Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reasons for choosing Smithyman over American Idol

It seems I can't please anybody at the moment. After being pilloried by the Garage Collective for my love of art galleries and similar bourgeois indulgences, I've been condemned by an anonymous commenter for abstaining from last Friday night's episode of American Idol. According to my latest critic, I should have been in the lounge room with Skyler and Muzzlehatch, cooing and cackling at the renditions of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Let's Get It On', instead of sitting alone in the kitchen defiantly reading Kendrick Smithyman's 1983 poem 'Deconstructing':

That Smithyman poem was weak. It's just a typical boring New Zealand nature poem, with a pretentious title thrown in to deceive readers. Well, to try to deceive them.

How just is this criticism of the man nicknamed by his peers 'the sly old fox of New Zealand verse'? It's true that 'Deconstructing' is set in the Kiwi countryside - the action, such as it is, takes place in the vicinity of Donnelly's Crossing, a village located between Dargaville and Waipoua in Smithyman's beloved Northland. But I believe that the poem is a good deal more than a simple Kiwi pastoral. In order to defend 'Deconstruction' I want discuss some of the complex background to the poem.

By the 1980s the curious creed known as postmodernism had reached the English Department of the University of Auckland, where Smithyman taught. A new generation of students was challenging the orthodoxies of its teachers by making provocative claims about the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘constructed nature of reality’. A stylish new literary journal called And was established by students and junior members of staff to help spread the gospel of Derrida and Barthes. Young writers like Leigh Davis and John Geraets tried to turn the imported French theory into poetry.

Arguments about postmodernism were only part of a wider conflict between 'internationalist' and 'nationalist' tendencies in New Zealand arts. The old question of whether Kiwi artists ought to create work which reflected a distinct national identity was kicked back and forth by painters, writers, musicians, critics, and academics. For one critic, the opposition between internationalism was and nationalism was symbolised by the gap between the cool abstract canvases of Max Gimblett - a Kiwi who relocated to New York, as soon as he could afford to - and the scruffily realistic paintings of the New Zealand backblocks that Dick Frizzell churned out in the late '80s and early '90s.

Many of the self-styled postmodernists linked their brash rejection of the 'local and special' to their contempt for what philosophers like to call the naive realist theory of language and the correspondence theory of truth. Derrida's ridicule of the idea that humans can access a pre-linguistic reality - that we can simply invent words for things that were already 'out there' - resonated with the postmodernists' weariness with the cliches of realistic art and writing. If reality was structured through language, and the 'truths' which art and literature told about the world were the product of language, not the correspondence of words with a pre-existing reality, then why bother trying to capture the 'local and special'? One might as well write or paint about anything, or indeed nothing, it seemed.

Smithyman was no stranger to philosophy. He had been one of the first Kiwi intellectuals to read Heidegger and Wittgenstein, philosophers who had challenged the correspondence theory of truth much more intelligently than Derrida would, and he had long been fascinated by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who proclaimed that the world was continually in flux. (Smithyman was also familiar with the work of Marx and Lenin - both of them big fans of Heraclitus - from an early age, thanks to the influence of his father, who was a radical trade unionist.)

Smithyman's reading in philosophy is reflected, to some extent at least, in his rejection of notions of a nationalist 'New Zealand manner' of poetry. In his 1965 book-length study of Kiwi poetry, A Way of Saying, Smithyman describes Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch's poems about New Zealand identity - poems which talked about a young, ahistorical land full of 'empty hills' crying 'for meaning' - as part of a 'South Island myth' which did not describe the reality of most Kiwis' lives. Smithyman's awareness of the difficulty of distinguishing language and reality, and of the complexities which airy generalisations could disguise, made him extremely attentive to the details of the world around him. His poems about New Zealand attempt again and again to illuminate places and human experiences that have been ignored or distorted. In one part of 'Deconstructing' Smithyman seems almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he has set himself:

An abandoned railway line’s last
station, scruffy general store also garage
wornout fridges at roadside where used to be
old milkcans for meat and mail; after,
that place where the post office was and the school
then, and then where the school before that was.
It’s all sheep now.

