp,
we travelled fast so shot through
Jerusalem, without recognizing it.
A school, but the school of course
was shut. A meeting house where nobody was
to meet or be met. We kept watch for water.
The courses weren’t good for much.

Settled, on a foreshore
littered with griefs, widows’ weeds
salt-blackened, sunburnt. Dream of
empire, and its drama throws up
latterday saints beside would-be
colonial capitalists hunched unsmiling
on totara rails at the auction yard.
Fishermen’s birds juggle what spoils
below iron shacks at the haul-out ramp,
smokehouse fumes taint a half mile
of air which no one wants. On groynes,
supplejack crayfish pots are
skeletal roses, so much junk.

So much junk, of the unprincipled
Mother, crossgrained cantankerous
ocean – dried out dories, timber workers’
cottages, warped plans for some dividend
seeding future, weathered carnal
reminiscences. Ocean sulkily fingers them,
euphoric vessels of powerfully malign
abrasive corrosive outpourings
hoisting and foaming over the scoured reefs,
skidding them to the slant of the beach,
muddling fine gravels with boulders,
sand with rivermouth silt, and jetsam
woods carrying into poplar groves.

Pioneer oaks higher comport themselves
fittingly. Obsolete, paper
mulberries peculiarly shimmer
lit by winds fined to their essence
which flow seaward from valleys
where total hillsides shake
down to their base streams, Caesar.
Here’s Christmas Day. Not yet have you
entirely, insolently, lost out,
miscounted the world, overtaxed
its resourcefulness.
Naturally,
I stood melancholy for that other Hiruharama,
west across ranges and desert,
thinking of Jim who chose to settle,
iconoclast among Catholics, catholic
in an otherwise hermetic faith.
Friend of the junk heap, and its people.

7. 2. 71

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but that's not a poem.
That's a crossword puzzle.
Real poems have a logical structure and feeling.
I've never heard of this Kendrick Smithyman - but somehow I'm not surprised!
How ironic that someone who criticises 'pseudo-history' should post pseudo-poetry on his blog!

Conrad Buckingham

10:02 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Kendrick Smithyman is (or was) actually one of the World's Greatest poets - the poem is quite difficult but amongst his huge work he wrote poems such as Waitomo that are very beautiful...

Actually a lot of people read Smithyman although Baxter - that is the Jim to whom he alludes here was more popular and in a way that is one of the points of this poem.

I know that Smithyman somewhat overdid his "riddling" but when he was my tutor (BTW I don't think he had Uni degree he was vastly self taught* and a very likeable man) - in 1968 - the interesting thing about him was his very wide and intense interest in almost every thing - birds, (obviously also geology and maps, Heidegger, Dylan Thomas, many NZ writers, US writers, British, other; and much else ... he was what one might call a proto post modernist but he is indeed somewhat of the "riddling school of Auden and Empson ("Seven Types of Ambiguity") ..he wrote a huge range and tried numerous styles -some of his early books had poems that were as strange and beautiful as those of Marianne Moore (or Thomas himself).

The problem is what do you identify or what can you say a poem is defined by? What is a poem?

The poem is not pseudo history as it is within poem so we are dealing here with metaphor etc Augustus Caesar is addressed and there are two Jerusalems - one that Baxter was at in New Zealand and the other one we all know. Augustus was Emperor when Christ was born.

I would agree that the density of such a poem leaves one often baffled as to its literal meaning (and overall raison d'etre) if there is any ... (some of Jim Baxter earlier poems - some I read first published in the 60s - were equally obscure BTW - also influenced by Auden and Eliot etc and full of classical references)

But it's worth reading some of his more approachable poems as a way in - Scott gave one of his more difficult ones - Smithyman himself once as said in an interview that he thought his obscure poems were just bad but I'm not so sure...

*He had great knowledge of NZ history and other histories.

10:17 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Here is the first poem I came across by Smithyman - what it "means" or imports doesn't concern me (that is not totally - its 'meaning' is in its totality as a structure) - if you or anyone just read it aloud the beauty of the language - the 'music' will come through* The tease through its complex "riddling" then go back to the poem as unity.

