Thursday, June 17, 2010

Smithyman's premonition of Erebus

[I wrote this piece after being asked to submit something to Ka Mate Ka Ora, Aotearoa's very own online refereed journal of poetics, which is planning a special issue on the influence of America on New Zealand verse (it was Ka Mate Ka Ora that did humanity a favour back in 2008, when it published Kendrick Smithyman's superb wartime letters to his comrade Graham Perkins, along with a set of meticulous footnotes by Peter Simpson).

I'm posting the text I sent to Ka Mate Ka Ora here, sans a few of its more academic digressions, in the hope that it will draw attention to some of the extraordinary poetry that Smithyman chose to bury deep in the archive he gifted to the University of Auckland library. 'Aircrash in Antarctica' will appear in From the Private Bestiary, the collection of previously-unpublished Smithyman poems that Titus Books will be bringing out in October. I have the wonderful yet slightly frightening job of editing and annotating From the Private Bestiary, and I will be only too happy if I can get some help interpreting 'Aircrash in Antarctica' from readers of this blog.]

1. The commemorations and recriminations that marked the recent thirtieth anniversary of the Erebus crash showed that the disaster remains a painful subject for many New Zealanders. As James Brown observed, in ‘The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain’, large numbers of New Zealanders ‘can remember/exactly where they were’ on the night the news emerged that an Air New Zealand DC10 had failed to return from a sightseeing trip over the white continent. Brown’s poem is only one of a number of treatments of Erebus by Kiwi writers. Though these literary responses to the disaster vary in form and perspective, they share a tone of bewildered grief. In poems like Bill Manhire’s ‘Erebus Voices’ and in prose works like Chad Taylor’s fine novel Departure Lounge, Erebus is presented as an essentially ineffable event, hostile to interpretation and generalisation.

A similar sense of bewilderment seems evident in other responses to the tragedy of November 1979. The Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Peter Mahon collected thousands of pages of documents, and did not fail to apportion blame for the Erebus crash, and yet a sense of mystery which cannot be dissolved through the recitation of facts or the repetition of expressions of sorrow clings to the event. We seem to struggle to connect the extraordinary, unheralded event that was the Erebus disaster to the ordinary lives its victims had led, and to the ordinary, and fairly orderly, pattern of New Zealand life in the last quarter of the twentieth century. How, we perhaps want to ask, could a culture like ours have produced an event as strange and terrible as Erebus?

The sorrowful reticence with which New Zealand writers have responded to Erebus contrasts with an earlier cultural tradition of noisily celebrating, and in many cases glorifying, the dangers of Antarctic exploration and of flight. In New Zealand and in many other Western nations, both the sky and the white continent were once regarded as frontiers which needed to ‘opened’ by risk-taking adventurers. When polar explorers and pioneer aviators survived their adventures, they were hailed as heroes; when they expired, they became martyrs. Martyrs often seemed to receive even more adulation than living heroes. Although Ernest Shackleton was celebrated when he brought a party of explorers back from a near-disastrous expedition to Antarctica in 1917, the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades on the white continent in 1912 had caused a much greater outpouring of acclamation across the British Empire. The tragic fate of Ameila Earhart, whose flimsy plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, prompted a similar wave of adulation. The uncomplicated response to the deaths of people like Scott and Earhart contrasts with the sad bewilderment which is such a feature of our response to the Erebus disaster. It is not difficult to guess the reason for the different ways the early and later victims of Antarctica have been perceived. A century ago, when Scott unloaded his Manchurian ponies on the shore of the Ross Sea and when the first attempt at flight over Antarctica ended in a crash, the sky and the white continent were zones which only the most resilient adventurers could enter. Aviators and polar explorers struggled to survive in environments that had not yet been subdued by human technology.

In the era that sociologists like to call ‘late modernity’, by contrast, the environments in which air travellers and most visitors to Antarctica spend their time are carefully controlled, and so comfortable as to be almost sterile. The Erebus victims didn’t perish after trekking into a snowstorm or flying a small plane into a headwind; they flew to their deaths in a pressurised, air conditioned tube, sipping wine and nibbling biscuits. They died together, not individually, and they had no control over, and - in all likelihood - no knowledge of their imminent fate. The tub-thumping rhetoric lavished on the likes of Scott and Earhart is clearly ill-suited to the men and women who boarded flight TE901. Is it any wonder we struggle to find ways of understanding, and properly honouring, the dead taken by Erebus?

2. The era of late modernity has also been the era of the United States. The key features of late modernity – mass consumerism, the growth of the service sector of the economy and of tourism, and a popular culture that cuts across class lines - emerged in America, and were exported from America to the rest of the West in the decades after World War Two, as Washington usurped Paris and London as the world’s pre-eminent imperialist power.

1942 was the year in which the United States began to supersede Britain as the main political and cultural influence on New Zealand. After the British Empire had been unable to provide for the defence of New Zealand from a possible Japanese invasion, thousands of American troops began to arrive in the North Island in June 1942. The vast camps the Americans established in places like the Kapiti Coast and Franklin became springboards for the reconquest of the Pacific from Japan.

The arrival of the Americans reassured the many Kiwis who had been nervous about the prospect of a Japanese attack, but the newcomers soon became resented in some quarters for their apparent wealth, their lack of regard for the British customs and traditions that many Pakeha still held dear, and their popularity amongst local women. The American servicemen were often seen as the advance guard of a newly powerful but nevertheless crass and immature civilisation. In 1942 and 1943 the American ‘invaders’ were involved in a series of violent confrontations with Kiwi servicemen and civilians. Although the vast majority of America servicemen had left New Zealand by 1945, the influence of Washington over New Zealand only increased in the years after World War Two. The American policy of confrontation with communism was endorsed by the Labour government led by Peter Fraser, which sent Kiwi troops to fight in Korea and launched a campaign against the hard left’s ‘infiltration’ of the trade unions. The National government that replaced Labour was widely seen to be acting on American advice when it used soldiers and emergency legislation to defeat the militant section of the trade union movement during the lengthy and bitter Waterfront Lockout of 1951. Dick Scott’s famous account of the lockout in his book 151 Days is notable for its use of the critiques of American foreign policy and American popular culture which had developed on New Zealand’s hard left and amongst some of its intelligentsia in the years since 1942. Scott’s book complains of a ‘Yankee invasion’, presents National Prime Minister Sid Holland as a stooge of America, and finds time to warn about the evil effects of American comics on Kiwi children.

