Friday, July 16, 2010

Smithyman's apocalypse

I have to apologise for the lack of action on this site over the past few days. I've been working ridiculously long hours making Kendrick Smithyman's Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993 presentable enough to show to Creative New Zealand. I'm not sure if Titus Books will be successful in getting a grant to help with the costs of publishing the book, but the application process has certainly given me a kick up the backside. Before Titus boss Brett Cross put the hard word about a deadline to me, I'd been content to dig ever deeper into Smithyman's vast collection of unpublished manuscripts, discovering lost masterpiece after lost masterpiece, and becoming less and less mindful of the need to make a selection and whip a book into shape.

I thought I'd post one of the poems that I've been considering putting into Private Bestiary here, along with some notes I've made on it.

‘Phases of absence, I explore...’

Phases of absence, I explore.
I go out from the city where men are
always saying, "The heart is here
dying", meaning "Bring back
business, into Queen Street."
They talk hard about arteries of commerce.
I go out, where radios tell:
Northland and Coromandel are exposed
to hostile forces; later, attack will be
mounted upon the city. Comes two or three
o'clock, rain or winds arrive
as predicted. You close the kitchen
door of an almost empty house.

Some body artlessly moans in her bedroom.
A vein left in her foot throbs
under burnt skin. 'It's my nerves', she claims.
'Let me sleep. I must go on sleeping.'
If I stand, because I shall stand
at a window not altogether shut,
I may look into a fig tree
where the figs ripen and split,
ravished by delicate white-eyed birds.
Gutted, the spoiled fruits wave
as branches move. New summaries report
troubles in New York, Pennsylvania
bankrupt, Michigan no longer can afford
expense of justice or learning.
This is a repeat broadcast.

I met a class for the first time.
Finishing with them I asked,
'Any questions?' Yes,
from a boy with a purple sweater.
'What is your name?'
I knew
there'd been something I'd forgotten.

c. 1966-67

Smithyman married his fellow poet Mary Stanley in 1946. As Peter Simpson explains in 'Sinfonia Domestica', the fine essay he contributed to Between the Lives, the collection of studies of Kiwi 'artistic couples' published by Auckland University Press in 2005, the marriage was troubled by the memory of Mary's first husband, who had died in Italy during the Second World War, by Mary's chronic health problems, and by the contrast between Smithyman's productivity as a poet and the bad case of writer's block that came to afflict his wife. The last years of the relationship were particularly miserable, as Kendrick struggled to care for an increasingly immobile Mary.

In a number of poems he wrote in the second half of the 1960s and in the '70s, Smithyman's gloomy reflections on the state of his marriage and on Mary Stanley's health mingled with misgivings about the state of New Zealand and Western society, and fears about an apocalyptic future.

The second half of the sixties saw the gradual end of the 'long boom' that had brought unprecedented levels of prosperity to New Zealand and other Western countries in the aftermath of World War Two. In New Zealand and in many other places, economic troubles coincided with the emergence of new protest movements inspired by causes like opposiiton to war, racism, and cultural repression. In New Zealand, the late sixties saw the rise of a movement against the Vietnam War, the first signs of the re-emergence of Maori nationalism as a political force, and the beginnings of the modern feminist movement. The period also saw the brief flowering of a massive youth counterculture which alarmed many older New Zealanders with its advocacy of drugs and its disdain for 'straight' society. The seventies and early eighties would bring deepening recession, strike waves, Maori land hikoi, and fighting in the streets over New Zealand's links with apartheid South Africa.

In 'Phases of absence, I explore...', Smithyman's attention shifts from his home on the North Shore, where his wife has been driven to bed by a severe attack of arthritis, to the national and international news, which report economic and political turmoil, to his job at the University of Auckland, where he struggles to communicate with a new generation of students. Sensing that all the things that trouble him have some obscure but terrible connection, the poet fantasies about a war or an apocalyptic storm hitting New Zealand. Smithyman's vision of an army arriving from the countryside to menace the cities seems to foreshadow the action of 1970s dystopian novels like CK Stead's Smith's Dream and Craig Harrison's Broken October.

In 1971 Smithyman revised 'Phases of absence, I explore...'removing most of its autobiographical references and giving it the title 'From the City Where Men Are'. Although the revised piece was published in the 2004 Collected Poems, it lacks some of the crucial lines from Smithyman's original draft.

14 Comments:

Blogger dave said...

What was Smithyman's view of the Vietnam war? NZ had troops there from 64. For example did he write about the protest in Auckland against the Vietnamese puppet Nguyen Kao Ky in January 67 when 21 people got arrested. I know that other AU staff got involved eg Walter Pollard of the French Dept.

