In search of Smithyland
I can only excuse my derilection of duty by explaining that I have been charging about the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui over the past week, researching my forthcoming book on Kendrick Smithyman with a slightly desperate glee. I've just dug up the precis sketch of the book which I used in a vain attempt to get Creative New Zealand funding last year, and I'm bemused to realise that the plan I had then bears very little relation to the work which is taking shape now. I'll post it here anyway, as a sort of historical document. I apologise in advance for the slightly creepy way in which I refer to myself in the third person throughout the text.
The good news I have is that plans for a conference on Smithyman and the myriad issues that his life and work raise are progressing nicely. The University of Auckland's Holloway Press and Titus Books have agreed to co-sponsor the event, which is being scheduled for late October, and which will coincide with the publication of Smithyland and - fingers crossed - one or two other books devoted to the great man. I'll have more details later this week, but I am already in a position to promise a bus tour of Smithyman's favourite parts of Auckland followed by a booze-up at one of his several watering holes.
Kendrick Smithyman was one of New Zealand’s most prolific and critically acclaimed poets. During his lifetime he published a dozen volumes of verse, the only book-length study of New Zealand poetry, and a stream of book reviews and essays. Since Smithyman’s death in 1995 his oeuvre has continued to grow, as volumes of previously unpublished poems have appeared. Smithyman continues to attract commentators: the University of Auckland’s English Department has in recent years devoted a Masters paper to his work, and in 2004 the literary journal brief produced a special issue about him.
Yet interest in Kendrick Smithyman’s writing remains confined to a relatively small circle of readers. Smithyman is popular with other poets and with scholars of literature, but he has never achieved the renown amongst the general public that some other Kiwi poets – his contemporaries James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare, for instance – enjoy. Smithyman has often been viewed as a ‘difficult’ or ‘academic’ writer. This view is regrettable, because Smithyman was a man who had a great deal to say to his fellow Kiwis.
From the beginning until the end of his career, Smithyman was preoccupied with New Zealand, and with the challenges of being an intellectual and a poet in New Zealand. Smithyman’s poems are suffused with the scenery, history, and speech of his homeland. If the language of Smithyman’s poems is sometimes difficult, this is only because the society he is dealing with is complex, and he wishes to do justice to this complexity. The poems Smithyman left behind are carefully crafted, multi-faceted portraits of New Zealand’s past, present, and possible futures. They should be seen as part of the cultural inheritance of every Kiwi.
Smithyland is an attempt to bring Kendrick Smithyman’s poetry to a wider audience by showing its broad relevance to New Zealanders. Scott Hamilton has selected a dozen different Smithyman poems set in a dozen different parts of the North Island. He proposes to travel to the location of each poem and uncover the meaning that the poem and the place hold today. He will range widely, from the Hokianga in the north to the Ureweras in the east to the Manawatu in the south. Hamilton will prepare for his journey through Smithyland by excavating the vast collection of Smithyman papers held in the archives of the University of Auckland library, and by interviewing people – old friends, family, and colleagues - who knew the poet well.
Although it will be well-researched and will feature careful readings of Smithyman’s poems, Smithyland will not be a conventional work of academic scholarship or literary criticism. Hamilton proposes to bring Smithyman’s poems out of the literary salon and the academy by discussing them with the people he encounters on his journey through Smithyland. Using his many contacts, he proposes to talk to local historians, kaumatua, conservation workers, organic gardeners, members of military re-enactment societies, revolutionary socialists, nudists, and freezing workers about their responses to Smithyman’s portraits of the places where they live. Smithyland will include many excerpts from Smithyman’s writing, as well as some of the thousands of photographs the poet took on his journeys around the North Island.
About the Twelve Poems Selected for Smithyland
‘Walk Past Those Houses on a Sunday Morning’ (1943-45)
Smithyman wrote this poem at the beginning of his career, and it is suffused with optimism. He sees the brand-new suburb of Point Chevalier, with its working class families living in state houses built by the first Labour government, as a metaphor for the new world which is being constructed in the ruins of war. Smithyman regards his own poem as part of the great construction job. It will all ‘take shape in the end’, he assures his readers.
Six decades later, does Smithyman’s optimism seem warranted? Hamilton will try to answer this question by exploring Point Chevalier, which was once dominated by working class families like Smithyman’s but is now increasingly gentrified. He will visit the old Smithyman family home and the houses where Smithyman’s childhood friend Sir Keith Sinclair lived, locate the sites named in ‘Walk Past Those Houses on a Sunday Morning’, and talk to the suburb’s long-time inhabitants as well as the new upmarket buyers struggling to cover their mortgages in the wake of the global economic crisis.
