Why I'd rather visit Smithyland than Hobbiton
[NB: I've cut out the first half of this post, because it seemed, with its drawn-out - and, I still think, substantially accurate - criticisms of Peter Jackson's movies, to be taking attention away from the poet and the book I had intended mainly to discuss.]
Even some of John Key's more thoughtful supporters seem to be despairing of the effect that Key's favourite film-maker has had on New Zealand's image. In a plaintive opinion piece last weekend, the senior Herald staffer and confirmed right-winger John Roughan lamented the way that a 'robust rural community' like Matamata has been redefined by Jackson's movies as the abode of cheery little hobbits. Roughan expressed amazement that anyone could enjoy either Tolkien's books or Jackson's films, and expressed his hope that The Hobbit would have as 'little to do' with New Zealand 'as possible'.
Yet many New Zealanders disagree with Roughan. The overwhelmingly white crowds which turned out in Wellington and Auckland on Labour Weekend to support Jackson and his American corporate friends in their battle against orcish trade unionists were a sad but not unexpected spectacle. Apparently lacking any real identity and any real sense of their country's history, the members of those crowds were able to wield, in all seriousness, placards with slogans like 'New Zealand is Hobbiton' and 'Keep New Zealand Middle Earth'.
It is interesting to compare the response of many Kiwis to Jackson's Tolkien films and the reaction of the people of Kazakhstan to Sacha Baron Cohen's movie Borat, which caricatured that country in the same way Jackson caricatures New Zealand. Many of us want to rename this country Hobbiton, and our government and Tourist Board have rushed to embrace Jackson's films. In Kazakhstan, by contrast, the government and the people have condemned Cohen as a racist and repudiated the character of Borat.
A recently-released unauthorised sequel to Borat by a Kazakh director reanimates Cohen's character and turns him from a caricature into a real human being living in a real society. New Zealand's government and a section of its populace have cowered in the face of threats from Jackson's mates in Hollywood; Kazakhstan's government and its film industry have laughed off the threat of legal action from Cohen's corporate backers. Perhaps it's time we Kiwis stopped laughing at Kazakhstan, or at Cohen's parody of Kazakhstan, and looked at ourselves?
For the past few weeks I have spent much of my time in a country very different from Hobbiton. If Hobbiton is a place of cliched peoples, impoverished landscapes, and ponderous, hackneyed plots, then the place I have taken to calling 'Smithyland' is filled with strange characters, ever-changing landscapes, dense and diverse flora and flora, and unexpected happenings. It's a country which is at once familiar and surprising, ancient and new. Smithyland is New Zealand, filtered through the strange and fertile mind of one of our greatest poets. If he were still alive, Smithyman would probably be unimpressed by the anti-union hysteria that Jackson and the government have tried to stir up in recent weeks. Smithyman’s father was an activist in the Industrial Workers of the World and the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in the turbulent years before World War One, when workers’ militia and government paramilitaries fought gun battles in the streets, and the old radical sometimes blamed his politics for the trouble he had finding regular work in the 1920s and '30s.
Although he abandoned his early belief in ‘Communist philosophy’, claiming that it simplified reality too much, the mature Smithyman retained a sardonically sceptical attitude toward New Zealand's economic and political establishment and its overseas allies. The poems in Private Bestiary, which include passionate attacks on the treatment of rank and file soldiers during World War Two, mocking indictments of American economic and cultural imperialism, and cries of indignation about the treatment of Maori in mid-century New Zealand, underline Smithyman's status as a critic and conscience of Kiwi society.
Smithyman did not, however, specialise in what we might call protest poetry. Where his mate James K Baxter often wrote polemics against the aspects of New Zealand society he detested – the 1966 poem-sequence Pig Island Letters, for instance, examines and excoriates James K's homeland in coruscating detail – Smithyman usually focused on creating poems which embodied, in their language and their layers of meaning, alternatives to what is worst in our society.
Smithyman is, in other words, less concerned with taking a stand on one or another issue than he is with showing us a manner of thinking – a manner that is deeply historical, unpretentiously learned, and tolerant of ambiguity, of difference, and of disagreement – which can help us find our way out of the limitations of our present ways of life and thought, and help us to appreciate those parts of our surroundings that we usually either overlook or stereotype. When he was asked to sum up Smithyman's poetry a few years ago, the critic Gregory O'Brien replied 'it's the opposite of television'. O'Brien might have added that Smithyman's work was also the opposite of Peter Jackson's films. Where Jackson and his ilk simplify, Smithyman always complicates, in wonderfully entertaining and educational as well as occasionally baffling ways. Who else could find cosmic significance in the lives of his oddly-named cats, or leap from the North Shore to Sheffield and back in the space of a few well-chosen words?
Because he is interested in complicating our sense of ourselves and our society, Smithyman often uses his poems to champion awkward, unfashionable figures from both our past and our present: revolutionary ‘Red Fed’ trade unionists like his father, seditious Maori prophets like Papahurihia, Te Kooti, and Aperahama Taonui, the white whalers and sealers who rejected respectability to live amongst Maori in the nineteenth century, eccentric academics and autodidacts who study strange and strangely instructive subjects, indifferent to the amusement or bemusement of their friends and colleagues, and rank and file servicemen who quietly refuse to take the causes they are asked to fight for seriously. Above all, perhaps, Smithyman champions those residents of the unfashionable, isolated regions of New Zealand – places like the King Country, the East Coast of the North Island, the Chatham Islands, and, of course, his beloved Northland – who refuse the lure of distant metropolises, and insist instead on making lives for themselves in areas either despised or ignored by many of their wealthier and more influential countrymen and women.
Although he was critical of aspects of New Zealand society, Smithyman's poems offer evidence of his basic confidence in its members. In his early poem 'Walk Past Those Houses on a Sunday Morning', he turns the new working class Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier into a symbol of hope:
Walk past those houses on a Sunday morning
where pianos stumble in front rooms,
mechanics freed from tools take shears
to clip their hedges, talking politics...
Count them again, these things, the League ball
punted across the park, processional eighteen
footer sails, cold meat and salad at five.
Somewhere there’s value to them. As a piano stumbles
something comes into being. It will take shape in the end.
Smithyman had his weaknesses and his blind spots, and there is more to New Zealand than what we find in his poems. Even so, the 'Smithyland' they create is a place which most of us can recognise, even as we marvel at details and perspectives which are new to us. I'd certainly rather spend some time in Smithyland than in Hobbiton.
If you'd like either to discover or rediscover Smithyman's strange and yet strangely familiar world, then you're invited to the launch of Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993 on Wednesday the 17th of November at the University of Auckland's Old Government House, from half-past five. If you're a Tolkien fan as well as a Smithyman fan, or a Tolkien fan who hasn't read Smithyman but would like to argue with my outrageous and simplistic arguments over a beer, then don't despair: you're very welcome, and you'll find that one of the speakers at the event, the distinguished Jack Ross, who has a handsome new edition of his own Smithyman book in the works, is very keen on Lord of the Rings indeed. As Smithyman himself always recognised, one of the great things about literature is the way it fosters endless argument, rather than sterile agreement.