God, how many years of it
passing through, passing by. I was transported,
have driven, drive. Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.

Smithyman's rejections of naive realism and literary nationalism did not imply an acceptance of the postmodernism which became suddenly fashionable amongst his students in the 1980s. Smithyman's obsession with New Zealand landscape and history, and his proud identification of himself as a 'provincial' flew in the face of the rather self-conscious cosmopolitanism of many of the postmodernists. The impatience that some postmodernists felt toward Smithyman's provincialism was expressed by John Geraets, who complained to me that Smithyman's poems were so full of local reference that they could not be easily 'exported' to readers in other cultures. Geraets felt that most New Zealanders, let alone French or Americans, would struggle to understand much of Atua Wera, Smithyman's epic poem about the Hokianga prophet Papahurihia, without either travelling to Northland or doing a great deal of reading in the history of the region. (To his credit, John was prepared to make that sort of effort - he wrote a Masters thesis on Smithyman which he honed into an influential essay for Landfall.)

I think that what John Geraets saw as a weakness in Smithyman's poetry is in fact a strength. Now that the high waters of postmodernism have receded, we can see that the phenomenon produced a large amount of writing and visual art which seems altogether disposable. Without the elan of intellectual fashion to ride on, an installation by Merylyn Tweedie or a poem by Leigh Davis seems an insubstantial thing, an accumulation of whims that is as pretentious as it is arbitrary.

For all the overheated language of its manifestoes, postmodernism was coopted extraordinarily easily by commerce, and its susceptibility has to be related to the traits it shared with the neo-liberal economic, social, and political thinking that was so in vogue in the '80s and '90s. Just as many postmodernist artists wanted to produce a highly mobile, international work stripped of references to the 'local and special' and roots in communities, so neo-liberal economists and politicians talked of making 'capital mobile' and 'pulling down the walls' - protected markets, nationalised assets, welfare systems - that protected communities from international market forces.

It is perhaps not surprising that Leigh Davis, the shrillest New Zealand advocate of postmodernist literature, became a Treasury economist and then an investment banker after leaving university. As a senior executive at the Fay Richwhite company, Davis helped to gut the New Zealand railways system, which had been sold to his employers for a pittance by the neo-liberal Lange-Douglas government. By the time Fay Richwhite had chewed up the railways, thousands of New Zealanders had lost their jobs, and whole towns had been closed down.

As a critic and poet, Davis advocated and created fragmentary texts, made up of units of reference ripped from any recognisable historical and social context. Words were mere counters, to be moved about in complex games. As a member of Treasury and a suit at Fay Richwhite, Davis treated human beings as mere economic counters, to be shunted this and way and that - or, worse, cast onto the scrapheap - according to the rigorous but irrational prescriptions of neo-liberal ideology.

Smithyman was not a particularly political man - he had what he called a 'love affair' with Marx and Lenin in his twenties, but his passion for any sort of direct political engagement soon cooled. Nevertheless, his poems can be treated as acts of resistance against the cultural logic of capitalism in the era of globalisation. If postmodernists were, to use the priceless phrase of Alex Callinicos, the 'intellectual shock troops of neo-liberalism', then Smithyman can be counted as one of the intellectual defenders of the landscapes and histories that neo-liberalism would like to deny and desecrate. Smithyman's poems stress the value of the natural world and the human community, and the right of both to persist on their own terms:

A blackback perched
on the old beerhouse macrocarpa
examines us, opposed to our business,
objecting to our reasons and whatever motives
have people shoot off some film to flash
his domain as so many black and white

If people are suspicious of you
don't be surprised or offended.
Try not to give offence.

They have been offended against
for several generations. They have good
reasons for being suspicious.

If you talk of the dead, be tactful.
The dead are emphatic presence.
They are there in visible ground of being,
they are there, caved in the hills.
They have nothing to do with you,
they may say.

