Monday, August 30, 2010

Smithyman's magic box

[I was pleased when Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, told me last week that Creative New Zealand has agreed to fund the publication of Private Bestiary, the book of the late great Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems which I have been assembling, in my rather haphazard way, over recent months. I've blogged about one or two of the poems selected for Private Bestiary, but I haven't really discussed the place where I found the poems. Reproduced below is an excerpt from a rough draft of the introduction to the forthcoming selection; I need to check a few of the details in the excerpt, especially the details of the description of Smithyman's old study, which I haven't visited for something like a year, and perhaps misremember. My fellow Smithymaniacs are invited to correct any blunders in the comments box...]

Kendrick Smithyman reverenced libraries, and ventured into them whenever he could. Years ago, in the tiny archive at the back of the Hokianga District Museum in Omapere, I talked with with an elderly volunteer who had taught alongside Smithyman at Belmont Primary School in the late ‘50s. When I asked whether Kendrick had enjoyed teaching, she smiled. ‘He preferred the library' she remembered. 'He was always reading.'

After he became a tutor in the University of Auckland’s English Department in 1963, Smithyman had the opportunity to explore a much larger library. Smithyman took his reading seriously – in his long poem ‘Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise’ he talks of going to the library to do some ‘hunting’. He was an omnivorous reader, as happy digesting medieval theology as modernist poetry or murder mysteries. In the pre-digital era, anybody who wanted to borrow a book from the University of Auckland library had to write their name on a yellow card that was held at the lending counter until the book was returned and the card could be replaced. This system made it possible to take a book from the library’s shelves and note the various people who had borrowed it over the years. Smithyman’s borrowings from the university library were so frequent and so diverse that in the 1980s a group of bored postgraduate English students reportedly made a game out of wandering into the library, prowling the aisles, and trying to find a book that their department's senior tutor had not borrowed.
After he moved into a Northcote bungalow with his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981, Smithyman set about creating his own library. The house’s basement was large enough to hold most of the thousands of books that Smithyman had accumulated over the years. The poet fitted shelves to the walls, and arranged his volumes by subject matter, so that New Zealand literature faded almost imperceptibly into New Zealand history, and New Zealand history gave way to archaeology.

Like any serious library, Smithyman’s basement had an archive. At the far end of the room a collection of his papers – poems, drafts of poems, inward correspondence, drafts of lectures and academic articles, itineraries for research trips, yellowing bills, and much else besides – sat securely inside a small family of boxes.

Smithyman placed a large desk, complete with creaky draws, an ashtray, and a typewriter, at the edge of his library, close to a view of an elegantly overgrown backyard, and worked happily on a slew of new manuscripts. By the time he died at the end of 1995, Smithyman had added thousands of new pages to his archive, as he turned out poems, translations, book reviews, and revisions of old work from the room he described as his ‘cave/ under the house’. For admirers of Smithyman’s poetry, the Northcote basement acquired a certain mystique – like Proust’s cork-lined room, Dylan Thomas’ boatshed, and Malcolm Lowry’s Vancouver Island shack, it was a place where the raw materials of language were turned into great art.

Smithyman appears to have begun organising his papers and assembling a collection of his poems in 1960. Over three and a half decades he created four different versions of his Collected Poems, as he sorted and resorted, and revised and again revised his manuscripts. Too large to fit into a single volume, the latest version of the Collected was published online by Holloway Press and Mudflats Webworks in 2004. The three alternative versions of the Collected Poems sit in the Smithyman Papers at the University of Auckland, along with a collection of inward correspondence and a huge stash of unpublished manuscripts.

When the University of Auckland's Michele Leggott sent some of her postgraduate English students into the Smithyman Papers to learn the ways of the archive, they brought back reports of disorder. I can confirm these reports. Despite the heroic efforts of Special Collections staff, Smithyman's unpublished manuscripts are a wilderness of unfinished, perhaps unfinishable drafts, unreadable emendments, poems filed out of order, or according to some ordering principle known only to their author, cryptic notes about the meaning or lack of meaning of one historical event or another, receipts for purchases from long-demolished shops, unfinished letters to unnamed friends, and yellowing newspaper cuttings.