Kendrick Smithyman had first-hand experience of the American ‘invasion’ of New Zealand. Called up to the army in the middle of 1941, he joined the air force the following year, and spent most of the war in a series of bases and camps up and down the North and South Islands, performing menial administrative duties. Smithyman served at Ardmore and Whenuapai air bases, on the southern and western fringes of Auckland, at a time when they were hosting large numbers of American pilots. In his wartime letters Smithyman often complains about the ennui of his life as a military pen-pusher, and sometimes expresses his envy of the glamorous American marines and pilots who were pouring into New Zealand. In a letter written from Auckland in May 1944, for instance, Smithyman complains about the ‘bloody fool (or wisely commercial?) attitude of the girls’ who perceive each American serviceman as ‘a strangely transmuted Adonis bearing gifts’.

Smithyman was also able to observe the increasing influence of the US on New Zealand society in the post-war years, and the critiques of this influence which began to appear on the left. Smithyman’s familiarity with and interest in the politics of the far left – his father had been a member of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in the turbulent years before World War One, and remained a socialist until the end of his life, and Kendrick admitted conducting a ‘love affair with Marxism’ in the forties – and his friendships with left-wing intellectuals like Greville Texidor and RAK Mason, who were hostile to American foreign policy and popular culture, meant that he would have been well aware that the increasing influence of America over New Zealand in the post-war era was not universally appreciated.

3. Flight was a subject that fascinated Smithyman throughout his career. He wrote poems about aviators, about birds, about aerodromes and modern airports and aircraft carriers, and even about space exploration. Over the course of his career, though, Smithyman treated the subject of flight in quite different ways. In his early work, especially, Smithyman often treats flight as a metaphor for freedom and rebellion. In some of his poems – the critics' favourite ‘Waikato Railstop’, which complains about the way a conservative town will not give an aviator ‘license to go soaring’, for example, or ‘Lament for a North Island Land Association’, which celebrates Leila Adair, the fin de siècle ‘queen of the air’ who defied death and social convention with a series of chaotic ascents over small North Island towns – explorers of the air stand as implicit rebukes to a rulebound earthbound world. In Smithyman’s melancholy 1947 lyric ‘Icarus’, the tragedy of the legendary aviator is regarded as a ‘small matter’ by stolid earth-dwellers. If flight is a form of self-expression and escape in some of Smithyman’s poems, it is in others a source of anxiety and a threat to identity. In ‘Flying to Palmerston’, one of Smithyman’s best-known works, the poet downs pills ‘to keep away/a certain condition’, and fears losing his sense of self on the commercial flight he is about to catch:

Twelve forty-two. A bus is at the door.
No longer a person. You are now
in flight. A flight.


In his excellent commentary on ‘Flying to Palmerston’, Ian Richards notes that Smithyman seems to perceive the rituals of commercial air flight as exercises in dehumanisation. Discussing Smithyman’s 1981 poem ‘Travelling’, which focuses on the way calorie intake, sleep, and other bodily needs are managed on board a large commercial aircraft, Richards observes that ‘the poet is disheartened...at being reduced by the miracles of technology to the ‘plane’ of a merely animal existence’. For Smithyman, the difference between Leila Adair’s erratic ascents by primitive balloon and a DC10 long haul flight is the difference between the heroic individual confrontation with a frontier and the mass use of a resource. In the era of late modernity, the romance of early flight is replaced by something both mundane and strangely sinister. [click on the pages to enlarge them]
4. Smithyman appears to have written ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ on the 23rd of October 1958, a week after an American transport plant called the C 124 – or, more colloquially, the Globemaster – crashed into the Admiralty Mountains in the Victoria Land region of Antarctica on its way to drop off mail and timber at the newly-established Hallet Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. The crash, which claimed six lives and was attributed to poor weather conditions and pilot error, was only the latest in a series of tragedies that had marred Operation Deep Freeze, a campaign by the United States and New Zealand to establish viable research stations and air fields in Antarctica. Motivated by America’s desire to extend its influence to the bottom of the world, and made possible by the relative proximity of the South Island to Antarctica, Operation Deep Freeze had been launched in 1955, when the construction of the McMurdo and Scott bases began. Despite half a dozen fatal accidents, both bases opened the following year, and began to receive regular supply flights from South Island airports. Hallet base was created a year later. At the beginning of 1958 Operation Deep Freeze made headlines around the world, as a team of Kiwis led by Sir Edmund Hillary travelled from Scott base to the South Pole on specially-modified tractors. Hillary’s feat was applauded by the New Zealand public, but it incensed the Americans at McMurdo base, who had not authorised it.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is addressed to the Americans killed in the Admiralty Mountains. Smithyman acknowledges the ambition and technological sophistication of Operation Deep Freeze, and notes the success that glamorous American servicemen enjoyed with New Zealand women. But in a place like Antarctica, where ‘skill is/otherwise valued’, glamour, ambition, and sophistication count for little. Operation Deep Freeze is, Smithyman thinks, bound to suffer the sort of ‘rabid violence’ that is preserved in the ‘earliest stories’ of ‘brown or white/sailors or settlers’ who reached New Zealand centuries ago. Like the Polynesians and the British before them, the Americans will learn that the ‘wind-wracked’ region dominated by the southern ocean cannot be ‘calculated’ and controlled. The air strips and heated bunk rooms of McMurdo and Scott bases are not evidence of the subordination of Antarctica; instead, they represent the beginning of the latest chapter of a history that is given its ‘nuance’ by violence.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ might seem, on first or even second reading, like a simple warning against the folly of human vanity in the face of the indifference of nature and time, an antipodean echo of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. But Smithyman’s critique of American self-confidence is more complicated than the standard romantic critique of human hubris in the face of the inhuman. Smithyman does not regard the violent deaths of explorers and settlers as the avoidable consequence of arrogance, but as a necessary part of history. Just as the inevitability of death gives shape and meaning to human lives, so tragic confrontations with frontiers and with the rages of nature give shape and meaning to the history of our species. Neither self-assurance nor self-abasement can avert the inevitable:

Not confidence, less humility
nor severest calculation
fends off.


