Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Uncorking the bottle

The great German-Jewish poet Paul Celan once compared his texts to messages in bottles. Nobody could tell in advance, Celan insisted, whether a poem would find an understanding reader, or whether its message would be lost.

When I edited a selection of Kendrick Smithyman's previously-unseen poems last year I certainly worried that I was throwing bottled messages into a vast and indifferent sea. Smithyman published over seven hundred poems in his lifetime, and many more have emerged since his death: could anybody, I wondered, possibly want to read more? Weren't the poems already in circulation, with their notoriously dense range of references and sometimes complicated forms, enough to go on with, for a few decades at least?

I worried, as well, about the prospects of the long introduction and extensive notes I included in Private Bestiary: Selected Unpublished Poems 1944-1993. A last-minute count revealed that the book had five thousand words penned by Smithyman and eighteen thousand from the hand of Hamilton. Wasn't Smithyman garullous enough, without the addition of page upon page of commentary?

At the launch of Private Bestiary I argued, a little nervously, that the poems in the book were important because they revealed little-known facets of Smithyman's life and thought, like his traumatic experiences during World War Two and his impassioned exploration of both Polynesian history and radical politics. I went on to explain, or to attempt to explain, that the notes to the poems were not supposed to lay down drily definitive interpretations of the poems - contrary to what certain academic explicators still sometimes assume, there is no definitive interpretation of any poem - but rather to get a conversation going.

Poetry is surprisingly popular in New Zealand. Poets like James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare are icons, and during important rituals - funerals, weddings, ANZAC Day services - Kiwis tend to use verse to express their emotions. What is in short supply in our society is not poetry, but rather talk about poetry. We receive poems with reverent or disinterested silence, instead of replying to the messages they offer with our own thoughts and reflections. Kiwis love to argue about other forms of art - they'll quarrel over a few beers about whether the latest Tarantino movie is any good, or whether The Beatles or Led Zep is the greatest band in rock 'n roll history, or whether the latest axing from Master Chef was warranted - but they tend to fall silent at the mere mention of literature. Literary critics are an endangered life form on our islands, so that even well-known authors sometimes struggle to find reviewers for their work.

I'm pleased that at least some of the bottled messages I sent out on behalf of Kendrick Smithyman last year have been discovered, opened, and read. At the launch of Private Bestiary Peter Simpson read out a long and erudite response to the book, which was soon reproduced on Beattie's Book Blog. West Auckland historian Lisa Truttman placed a short but supportive review on her own marvellously-named Timespanner blog. Justin Gregory found a copy of Private Bestiary lapping by the shore, and invited me onto National Radio.

In the last few weeks three additional responses to Private Bestiary have appeared. In a lengthy and thoughtful review posted on his blog Nae Hauf-Way - the name comes from A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle, the mock-epic poem by wayward communist and Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid - Dougal McNeil considers Smithyman's fascination with some of New Zealand's more unglamorous regions in the light of the 'anti-terror' raid on the Ureweras by paranoid police in 2007. McNeil has seen one of the first screenings of Operation 8, a documentary about the raid, and he is convinced that an encyclopaedic ignorance of the history and sociology of the Ureweras is partly to blame for the event. McNeil doubts that Smithyman would be impressed with such ignorance:

There are the telling details of throw-away ignorance, to be sure – notably here the inability of most journalists covering the case to learn Tame Iti’s name – but a deeper, structural racism and ignorance (what might be glossed, following Smithyman, as provincialism against regionalism) sustained the entire media and police fantasy of a terrorist plot in New Zealand...

Smithyman’s work reminds us of the ideological fictions which make up the imagined community “New Zealand”, of the regional specificity of so many of our struggles and campaigns, of the patchy – and often inconclusive – process of colonisation, of the presence of historical injustice pressing upon the present...

If McNeil brings out the contemporary political relevance of some of the work in Private Bestiary, then Ngaire Atmore, who runs the popular Bookie Monster website from the beautiful old spa town of Te Aroha, celebrates the range and accessibility of the book's poems:

[I]t’s all fascinating! Insights into the drudgery of Smithyman’s WW2 service, his domestic life in the 60s and 70s, even just documenting a stay in a dreary small town motel – it almost seems he wrote about everything, and in a rare (but not rarefied) voice.

Hamilton makes a point about Smithyman’s poetry being considered “radical” during his lifetime, particularly by literary editors of the day who by and large seem to have been mostly rather conservative in their choice of poetry to publish...The irony now is that it’s Smithyman’s difference in voice that makes his poetry so enjoyable to read; you can hear a person’s voice – not just a poet’s.

Atmore notes that if he were alive today Smithyman would be able to use the internet to self-publish some of his most radical work, and thereby circumvent conservative literary gate keepers. I think that Smithyman would delight in the looseness and spontaneity of blogging, and that he would also be a frighteningly prolific e mailer.

Smithyman may not have lived into the online era, but the massive Collected Poems edited by Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson is a triumph of internet-only publishing. I hope that readers introduced to Smithyman by Private Bestiary will explore some of the thousands of webpages of the Collected Poems.