Like Smithyman's poems, the Smithyman Papers seem designed to resist easy summary, and to send readers off on strange mental tangents. Perhaps the Smithyman Papers should be considered the New Zealand equivalent of the huge box that the great Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa used to store everything he wrote. By the time Pessoa died, his box contained many thousands of manuscripts. Over the decades, as book publishers and the editors of journals dipped into it for material, the box earned a reputation as a magical, bottomless object whose contents were always in flux. Like Pessoa's box, the Smithyman Papers may be better suited to journeys of discovery than to academic cataloguing. Smithyman's poem 'Peter Durey's Story', which describes the wayward archiving habits of a couple of scholars, perhaps hints at his attitude toward the hoard of unpublished words that he left to the world:

"When Moyle retired they found a desk
drawer crammed with bunches of keys.
Moyle was systematic, librarians have to be.
Each bunch was labelled
‘I don’t know what these are keys to.’
A whole drawerful – he was in charge of
complicated information retrieval services."
‘I don’t know what these are keys to.’
That’s how people think universities work,
finding things which will unlock.

A notable social scientist used to teach
in a boarding house not now remembered clearly.
He was brilliant at seminars, his lectures were
off the cuff, publishers sought him,
students ran scared, he was so much in command,
devastating.
One day at his office
he was very proud of himself.
Sleeves rolled, glasses dazzling, he stacked
oh it must have been close on a hundred
biggish flat boxes, the kind which dress shops used.
"Look at that now, years of it! At last,
I’ve got it all arranged." Each box, labelled.

The first said Field Notes, Classified.
The second, Field Notes, Classified.
The ninety-plus others, Field Notes, Unclassified.
That’s how people think
university people work, bringing to order,
all the time collecting, finding out, systematising.

17 Comments:

Blogger meyerprints said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

smithyman would fail at poetry slam. big time.

8:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if only we could all aspire to the dizzying artistic heights of the 'poetry slam' -h

12:47 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Yes, quite. I actually think Smithyman performs quite beautifully in Closing the Chocolate Factory, the film which records him reading some of his poems just a few weeks before his death in 1995, but his quiet voice, his carefully weighted silences, and the wry emphases which give certain words an unexpected irony would probably not impress Poetry Slam judges (are Poetry Slams judged?).

1:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

'smithyman would fail at poetry slam. big time.'

!!!

9:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have participated in a few in "slams" maps (I won one once) - the trouble is that the audience is often "stacked" ... I don't mean that that is a cynical ploy ..it just happens that, well the one I and Tony Folari read at last year, had as judges some black woman from the US who did this tirade of poetry and hip hop kind of slangy stuff (angry and winging big time as predictable - I mean she was oppressed as black woman and also as a lesbian!! (but it didn't help that she was hideously obese & ugly (another cauise of her winging was that people didn't like her fatness!!) into the bargain and pretty ferocious!!!))) so what I might consider "quality poetry" was not what interested the young audience who were interested in similar readers... (hip hoppy or "beat" or whatever...

I also was a the Nuyorican in NY in 1993 I went to the slams as really I just wanted to read (it was a good venue)...the poems were (as they are mostly) judged by the amount of applause. I did quite well but the more predictable poetry, and not all of it was "bad", tended to "win".

But it is certainly not a scene I would image Smithyman in. I and an artist-poet tried to get Robert Creeley to go along to Poetry Live (when he was here about 1996 or so) but he wasn't keen - he read at "official" venues - and he read well.

There is the other extreme of Loney (and some of the other Official Academic Poetry High Priests (perhaps "postmodern poets")) who had almost secret meetings at the Alleluyeh in K' Road (organised by Peter the owner) - he yearned for "an audience of one" I think...

I cant see Smithyman giving many public readings in such places - again that is obviously not to say he wouldn't be appreciated there. Vincent O'Sullivan read last year and got very good response. I was very impressed with his poetry ( also I think his "Let the River Stand" is pretty major NZ novel.) But he read quite quietly and with dignity...but it takes all kinds...

Public reading is o.k. but "slams" tends to aim for a kind of jazzy showmanship which can work but it is not (of course) consonant with Smithyman's work...but again it depends on the audiences. They "decide" who wins by their response. Smithyman seems to me to have been a less public person.

