Reasons for choosing Smithyman over American Idol
That Smithyman poem was weak. It's just a typical boring New Zealand nature poem, with a pretentious title thrown in to deceive readers. Well, to try to deceive them.
How just is this criticism of the man nicknamed by his peers 'the sly old fox of New Zealand verse'? It's true that 'Deconstructing' is set in the Kiwi countryside - the action, such as it is, takes place in the vicinity of Donnelly's Crossing, a village located between Dargaville and Waipoua in Smithyman's beloved Northland. But I believe that the poem is a good deal more than a simple Kiwi pastoral. In order to defend 'Deconstruction' I want discuss some of the complex background to the poem.
By the 1980s the curious creed known as postmodernism had reached the English Department of the University of Auckland, where Smithyman taught. A new generation of students was challenging the orthodoxies of its teachers by making provocative claims about the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘constructed nature of reality’. A stylish new literary journal called And was established by students and junior members of staff to help spread the gospel of Derrida and Barthes. Young writers like Leigh Davis and John Geraets tried to turn the imported French theory into poetry.
Arguments about postmodernism were only part of a wider conflict between 'internationalist' and 'nationalist' tendencies in New Zealand arts. The old question of whether Kiwi artists ought to create work which reflected a distinct national identity was kicked back and forth by painters, writers, musicians, critics, and academics. For one critic, the opposition between internationalism was and nationalism was symbolised by the gap between the cool abstract canvases of Max Gimblett - a Kiwi who relocated to New York, as soon as he could afford to - and the scruffily realistic paintings of the New Zealand backblocks that Dick Frizzell churned out in the late '80s and early '90s.
Many of the self-styled postmodernists linked their brash rejection of the 'local and special' to their contempt for what philosophers like to call the naive realist theory of language and the correspondence theory of truth. Derrida's ridicule of the idea that humans can access a pre-linguistic reality - that we can simply invent words for things that were already 'out there' - resonated with the postmodernists' weariness with the cliches of realistic art and writing. If reality was structured through language, and the 'truths' which art and literature told about the world were the product of language, not the correspondence of words with a pre-existing reality, then why bother trying to capture the 'local and special'? One might as well write or paint about anything, or indeed nothing, it seemed.
Smithyman was no stranger to philosophy. He had been one of the first Kiwi intellectuals to read Heidegger and Wittgenstein, philosophers who had challenged the correspondence theory of truth much more intelligently than Derrida would, and he had long been fascinated by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who proclaimed that the world was continually in flux. (Smithyman was also familiar with the work of Marx and Lenin - both of them big fans of Heraclitus - from an early age, thanks to the influence of his father, who was a radical trade unionist.)
Smithyman's reading in philosophy is reflected, to some extent at least, in his rejection of notions of a nationalist 'New Zealand manner' of poetry. In his 1965 book-length study of Kiwi poetry, A Way of Saying, Smithyman describes Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch's poems about New Zealand identity - poems which talked about a young, ahistorical land full of 'empty hills' crying 'for meaning' - as part of a 'South Island myth' which did not describe the reality of most Kiwis' lives. Smithyman's awareness of the difficulty of distinguishing language and reality, and of the complexities which airy generalisations could disguise, made him extremely attentive to the details of the world around him. His poems about New Zealand attempt again and again to illuminate places and human experiences that have been ignored or distorted. In one part of 'Deconstructing' Smithyman seems almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he has set himself:
An abandoned railway line’s last
station, scruffy general store also garage
wornout fridges at roadside where used to be
old milkcans for meat and mail; after,
that place where the post office was and the school
then, and then where the school before that was.
It’s all sheep now.
God, how many years of it
passing through, passing by. I was transported,
have driven, drive. Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.
Smithyman's rejections of naive realism and literary nationalism did not imply an acceptance of the postmodernism which became suddenly fashionable amongst his students in the 1980s. Smithyman's obsession with New Zealand landscape and history, and his proud identification of himself as a 'provincial' flew in the face of the rather self-conscious cosmopolitanism of many of the postmodernists. The impatience that some postmodernists felt toward Smithyman's provincialism was expressed by John Geraets, who complained to me that Smithyman's poems were so full of local reference that they could not be easily 'exported' to readers in other cultures. Geraets felt that most New Zealanders, let alone French or Americans, would struggle to understand much of Atua Wera, Smithyman's epic poem about the Hokianga prophet Papahurihia, without either travelling to Northland or doing a great deal of reading in the history of the region. (To his credit, John was prepared to make that sort of effort - he wrote a Masters thesis on Smithyman which he honed into an influential essay for Landfall.)
I think that what John Geraets saw as a weakness in Smithyman's poetry is in fact a strength. Now that the high waters of postmodernism have receded, we can see that the phenomenon produced a large amount of writing and visual art which seems altogether disposable. Without the elan of intellectual fashion to ride on, an installation by Merylyn Tweedie or a poem by Leigh Davis seems an insubstantial thing, an accumulation of whims that is as pretentious as it is arbitrary.