It is much in the manner of Marriane Moore who used quote all the time and also used animals (as she studed biology and worked in that field) and the animals represent some moral problem or concern - beauty and truth or "probity" are some of the 'issues'...but here is the poem:

Phrases such as "boded purity" I find quite beautiful but of course they are (probably deliberately) quite archaic (Elizbethan) in tone.


LADY AS SWAN

Lady, when the first swan professed
her main concern it was dignity
she named. Three elements compassed
in one nature a boded purity
improbable.
No precedent informed
her making. Her peers went disarmed.
Swans principally strike across
one’s daydreaming their great wings outspread
to better sunrise, making less
of a moody wind; then, declining, tread
where osiers clash whose underworlds let free
those we thought death obstinately
had penned – Leda’s clan there may walk
colonial as cobs downwater
slide into misgiving, small talk
among brown shades. The birds get to clatter
their red bills with their mates’. Soon they design
fallacies, of a drifting line.
Water and earth with air combine
(you so instructed me) in spirit
not as the common fowl’s – disdain,
as artists may be, seeking an extreme.
Is integrity the one theme?
Air, earth, and water. What of fire?
Is this their lack? Impertinent now
though so far honestly, I dare
your displeasure: Madam, will you allow
that with the excessive swan you may count
not virtues only, but this scant
capacity in fine to flame?
Hardly, I know. I should have gone
away from you, not bold to name
how I presumed to you, woman and Swan
Maiden, who saunter handsomest among
my white ambitions, schemed too long.

_________________________________

Actually the poem is,on one level, I think; a complex discussion of art and poetics - and perhaps the talk of "fire" and hence passion - in his own work or his "work" (done or to be) that was or is "schemed too long"...and the "poetics" is perhaps in:

"Soon they design
fallacies, of a drifting line."

Free verse etc? And then he gets to his own "white ambitions" - perhaps his drive to be a "great" poet of some "purity" or integrity as well as conveying some beauty and perhaps (restrained) passion... Allusion to Leda and the Swan hints at passion and even violence.

*Sometimes I think I'm talking to Maps himself! But I like talking!

10:56 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

This poem (below) is greatly liked by many - and is perhaps more "direct" but alludes to the famous poem by Coleridge

"In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
a sacred pleasure dome decree...
... where Alph the sacred river ran
in caverns measureless to man..."

hence (one reason for) the "verbless river" - as also it is Alpha or Alph - the first letter and it is in Coleridge's poem imagined and thus "static" or "unreal" the "verb" is a
"man made" attribute even of the "real" Waitomo Cave river - hence not really "there" (and it is passed - it 'ran' - there fore now it doesn't now run!. (One or two 'takes' on it all - and mine only..)

But the poem can be read primarily as an "event" - and on deeper levels - as if in fact one is descending into deeper layers of conscious /subconscious etc

WAITOMO

Guides ask for silence, and have
no difficulty in getting their parties
to go quiet. At a dollar a head, nations
file underground. All shapes of age bow
their heads, step carefully after.
Go deep, go down to silence.
Bridal Chamber, and Cathedral,
play of fancy which wants to discover
limestone making metaphors, shadow likenesses
and shadow play. Here is Dog, there is
Camel. We call this the Modern Art
gallery, but go down
further, one more, a couple more flights.
A boat at a landing stage idles,
another will carry us, silently
animated through the grotto
where cannibal worms hunt, breed, age,
consume their partners, are consumed.
How this would have pleased Coleridge,
riding a verbless river, the dome,
darkness, glowworm haven
generously imitating, freely outdoing, stars.
I have been here before, without words.
After their climax of love people lie thus,
as though drifting dark waters, caverned.
If you speak, all the lights will go out.
Say nothing. She reaches for his hand,
he presses her finger. The boat slides
curving back to its landing.
A guide at the stage sweeps his lamp
over a pool. What is he looking for?

11:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smithyman and Baxter were poetic 'opposites'.
Smithyman thought Baxter over-rated.
There is an ironic tone to the references to Baxter in this poem.
Sooner or later, all readers of HZ verse must choose between the two men.