Cave robbing, grave spoiling,
these are (remember) unhappy facts
remembered. If you are asked "What do you
expect to get out of this? Why are
you doing this?" answer as honestly
as you can, remembering

in turn, not one family or clan here
has not had experience of dealing
with men who swore they were honest.

The dense web of local references, unique syntax, and eccentric lexicons of Smithyman's poems means that they embody the resistance to 'black and white images' that their author urges.

What can we say, then, about 'Deconstructing'? Is it really a cliched description of rural New Zealand, adorned with a pretentious and misleading title? I think that the poem's title is essential to its meaning. 'Deconstructing' can be read a poem which turns the tables on fashionable postmodernists by taking the unfashionable Heraclitus and the equally unfashionable countryside near Dargaville and using them to deliver a lecture on the fluid nature of reality. It is not necessary, the poet seems to be implying, for us to make fools of ourselves by chasing hopelessly after an intellectual bandwagon from America or Europe - if we look hard around us, and if we look hard at the past, then we can find enough complexity and flux to keep ourselves very busy indeed. Smithyman seems to offer a similar lesson in one of his most famous poems, 'Reading the Maps an Academic Exercise':

Carry on to the Head. You cross
the old tramway which used to go up to
the Harbour, remains of the one time main road
to gumfields (south of the river and this next
river) out from the edge of the Forest. It went on
down the coast, then climbed inland on the line
Of a Maori trail. Of course, the map doesn’t
say anything about that. Maps can

tell you about what is supposedly present.
They know little about what’s past and only
so much about outcomes. They work within
tacit limits. They’re not good at predicting.
If everything is anywhere in flux
Perhaps we may not read the same map twice.
In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman alludes again to Heraclitus’s claim that ‘one does not step twice into the same river’, as he considers the natural and human changes that a creek in rural Northland moves through, as it flows toward the sea, and the constantly-changing way that we view the creek. Smithyman warns that what seems well-known – the Kiwi countryside, a Greek philosopher dead thousands of years – can contain all types of surprises:

Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.
The seeing part, and saying part...

Heraclitus was only talking about rivers,
or about when a shallow creek running over stone
begins to think that it’s a river.

In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman shows that one need not reject an engagement with community and history to object to the strictures of naive realism and nationalist literature. A poet can be provincial and yet highly sophisticated. Perhaps 'Deconstructing', and Smithyman's poetry in general, is that rare thing - the manifesto of a movement which has not yet been born.


Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I shall refrain from responding to your caricature of postmodernism, lest I set you off on another stage of this relay polemic you've got going, but also and primarily because I don't want my particular gripes in that area to detract in any way from how lovely I think this piece is. Kudos.

11:12 am  
Blogger maps said...

You're right - there is an element of caricature in my portrait of postmodernism. The phenomenon was (is?) more diverse than my generalisation allow for.

I have some sympathy for Derrida et al, but I think they threw the epistemological baby out with the bathwater. And their devotees in the Arts Faculty of the University of Auckland were often still less subtle. I'd actually be very interested to hear your view of the phenomenon - I promise not to charge off into another polemic in response!

11:43 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

And their devotees in the Arts Faculty of the University of Auckland were often still less subtle.

I think you hit the nail on the head there: a lot of the sins ascribed to the ‘original’ postmodernists, as it were, are a function of the churning of their ideas by professional academics in the anglo world, especially in the States, who made it into an industry and built or deconstructed and rebuilt their careers around the fancy and inherbiating new paradigms, sometimes outbidding each other on who could take them to the most ludicrous extremes. But I think the fact remains that the work of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes and Lyotard (in a continuum with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, rather than just recycling them) are crucial for an understanding our times, and hardly themselves advocating - any more than a Marxist critic such as Fredric Jameson is - for the delocalisation and internationalisation of culture at the service of late capitalism. Surely neo historicism, to name but one facet, is the very opposite of that move.

