Is the writing on the girder for Smithyman's detractors?
In the 1930s a group of young British poets led by WH Auden started to introduce industrial imagery and left-wing rhetoric into their work, and earned the nickname 'the pylon poets' from conservative reviewers. Now Auckland has seen the birth of girder poetry, as eight of the new concrete supports of the northern side of the harbour bridge have been covered with the work of writers associated with the Shore.
It is interesting that the New Zealand Herald chose to give prominence to Kendrick Smithyman when it reported on the decoration of the girders. The Herald showed a photo of the girder covered by Smithyman's 'Building Programme', which was written in 1966 and published in his monumental posthumous Collected Poems, and quoted two lines from the text.
Kendrick Smithyman produced a huge number of poems and won a cult following during a career that lasted from the '40s until his death in 1995, but he never attracted a large public audience. Reviewers like Lauris Edmond, Peter Crisp, and Iain Sharp condemned him as a mandarin intellectual who produced intolerably obscure texts.
Atua Wera a nod in his Blackout triptych. My own annotated selection of Smithyman's previously unpublished poems appeared in November 2010, under the title Private Bestiary. Lauris Edmond, who used a review in The Listener to claim that Smithyman was not even a poet, let alone a good poet, would not be impressed by all this activity.
My fellow Smithymaniac Jack Ross has suggested that the very complexity of Smithyman's poems - their weight of geographical and social detail, their layers of historical reference, their hidden meanings waiting to click shut like possum traps over the toes of impatient or thoughtless readers and reviewers - makes them increasingly attractive as the decades go by, and as poets who were more popular than Smithyman in their lifetime, like James K Baxter, seem to have been adequately explored and explicated by critics.
Where a poet like Baxter tends to build his poems around himself, making their images and rhythms into direct expressions of his ideology and his psychic state, Smithyman's poems move away from their author, out into the world. They may sacrifice the directness and eloquence that Baxter had, but they offer their readers much thicker slices of life than Baxter could provide. Peter Simpson perhaps made the same sort of point as Jack when he said that, like Walt Whitman, Smithyman's poems 'contain multitudes'.
Does the Herald's decision to focus on Smithyman, rather than on traditionally more famous writers like Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, and Frank Sargeson, reflect the growing interest in a poet once dismissed as unreadable, or is it simply a coincidence? Of course, literature is not an Olympic sport, and it is neither possible nor desirable to rank writers like Sargeson, Frame, and Smithyman as though they had run a one hundred metre sprint against each other. Nevertheless, I find the idea that an increasing number of New Zealanders might consider Smithyman as a writer in the same class as Sargeson or Frame exciting.
'Building Programme' is one of a number of poems in which Smithyman uses the changes to Auckland's skyline in the second half of the 1960s as a metaphor for crises in both his own life and New Zealand society. In Private Bestiary I published a poem called 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', which Smithyman wrote in 1966, and which features some of the same imagery as 'Building Programme'. Here's 'Letters Fall Like Feathers', along with the commentary I gave it in Bestiary.
Letters Fall Like Feathers
A fashion of wildness,
supporting an alley way of mirrors.
By the Central Post Office
I sat down and slept.
The new hotel is a biology;
horror has many cells.
Disposed around a rigid frame
they swell, in limits of their capital.
The alley stores keep mirror faces
clean, but trade in conscience.
Look through, and see the good you cannot buy
that waits behind the form that is not you
yet seems to be, part glass, part vision,
part illusion, mixed up with words
to tell you what was special of the day -
‘One hundred and seventy-five permanently
reduced lives.’ One of them is yours.
So by the steps I sat and slept
while letters fell like feathers to appoint
a time of meeting, terms, and some regret.
Wilderness howled in the Fun Fair.
People eat desolation, played machines,
screamed in the Room of Horrors,
voices rising to assume a place
in darkness, twinned to steel.
Time scarcely matters. The hotel
is memories before the workmen quit.
You use hotels, for sleeping, if you can.
Some people claim they live in them.
This is one of a series of poems which record Smithyman’s wanderings through Auckland’s central business district, which is bordered on the east by the university where he spent so much time. At about the time that ‘Letters Like Feathers’ was written, the French philosopher and political provocateur Guy Debord was popularising psychogeography, which he defined as the ‘study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment’ on ‘the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. Whether or not Smithyman was familiar with Debord, ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ could be considered one of the first psychogeographic poems to be written in New Zealand.
The lines ‘By the Central Post Office/ I sat down and slept’ allude to the Anglo-Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s book-length prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which in turn alludes to the famous phrase ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’ from Psalm 137 of the Old Testament. Smart’s poem records the breakdown of a relationship in extravagantly melancholy language; Psalm 137 laments the exile of the Jewish people in more solemn language. Smithyman’s marriage was in trouble by the time he wrote ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ in 1966, but he was too ironic and self-deprecating to channel Smart’s furious regret. Where she weeps loudly, he is content to sleep.
Moving toward the university, Smithyman observes the brand-new Hyatt Hotel on the corner of Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant, but is unimpressed by the building. For him, it symbolises the inauthenticity of Auckland, a city which prioritises the interests of ‘capital’ and offers its visitors ‘mirror faces’ rather than genuine encounters with other human beings. Some people may claim they can ‘live’ in hotels but, as Smithyman’s favourite philosopher Martin Heidegger liked to point out, there is a difference between living and merely ‘dwelling’. Heidegger dismissed modern cities as ‘machines for dwelling’ rather than places where people could feel genuinely at home; in ‘Letters Fall Like Feathers’ Smithyman seems to agree with him, at least so far as New Zealand’s largest city is concerned.
When Smithyman writes ‘The hotel/ is memories before the workmen quit’ he seems to allude ironically to TE Hulme’s one-line poem ‘Old Houses’, which reminded its readers that ‘Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling’. A pioneer member of Britain’s modernist movement, Hulme was a man who took an almost futurist delight in modernity and its technologies. If Hulme’s poem ennobles the messy business of construction by reminding us that it is a prerequisite for the beauty buildings may acquire in their maturity, then Smithyman’s poem seems to condemn the Hyatt as doomed to ugliness and a kind of obsolescence even before it is completed.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]