5:16 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I don't think Baxter and Smithyman were opposites - quite different styles but the earlier Baxter is quiet difficult. It seems that Smithyman loved the complexity of ideas and words and the sharp focus on the "real" as here but there is also a deeper level - perhaps not quite spiritual but say - he might be thought a complex mix of Auden (who influenced Baxter also), Browning (of the discursive story teller), a number of 20C US poets, (many others); and he devised his own strategy of complexity - he is mostly about something - but sometimes the "cryptic crossword side of him becomes too much as in this Christmas poem perhaps...I have to concede I cant really decipher what he is saying here exactly - whereas the Baxter of The Jerusalem Sonnets writes almost directly (and powerfully) to people which is why he is very popular - I don't think Smithyman is being ironic - I think he was generous enough to recognise that Baxter was also a very major poet.

Baxter renounced Catholicism but then, becoming "catholic" rather than academic and austere or aloof, mixed with "junkies" and others - hippies and so on - at the Commune in Jerusalem (Wanganui, NZ) - both Smithyman and Baxter took a keen interest in Maoritanga etc in there later years it seems...

But there is no need to "choose between" - as chess player I see it like this - Baxter is like a great combinational chess player but his attacks while beautiful - are quite direct (as in Jersualem) but Smithyman is the greatly complex strategist whose prolix - infuriatingly deceptive ideational style of "strategies" and tactics, while they have an austere and subtle beauty, I leave for a rainy day when I have hours to work out all the ideas ...both can be fulfilling, enjoyable, or "enlightening"... in different ways.

Baxter also is perhaps more compassionate - or seems so in his later poems. He does this without becoming "simplistic" - sometimes I feel that Tuwhare was simply too naive a poet by contrast. (But these things are a matter of individual taste.)

If one isn't (too) keen on cryptics then Smithyman is less attractive and I have to concede that he is almost too difficult for me (I have very poor results trying to do cryptic crosswords) and I don't have enough rainy days - so perhaps I would rather read Baxter - but it's good to know there are so many rich poems there by Smithyman also - he is quite unique.

But using "difficulty" as a strategy" has its risks...hence Baxter is more popular - perhaps rightly so - I am not sure.

Jack Ross might be able to enlighten us here ...

The alleged Conrad Buckingham has a point - why should he work out a crossword or riddle? But he perhaps assumes too much saying it "isn't poetry" although that is a common response to Smithyman - as the debate as to what constitutes literature and poetry surely still rages - or does it just limp - on? - Perhaps no one these days really cares about poetry as Jack Spicer alleges in a famous poem...

12:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter Simpson's notes read thus:

A Riddle at Christmas : first published in The Seal in the Dolphin Pool ; Caesar Augustus: Roman Emperor at the time of the Birth of Christ; the poem refers to two Jerusalems, one on the East Coast, the other, Hiruharama, on the Wanganui River, associated at the time the poem was written with James K. Baxter (Jim) (1926-72) who settled there and established a commune in the last years of his life

9:13 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I saw that note but missed that there are 2 Jerusalems (I think there may be more as I didn't realise Hiruharama meant Jerusalem until I read S's poem) in NZ -that makes the poem a little clearer -
so Smithyman was great one for maps - hence his poem "Reading the Maps" and hence the name of this Blog.

The thick plottens...

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is Aotearoa, there is Palestine.
Jerusalem is the Holy Land, place of hopes and dreams.
Smithyman drives through itZ antipodean namesake without noticing, a dystopia it turns out - no water. Part of Caesars world that he is uproooting, destroying, sucking not quite dry, leaving junk behind. Colonisation is always the same - its death.
Smithyman envies/pities Baxter for making his peace with deathly Catholicism also an historic premodern mass killer that is unforgiving, but of course he does not chose to follow him.
The hope is in the anger Smithyman shows.

12:47 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Good synopsis - yes Ceasar (who eventually became the total dictator of Rome) is generic for colonization or empire or capitalism even almost fascism.