8:23 pm  
Blogger maps said...

There are quite a few Smithyman poems that express a deep unease with the Vietnam War. In a number of poems the war suddenly impinges upon apparently innocent scenes of New Zealand life.

I found an unpublished poem last week called 'Procession' which juxtaposed a university graduation procession with scenes from the war - Smithyman imagined young men in black pjamas, ie Viet Cong guerrillas, marching beside the students up Queen Street.

Jack Ross wrote a short essay about this poem (if he's reading this he might be able post it), which sees Smithyman relaxing on holiday on the coast north of Auckland, until he is suddenly troubled by images of the war in Vietnam (apologies for the way the lines run over in blogger format):

AT TI POINT

The Pacific as itself, a state of dream.
Provisional the islands in-shore, poised
upon some wish, some urgency, not disclosed
thus far, the dramas not resolved which stream
tides through an almost-sandchoked harbourmouth,
gentling bland airs moved on us from the south
or making plump such oystercatcher flocks
as stump the bared rich flats.
Among rocks
on a headland, like menhirs, we are disposed
to doze according to the Ocean’s need
to dream us idling here, who, God knows, agreed
hitherto how we should do worse and praised
the worse as virtue’s industry. Just down
the slope are middens, ovenstones in brown
loam, an industry of rejected shells
we puzzled over. Lie back. Seawind swells

nothing to importance meanwhile nor the cloud
mushrooms above our yet to be shattered
complacent city, dear, vulgar, desecrated
daily in other ways, where still a proud
flesh does not connote the smart pride of pain.
Afternoon soothes our part in guilt again
while elsewhere – Saigon, Hanoi – children scream
subscribed to dreams of power they
do not dream.
14. 5. 68

11:15 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

would it be asking too much for smithyman to be clear about a clearcut subject...like an unjust war? does he have to obscure about everything? I have read this poem thru and don't get what he is trying to say? was he too sophisticated to take a political stand...was that too vulgar for this great intellectual...????

12:12 am  
Anonymous herb said...

ha ha guess he's no harder to 'get' than 'richard taylor'...

12:13 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm 62 and the only "downturn" in the 60s was briefly in 1976 - apart from that from 1968 until about 1988 it was always easy to get a job - I took a lot of manual labouring jobs and so on - but there was always work.

The US was under pressure as the US spent a huge amount (and they faced big insurrections* and had to even shoot and kill students at Universities) trying to beat Vietnam and Korea (BOTH of which the invaded in an attempt to get China - although they have rewritten history) and failed.

The seeds of certain crises were certainly around and there were a lot of changes in those days.

But the "economic problems" we supposedly had under Muldoon were in the febrile imaginations of Prebble and his mate Douglas...that was nonsense.
In fact Muldoon's 'think big' was a good idea.

The Unions were corrupt and pushed workers (1985) to support Labour on the basis that they could not sell off State assets and keep them with the Government. This was a lie and they knew it and were probably paid under the table and or given privileges.

There was nothing (particularly unusually) wrong with economy and no need to de-regulate and sell-off telecommunications or electricity etc - in fact that (a was a tragic mistake for the NZ workers to allow that.

Labour sold them out.

*The opposition throughout the world in those days against Imperialism was huge - we have not seen anything like it since - protest had been weak and timorous. It is almost as if students were now cowed and a-political.

12:26 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The poem itself is good - I like the fact that there are personal aspects to this work.

Many of the unpublished poems I have seen - seem to rival or are better than those he published. He was more "naked" and sometimes less pedantically obscure - and he was probing, trying things.

12:30 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"herb said...

would it be asking too much for smithyman to be clear about a clearcut subject...like an unjust war? does he have to obscure about everything? I have read this poem thru and don't get what he is trying to say? was he too sophisticated to take a political stand...was that too vulgar for this great intellectual...????

"

Actually I agree - here - he himself said in an interview that his obscure poems were simply bad. That is maybe going too far - but the poem here 'At TI Point' seems to drift on and avoid the topic of Vietnam - I feel he was Liberal and could not commit himself to anything - he was probably anti-communist. I recall him at a tutorial lamenting that Mason (NZ poet and Communist) was in politics and it had limited his poetry. In fact Mason stopped writing when he was quite young. But Smithyman may have had concerns - but the question is did he protest? Take action?