10:24 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Richard,

I don't think I'd ever be in any position to complain about a reader's weight or looks, let alone their self-pity, but one thing which has annoyed me no end about the live poetry 'scene', on the occasions when I've encountered it, has been the tendency of performers - and they do seem to see themselves as performers, rather than as writers - to read in loud, often caricatured voices, and thus kill any nuance that might lurk in the texts they are serving up. The booming approach might just have worked for Dylan Thomas, who was always going on about death and doomed love and the universe, but it becomes a bit daft when someone's reading a poem about buying a coffee or stroking a cat!

The irony is that poets who write primarily for the page, like Smithyman or Robert Creeley (I remember seeing him read at the Alba Cafe in 1996) actually perform their work better than those who only seem interested in live poetry and slams, because they are alive to the nuances of their material.

I was meaning to blog about the recent contest for the elected Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, which saw the demanding, self-consciously literary Geoffrey Hill going up against a performance poet named Steve Larkin who used lots of rhetoric about making poetry 'accessible', by which he seemed to mean performing poems which elicited an immediate giggle or cheer from boozed-up audiences in pubs. Hill won the election, which I thought was brilliant, considering how demanding his work is and what an outspokenly critical view he maintains of contemporary Britain and of contemporary Western society in general.

12:18 am  
Anonymous Keri H said...

As someone who has read with poets round the world(as a poet plus) may I add this: the -almost all male- people who do the strange delivery voice (a la Sam Hunt, but also, Bill Manhire), also bloody well read the same (effective they assume) poem, again. And again.

If you are unlucky enough to be in a tour with them, you learn to keep a rictus grin and drink quite a lot of good alcohol before, and during.

Which is why I no longer have anything to do with touring, or reading with other poets-

7:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't quite agree (although “agree” is probably not the right term as this issue, such as it is, is quite subjective. I think it is a wide open question. There is a wide spectrum of writing and writing and reading practices.

In general I myself don't really like poetry slams. But no doubt they have a value.

But as to poetry read at ‘poetry live’ (pubs say and with an open mike) or wherever - it is the history of poetry, the old bardic tradition, that it has been read to people "live". (But not exclusively).

I felt that the Alba readings were a bit cold (in comparison to "live" readings at say Poetry live at the Albion and the Shakespeare in the 90s I attended)*. Sure Creeley and others read well and it was interesting, but there is always a sense of restraint. This can be good: subtlety and nuance, but perhaps a lack of intensity or ‘oomph’ or even jollity

But Liz Maw and I - it was she mainly - kept pressing and pressing Creeley to come to Poetry Live, and thus to "test" his poetry in the raw of life so to speak; and to be among the "people"...now when he came before (in the 80s when I wasn't involved in poetry at all) he read at many venues (but probably chaperoned by University and "official" literary people). The fact is, to be fair (and he was a nice fellow) he was quite old then - about 60 or so - and probably had been there and done that. (And he was caught up in the round of university stuff and his own wife lived here and so on... so he was probably pretty booked up etc)

But his poem about driving a fast car etc (the Alan Riach quotes in "Fearful Symmetries", a program of the arts and the various decades of the 20th century on the Concert Program) would certainly do well at Poetry Live. Actually Riach read there (at the Albion pub) himself about 1989, I bought a book he had done. He read also at the Masonic from time to time.

8:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

There are two extremes - one one might call the "Loney lonely end point" - and often the academic or "established writers view" that poetry is only "for the page" and the other that it is only a live living performance thing. That poetry "should be" transparent and clear and ‘from the heart’

I don’t go with any “shoulds”; there are just different modes, and different ways. Live reading in different venues is simply another option.

