In the second half of 2010 I spent a few hundred hours in the archives of the University of Auckland library, exploring the forest of Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems one tobacco-yellow, wine-stained leaf at a time. I collected several dozen of Smithyman's 'lost' poems in a book called Private Bestiary, but many had to be left in the wilds of the archive. 'Dry Rot in the Labour Party' didn't make my publication list in 2010, but its title has been echoing in my head lately. You can guess why.
Smithyman wrote the poem in 1951, the year when Labour, under the leadership of Stuart Nash's great grandfather, was struggling to remain on the sidelines of the Great Waterfront Lockout, a battle between the National government of Sid Holland and the militant section of the trade union movement led by wharfie Jock Barnes.
Labour's failure to support Barnes and his comrades had been forseen by a young man named Robert Blake. In 1950 Blake had used an article for Here and Now, a small magazine linked to the Communist Party of New Zealand, to accuse Labour of abandoning its socialist policies in return for political respectability, and of betraying its allies in the trade union movement. Blake's article was called 'Dry Rot in the Labour Party'.
Smithyman was an occasional contributor to Here and Now, and had espoused communist politics in some of the letters and poems he wrote from various barracks during World War Two. But his poem seems, to me at least, like a satire of Kiwi intellectuals who tried, in the unpropitious conditions of post-war New Zealand, to combine support for communism with a bohemian lifestyle and avant-garde tastes in the arts. As Smithyman takes the mickey out of Robert Blake and co., he offers a portrait of a cultural and political world that disappeared decades ago.
Leave your interpretations in the comments box.
Dry Rot in the Labour Party
Sir, I am my own man thinking my own thoughts,
not blown about by merely a popular wind
IS DRY ROT IN THE LABOUR PARTY
I come to my own conclusions without respect
to orthodoxy or heterodoxy, I find my way
Read and relaxation are right for child-bearing
Margaret Mead is right for the anthropologist
political truth somewhere between Burnham and Bukharin's
DRY ROT IN THE LABOUR PARTY DRY ROT PARTY
Landfall is stodgy but Here and Now has purpose,
Weeks is the best painter in New Zealand,
recently I bought Lee-Johnsons, now I buy Patersons,
the Listener film notes aren't what they used to be,
we need ballet and opera and have a Recorded
Music Society to which I do not belong
although it is there if I want to belong to any
PARTY DRY PARTY DRY LABOUR
I discriminate in my jazz: I know some of the names
of some of the cats on the old platters and also
I know Derek who blows a mean licorice stick.
The National Symphony Orchestra? Always
the National Symphony Orchestra even if honestly
sometimes, you know,
I like Cary's novels
but I don't think I should like Carew's novels
because there is
and Sargeson. Sargeson writes good short stories
though his novels aren't novels and the Labour Party does
Next year I shall probably return to
Trollope since H. James I do not wish to read again -
still there is Eliot and the
PARTY DRY PARTY
When I'm out at a party I drink beer.
Occasionally I make my own, I am not a brewer's lackey.
In the last three years I have known three interesting
families: Poppelbaum's, Vrcjmskuch's, and mine
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]