Bill Direen has reviewed Private Bestiary in the latest issue of his mostly-offline journal Percutio. In recent years Direen has divided his time between France and New Zealand, and Percutio gives space to artists and writers from both continental Europe and the South Pacific. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bill's discussion of Bestiary focuses on the poem Smithyman wrote for James K Baxter, a man who tried, in his life and in his writing, to bridge the cultural and ideological divides between Maori and Pakeha:

[Discussing 'Letter About Hemi'] Hamilton cheekily asks whether Smithyman might be suggesting that Hemi (James K Baxter) and Heidegger and Rilke...are little more than "righteous prophets" who may have changed their outward manner without changing their words. Yet 'Letter About Hemi' contains no implied criticism of Baxter's mysticism or words. Smithyman writes 'I respect his gesture'. If there is modest questioning, is it not of Baxter's attempted cross-culturalism, his attempted outward transmigration among races, customs, and religious practices?

'Not many' become cultural mullatoes 'by act of will', writes Smithyman; and then: 'Much of what we act is quoting'. Indeed. And much of what we quote or adopt may be malapropism, anachronism or itself mistaken.

No matter what one thinks of Baxter's public gesture of faith and his deidentification with mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture, I have the impression, reading Hamilton's selection and his valuable notes, that Smithyman spent
his life trying to change not his outward gesture but his innermost one, manifest in these twenty-eight wonderfully honed poems.

McNeil, Atmore, and Direen have read Private Bestiary in the light cast by their own interests and tastes; by doing so, each has illuminated aspects of the book, and of Smithyman's work in general, which had remained obscure to me. Thanks for uncorking the bottle, folks.

Footnote: while we're on the subject of reviews, I should mention Lisa Samuels' take on my Titus Books comrade Jack Ross' Kingdom of Alt in the brand new online extension of Landfall. It's good to see a complex and innovative book get a lengthy and sympathetic treatment in New Zealand's most venerable literary periodical. I have a special interest in Kingdom of Alt, because I'm a character - a semi-fictional character, perhaps - in one of its stories, an exploration of conspiracy theories and literary hoaxes called 'The Purloined Letter'. More about all that in another post...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent piece by Dougal McNeil!

12:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Eliot Weinberger has a great essay about Hugh MacDiarmid in his book of essays "Karmic Traces" (that book is a tour de force itself). It is available from the Auckland Library.

A Private Bestiary" is great work Scott. You have opened Smithyman up to many people and enriched NZ culture and history with that book.

I think that the "political take" on Smithyman is taking him a bit far, but as you said to me many years ago "There are many ways into Smithyman." (your comment to mine that he was rather difficult).

Also, everyone will have their own Smithyman, as everyone who (likes him! Or hates him but is not indifferent!); has their own Auden say (depending on what period or "jag" he was into and when he was writing etc) (I agree with Bill, I don't see that poem about "Hemi" of Smithyman's as a (strong) critique of Baxter as such): Smithyman was quite a different kind of poet (both, it is often forgotten we hugely well read and were academics, Baxter had an MA, and knew his classics and his poets, and this is often forgotten by those who see (say) the "Jerusalem Sonnets" Baxter (and indeed those poems are worthy additions to our literature also)...)

I contacted a site / Blog and some one was writing about difficult or long and interesting works such as Pound's 'Cantos', Merrill's 'Changing Light at Sandhover' (bound to be as that is a mammoth and complex work) and say J H Prynne (I know Jack has indulged in Prynne, I never got to understand anything by him! (yet)) or David Jones of 'Anathemata' etc and I called their attention to Smithyman and the Blog person thanked me after looking up Smithyman and was very impressed by what he saw, and sees Smithyman's poetry as extraordinary and was surprised to find such a writer, so I gave links to (as well as your book "A Private Bestiary" which he will see on Titus etc) this Blog, Jack's, Brief, the Collected and so on as well as my own Blog and to Titus.

He wants me to write about Smithyman and possibly David Jones.

Would you or anyone else also be interested in writing? Elucidating or reminiscing? Particularly on Smithyman. (There may be other poets or writers that someone wants to focus on). I can give the appropriate links.

I'll send an email to you also.

(I'll get back with more details of the Blogs etc in question)


11:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poetry changes nothing.

11:33 am  
Blogger Richard said...

In Memory of W.B. Yeats


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. "

Auden says:

"For poetry makes nothing happen:
... "

But then: "... it survives..." a phrase which he repeats twice.

So it is rhetoric. And the question begged by anonymous is: does it matter that it makes nothing happens? Or does anything "make things happen"? What does "makes things happen" mean...?

If it adds to human happiness or interest,it has made something "useful" happen. However "useful" is defined.

Dr Siegbert Tarrasch, a Doctor and also one of the greatest chess players ever, said of Chess (that famously "useless game") that "Chess like love, like music, like art, has the power to make men happy."

One could substitute "Science..",
or "Religion..",or "Money..."

None of them, it can be argued, make anything change significantly in a deep sense:(we hugely overestimate the importance of (and even the reality of) technological change, and in many cases what we think are "innovations" have been around as ideas or knowledge for years if not thousands of years), but they all survive in their different ways).

4:21 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

When he says "The provinces of his body revolted", I wonder if he is borrowing metaphors from Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus'.

4:24 pm  
Anonymous lee/piraha said...

I am interested in starting a Piraha language study group in Hamilton/Auckland NZ.

Is anyone here interested. Poets should be?

To find out more about this unique language see:

6:36 am  

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