Smithyman drove through the East Coast name sake (without noticing it) - it is not what "Caesar" or empire makers had in mind - there is not even knowledge (the school is shut - the courses there and the water courses -are no good for knowledge or hope or "the spiritual" or whatever) - Empire is still going - the would be capitalists are there - but the mulberry is no use for silk (or perhaps also paper) in NZ - the wind though is "fined"...

But something is "powerfully malign" - possibly nature itself - something greater than "Caesar"

Baxter was recovered alcoholic and had left the Catholic faith - but he was "catholic" - unlike the rich and powerful or at least unlike the ("symbolic" Empire of Caesar and more recent empires) -
Baxter was friend of junk and junkies and the "down and out" etc etc hence his involvement at "that other Hiruharama..."

There is a lot in the poem but is there too much? I think he is, not bitterly, acknowledging something about Baxter not in himself - a more "human" side perhaps -

The question is whether this poem is too difficult for what it is "saying" - or whether the structure and the "riddling" etc justify the poem's import.

Baxter was:

"Friend of the junk heap, and its people."

And Smithyman does not feel disdain for the junk heap - he was fascinated by the flotsam and jetsam - the grit and grain, the "crossgrain" in fact of the sea/world. Also he loved words and their multiple meanings.

But does that mean he was/is a great poet - or poet at all? The alleged Conrad Buckingham thinks not. (But begs the question of what poetry is...) And perhaps my own comment of him being "one of the World's Greatest poets" was a bit of (maybe defensive) superfluity as these things - these judgments of poets and poetry and "greatness" or not are so personal.

11:41 pm  
Blogger Tim Jones said...

Fascinating discussion! But I was most interested in the concept advanced by Anonymous that all readers of NZ poetry have to choose between Baxter and Smithyman - I don't see why they should, but in addition, I have previously heard this phrased as "you have to make a choice between Baxter and Curnow". I like all three, and Smithyman seems closer to Curnow than to Baxter in his methods. Did Smithyman and Curnow have a close, a distant or a nonexistent relationship, poetic or personal?

11:55 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"Tim Jones" I don't know - Curnow was friend of Dylan Thomas and also was very influenced by Wallace Stevens (I picked that up - the tone in Curnow's work) and I mentioned it to Don Smith, at AU he and he said Alan Curnow wanted (at one stage) to teach an entire paper only on Stevens - Stead and Jack Ross knew Smithyman quite well at AU and elsewhere. When I went back to the Auck University in 1990 - he was retired - previously, in 1968, I had done a year of English and Economics in 1968 when Smithyman was my tutor. he was a very interesting person - I still have his comments on my essays.

But when Maps returns from his sojourn he may also be able to enlighten us as he is a massive fan of Smithyman.

Smithyman has a following - I recall John Morton (Zoologist - actually I studied Science once and he was one of my teachers and I have copy of his 'The New Zealand Sea Shore') saying he liked Smithyman)and also a retired teacher I knew was keen on his work, and had read his Atua Wera twice...I haven't read it. But I have read a lot of Curnow and Smithyman - not so much of Baxter.

I think that Smithyman at his best combines Browning's "rambling" conversational or "talking to someone" style - and the intensity of details*, with puns, allusions, geological details, "correspondences" and 'inscapes' perhaps, and ideas in a kind of flow - that is very subtle. Very subtle and quite unique. (BTW I think "anonymous" was being provocative - it was probably even Maps himself)

Even his volume "The Seal in the Dolphin Pool" signals something - the seal is perhaps the poet (the old trope of the poet as exile or outsider) but also it could be Smithyman himself) - and Map's theory was more or less that one of Smithyman's "strategies" was "difficulty" or that he deliberately opted for a unique voice (as Auden did) "No! You don't understand. I am going to be a great poet." (Auden to a teacher when he had recently started writing) -

Curnow had similar intensity and subtlety but a different tone.

*(say as in "The Englishman in Italy" - poems that when I was there - with Smithyman and Curnow and indeed Stead - Curnow (who was a wonderful lecturer); introduced to us...and fired my enthusiasm for (i.e Browning, Eliot and Thomas etc)

12:26 am  
Blogger Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Richard!

10:59 pm  

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