Speaking for students, too, although in a different country at the time, I’d have to say those ideas were fashionable (to use your slightly derogatory term) because they fit in with our political reflections and our activism. The struggle for divorce and reproductive rights, the closure of asylums - those were the battles the generation before ours had won in the seventies, and reading Foucault’s histories one felt empowered to do more. They were heady times.

As for the epistemological excesses, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I think Katherine Hayles is right in lamenting how ‘[o]ne contemporary belief likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction’. It’s a position that deserves serious criticism, but that has to be understood in the historical context in which it was produced, as a reaction to other then hegemonic ideas. When the iconoclasts became the mandarins we struck some trouble, but isn’t that always the case, and a function of the way the industry of philosophy and knowledge operates?

Which makes your coming in to bat for Smithyman all the more valuable, incidentally.

12:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

For those who maybe following this dialogue and who struggle (as I do) with terms such as 'New Historicism' - here is a link giving reasonable explication - there is also Wikipedia.

2:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps that was fascinating 'take' on the poem -which I knew quite well - and it's "meaning" - the point is (partly) for all Smithyman's love of "riddling" and his interest in Empson's sibylline "Seven Types of Ambiguity" he was fascinated by reality and its problematic nature. He was very keen on Heidegger - as my tutor in 1968 (I did English for one year) he talked often about Heidegger - most of us were baffled - we neither understood or knew who Hiedegger was) but he also lovingly mentioned his Buller's book of Birds (these books are large and very expensive as they are quite rare or not too easy to get)) - and in an essay I wrote he questioned my use of "brain" instead of mind (but he gave me an average of about 70% for my essays BTW) - I had conflated brain and mind - as I was keen also on science -
but at the end of my essay - he wrote:

"Now go back and think about all the things that need thinking about"!!

In those days I found Smithyman's poetry mystifying but he was impressive in his enthusiasm for ideas - I might not understand his references (probably to techne and so on or dassein) but for me there was something fascinating in his restless and inquiring mind - his constant raconteuring -

I think Postmodernsim, with all its variants, is, for me, and others; at least "idea generating"; and as Giovanni says - ideas of Foucault or Derrida etc can be liberating (I learnt most via either Eagletons Introduction to Literary Theory or via critics or poets or via such as the Language poet Charles Bernstein's essays - the down side is the proliferation of jargon and very abstract terminology etc used [although we don't have to get to the postmodernists or some of the disciples amongst the Language poets etc - we can get bogged down in the Poetry Encyclopedia - philosophy of whatever time is always difficult - I find) in some ways [the density and prolixity of language used] [was used] to foreground what is called "the materiality of the sign" but perhaps taken too far...

I like, or find stimulating, certain aspects of PstMdnsm - but I remember buying a book by Derrida and I opened it and I read the first sentence in his book: "This book then shall not have been a book" Now I loved that but the rest looked too difficult so I shut the book, but I remembered that and also took ideas indirectly from the language poets or critics using postmodernist ideas - I like some ideas of Foucault and Barthes (I like his less 'theoretical' essays - they read almost like literature - or they read as philosophy that is literature; literature that is philosophy but a lot of the theory I just found too difficult...I don't think there can be a "pre-linguistic" reality or that spoken language comes after written - but I find people like Derrida quite fascinating. Davis - yes - there are dangers - can we separate Davis the writer from Davis the Capitalist - the money broker? And what about his friend Wystan Curnow who worked with Billy Apple?

I like the challenges they (and other post modernists* set - but certainly neither would be (I assume) very keen on the Garage Collective's working class art...

[Also either the Brainy PMdnsts or the Garageologacalistical Worker Realists tend to form orthodoxies which sometimes one feels it is almost dangerous to oppose or critique]

I want to zero in more on your essay on Smithyman's poem as I agree with some of it but feel that Smithyman was in some ways actually deconstructing 'reality'** in his poem (whatever 'deconstructing' means exactly - or inexactly!)...or non-maliciously making an ironical swipe at (possibly Derridean) deconstruction as well as using the idea...