I think that it can and is in fact both "for the page" and performance (i.e. it can be one or the other or both - but some poetry tends to be better "on the page" or so it seems. I feel it is where and when the academic (so called) meets the “raw” of the people, and such poets as Murray Haddow, who is (for me), quite incredible to see and hear live…when we get that variety and mix of styles and outlooks then things start to happen. But many great poets of course never read a word aloud (to a public) – almost certainly Dickinson didn’t but Shakespeare only did through his acting. And it was because he read AS AN ACTOR and that he was known as an actor and a playwright that his own poetry incorporated into his plays “came alive” and probably was the reason his plays were published after his death by his friends – we very nearly missed him out of the 'picture' altogether. But he read AND performed live. Bore that he was really only known as playwright (where his best poetry is heard –in his plays) and a minor poet in his own lifetime. His main ambition was in fact - to make money – he was mainly a businessman. So another extreme: the well to do poet or “artist” who performs. Or the poets who (whether they ‘perform’ or not) are still great poets despite or because they or their parents are billionaires or they are businessmen – some examples Wallace Stevens (big business guy), Shakespeare (businessman litigator and poet), James Merrill (poetic genius and son of billionaires), Oppen (Pulitzer winner communist poet and son of billionaires) and Amiri Baraka – populist political black poet and so on (not sure how rich he was or not or whether always dirt poor). Then the “hip hop” “speed poets” from the “streets of life” inter alia…ad infinitum

8:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hearing "Briggflats" read by Bunting is awesome it brings that poem alive, whatever it is about. But much as I admire Hill's poetry (and he is a major poet) he himself doesn't read his own work well. A lot of his work is rather tortuous and too complex for me (his early poems are great indeed)...I actually think T S Eliot would have done well at Poetry Live...he reads surprisingly well as even does Auden once you get used to his accent...Dylan Thomas was a wonderful reader (but yes one needs "nuanced" and many don't get that but we are in an "open" situation and that is how it goes) and a great poet who influenced Smithyman and Curnow (Curnow was friend of his). But I don't like the way many of the a Langpos read and even John Ashbery is a bit too dry for me...but he is quite old now.

But these views are always subjective.

The presentation and performance of a poem can be a part of that poem just as visual elements can help or can be integrated into a poetic totality. Smithyman comes from an older time - Modernist or proto-postmodernist (your term) -when reading "live in pubs" or "in the raw and the real" for these guys was not the "done thing" it was all riddles and complexities on the page (not hat that itself is bad - it is a big world - but this best poems for me are more direct like R A K Mason's - now R A K Mason who was a great poet - now we are talking - murders (murdered) his own poetry with his terrible accent and a terrible terrible reading voice.

Live readings with Sam Hunt on TV helped get Hone Tuwhare into the public eye. He read quite well. Smithyman didn’t need TV. He was safely ensconced at he University with the AUP at his beck. Of course he was considerable poet and his poetry needs to be read…He does or seems to be an “intellectual’s “ or an “academic’s” or a poet’s poet –but perhaps that impression, while it holds some validity, is too general a view of him can be or will be moderated and countered via your books.

*I was "spoilt" really as I used or write ONLY so I could then read to an audience in those days and for ME (I was never interested in passive listening) reading alive and getting response was my way of 'publishing' - immediate - from the eye to the line or whatever Olson said - I used to get a huge "buzz" or "charge" from that - mind, as you probably recall I was always pretty boozed up so I don't know whether any of it was any good - I don't think I cared (or I was so inebriated my caring took an optimistic turn!) - I thought it was and I certainly went for it! Now seeing my poems in print as in a journal leaves me relatively indifferent. Sometimes I wonder if I really wrote whatever is there and why...the words seem so dead and so silent. (But I am slowly recovering from the boozy years of the evil nineties…we see things in different ways from year to year. We change and our views change.

8:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri - I by-passed your post. I take your point. Years ago I went to hear Sam Hunt and I did enjoy his reading. But I haven't toured with him.(Lol!) I used to booze heavily also. (But not when I was young...

Hunt was popular but whether popular = good etc is moot. Anne Jones used to satirize him and he heard her once and was quite unpleased shall we say!

But I feel we need Sam Hunts - but indeed there are readers - women and men who read in other ways even at these "live" venues.

I have "done" the performance stuff - one thing I did was on stage at the Little Maidment Theatre in Auckland. It was actually derived from an exercise I did - "describe something to someone who might not have seen that thing"... and I eventually performed it. The last time did -the whole thing from memory again - using a bottle of beer and big army boots as props and walking around the stage with dramatic pauses and so on - and a little sozzled to loosen me up! - last year -I got a huge ovation!

I "blew it out of the box" as Randy Jackson says on American Idol (!!(I know I know!!)...

