I've often thought that the short summary of a long text - the blurb for the back cover of a book, or the abstract of a hundred words or so that often precedes an academic essay or paper - is one of the trickiest of all pieces of writing to pull off, as tricky in its own way as a sestina or a villanelle or some other old-fashioned intricate formal poem. How, after all, is it possible to say a few words about a lot of words, without either leaving out a lot of vital information, or else 'betraying' the text you're advertising by revealing all its secrets?
The problem becomes even worse when the text being summarised was produced by Kendrick Smithyman, a man notorious for stuffing his lines and sentences full of minor details, relevant and irrelevant asides, random anecdotes, jokes which are as often puzzling as funny, and allusions to writers as different as Oscar Wilde and St Augustine.
Smithyman often struggled to sum up his own work. When the senior Kiwi historian WH Oliver reviewed Atua Wera, Smithyman's epic poem about rebellious prophets and randy missionaries in nineteenth century Northland, he said that, while the text was very enjoyable, it was 'not really history', because it 'did not contain generalisations'.
Now that you've had fair warning, here's the press release from Titus Books which has a stab at the impossible by trying to sum up Smithyman's latest posthumous publication:
[New light on a Kiwi genius - and on Kiwi society
Titus Books is delighted to publish Kendrick Smithyman's Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993, a volume which offers many revelations about the thought and life of one of this country's great writers, as well as new insights into important aspects of New Zealand society and history.
A scholar, educationalist, essayist, and social commentator, Kendrick Smithyman expressed himself most memorably in the poems he wrote in huge quantities up until shortly before his death fifteen years ago. Smithyman is sometimes considered a difficult, intellectual writer, but the poems in Private Bestiary reveal him as a man of strong emotions and opinions.
Private Bestiary includes a series of poems written during Smithyman's World War Two service which reveal the sinister, runaway bureaucracy the poet experienced inside the military, and contrast it with the comradeship and subversive spirit of rank and file servicemen. Smithyman's war poems, which include an account of a long-suppressed Home Front tragedy and some amusing pokes at the arrogance of New Zealand's American ally, are a fine antidote to the jingoism which ruins too much writing about the military.
Another group of poems in Private Bestiary showcase Smithyman's profound interest in Maoritanga, and in the tragic history of Maori-Pakeha relations. At a time when too many Pakeha writers were treating Maori culture as something marginal or merely of historical interest, Smithyman was diving into the indigenous history of his beloved Northland and celebrating pioneers of biculturalism like the nineteenth century 'Pakeha Maori' Jacky Marmon.
A number of particularly moving poems in Private Bestiary explore Smithyman's troubled and sometimes tragic marriage to his fellow poet Mary Stanley with both compassion and frankness. Other poems in the book deal with the economic and political turmoil in New Zealand in the late 1960s and 1970s, Smithyman's fears of a nuclear war in the 1980s, the poet's love of birds, and his adventures in a ruined medieval monastery in coldest Yorkshire. A set of experimental texts shows that, decades ahead of virtually every other Kiwi poet, Smithyman was writing prose poems, concrete poems, and completely abstract poems.
Scott Hamilton, who is himself a widely-published scholar and poet, discovered the poems in Private Bestiary whilst excavating the vast pile of papers Smithyman left in the University of Auckland library, and has complemented them with an introduction and extensive notes. "These poems are taonga", Hamilton says. "They show us that Smithyman was a poet not just for the twentieth but for the twenty-first century. The rest of us are in some ways still trying to catch up with him."
Professor Peter Simpson of the University of Auckland, who knew Smithyman as a friend and colleague and edited his Selected and Collected Poems, praises the new book for adding to our understanding of Smithyman. "Smithyman is the Walt Whitman of New Zealand" Simpson says. "He contains multitudes, because his interests were so vast. In many ways he is a mountain we have yet to climb. I hope this book helps find him a new generation of readers, and delights established Smithymaniacs."
Private Bestiary will be launched on Wednesday the 17th of November at University of Auckland's Old Government House, from 5.30. Catering will be provided, a competition and giveaways will run, and the bar will be open.
The launch will feature short speeches by Hamilton, Simpson, University of Auckland archivist Yvonne Sutherland, and Jack Ross, who is preparing a new edition of From Campana to Montale, his collection of Smithyman's translations from Italian poets. Kiwi music legend Bill Direen will perform a set of songs, including a specially-composed adaption of Smithyman's poem 'Inheritance'.]