For Smithyman the sin of the American mission in Antarctica, and of the American Empire in general, lies in a refusal to acknowledge limitations. Ignoring the pattern of human history, the self-confident new civilisation believes it can use technology and ‘severest calculation’ to subordinate and sterilise the territories it claims. The Americans are hubristic not because they have the ‘verve’ to make ‘icefall’ at the bottom of the Pacific, but because they believe they can do so without paying a price – without, to use Smithyman’s term, being ‘blooded’. By failing to recognise the limits of their control over their environment, the Americans only ensure that the tragedies they suffer will be more frequent and more severe.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is written in the ‘syllabic’ form that Kendrick Smithyman gave to a number of his poems in the late 1950s. In an essay on the life and work of his old friend, CK Stead explained Smithyman’s choice of form:

One kind of experiment [Smithyman tried]...was to make a quite arbitrary syllabic count – a pattern of so many syllables for the first line, so many for the second, and so on, and then repeat it, as nearly as possible without variation, throughout however many stanzas the poem contained. This was so demanding, and took so much attention, it was hardly possible for the lines to slip unnoticed into the iambic ‘tune’. Smithyman’s experiments in these forms were typically extreme, and typically undeclarative. He set himself the most extravagant technical obstacles...

The poem Smithyman dated 'October 23rd, 1958' consists of six stanzas of eight lines each, plus a two-line conclusion. Where some of Smithyman’s syllabic poems are, as Stead notes, very regularly patterned, ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ seems a good deal looser. The first and last lines of every stanza are always two and eight syllables long respectively, but the others often vary. The third line of each stanza, for instance, may be either eleven, twelve, or fourteen syllables long.

Despite the relative moderation with which it is used, the syllabic form of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ often interferes with the rhythm and meaning of Smithyman’s sentences and phrases. Sudden line breaks dictated by the syllabic form sunder verbs from their objects, and adjectives from the nouns they qualify. That strange abstract noun ‘nothing’, which so fascinated King Lear, is repeatedly isolated at the beginning of stanzas, so that it acquires an incantatory effect. The syllabic rules which govern the shape of the poem’s lines struggle against the rhythms and meanings of Smithyman’s sentences. The syllabic form is itself disrupted, as lines sag or surge unpredictably. The form of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ suggests a violent, only partially successful attempt to impose an artificial order on something complex and turbulent.

5. What is perhaps most remarkable about ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is the equanimity with which the poet discusses both the misfortunes of Operation Deep Freeze and the larger topic of American expansionism. Smithyman is unimpressed by the ‘ambitious sense of duty’ shown by the ascendant American empire, but his poem lacks the white-hot rhetoric and political partisanship of texts like 151 Days, or RAK Mason’s famous ‘Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes’.

Smithyman observes the world’s newest superpower not with admiration or anger, but with a distant, almost Olympian pity. Unlike Scott, Mason, and other left-wing anti-imperialists, Smithyman does not imagine that some rival force - the international working class, or the Soviet Union, or Red China - can constrain or even defeat American imperialism. Smithyman’s cool tone and historical perspective mock not only the self-importance of America but the heat and urgency of the opponents of American imperialism. We can only explain the peculiar perspective and tone of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ if we understand the worldview and literary modus operandi Smithyman had settled on by the time he wrote the poem. As a young man, Smithyman had been distressed and radicalised by the Great Depression and by the World War which grew out of the Depression. In a wartime letter to his friend Graham Perkins he complained that:

We have seen virtually all things shattered. We are, those of us who think, sophists by birth and confirmed in the habit of doubt. What values can we take as permanent? Precious few out of our way of life...I see little remedy or hope in anything, though I turn more and more to Communist philosophy as a chance.

Although he abandoned any belief in ‘Communist philosophy’, the post-war Smithyman retained a sense of dismay at the state of the modern world. He also felt a sense of estrangement from his fellow New Zealanders, as he struggled to make a career for himself as a poet and an intellectual in a nation that seemed to have little time for ideas, and even less for the arts. The Stalinised hard left which presented itself as an alternative to post-war New Zealand society seemed, to Smithyman at least, just as intolerant as the Tories, with its demands that writers and artists ‘serve’ the working class and tow the ‘party line’.

Smithyman’s gloomy view of the modern world led him to pay attention to two radical critics of modernity, the American poet and essayist Allen Tate and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. From Tate Smithyman took the concept of regionalism, which became crucial to his practice as a poet and to the view of New Zealand literature and society he put forward in his 1965 book A Way of Saying. In his 1945 essay ‘The New Provincialism’ Tate argued that in the modern era the West had lost touch with its history and its cultural traditions, and had therefore become ‘provincial’. The ‘provincial man’ was arrogant, Tate said, because he believed that nobody had had his experiences before. In opposition to the shallow, ahistorical ‘world provincialism’ that had taken over the great cultural centres of the West, Tate argued that writers should base themselves in a region and seek to understand that region in terms, not of contemporary fashions, but of humanity's rich and diverse cultural history. Regionalist literature would be limited by space, but not by time. Allen Tate practiced what he preached, by residing in and writing about America’s unfashionable south, whose agrarian way of life he contrasted favourably with the ‘Yankee capitalism’ of the modern, industrialised north. Martin Heidegger was also a regionalist, in the sense that he chose live almost his whole life in the Black Forest region of Germany, whose landscape and values he compared favourably with those of more populous and glamorous parts of Europe. Heidegger disliked the modern world partly because he felt that it insulated its inhabitants from confrontation with the essential nature of their lives. He believed that modern Western city-dwellers, with their comfortable homes and access to diversions like movies and television, were able to avoid thinking about the inevitability of their deaths. This avoidance of the essential fact about human existence led to an arrogance towards nature, and a forgetfulness of history, on the part not just of individuals but of entire cultures. Smithyman appears to have been one of Heidegger’s first and most enthusiastic New Zealand readers.

The influence of the regionalist thinking of Tate and Heidegger can easily be discerned in ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’. Smithyman’s coolness toward American power and culture reflects his hostility to what Tate called ‘world provincialism’. His recognition of the inevitability of tragedy to history reflects his understanding of Heidegger. His insistence on seeing the drama of the present through the prism of the past shows his determination to make history present in his poems, in defiance of the anti-historical bias of the modern age.

For the many New Zealanders touched in one way or another by the Erebus disaster, Smithyman’s prediction that the Americans who crashed in the Admiralty Mountains on October the 16th, 1958 ‘surely/will not be the last’ would ring sadly true. The absurdity of Air New Zealand's scenic flights to Antarctica, with their pretence that the wildest place in the world could be reduced safely to a spectacle to be consumed along with wine and biscuits in the pressurised tube of a long-haul passenger jet, can perhaps be considered a consequence of the sort of disastrous over-confidence that Smithyman criticises so powerfully in ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’.

41 Comments:

Blogger Lewis said...