And here he could have concentrated on Vietnam - it was a war of vast significance - it was genocidal and barbaric - the only poetry against it I recall from those times was (paradoxically) by the US poet Denise Levertov who had the guts to be honest about the subject...this Ti Point Poem poem is cloaked in waffle...it says "War is bad, but I wont protest - I am a lecturer or a tutor - I think deeply about Heidegger the ex Nazi - I have a job - keep the job, there is always war,war may even sometimes be good... sad bit true..." - that is (or seems to be) as far as he was prepared to ago - I never saw him on a protest march.

But I saw Karl Stead and other academics (the AU Geologist Grant Mackie) and many others (in the 60s/70s and later).

My own poetry - it is of a different kind - and / but in 1989 I wrote very (or relatively) direct poems and I also wrote antiwar and (more or less) "realist" poems and much else. I stopped writing in 1969 mainly as I got involved in active political protests.

I supported Maoism and revolution. We were strongly opposed to revisionists of various kinds - we simply didn't trust them.

I didn't start writing again until 1989 or so.

Then it is true I - to a large extent "moved" away from politics as such and probably became as ambivalent as Smithyman and other "liberals"...

My poetry is not "obscure" as (or in the way that) Smithyman's can be - and don't get me wrong I like a lot of his stuff - I myself attempt to be like - well somewhat like music perhaps where you might imagine the words or lines etc as musical phrases - or as forms in a work of visual art or whatever...there is no difficulty as they often cant be explicated per se.

[But I probably failed in my attempt.]

I don't understand a lot of my own poems I wrote between say 1992 and 1998 and some others. I am dealing perhaps with questions of meaning and knowledge or I am simply creating a process, a gestalt or whatever you might call it..there is no subterfuge.

1:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why can't poets explore complexity without being forced to mouth political slogans?

'herb' and Richard sound like Stalinists.

And Richard haven't you heard of the crimes of your idol Mao?

10:38 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Why Stalinist - what is a Stalinist?

Mao is not an idol. Nixon committed great crimes as did many US Presidents (if not all of them). (There are also the fairy stories of evil "Red" China told by missionaries in the Readers Digest and other CIA backed publications.)

In contrast to the US Capitalists and degenerate leaders such as - well all the US Presidents and Certain pseudo "Marxist" spies and paper theorists who emigrated from the USSR - Mao Tse Tung (who was / is NOT an idol, but of course had faults as we all have) and the Chinese people by their ideas and actions created a whole new era of liberation and real democracy in action for the people of the world.

12:27 am  
Anonymous herb said...

3 reasons to despise Mao as an enemy of socialism:

1. He supported Pakistan against the Bangladeshi independence struggle, solely because of cynical political interests.

2. He supported Pinochet in Chile because the Allende government Pinochet overthrew was pro-USSR, and Mao saw the US as a lesser evil than the USSR.

3. He instructed his followers in the Communist Party of New Zealand to support Anzus and US ship visits, because he saw the US alliance as abulwark against 'Soviet imperialism'. This sowed confusion in the left and led to fist fights.

Mao was a cynical big power politician. That is why NZ Trotskyists took a principled stand against his policies.

herb ex-SAL

1:07 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous herb said...

3 reasons to despise Mao as an enemy of socialism:

1. He supported Pakistan against the Bangladeshi independence struggle, solely because of cynical political interests.

2. He supported Pinochet in Chile because the Allende government Pinochet overthrew was pro-USSR, and Mao saw the US as a lesser evil than the USSR.

3. He instructed his followers in the Communist Party of New Zealand to support Anzus and US ship visits, because he saw the US alliance as abulwark against 'Soviet imperialism'. This sowed confusion in the left and led to fist fights.

Mao was a cynical big power politician. That is why NZ Trotskyists took a principled stand against his policies.

herb ex-SAL"

Get all this from your SIS contacts?

10:25 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

Nah...from personal experience of the CPNZ in the 70s and 80s. They voted against protesting against Anzaus...because they followed the Chinese line...

so you also supported US imperialism out of loyalty to 'Uncle' Mao...ha ha!

9:51 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Well Herb - the advantage Trotsky has over all the other flawed leaders is that he never did anything!!

Lead a revolution, go to Africa and try to help the poor, look after orphans and help them live happy lives, cure cancer, do anything of importance; and someone will find something wrong with you.

(They're all bastards out there!!

BUT how wonderful to idolize someone with a real name such as Bronstein, who has NOT been a political leader, and NOT done anything - who has simply written a lot of hogwash and so on, dribbled away his life, but (to his eternal credit and glory) died fantastically if not hugely comically in a James Bondian way with an ice pick through his skull? Wonderful!

6:06 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home