Also my 'The Waste Land' went down pretty well...that was (also) from an exercise or one of a series of exercises on a list by Bernadette Mayer - "re-write" someone difficult and as I knew Eliot's poem by heart I re wrote him!
BUT I had to stop drinking.

Being a little boozed in both cases facilitated as it helped me to be less inhibited and in both cases I blew them all away!! That is magic to hold and to destroy an audience. Once, after a reading I gave of a poem, David Lyndon Brown walked past me and said:

"You bastard!"

9:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Manhire - he would be in different category though?

Give us the low down on Manhire? Any evil stories about him!??

John Needham in "Departure Lounge" accuses him of being a postmodernist!!

9:21 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I've never heard Hill read. Are there any recordings of him online? I love Eliot's reading of the Four Quartets - hypnotic, especially when I heard it on a cracked old record one cold Dunedin night in Bill Direen's cottage...a lot of folks - Brett Cross, Hamish Dewe, Ross Brighton are three I can remember offhand - can't stand Eliot though, either on the page or over the air...

11:04 am  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Bill Manhire is a seriously nice person - truly. I did 2 tours with him - both included other poets - one in USA following the opening of "Te Maori"
(where Bill introduced us to Chicago jazz clubs and deepdish pizza, among other delights), and one in Scotland/England, where he introduced us to a marvellously strange house, kept as the owner-architect had left it, in the early 19th century...he has contacts - well, everywhere I suspect.

But I did get awfully tired of the Malayasian writers' conference story & three poems in paticular.

1:55 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That's great Keri - it must have been really exciting touring over there! Manhire sounds very learned on the radio and he always look pleasant. Great poems he writes but I feel he needed /needs to go further with his work (but I haven't read all of it - Ted Jenner is a great fan of BM) ...not sure what I mean. Poets tend to repeat -I recall Colin Munn repeating his (very good) poem about the day that Tony Fomison died...lol...many many times. I didn't get sick of it but the read it in such a way that I often couldn't hear it properly...and Tom Birch I could never make out has he always tailed off at the end. At Poetry Live there were a lot of people who had talent but will maybe sink into oblivion but it was always interesting being NOT famous and being in the thick of "reality" so to speak. Also given that there was probably a lot of "bad" poetry but who cares..it gives people an opportunity to express themselves and participate & so on. Like Karaoke - which I think is a good thing BTW.

Now Manhire and so on are all well known and don't really need (or probably don't desire) to read in such places which is understandable.

But I get the gut feeling that Smithyman would never go there -perhaps he would... not as he was also of but I feel he was more introverted more the intellectual or the very intelligent and eclectic Magpie mind ... it was probably not his cup of tea. Not that I knew him at all well really...now there have been a number of well known poets who red at Poetry Live either as guests or on Open Mike. Some quite famous NZ writers began their careers in that way.

I only read as one day, I commented to my ex wife I was now writing poetry in 1989 -and she kenw bout the Albion pub where live poetry was going on. It took me while of listening to other before I could get the courage to read myself- I aso got tanked up -now that was in one way good and in another bad as I spent the next severl years drinking and reading at pubs and so on (I also in that time went back to University and did a BA)...I could have done without the booze but it gave me Dutch courage and so on...so.

Had I continued writing of from 1968 I would certinly probably have never read in puib I was very introverted. I would have published via mags etc

10:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - Geoffrey Hill is on YouTube and Eliot is also.

I listened to Eliot and Dylan Thomas in 1968 - we had records of them reading. I loved them both. Different styles but great both for me.

Eliot is perhaps my favourite poet...but there are so many. R A K Mason I read and reread endlessly as teenager...of course I loved all the Romantic poets, Browning (also E. Browning), Bill Shake, and even Poe is are for me great poet (s). So many...death has undone.

((I see Fred Dagg's (alias John Clark's) father had the good taste not only to love the poetry of, but to live - and know and indeed fight alongside Keith Douglas in WW2 (latest Listener on father's day).

The best reading of a poem I have ever heard - with perhaps the exception of Dave Mitchell reading "My Lai" on Jack's record - is a reading by May Swenson about taking a watch to be repaired - it is for me quite exquisite. Her voice and timing was just right. Wonderful. I wanted to hear more of her readings
but I couldn't find any.

11:09 pm  

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