‘Vignettes of the Maori Wars: Mangatawhiri Stream’ (1958)
The Mangatwhiri Stream, which flows into the Waikato River near the small town of Mercer, was chosen by the leaders of the Waikato Kingdom as the ‘aukati’ or border of their nation. When thousands of British and colonial troops poured across the Mangatawhiri on July 12, 1863, they began the bloodiest chapter of the New Zealand Wars. Smithyman’s poem meditates on the role that history and fate forced upon a stream which ‘merely wished to ride unnoticed’. He links the Mangatawhiri to General Cameron, the leader of the invading force, who was ‘getting on in years’ and ‘not up to/his job’. Cameron privately opposed the invasion, believing it was motivated by greed rather than justice. His view is today accepted by most historians.
Hamilton will visit the site where Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri, and ask what lessons the Waikato War holds for us today. He will meet people who trace their descent from both sides of the war, military history enthusiasts who like to restage the war’s battles, and historians and museum curators who are charged with the sensitive task of commemorating the events of 1863.
Smithyman spent most of his adult life living on Auckland’s North Shore, but his attitude to the place was ambivalent. He enjoyed being a part of the famous circle of North Shore writers that included Frank Sargeson, Maurice Dugan, and CK Stead, but he was uncomfortable with the steady urbanisation the area. In ‘Neighbourhoods’ he surveys the sprawl of suburbs that appeared on the Shore in the decades after the opening of the Auckland Harbour bridge in 1959, and unsurprisingly finds that they have ‘little sense’ of history.
Was Smithyman’s attitude to the Shore too negative? Other, later writers have developed a more affirmative approach to the area, finding the stuff of poetry in its shopping malls, its subdivisions, and its boy racers. Hamilton will wander the Shore, visiting the many sites mentioned in ‘Neighbourhoods’, and dropping in on important contemporary Shore writers.
By the late 1960s, when Smithyman came visiting, the far north of the Coromandel was becoming a place where urban Kiwis interested in Eastern religion, organic gardening, and communal living came to turn their theories into practice. Smithyman himself had a son who lived for a time in a commune near Colville, the small town on the west coast of the far north of the Coromandel. Long-time residents of the peninsula were often bewildered and sometimes angered by the arrival of outsiders, and Smithyman’s gothic poem shows how hostile they could be.
Hamilton will visit the Coromandel and investigate whether the utopias that idealistic young men and women tried to create decades ago were ever realised, and whether the hostility of the older population of the peninsula was ever overcome. He will visit Turkey Island near Colville, which was the place where the protagonist of Roger Donaldson’s hit film Sleeping Dogs attempted disastrously to create a private utopia, and ask whether the Coromandel can still be a place of refuge from some of the less pleasant features of the modern world.
Kendrick Smithyman’s first marriage to his fellow poet Mary Stanley was marred by the chronic illness which frequently incapacitated Stanley and ultimately led to her early death in 1980. Despite Stanley’s condition, the couple tried to live a normal life, and they often went on camping trips which allowed Kendrick to indulge his passion for the countryside and history of the North Island. ‘Idyll’ was written about a camping trip to a rugged part of the Manawatu, and it mixes beautiful evocations of the New Zealand bush with grim details about Stanley’s suffering. Hamilton will talk to people who knew both Smithyman and Stanley, visit some of the sites where they camped, and reflect on Smithyman’s attempt to use poetry to deal with the anguish Stanley’s condition caused him.
‘Demolition: Building the University’ (1972)
From the mid-sixties until the late eighties Kendrick Smithyman taught in the English Department of the University of Auckland. The early seventies were a time of turmoil at the university, as students protested against war and apartheid, as well as issues closer to home, like the university’s refusal to run a crèche or build a marae, and the antiquated way it taught some subjects.
The demolition of several historic university buildings makes Smithyman meditate on the turbulence of the seventies, and on the strange historical parallels to his present situation as a figure of authority at an institution where authority is continually being challenged.
In the 1990s student protest was once again widespread at the university, as students rebelled against huge study fees, but today it is the institution’s staff who are in a rebellious mood, as they contest restructuring that threatens their conditions and pay. Hamilton will visit the university and talk to academics and student activists alike about what lessons Smithyman’s poem holds for them today. He will also explore the strange architectural landscape of the university, which is the result of more than a hundred years of piecemeal building and controversial demolition, and which perhaps provides a metaphor for the struggle between commerce and scholarship.