Of course those who dismiss Smithyman as pretentious or obscure are quite wrong he is/was a great poet and very centered in 'reality' (there is a dark side to his writing about NZ also - I detect a sense as well that this land - in some ways he felt was 'alien' - not only to Europeans but everyone); and also a depth in Smithyman that is almost 'mystical" - so I will get back to the poem in anther post...

But for too long Baxter and Sam Hunt and few others have been elevated - but Smithyman is the poet who will interest future generations of those serious about writing, about NZ, and life in the deep sense of life.

*Like religion Postmodernism has so many "faces" or denominations - I recall you once describing Smithyman as "proto-Postmodernist.

**And maybe of course deconstructing deconstruction...!

3:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post (and comment thread)

And I'd go for poetry any day over that programme

5:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

did this smithyman believe by any chance in the cult of evolution?

ps your a satanist richard taylor

8:04 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Callinicos is a bit of a duffer. How could pomos be the shocktroops of neoliberalism? That was the CIA and Suharto and Pinochet and of course General Dayan and Co in Palestine in 1967?
Pomo originated in France with the defeats of 68. It was an anti-comnunist, anti-marxist denial of class determination and became the celebration of the unique individual among high intellectuals that only later spread as a blight to the chattering classes. It was light bright wallpaper plastered over cracking ruins.

My view of Derrida is a St Jaques the reincarnation of St Max Stirner of German Ideology fame. It was the ideal twist on bourgeois ideology to perfect the "free" as in causally free, individual career climbing financier, academic, whatever. Why, because in the rush of neo-liberalism pomo meant you werent responsible for others and you could claw your way over your rivals without guilt.

Neo-liberalism, that is the return of Hayek, Friedman etc was the particular ideology that was wheeled out to as the shock therapy. Pomo was the intellectual rationalisation of the market in philosophy.

On Smithyman I agree that he is a serious poet that deals with social reality. I wonder why you call him "provincial" it seems a concession to Orientalism. I would have thought that he was more cosmopolitan than the pomos because his understanding of the social history he was expressing took into account Maori society, and settler society on a world scale.

I imagine he was making this point by sticking close to the ground because that is where the reality is. The land, the people, the living off it, the settlements, coming and going, how else is the reality of colonisation to be depicted in poems as compared to essays or political economy texts? Unless you are Fairburn.

In the singular, not in the provinces, was the universal expressed. Wheras for the pomos the universal was dead and buried in the sacred singular as in an exchange transaction.

Its a shame he didnt stick with the Marxism though. Marx cut his teeth on Heraclitus but he grew up on Hegel and then dumped him. Smithyman lacks forward motion to borrow the Garage Collective phrase. There is nothing propelling him through the contradictions and out the other side.

8:54 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Is there a reason one can't read poetry (I am a fan of Smithyman) and watch the occasional pop TV show?! Jack Ross may support my point of view?

10:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I haven't watched TV for over six months now, but I've become convinced that the television is a far more anti-social, intrusive, and evil device than a computer (networked or stand-alone).

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that one of the rudest things you can do when entering a room where others are present is to turn on the TV--unless of course they were there to watch TV. It's like inviting an outsider into the room to talk without regard to anything or anyone else. The ultimate distraction.

My sister just flicked on the TV in our room outside of Sequoia and I did same thing as last night: put on my headphones and iTunes. It's just like when my dad did the same thing earlier this summer near Mt. Shasta. Luckily I brought headphones with me then too.

I find it exceedingly difficult to concentrate or focus on anything other than the TV when it's on. Perhaps I'm no longer "conditioned" to block it out. Or maybe I never was.


11:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

american idol lays eggs in my brain. kendrick smithyman lays brain on my eggs. what's a gal to do?

12:17 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Watch American Idol, definitely. You're unlikely to find out in the paper or from a friend who won in the latest Smythiman poem - so you can get to that at much greater leisure.

12:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Well, I grew up when there was no television, no computers as such, no calculators (we used log tables or slide rules) we had a valve a.m. radio with (from memory) only 3 stations and on those, I think only one had adverts on. My brother in law then was in electronics and showed me one of the first ICs in the 60s - I saw transistor in about 1957 or so (my friend's father was an electronics and radio engineer (in fact he set up the first simulation and tests for TV systems before they were started here in NZ) - my father refused to let us have a TV. I finally hired one in 1967 (B&W) My grandfather studied TV as he was interested in new technology and engineering and I recall reading his book on how TV cameras work in the early 60s - later (about 1986) I used that to answer a question in an exam for my engineering certificate!

Rutherford of NZ, who "split" the atom, was the first in the world to set up a a long range radio transmission - here in NZ - before Marconi in fact...

Technology is neither good or bad it is how we use it.

But I find that with some exceptions TV and even music on the radio is disturbing - I prefer silence - or sometimes Bach - I seem to default to Bach - people should try just sitting and listening to the sounds around them.

I do watch some of Idol - as my son likes it, and I like some of it - I think one can learn from it - one can learn what not to do. (One can also learn from and enjoy Smithyman or whatever else) People make the mistake of equating their inherent worth with some "great" results such as winning a huge amount of money or getting great fame. Neither (none of these future events) will help a person who in her or himself lacks real self love - or love of life and being.

If one 'fails' such a competition in fact one learns more from 'failure' than success (who defines success?) - as person realises a that this is the way life is - at all points - however we are - great "stars", millionaires, paupers, we fail or succeed and it is nothing to do with competition or outside judging by others of ourselves; or "stardom" - it is to do with living life as it is lived to the maximum or optimum - with being alive in the present moment and being free from useless worry etc. I go for walks, play over chess games by masters, I read, I write, I listen to the radio (but not talking - unless it is informative - only classical music) - whatever - but TV - like any technology is a tool, sometimes I watch it - I liked 'Ice Truckers'... but I limit my watching and for a long time I stopped watching TV or listening to the radio.

My son and I sometimes watch the same videos or TV shows but he likes computer games, and walking also, he reads some books, but not many, but he is quite happy all things being equal, which is the main thing - the main thing is to be happy!

TV annoys me because of the adverts. like all tech it is a double-edged sword.

People seem to use the telephone less and they write fewer letters - where will be all the great letters of the future - who will keep email in packets?

But there is no qualitative "betterness" between Idol or Smithyman, Bach or Madonna - we just all have different likes and dislikes - we are all unique and in different moods or situations - and there are many alternatives, and different activities we can do...

2:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard taylor, in response to recent question about God,

there is good evidence for an old universe and also a young one. Both may be right. We live in a particular reference frame in linear time, and we have no idea what things were like at the time of creation. Dimensionally, we live in 4 dimensions, but there may indeed be 10 or more that are no longer part of this universe. If we are indeed living in 4 of 10 dimension, I suspect that our universe is running on fumes. The laws of physics may be nothing like what Adam and Eve enjoyed. Someday the universe will be repaired. I'm sure to the people living on the earth at that time, it will seem magical.

however i repect you for trying to find out about these things.

3:03 pm  
Blogger The Paradoxical Cat said...

I'm a fan of both Smithyman and American Idol, and I don't feel the need to choose between.

Great discussion though!

2:38 pm  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Oh God. Where to start.
Ok. First off, re 'language poetry' and Davis, Davis is the exception to the rule. If you look at the eponymous journal (availibel in pdf here, along w others like Open Letter etc, it is obvious that the writing tactics employed are generated by a radically marxist agenda - see especially Bruce Andrews' essay "Writing Social Work and Political Practice". The situation has canged, but that doesn't mean that one reacts by throwing out the toolbox, so to speak (and the works and concepts of these theorists are precisley that - tools, not gospels).