Err... it was a DC10, not a 747

11:03 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks. I get them muddled up. My knowledge of both planes and birds is terrible. I've had to start making a glossary to remember all the mysterious names in Smithyman's poems - corsairs, nankeen kestrels, tiger moths, and so on.

11:18 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I've corrected a few more blunders this morning - putting something up on the internet encourages a bit of proof-reading...

10:20 am  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

All roads lead to Heidegger - I still haven't read him myself, but so many of the poets/philosophers I have read in the course of my research over the past 18 months (eg Holderlin, José Ortega y Gasset, María Zambrano) seem to point in his direction...One of these days hopefully I will have time to plough into 'Being and Time'!

1:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

smithyman...maps...tim bowron...all running away from the clear light of socialism!

oh well. there have always been people who can't stand the class struggle.

2:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THE VUVUZELA, the plastic horn that has dominated the 2010 World Cup, is Africa’s revenge on the West, a South African theologian says.

The president of the South African Council of Churches, Dr Tinyiko Maluleke, interviewed by ENI in Edinburgh last week, praised the vuvuzela for the volume of noise it makes. Dr Maluleke described the one-note instrument as a “missile-shaped weapon”, which forced the world to wake up and acknowledge Africa’s past sufferings.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Sun on Wednesday: “The vuvuzela is part of our culture. We cannot separate them from the soccer fever.”

By the middle of this week, the website banvuvuzela.com had attracted 84,000 votes to ban the instrument, and 9000 votes in its favour. The BBC has received more than 500 complaints about the background noise on its broadcasts. There are also fears about hearing-loss among fans; and football man­agers say that they can­not commun­icate with players on the field.

But Dr Makulele said: “In the 19th century, white missionaries sided with colonials and gave blacks the Bible, while they took the land. Now, we have created the vuvuzela, which is one of the most obnoxious in­struments: very noisy, very annoy­ing. It will dominate the FIFA World Cup. I see the vuvuzela as a symbol, as a symbol of Africa’s cry for acknowledgement. . .

“We see it when Africans are em­barrassed to be African in their own vernacular language, to relate to their culture positively: the schizo­phrenic relationship that Africans have to their traditions, their cul­ture, and their religions.”

A South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, has reported that the vuvuzela is commonly used in church services in neighbouring Bots­wana. One Botswana church­goer, Jacqueline Chireshe, explained: “The vuvuzela is a biblical instru­ment; it is a trumpet, and God expects us to blow the trumpet in offering praise to him.”

Last year, members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, founded in 1910, unsuccessfully argued that they owned the copyright on the instrument, which was used on an annual pilgrimage to a mountain in KwaZulu-Natal which they consider to be holy.

5:40 pm  
Anonymous officially anonymous said...

Were there really 'violent confrontations' with the American 'invaders'? Didn't the so-called 'Battle of Manners St' turn out to be largely a nationalist myth?

And would be useful to know why Smithy chose to leave this poem in the can. It doesn't compare badly with some of those who chose to publish. Or was it rejected by some editor?

8:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cold place. Cold poem.

8:44 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

@Anon 2.38pm, in the context of NZ in 2010 exactly what class struggle would that be?

It's hard to run away from something that isn't actually there...

9:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" Fatal Paradox said...

All roads lead to Heidegger - I still haven't read him myself, but so many of the poets/philosophers I have read in the course of my research over the past 18 months (eg Holderlin, José Ortega y Gasset, María Zambrano) seem to point in his direction...One of these days hopefully I will have time to plough into 'Being and Time'!"

I just started reading it.It's not too hard. It is long though. I think will need to own a copy though. You can get his selected writings which really ive you quite a good insight into what he wrote and there are books about his philosophy.

B&T came out in 1927 and there was a huge interest in it world wide - even in the US and here. The edition I have must have been the kind of thing that fascinated Smithyman - with all the accounts and explications of his usages from the German - he also more or less made up words. Sometimes he is deliberately ambiguous - he puts Being and Dasein (really beings such as ourselves whereas Being is all things ...) virtually outside the normal tautological loops - so he simply states Being to be unique, something interested in its own Being!!...but one of his first comments is that Being is the most important task of philosophy (Plato etc had not so much failed as there efforts are to be revived by Heiedgger...but I'm not far into the book and it is-while not as difficult as Kant - rather difficult...in some ways I see him as a poet-philosopher like Nietzshe.*

I have a complete works of Holderlin. I also love Trakl. Heidegger was fascinated by the power of Art and poetry to work change. I cant read Gasset though, or even Neruda (although I see his greatness)...

He had the passion of a Balzac - I'm reading him also just now.

Smithyman was cunning bastard.


* But this is all very "potted".

12:55 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I vividly recall exactly what I was doing when I heard over the radio that the DC or Boeing - whatever - was overdue. I knew that everyone was gone. It was chilling experience, transfixing.

I even recall the look my wife and I exchanged as we heard the news - I said:

"They're fucked."

1:01 am  
Blogger dave said...

Apparently Being and Time was an reply to Lukacs History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs himself later rejected his early 20's adherence to an historical determinism that left the individual out of the picture. But Herr H response like the other phenomenologists retreated from a somewhat deterministic history into an wholly indeterminate essence like they were early pomos. It was this mysticism that lent itself to Fascist mythology.
I imagine that Smithy didnt want a bar of Stalinist inevitiability and preferred the freedom of the academic to fossick around in detritus of history avoiding grand abstractions that might lead to the Gulag of the red tide.
Shame Smithy never read Gramsci, after all he was out in English in the late 60s not long after the phenomological fad of the 50s and 60s. Altogether more grounded and regional even. Might have changed his life.

1:50 am  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

@Richard, have just got Heidegger's 'Pathmarks' out of the library, as the essays on the poetry of Holderlin and aesthetics in general will I think me helpful in developing my thesis (the relationship between Romanticism and the Avant-Garde, as viewed through the work of Vicente Huidobro)...sadly my reading list is already too long to justify including 'Being and Time', but when I have this thesis finished in 9 months time I will definitely make the time for it

2:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I read an interview with Smithyman where he basically said that Marxism was nonsense, too simplistic I think was the effect of what he said.

I think he was fascinated both by Heidegger's regionalism and the kind of folk-Nature implications (which don't NECESSARILY lead to fascism - but I think many such as Smithyman would have been deeply interested by Schopenhauer.) and by the almost religious-poetic philosophy of H. And the words, the strangeness of the German and the Ideas of Being and Dasein and all the stuff which intrigues me also...not that it is of much use to anyone... I find it comforting like an interesting poem but I think H's pessimism about the modern world was overdone so I will contradict myself again and say that overall there is some hope ... Philosophy is too difficult for me so I use it as a kind of mantric poetry! ["mantric"?]