‘Mountain Stop’ (1983)
Smithyman was fascinated by the Maori prophet and guerrilla fighter Te Kooti, and wrote a number of poems about him. Hamilton will use these poems to trace the progress of the war Te Kooti fought against the government of New Zealand between 1868 and 1872. He will use Smithyman’s directions to get to Whareongaonga, the small bay south of Gisborne where Te Kooti landed with a group of followers in a boat he had stolen to escape from his unjust exile on the Chatham Islands. Hamilton’s journey will take him through the rugged hill country of the northern Hawkes Bay to Ruatahuna, the settlement in the heart of the Ureweras which is the setting for Smithyman’s poem ‘Mountain Stop’. Smithyman was aware of the anger that the Tuhoe people of the Ureweras feel against the Crown, as a result of the repeated invasions of their rohe during the war against Te Kooti, and his poem worries about the future of race relations in New Zealand.
Hamilton will reread ‘Mountain Stop’ in the light of the massive police raid on the Tuhoe territory in 2007, and talk to some of the people caught up in that raid about the ongoing legacy of the nineteenth century wars between Maori and the Crown.
Te Kooti is also an important character in ‘Hitching’, a poem Smithyman wrote about a journey down the Desert Road of the central North Island. After he picks up a hippy hitchhiker who looks a little like the great guerrilla fighter, Smithyman remembers that the wild horses which run about beside the road are descendants of the horses brought to the area by Te Kooti’s guerrillas. The poet’s mind begins to roam, and the 1970s become fused with the 1870s.
Hamilton will visit the Desert Road area, and explore its role as a repository of both Pakeha and Maori legends and tall tales. He will ask whether the region can be considered New Zealand’s equivalent of the Yorkshire Moors or America’s Death Valley – a wild, liminal place, which triggers the imaginations of its visitors.
‘Hole in the Ground’ (1971)
Smithyman was fascinated by archaeology, and several critics have called his poetry ‘archaeological’, on account of its layers of meaning and complex structures. In ‘Hole in the Ground’ Smithyman describes his adventures in a remote part of Northland, and his discovery of what seems to be an ancient site of human habitation. In language that is both poetic and analytical, he describes the signs that humans leave on the landscape, as well as the ‘gross bulk of silence’ and mystery that they also bequeath to their descendants. Hamilton will travel to the site of a University of Auckland archaeological investigation in Northland, and talk to participants in the adventure about the value of archaeology to our understanding of both the past and the present.
‘Waitomo’ (c. 1978-79)
Smithyman’s poem about the famous cave system in the King Country is both a wry account of the Kiwi tourist industry at work – 'for a dollar head/ whole nations file underground’, he writes – and an eerie evocation of a journey down a ‘verbless river’ to an underworld where silence and glow worms rule. Hamilton will visit the caves, which today cost many times what Smithyman paid to enter. He will ponder the evolution of the Kiwi tourist industry as well as the meaning of the many antipodean versions of the myth of an underworld.
By the 1980s postmodernism had reached New Zealand universities, and a new generation of students were challenging the orthodoxies of their teachers by making provocative claims about the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘constructed nature of reality’. Smithyman was no stranger to such ideas – he had been one of the first Kiwi intellectuals to read Heidegger and Wittgenstein, philosophers who challenged the traditional correspondence theory of truth, and he had long been fascinated by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who proclaimed that the world was continually in flux.
In this witty poem, Smithyman turns the tables on fashionable postmodernists by taking the ancient unfashionable Heraclitus and the equally unfashionable countryside near Dargaville and using them to deliver a lecture on the fluid nature of reality. Remembering Heraclitus’s claim that ‘one does not step twice into the same river’, Smithyman details the many natural and human changes that a creek in rural Northland goes through, as it flows toward the sea. In doing so, he shows that what seems well-known – the Kiwi countryside, a Greek philosopher dead thousands of years – can contain all types of surprises. Hamilton will visit the setting of ‘Deconstructing’, and ask what new changes have occurred since Smithyman wrote the poem.
‘Lone Kauri’ (c. 1992)
In his last years Smithyman was afflicted by cancer, but this did not stop him writing Atua Wera, a book-length series of poems set in the Hokianga region of Northland. Atua Wera is the story of the movement that grew around a mysterious nineteenth prophet known as Papahurihia, who fused elements of Christianity, traditional Maori belief, and anti-colonial politics into a system of ideas that competed with the Catholics, Anglicans, and Wesleyans for the souls of Hokianga Maori.
Smithyman was always a great divagator, and Atua Wera contains many asides, including this beautiful short poem about a tree growing in an isolated part of the Hokianga. Like the poet, the tree is old and in poor health, having been ‘lightning smitten’ and ‘gale struck’. Hamilton will travel through the Hokianga, visiting some of the many people who helped Smithyman in his research there, and discuss the poet’s courageous and industrious last years.
Note: all twelve of the pieces discussed in this proposal can be found at Smithyman's searchable online Collected Poems.