Monday, October 13, 2014

Sir, there is dry rot in the Labour Party

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a few hundred hours in the archives of the University of Auckland library, exploring the forest of Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems one tobacco-yellow, wine-stained leaf at a time.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
believing
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
DRY ROT
and Sargeson. Sargeson writes good short stories
though his novels aren't novels and the Labour Party does
not labour.
                Next year I shall probably return to
Trollope since H. James I do not wish to read again -
still there is Eliot and the
Cocktail

            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]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical Smithyman: avoiding the main point?

8:59 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Or typical Hamilton writing what, at a stretch, might have been by Smithyman?

I hope anonymous appreciates the greatness of Smithyman though.


Of course Labour were useless during the lockouts.

10:34 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Oi! It's 100% genuine! Quite a few folks have paid a visit today,possibly because the title of the post made them think there was something juicy in it about Cunliffe or Shearer or another of Labour's unhappy men...

10:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

So he wrote that. It is not in his usual rather enigmatic or sybilline style. It's more like note to a possible poem.

I think that Smithyman quite rightly found the transient obsession with politics to be irrelevant and stupid unless one wanted 'glory' or power and or money. Otherwise he was an artist in the making.

What does Baxter write: 'Labour Mum and National dad...' etc It is all so tedious this hypocritical parliamentary politics. They all, without exception simply become 'lackeys' of big business. Perhaps they don't quite 'take orders' but....

2:05 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

'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 DRY ROT and Sargeson. Sargeson writes good short stories though his novels aren't novels and the Labour Party does not labour.'

Some of this has possibilities. I also read Joyce Cary. I liked his books, but who is Carew? And the families? I think he rightly left all this stuff out of his oeuvre, but it is intriguing to speculate what he was thinking.

'The Ant' and I were arguing in H to Find about Mead, who I still think is good despite the attacks on her. Books have been written to discredit her (this is usually done when someone dies as in this case).

Yes, seems like a satire, semi-humorous account: Smithyman, as Murray Edmond says, writes from the positions of history, magic and imagination (and indeed dreams, he seemed to have some very vivid dreams, and also the 'real' is interfused with the imaginary, facts and details by philosophic 'assertions' that are often hesitant and or ambiguous...

An extraordinary writer indeed. Not perhaps to be read in large swathes, but a few poems at a time from time to time.

2:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think "Carew" could be Thomas Carew (prounounced "Carey" according to wikipedia), an early 17th century English poet. Critics attempted to revive his reputation in the mid-20th century, which would fit Smithyman's pose here.

3:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. I recall now, strange to see beside Cary. I see he is in my 'Metaphysical Poets' which remains largely unread. I have trouble engaging with those poets except maybe Marvell (Stead wrote a an essay on his Cromwell poems) and Herrick somewhat.

Donne I started to read my way through and some of Traherne (who Smithyman quotes in at least one poem). But Donne I find is quite hard work.

One gets the feeling K. Smithyman read almost everything to do with poetry and much else.

Yes, it would suit his pose. This might have built to an interesting poem. He probably abandoned it.

9:57 pm  
Blogger Christopher Thompson said...

My mother was a good friend of Mary Smithyman. I recall spending quite a lot of time at Nile Road in the early 60s. The Smithyman boys - much older than me - had quite sophisticated toys. Kendrick was quite scary but my parents, even my father, a naval officer, enjoyed his rambling conversations. I asked my mother the other day how she'd met Mary. She replied 'Probably through Helen Birks'. Lots of people knew Helen and Laurie Birks; I rather suspect they were an essential lubricant of Auckland intellectual society in the 50s and 60s and they're quite forgotten nowadays, aside from the odd reference to their Lapita pottery excavations in Tonga.

6:58 pm  

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