I don't see Smithyman (in his ideas -in his own life he was very "committed" to people I think) as in any way humanist still less a humanitarian of interested in "progress". Once I was with Scott and the latter said aloud as if to himself "I wonder if Smithyman cared about people?" Now there is not much answer to that within his "official writing or his writing per se...but clearly he is more complex than say a simplistic Nazi or whatever.

He rightly saw the world as did Spinoza - sub speciae aeternitatis. (Nor does postmodernism or even The (various) Enlightenments NECESSARILY lead to fascism - any thing can lead to that - Romanticism for example - but that doesn't have to lead that way.

I'm afraid Marxist and other dreamers have it all wrong - there is nothing guaranteed about human goodness or "progress" ... that said we should perhaps not 'give in' just yet (these is also something transcendent about the struggle for progress even if it cant or doesn't seem to be able to be achieved), and Smithyman I think was overall positive enough -but he felt that darkness and richness of nature and the ultimate futility of human existence.

His poetry is complex and dark and appeals mainly to intellectuals, certainly not Marxists or Utopians. For he was an intellectual much as Heidegger was -I think there are similarities between the two men. Both dark geniuses, slightly mad, yet not mad. Interested in details. In facts (but the facts dissolve under imagination and intellect and ideas). Smithyman is more - a little more - grounded.

Maps is trying to fit Smithyman into a pre-conceived pattern - he just wont fit. He is right to be interested in him, as he was one of our most important and original intellects and one of the great poets - but he was too much of an individualist to fit into Marxism or anything such as that.

H was also interested in Eastern philosophy (such as Buddhism) I think. Rather fatalistic and gloomy stuff dreamed by the Oriental Devils!

4:14 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Maps is trying to fit Smithyman into a pre-conceived pattern'

What pattern is that?

6:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Fatal Paradox" Good. The only works by Heidegger I have read righ through is "Poetry, Language and Thought" (A mix of his later writings around art and Being etc. And his own "poetry".) I doubt if I will finish B&T.

I also studied Sartre and Foucault that year (1994) but we only read some of both these writers and rather than read Being and Nothingness we were urged to read "Nausea" (and some short stories) and for Camus "The Outsider". I did start of Kant but found him too hard going.

I certainly found Heidegger rather strange at the time. I liked the books by Camus and Sartre and Heidegger's writings about van Gogh and Trakl etc

Huidobro? I am not sure if I know his writings - did Bishop translate him? - I must have another look.

Sounds like an interesting thesis.

8:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - only you know that!

Maybe the idea that Smithyman had stronger interest in Marxism than you give him credit. I think he later rejected Marxism as nonsense.
So I think his engagement with Heidegger was his near-poetical way of writing and his deep interest in the way the concept of Being etc had been lost through translation from say Greek to Latin and thus Being had to be revived...this brings Smithyman back to work origins and the sheer excitement of word use coloured by the seeming extra German complexity and profundity (and indeed Pound went into this - he deepened his writings by including Greek, Chinese, Italian, French,Old French and so on) - and there is sense that all things have being which the poet-maker "uncovers". Ideas, almost religious, or at least religious-Romantic,were what excited Smithyman I think.


(O.K. I was stirring a bit, just making sure you were on your critical toes.) (And there are other poets besides Smihtyman!)

8:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But Jack Ross is the man for all of this - he's read B&T and much else and knew Smithyman well and has a good handle on his poems.

Smithyman is certainly one of our few highly philosophic poets.
You couldn't compare his work to Ginsberg's naivety or the booming and bombastic of The Beats - he has a subtlety of touch and depth of thought they lack. Nor is he much like Ashbery - although he read so much it is hard to see all the influences.

I think it is overlooked though how much Smithyman and Curnow were very influenced by Dylan Thomas.

O.k. the long complex syllabic lines was also done by Marrianne Moore, but he would have been aware of Thomas's very exact art in that way and of course he would have known well the Metaphysical poets.

"Disney and the metaphysicals" (Pound, 'The Cantos' [ used by me in the IFP. ]


That early style was replaced and his later poems perhaps range more widely.

8:46 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Were there really 'violent confrontations' with the American 'invaders'? Didn't the so-called 'Battle of Manners St' turn out to be largely a nationalist myth?'

It has been mythologised, but it's not a myth. Here is a quote from the massive and fascinating official history of the Kiwi home front during World War Two produced by Nancy Taylor (Richard's granny?):

'although there were reports from Australia of brawls between Australian and United States servicemen,108 New Zealand censorship suppressed such local reports as subversive statements...

Presumably through an early censorship slip, the Press on 27 November 1942 revealed an Auckland coroner’s report that an American soldier, felled by an unknown Maori in a drunken street brawl on 15 October, died later of a fractured skull. On some other occasions reports of trials of civilians involved in such clashes might briefly mention ‘a disturbance’, ‘an affray’ or ‘a skirmish’ between New Zealanders and visiting servicemen. An article in a weekly paper during February 1943 was not repeated by other papers. This ‘Shots in Shortland Street’ stated that in the early hours of 10 February an altercation in Auckland between New Zealand and American servicemen over women flared into bottle throwing and ‘several scarcely playful bouts of fisticuffs’, subsided for a few moments while reinforcements were whistled up, then ‘according to an onlooker’ pistols were drawn and it appeared that two men were wounded though on which side was not clear.

The most celebrated incident of this sort was Wellington’s ‘Battle of Manners Street’ on Saturday 3 April 1943. It apparently began with a confrontation between Southern Marines and Maoris, a crowd gathered, largely from nearby Service clubs, and a general fracas developed. Reports were that several men had been killed and more sent to hospital...'
http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-1Hom-c14.html

Taylor goes on to discount reports of deaths, and she seems to be correct in doing so. But there certainly was a four hour brawl on Manners St on the 3rd of April 1943, and the full extent of violence involving Americans has perhaps yet to be revealed.

10:40 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

@Richard, Huidobro has not been much translated into English - there is a very good translation of his magnum opus 'Altazor' by Eliot Weinberger (published by Wesleyan), besides two (highly selective) anthologies of somewhat uneven quality. But a lot of his work still awaits a translator - strange when you consider that Huidobro always insisted that poetry should be written in such a way to make it as readily translatable as possible.