Now that I've gotten Smithyman's beasts off my back, I have to use most of the next twenty-four hours or so to try to finish the rambling index to my book on EP Thompson for Manchester University Press. I've received a series of e mails over the last few days warning that the index has to make its way through the fibre optic cables to that grim northern city ASAP, or else the launch date for The Crisis of Theory will be knocked back by a week or so. A slightly later launch doesn't seem too bad an idea to me, since the book is currently due to be born on April Fool's Day, a date which seems just a little too neatly symbolic for my liking. Kendrick Smithyman wasn't a big index-writer. When he published the densely written and often polemical survey of New Zealand poetry he called A Way of Saying in 1965, he failed to give the book a key. In a 1988 interview, Smithyman said that his book "suffers" from having no index, and noted that "poets had to go through it to find out if they were mentioned." Generations of students writing last-minute essays and in search of a quick nugget of information or quote have no doubt also regretted the missing index.
I wonder, though, whether Smithyman's failure to supply an index for A Way of Saying might have had some logic to it. Certainly, his reluctance to turn the mass of detail in his poems into tidy generalisations stemmed partly from a feeling that 'summing up' up the world robs it of some of its splendour and strangeness.
One of Smithyman's most famous poems is 'Tomarata', a study of a rather unimpressive gumland pond - 'maps call it a lake', the poet concedes - near the northern border of what is still apparently known as Rodney District. Smithyman's ten-part poem uses everything from an improvised one-man archaeological survey to a memory of a visit to York Cathedral to convince us of the beauty and significance of a place which many of us would tend to feel can be summed up in a few short words.
At one point in 'Tomarata', Smithyman seem to warns us about the way that generalisation can steal our ability to appreciate the details of the world around us:
Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none...
We are not called to value, to judge
or be judged.
A life other than ours goes
on neighbouring, near while not of the pond.
Perhaps Smithyman's 'failure' to index his one book of prose had the same motivation as his 'failure' to provide generalisations in poems like 'Tomarata' and Atua Wera? Perhaps he wanted readers of A Waying of Saying to have to travel the length of the book and observe all its many details, just as he took in all the details around Lake Tomarata during his visit to the place.
The writing of indexes, and the writing of books in general, might seem like an almost quaint business today, when more and more reading is done in a piecemeal fashion online. It can be argued, though, that the index and the back cover blurb have their parrallels in the brave new world of the internet.
In a brilliantly contentious article for a 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr claimed that web browsers like Google are making the internet a place where detail is ignored in favour of generalisation, and where the short, transparent summary-text predominates over longer, more recalcitrant pieces of writing. Adapting an old left-wing critique of factory floor organisation, Carr argues that Google and its ilk are creating a sort of 'Taylorisation of the mind' by making us think with greater and greater efficiency:
Taylor’s tight industrial choreography — his “system,” as he liked to call it — was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers...“In the past the man has been first,” [Taylor] declared; “in the future the system must be first.”
Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
The internet is, if Carr is correct, becoming a sort of supersized, superbly efficient index. Elsewhere in his long article, which The Atlantic gave the provocative but somewhat inaccurate title 'Is Google Making us Stupid?', Carr cites a study of the reading habits of academic students, and notes that they seem to be more and more content to read the abstract of a paper or essay rather than take the time to consume the whole text. Carr, who recently published an expanded version of his Atlantic essay under the title The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains, may be an alarmist, who underestimates the positive impacts of the online world on our ability to access, consider, and share information. Even if his bolder claims are false, though, I think he makes a fine argument for the importance of the sort of 'deep reading' which treats a text not as a collection of bullet points but as something complex, unified, and subtle. Like Smithyman, Carr is very aware of the dangers of the too-easy generalisation.
As Giovanni Tiso noted with some justice in the debate underneath the post I made yesterday, I can at times read too shallowly and generalise, not to mention polemicise, too easily (I think Giovanni used a metaphor which involved a bulldozer). One of the things I love about poetry, and about the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman in particular, is the way it drags me out of the 'shallows' into the deep, and immerses me in mysterious detail. I enjoyed editing Private Bestiary partly because the job forced me to read very carefully and slowly, and to refrain from easy summaries and judgments.
In one passage of 'Tomarata', Smithyman describes his archaeological investigations along the interstices of the lake and the nearby sea, using language which was perhaps alludes to the experience of 'deep reading':
Try to read the text of it, dithering
from one to another shape in experience
where any shape discovers itself,
accidental, substantial; removed from
pity or terror. Seeing into.
Looking up to, and down from.
The datum line is sea’s work,
out of hearing, on which built
sandstone dykes. The tops of these,
latest of them, collapse. There have
been others. You read inconstancy.
Some other time, this was forest.
From the lowest open water-channel
I took pieces of fossilized gum.
The stain of soil, difference of textures, told
what became of the tree, where it lay...
Open, to experience that satisfying
feeling of what goes unexplained.
Also, of continuity. True is when
whatever was hidden is revealed.
Is it naive to think that poetry - a certain type of poetry, anyway - might be one of our defences against that temptation to superficial reading and over-hasty judgment which the vast power of the internet creates? And is that why poetry is so unpopular in certain circles? I don't have clear answers to these questions yet, but I'd better get off and write my index...