For all the overheated language of its manifestoes, postmodernism was coopted extraordinarily easily by commerce, and its susceptibility has to be related to the traits it shared with the neo-liberal economic, social, and political thinking that was so in vogue in the '80s and '90s. Just as many postmodernist artists wanted to produce a highly mobile, international work stripped of references to the 'local and special' and roots in communities, so neo-liberal economists and politicians talked of making 'capital mobile' and 'pulling down the walls' - protected markets, nationalised assets, welfare systems - that protected communities from international market forces.
It is perhaps not surprising that Leigh Davis, the shrillest New Zealand advocate of postmodernist literature, became a Treasury economist and then an investment banker after leaving university. As a senior executive at the Fay Richwhite company, Davis helped to gut the New Zealand railways system, which had been sold to his employers for a pittance by the neo-liberal Lange-Douglas government. By the time Fay Richwhite had chewed up the railways, thousands of New Zealanders had lost their jobs, and whole towns had been closed down.
As a critic and poet, Davis advocated and created fragmentary texts, made up of units of reference ripped from any recognisable historical and social context. Words were mere counters, to be moved about in complex games. As a member of Treasury and a suit at Fay Richwhite, Davis treated human beings as mere economic counters, to be shunted this and way and that - or, worse, cast onto the scrapheap - according to the rigorous but irrational prescriptions of neo-liberal ideology.
Smithyman was not a particularly political man - he had what he called a 'love affair' with Marx and Lenin in his twenties, but his passion for any sort of direct political engagement soon cooled. Nevertheless, his poems can be treated as acts of resistance against the cultural logic of capitalism in the era of globalisation. If postmodernists were, to use the priceless phrase of Alex Callinicos, the 'intellectual shock troops of neo-liberalism', then Smithyman can be counted as one of the intellectual defenders of the landscapes and histories that neo-liberalism would like to deny and desecrate. Smithyman's poems stress the value of the natural world and the human community, and the right of both to persist on their own terms:
A blackback perched
on the old beerhouse macrocarpa
examines us, opposed to our business,
objecting to our reasons and whatever motives
have people shoot off some film to flash
his domain as so many black and white
If people are suspicious of you
don't be surprised or offended.
Try not to give offence.
They have been offended against
for several generations. They have good
reasons for being suspicious.
If you talk of the dead, be tactful.
The dead are emphatic presence.
They are there in visible ground of being,
they are there, caved in the hills.
They have nothing to do with you,
they may say.
Cave robbing, grave spoiling,
these are (remember) unhappy facts
remembered. If you are asked "What do you
expect to get out of this? Why are
you doing this?" answer as honestly
as you can, remembering
in turn, not one family or clan here
has not had experience of dealing
with men who swore they were honest.
The dense web of local references, unique syntax, and eccentric lexicons of Smithyman's poems means that they embody the resistance to 'black and white images' that their author urges.
What can we say, then, about 'Deconstructing'? Is it really a cliched description of rural New Zealand, adorned with a pretentious and misleading title? I think that the poem's title is essential to its meaning. 'Deconstructing' can be read a poem which turns the tables on fashionable postmodernists by taking the unfashionable Heraclitus and the equally unfashionable countryside near Dargaville and using them to deliver a lecture on the fluid nature of reality. It is not necessary, the poet seems to be implying, for us to make fools of ourselves by chasing hopelessly after an intellectual bandwagon from America or Europe - if we look hard around us, and if we look hard at the past, then we can find enough complexity and flux to keep ourselves very busy indeed. Smithyman seems to offer a similar lesson in one of his most famous poems, 'Reading the Maps an Academic Exercise':
Carry on to the Head. You cross
the old tramway which used to go up to
the Harbour, remains of the one time main road
to gumfields (south of the river and this next
river) out from the edge of the Forest. It went on
down the coast, then climbed inland on the line
Of a Maori trail. Of course, the map doesn’t
say anything about that. Maps can
tell you about what is supposedly present.
They know little about what’s past and only
so much about outcomes. They work within
tacit limits. They’re not good at predicting.
If everything is anywhere in flux
Perhaps we may not read the same map twice. In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman alludes again to Heraclitus’s claim that ‘one does not step twice into the same river’, as he considers the natural and human changes that a creek in rural Northland moves through, as it flows toward the sea, and the constantly-changing way that we view the creek. Smithyman warns that what seems well-known – the Kiwi countryside, a Greek philosopher dead thousands of years – can contain all types of surprises:
Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.
The seeing part, and saying part...
Heraclitus was only talking about rivers,
or about when a shallow creek running over stone
begins to think that it’s a river.
In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman shows that one need not reject an engagement with community and history to object to the strictures of naive realism and nationalist literature. A poet can be provincial and yet highly sophisticated. Perhaps 'Deconstructing', and Smithyman's poetry in general, is that rare thing - the manifesto of a movement which has not yet been born.