Indeed, throughout much of his career, Huidobro alternated in his writing between his native Spanish and French - so that multiple manuscripts exist of many of his poems (especially from the 1920s) in different languages - and it is often hard to determine which language the poem was first conceived in...

11:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

No - not by my granny. I have those two volumes for sale. There were indeed a number of incidents - probably more than we will know as censorship was imposed - it wasn't allowed for the newspapers to write about American troops in NZ.

There were quite a lot of fights between Maori soldiers and American and there were some deaths.

My father said that the US troops tended to get too drunk and drop broken bottles and because of such things the US Govt. got tougher on servicemen fighting and the MPs used to simply cosh them (N Taylor mentions this a bit). He also saw or heard a landlord beaten up who had been on the phone arguing with them a little before...

Overall they weren't very popular.

There is a book particularly about the American "invasion" of NZ - the parts I read were mainly about the many fights between the various US military departments of divisions here. But I sold it before finished it..

11:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Fatal Paradox - thanks. Weinberger is very good.

11:30 pm  
Anonymous impeach obama said...

You anti-American blowhards need to learn some respect. It was Uncle Sam who saved your asses in the big one. Your pisspot little joke of a country was meat for the Japs before we turned up and kicked some ass. So shut your dirty little mouths.

Oh and as for your 'poetry'...don't make me laugh. Modern art of all kinds is a fraud. Even my brother who was stupid enough to try to study it at UCLA eventually realised this!

So here's a tip: go and shove it up your ass!

1:09 am  
Blogger dave said...

Seems to be an uncritical acceptance of Heidegger as if his 'philsophy' represented some aspect of modern humanism.
Heres one of Lukacs' summations re H in 'The Destruction of Reason' :

"Heidegger and Jaspers carried the most extreme individualistic, petty-bourgeois-cum-aristocractic relativism and irrationalism to the farthest logical limits. The ended up with an ice age, a North Pole, a world become empty, a senseless chaos, a nought as man's environment, and a despair about oneself and one's inescapable loneliness as the inner content of their philosphy.
They thus provided an accurate picture of what was widely going on within the German intelligentsia at the end of the twenties and the start of the thirties. But they did not stop at description. Their account was at the same time interpretation: an exposition of the meaninglessness of any action in this world. The partisan attitude is manifest in the fact that they related the negative features of what they called the 'world' exclusively to democratic society. And that in the eve of the crisis and during it, was tantamount to a decisive parti pris. For it deepened the general mood of despondency among broad sections of the German bourgeoisie, above all, its intellectuals, side-tracked potential rebellious tendencies and thus afforded significant assistance, in a negative way, to aggressive reaction. If fascism could inculcate a more benevolent neutrality in broad sections of Germany's intelligentsia, this was due in no small measure to the philosphy of Heidegger and Jaspers... In this context it matters hardly at all how both of them personally responded to the Hitler movement...In the substance of their philosphy, both still paved the way for fascist irrationalism. (521-22)
I think that whatever Smithyman saw in Heidegger ultimately it reflects on his acceptance of an anti-Marxist pro-fascist philospher of irrationalism.

11:49 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'm not sure it's as simple as that, Dave. Ideas don't have a destiny - they don't overdetermine how they will be interpreted. We can't jump to conclusions about what Smithyman saw in Heidegger. People often find things - sometimes with good reasons, sometimes through misreadings - we might not expect in the texts of previous generations. Look at the range of interpretations Marx has generated. And the political implications of ideas can't always be confidently predicted. Lukacs criticises Heidegger and Jaspers for holding to a philosophy with fascist implications - but Jaspers became an anti-fascist, and helped to clean up German universities after the war, whereas Heidegger disgraced himself in 1933-34.

And what about Heidegger's influence on Louis Althusser, who was in turn a very strong influence on Dave in the
1970s? Althusser's critique of humanism and his claim, contra Sartre, that the mature Marx was an anti-humanist rely on Heidegger's Letter on Humanism, which had been written against Sartre twenty years earlier. Was Dave a crypto-Heideggerian in the
'70s?

I think we need a more nuanced approach to intellectual history than this. Here's an interview with Richard Polt, one of the leading contemporary Heidegger scholars, which touches on some of the issues that have been discussed in this thread:
http://www.beyng.com/RichardPoltInterview.html

It's intriguing to consider possible parrallels between Smithyman and George Oppen, the well-known American modernist poet who gave up writing for twenty years to become an activist for the Communist Party, and who subsequently developed a deep interest in Heidegger, without moving away from the left:
http://jacketmagazine.com/37/kimmelman-oppen-heidegger.shtml

1:18 pm  
Blogger dave said...

I think ideas either reflect the class relations surviving, existing, or prefigured in any society. That's why petty bourgeois intellectuals tend to vacillate and hybridize a range of ideas that obscures such historical categories.

Marxism is likewise interpreted in many class registers. Althusser was more influenced by Gramsci than Heidegger. Heidegger was for the individual shaped by unique events (very attractive to petty bourgeois people) not by social relations stamping on them. Althusser had people 'reduced' to social relations as 'bearers' of these with almost no remainder. How different can you get?

The 70s was a melange of such Marxisms and anti-marxisms. Overall I think that Gramsci and not Althusser was the breakthrough because he linked structure with agency in an actual historical setting interwar Italy with the North set against the South. For example, Owen Gager was an early proponent of Gramsci in NZ.

Insofar as Althusser borrowed some of his more interesting theoretical frame from Gramsci that was positive. Insofar as he was an apologist for Stalinism and superdeterminism that was the downside.

But Gramsci along with the English Grundrisse as well as the Penguin Capitals were the real deep literary influences on young would-be Marxists, (I am not talking of the influence of political events) so its in that narrow context that I see Smithyman on an intellectual siding toying with interwar anti-Marx ideas of individual essence just as the postwar boom was beginning to break with all of its historic charge.
Legacy out of time?

5:21 pm  
Blogger maps said...

What Heidegger offered to Althusser was the dismantling of the Cartesian idea of the individual existing and thinking in isolation, and the rejection of the Cartesian method of the atomistic solution of one abstract philsophical problem after another.

Rather than painstakingly building up a collection of truthful 'propositions', the philosopher is supposed, Heidegger thinks, to inquire into the background knowledge and assumptions that make it possible to know and do things. In Being the Time he uses the example of a hammer. We can't define this object, he says, by examining it in isolation, no matter how careful our examination is. We have to link it to a whole network of other objects, and to the way of life - the culture and history -that explain its use.

