Smithyman's magic 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,
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.