"As for the epistemological excesses, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I think Katherine Hayles is right in lamenting how ‘[o]ne contemporary belief likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction’."

logocetricism is only one strain of "postmodernism" (a term incedently i don't like, see Marjorie Perloff's 21st Century Modernists: the 'New' Poetics), I find the post-Nietzschian strain of folks like Deleuze and Guattari to be far more useful. though it seems only to be expected that poets would subscribe to a fetishisation of language.

As for Dave, everything he says is shit. D&G, Derrida, etc, they were all direcly involved in 68, and if he had actually read anything by Deleuze, Foulcalt, Levinas especially, he would realise that the ethics involved are based firmly upon (an almost a priori) responsibility to the Other.
My experience is that many classical marxists get their panties in a bunch over this kind of thing through it's critique of the dogma of dialectical materialism, which they take as gospel. Just because someone takes issue with marx does not mean they are neoliberal or the enemy of the proleteriat.

3:16 pm  
Blogger Kauders said...

An interesting post, though it doesn't quite gell with my own (admittedly rather fleeting) memories of the Auckland English dept of the 1980s nor of Kendrick at the time. I don't think postmodernism is the best name for the kind of theory we were interested then. But I truly loved the post on the Waikato and its history.
Simon During

1:11 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This is all still relevant as Smithyman is probably NZ's greatest poet of the 20th Century and probably one of the world's greatest.

I don't see him "rejecting" postmodernism and I don't see Davis as being "bad" (as in fact if we go that way we have to recall that the families of both Engels and Wittgenstein were millionnaires and Wittgenstein is in fact one way to postmodernism as is Heiddeger who influenced Derrida.

Marxism worshiped is like modern literary theory worshiped - both approaches lead nowhere - Smithyman combined quite brilliantly a kind of Idealism (a la Hegel, Niezsche, Sartre to Derrida etc) with Materialism via Empiricism (from say Descartes and Plato or Aristotle who also link to Idealism and a priori Ideas as well as the beginnings of "science") to Locke, Berkley & Hulme and via Marx to say Sartre. Foucault and Derrida as well as Barthes were well versed in all these philosophers. Smithyman was also a wide reader, a deep and intelligent thinker. I doubt if he was particularly "progressive" (any more than Brunton was although I think Brunton's activity as a poet and actor-performer was a kind of politics in action).

But another great poet, Wallace Stevens was a businessman (wealthy) as was the great innovative musician Charles Ives - he was a multi millionnaire who entered business after he had composed his great music - I heard Davis reading at AU once and he was a very nice fellow. I know his association with big business is problematic but if that was a problem we would have to discard Shakespeare who was a very keen businessman, who struggleed via litigation to get a Coat of Arms and other kinds of status, formed a prosperous business, sold his plays, and in his plays has very little that is particularly postitive or "hopeful" as some kind of reassuring "message".

Then there is the great modernist T. S. Eliot who was anti-Semitic and so on.

Smithyman's "greatest modern poet"? It was, he said to Ted Jenner, W. B. Yeats (over Pound): now no one would claim any working class sympathies with Yeats with his bizzarre theories and ideas and his sympathy with such things as Eugenics and "ceremony" and the supposed Irish aristocracy.

So the attempt to elevate him to a provinvial part-Marxist realist with cheap shots at philosophers etc is to read too much into what Smithyman did in his art, which was that, art - high art. Nothing about progress or anything as such.

Deconstruction was and is a marvelous tool that he coopted. He was a brilliant "magpie" who picked up a vast eclectic mass of Detailia - from that by design and imagination he created his strange poems of Idealist-Realism - or ideas which used Eliot's prfound idea of the 'objective correlative' beautifully in poem after poem.

He was a subtle and sympathetic "riddler" like Heraclitus - of and to whom it could be said the fragment adhered regardless of Reaganism or Friedmanism other isms pertaining to the downspiral of Labour (Smithyman didn't need to worry too much he always had a job at the University, the scythe came close but harmed him not too harmfully)....

The Holocaust of Rogernomics and the corruption and decline of the Labour Party cant be laid at the feet of Davis.

12:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good to see Simon During on here.

12:03 pm  

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