As Polt says in the interview I linked to, this 'deflationary' approach to the ambitions of Western metaphysics is also found in a number of other twentieth century philosophers, including Wittgenstein. It's a step forward, out of the mists of metaphysics, and shouldn't be equated with an invitation to postmodern relativism or to nihilism. (I went on about all this in more detail in this post:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2009/02/snow-descartes-and-derrida.html)

The philosophical anti-humanism which Althusser took from Heidegger follows from the rejection of the Cartesian method. Just as propositions and objects do not get their meaning in isolation, so human beings do not (in the words of Althusser) 'constitute themselves'. They are the products of forces outside themselves, and cannot be understood in isolation, with reference to theories that rely on conceptions of individual agency. Althusser's famous essay 'Marxism and Humanism' is saturated with Heidegger:
http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1964/marxism-humanism.htm

I think Dave, like many others, is taking the second and third parts of Being and Time, with their discussions of the plight of the individual who is 'thrown' into a world he or she cannot control, and who has to struggle against the danger of inauthenticity, as the essence of Heidegger's philosophy. With their Nietzschean condemnations of the herd-like 'we' and their call for the individual to 'accept death' and live an 'authentic life', these passages of Being and Time certainly struck a chord with many readers, including Sartre and the other architects of modern existentialism. They continue to appeal to passionate young poets and philosophy students today. And it is possible to argue, as Dave does, that these passages, with their call to what one critic has termed a 'heroic nihilism', led Heidegger, if not most of his followers, in the direction of a flirtation with Nazism, which seemed to him in 1933-34 like the collective expression of some sort of drive for the restoration of 'authenticity'.

But Heidegger moved sharply away from divisions two and three of Being and Time in his later philosophy, and he explicitly repudiated existentialism in 'Letter on Humanism'. Even in Being and Time, the anti-Cartesian insights can be detached from the heroic nihilist rhetoric.

6:14 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

@Dave, Lukács' 'Destruction of Reason' is as the Trotskyist cultural critic Michael Lowy says in his excellent book 'Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity' a fairly dubious works which seeks to reduce

"...the entire history of German thought, from Friedrich Schelling to Tonnies and from Dilthey to Simmel, as a vast confrontation between reason and reaction and all the Romantic currents...as leading ineluctably to a "general irrationalization of history" - thus, in the last analysis to Fascist ideology."

Indeed, Lukács I think has had a largely pernicious influence on Marxist cultural criticism and is best given an extremely wide berth - his slandering of the Frankfurt School being only the most egregious example...

7:08 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Lukacs' views on literature and philosophy seem to be tainted by Stalinism. Lukacs opposed modernism and called Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett reactionaries, while at the same time lauding Sir Walter Scott as a revolutionary writer. I think his argument was that Scott represented a rising bourgeoisie, whilst Kafka and the rest represented capitalism in a degenerate phase. Because they don't call for socialist revolution works like The Trial and Ulysses are damned as bourgeois, and because capitalism was going down the tubes in the early twentieth century they were going down with it. This sort of crude reductionism can't be taken seriously.

Ironically, there is a similarity between Lukacs' response to twentieth-century literature and the view of art Hiedegger expresses in his famous fascist-era essay 'The Origin of the Work of Art', which suggests that great art of the sort the Greeks produced is impossible to create in the degenerate era in which we live. If you're looking into Heidegger's views on art, Tim, you should be careful about the prominence that 'Origin' receives from some commentators and anthologists - not only is the work unrepresentative of Heidegger's later views, it is exceptionally obscure, and - according to people who can judge -it was execrably translated. I recommend Kiwi Julian Young's book on Heidegger's philosophy of art, which I blogegd about here:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/05/another-look-at-emma-smith-five-notes.html

7:39 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Here's a poem Smithyman wrote about Heidegger (amongst other philosophers) in 1993, near the end of his life. I'm not sure if too much can be read into it, but others might disagree with me.

BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: THE BICYCLE

Did Bertrand Russell first adjust his hat?
Probably not, but carefully he wrapped
his trousers round his ankles, then clipped,
hiked his leg over and pushed off
pedalling away towards his mistress.
Marriage was finished, as he thought.
The road ahead was fairly level going.
Traffic was not heavy.

Heidegger never learned to drive a car.
The enemy was getting close; he might be
arrested on the spot. He took his bicycle,
pedalling east towards his old hometown,
Messkirch. The good life of Freiburg was behind.
Student Nolte pedalling faster overtook:
"Professor, sir, your wife has sent you this,"
a knapsack stuffed with laundry freshly ironed,
some food. Thoughtful Elfride, ever on the job,
she knew the road ahead would be tough going
and the traffic – best not dwell on that.

‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be
put into words. They make themselves manifest.
They are what is mystical.’
Wittgenstein, 6. 522 1. 6. 93

8:00 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Lowy's basic argument seems to be that Lukács was himself a 'Romantic anticapitalist' who fell among Stalinists - contrasting his sympathy for precapitalist culture as against capitalist "non-culture" and admiration of Dostoevsky in his early writings (pre-1923), with his later works such as the infamous 1931 article writing Dostoevsky off as "the writer of the Black Hundreds and czarist imperialism".

8:07 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

P.S. haven't got as far as checking out Heidegger's 'Origin' yet, but cheers for the reader advisory!

8:22 pm  
Anonymous herb (ex-SAL) said...

what a silly poem about philosophers...it doesn't even MEAN anything? yes? no? do you care???

revoltuionary dialectics teaches that there are many nodal points that history has to pass through before contradictions explode into 'reality'...maybe smithyman got disillusioned...we are currently living in an interregnum between revolutionary eras...have been since the 70s...it may last for a thousand years BUT

the contradictions will reappear...

8:40 pm  
Blogger dave said...

Zizek has a good take on Lukacs as the philosopher of Leninism in his postface to "A Defence of History and Class Consciousness". Of course Lukacs succumbed to Stalinism in the late 20s. At any rate HCC stands as a great Marxist work of praxis comparable to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks.
I would be interested to hear if Smithyman read this stuff before his rejections of Marxism that Richard talks about.

1:34 am  
Blogger maps said...

Sadly, I don't think the young Smithyman would have had the chance to read Gramsci. Smithyman was monolingual - he never got his BA because he failed the then-compulsory foreign language component - and Gramsci did not appear in English (correct me if I'm wrong someone) until 1957, when EP thompson made sure that some of Hamish Henderson's translations from the Prison Notebooks were printed in The New Reasoner, the little journal founded by refugees from the Stalinism of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I'm not sure if the Notebooks appeared in English in book form until the '70s.

Henderson, who eventually became famous as a ethnomusicologist and collector of folksongs from his native Scotland and many other countries, had translated the Prison Notebooks in the '40s, after apparently learning Italian during his war service in North Africa. The Communist Party of Great Britain came close to publishing the Notebooks just after the war, but eventually dropped the project, much to the dismay of Henderson and Thompson.

12:30 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Here's the statement by Smithyman about Marxism that Richard referred to - it occurs in an interview with Mac Jackson which was published in Landfall in 1988:

'Politically, I had my greatest political excitement by joining the Labour Party. My father was a Labour Party pioneer, who had been in fact an IWW man, as I found out very late in life - and I think I got disenchanted during the war. It just seemed to me to be the kind of thing that wasn't really my game. My one political gesture really, I suppose, apart from invalidating various voting sheets, is that I voted for the expulsion of Jack Lee from the Grey Lynn branch of the Labour Party. My flirtation with Marxism ended when I was in the Air Force and I was in a flight store, a storeman, reading Lenin on colonialism, and it crossed my mind 'This bugger doesn't know what he's talking about'. And that was the political end. I did my stint of writing politically sympathetic and rather awful pieces, and I was surprised the other day to find that I had sent something to The Standard, the Labour newspaper, but no note to say whether or not it was published.'
http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/smithyman/interview_landfall168.asp

This statement is obviously very important, but it does need to be taken in context. In his later years Smithyman tended to talk about himself in very self-deprecating terms, and the 1988 interview is full of deflationary talk, especially when Smithyman the old man talks about Smithyman the callow youth.

It seems to me that there are places in the interview where Smithyman plays down the attitudes he once held to the point where he distorts history. For instance, he says that he never took religion seriously, and only read and wrote about theology as a young man for 'entertainment'. Such claims are at variance with the passion and intensity of texts like 1951's Poem Towards Easter, which concludes with a long series of footnotes directing readers towards various theological tomes.

Smithyman's claim that he completely gave away politics after the war also seems to be incorrect. He wrote political journalism after the war under the name Angus Melmoth, and he contributed, using his own name, to the proto-New Left journal Comment, where key local leftists like WB Sutch and Bill Rosenberg published work (Dave's mate Owen Gager also published material there, as a very young man).

I think we do have to be a little cautious, then, about treating the 1988 interview as the definitive source on subjects like Smithyman's involvement with politics.

1:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes that was the interview I saw. Jackson was one of my lecturers.

Was it in that interview that Smithyman's response to his poetry being difficult was that his "over difficult" poems were simply bad?

I think that is wrong...some were but he wrote many many great poems both "simple" and complex ... or what you will.

But I think he was not "political" as such but he would have been interested in all these ideas and as poet-philosopher (I think he was only a philosopher (or a politician) to the extent he was a poet) he would not have warmed to any simplistic Utopianism (but as with any person there is so much we can only speculate about him).

He may have read Heidegger but that doesn't mean he was a Heidegerian. And there are a number of ways of looking at Heidegger.

He seemed to admire Mason but was a bit disgruntled about his politics - but that is an old memory of mine of a fleeting moment in a fleeting time. (Certain days in 1968).

Smithyman's letters are warm and often have humour and kindness; and he seemed to me to be a reasonably affable fellow.

As to influences: Marx is considered by people throughout the world as one of the greatest (and very valid - even current - what isn't current? - and important) philosophers but they ,who so concur, often have quite different politics. Maybe Marx's way of breaking things down to their elements, the modes of production and so forth, was not what Smithyman felt was coherent.

(Although that approach of "the particulars" would have interested him (as Oppen - a son of a billionaires who became a communist!). He saw a larger reality. Perhaps had he met Marx Marx and he & M may have agreed on many things; Marx was well read in many areas... as indeed Marx was really only writing or "mapping" the broad outlines...as to History his influence was to steer us away from persons and countries (or King and Queens and "great men") etc to historic fores and class struggle etc Smithyman may have seen the kind of simplistic left wing propaganda that used to come out in those times and felt it wasn't holistic.[Against Lenin and Marx he perhaps turned to Heidegger, Camus, Sartre and others - he took a keen interest in developments in postmodernism, post-structuralism, and other ideas in the 80s etc I believe]]

And a lot of political people tend to attack each other rather than address ideas (which were his realm) so that may have meant he was not so enthusiastic...but he is our great philosophic poet, somewhat like Wallace Stevens (who he quotes in various poems) and maybe WCWs and others. Also he maybe didn't want to be one of the "herd" I would say - without him being aloof or arrogant.

His poetry is "tentative, it moves out inquiringly, he perhaps was wary of certainty. He was not like Eliot's "Bradford millionaire" with a silk hat:

"Assured of certain certainties."

10:38 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Perhaps, being a poet-thinker, it was the very timbre or "sound" of the language of politics that jarred with him?

10:40 pm  
Blogger dave said...

As a contribution to this discussion I have transcribed part of Lukacs discussion of Heidegger
http://maximumred.blogspot.com/2010/06/lukacs-on-heidegger.html

8:49 pm  
Blogger dave said...

Further to Lukacs on Heidegger. It is worth a read to wake people up to the current revival of vitalist/irrational culture coming out of 30 years of global crisis and wars for 'democracy' and 'freedom'.
I am not talking about the post-war period in which Smithyman came to maturity, but the period since the end of the post-war boom when all the certainties began to collapse.
With the defeat of the labour movement by its own political party class identity has been supplanted by an amorphous national identity in which the mythical and mystical elevation of the fetishised bourgeois subject replaces the certainties of Keynesianism, state secular education, and collective norms of welfare.
The current global recession has sped up this process so that the NACT government is moving away from democracy, fusing business with politics and the police, and ruling by phoney public opinion polls constructed by PR and the capitalist media.
Under worsening global crisis the Key-type presidential rule will elevate itself into a Bonapartist form of national leadership to coopt the revival of working class resistance, pre-figuring an emerging fascism.

1:51 pm  
Blogger Maja said...

Hello. I just came across your blog because I was looking for this communist party poster that you have posted in this blog. Do you have any idea where it originally comes from and who or which institution could be the official copyright holder?
I've always thought that it is a sujet of the US communist party, but is it maybe from New Zealand?
Thanks very much for a quick response! Cheers!

11:55 pm  

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