Thursday, November 18, 2010
Launch of Private Bestiary: Selected unpublished poems 1944-93 by Kendrick Smithyman, edited by Scott Hamilton, Titus Books.
"Kendrick Smithyman died in 1995, fifteen years ago. I vividly remember an occasion a year or so after Kendrick’s death when I was invited by his widow Margaret Edgcumbe (who is present this evening), and his publisher, Elizabeth Caffin of Auckland University Press, to visit Kendrick’s study at his home on the North Shore to look through his literary papers and offer some advice about what if anything was worthy of posthumous publication. It turned out to be a remarkable experience.
The first thing I found was that Kendrick had left his papers in exemplary order; everything was carefully sorted and arranged in boxes, files and folders, all clearly marked. There were typescripts of five complete books, three of which have subsequently been published. The first was Atua Wera (meaning the fiery god) consisting of nearly 300 poems about Papahurihia, the Ngapuhi tohunga and prophet, predecessor of Te Kooti and Te Whiti. Ever since his early 20s Kendrick had ambitions to write about the North, where he was born. At 21 he wrote to his friend Graham Perkins (who is also here this evening), “I feel rather restless, looking for the day when I can get back to the North and have a stab at doing what I want, to get it down on paper properly.” Eventually he did get it down on paper properly in a poem which is the closest thing we have in New Zealand to an epic poem. To Kendrick’s great satisfaction before he died AUP had agreed to publish Atua Wera.
AUP subsequently published a second posthumous volume, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, a fascinating book length sequence of poems about his paternal grandfather and father. Smithyman’s poems have the reputation for being difficult, and so in many cases they are, but not in this book, written initially for his sons, which reads as easily as a novel or memoir. The third posthumous book was the short poems that had accumulated since Auto/biographies (1992), the last book published in his life time. These were published by Holloway Press as Last Poems in 2002.
The other two complete MS have not been published as books, except in the online edition of Kendrick’s Collected Poems that Margaret Edgcumbe and I edited in 2004. Both were travel collections by a writer who hardly ever left New Zealand, though every time he did he wrote a book about it. The first time was when he was sent to Norfolk Island at the end of World War II, when he wrote the long sequence ‘Considerations of Norfolk Island’; the second was when he spent 6 months sabbatical leave in Leeds in 1969; the third was when he went to Canada primarily to attend a literary conference in Toronto in 1981. Out of the trip to the UK came Journal 69, which makes a chronological sequence of the poems he wrote in England, Scotland, Canada and the U.S., many of which are he scattered through his earlier books; Scott has included a new poem from this trip in Private Bestiary. The Canadian trip led to Festives People Places Pictures Book, a few of which have also been published in other collections.
The next discovery of that memorable day was multiple versions of a Collected Poems. It emerged from examination of various folios that Kendrick had first assembled a Collected Poems as early as 1960, and that there were three other versions, the latest of which was held in more than a dozen manila folders each dealing with a chronological period, 1943-50 etc., plus the complete books I have mentioned. It became apparent that Kendrick had been putting this last Collected Poems together since his retirement from the university in 1987, and that he had radically revised many poems, including almost all the early ones. This was the Collected Poems he wanted to be remembered by, and this was the version that Margaret Edgcumbe and I put on the Holloway Press website.
The other major discovery was that in about a dozen box files, organised by alphabetical order of their first lines, Kendrick had preserved every draft of every poem he had ever written; sometimes a poem might have gone through at least a dozen versions up to and even after initial publication. Eventually Margaret Edgcumbe generously deposited these boxes in the University of Auckland library where they are now available for students and scholars to examine. These are the boxes into which Scott Hamilton has been delving to come up with this fascinating collection of unpublished poems (and this means poems not previously published in journals, Kendrick’s books or even the on-line Collected Poems); so this is the first time these poems have ever seen the light of day.
And what a remarkable group they are. They stretch in time from the poet’s early twenties to his seventies (1944 to 1993), and across many of his experiences and preoccupations – the second world war and Kendrick’s unheroic even anti-heroic contribution to it; his blighted marriage; his travels abroad and round the country; his love-hate affair with Auckland city; his passion for cats; his deep interest in Maori and Pakeha past and present; his love of a good story; his experimentation with poetic form and language and much much more. The book is a lively introduction to the Smithyman world and even extends it in ways that have not been known before.
So much for Kendrick’s part. But Scott has done much more than simply dig out these interesting poems from the archive; valuable as that is. He has written a substantial introduction that offers a new version of Smithyman’s significance – more critical, more socially and politically engaged – than we have seen before. As well, he has written a fascinating commentary on each of the poems which explains some of the references and puts the poems into a wider personal, social and cultural context which deepens their interest and significance. Scott takes his cue from Kendrick himself. Back in 1952 Smithyman published in New Zealand Poetry Yearbook a long poem in 8 parts called ‘Of Death by Water’, never reprinted though included in the on-line Collected. At the back of the Yearbook is a Note which runs to three dense pages. These, poem and note both, are Kendrick at his most impenetrable. The next time he wrote Notes was for his 1978 volume Dwarf with a Billiard Cue. He quoted the poet William Empson who said ‘to write notes at all is to risk making a fool of yourself’, to which Kendrick added, ‘Still, the same may be true of writing poems’. Scott’s notes always illuminate the poems and further enlighten us about this most fascinating of writers. Many are well-researched mini-essays in their own right, examples being his essay about the role of Americans in New Zealand in World War II in relation to the poem ‘Liberators’, or his note about the phenomenon of Pakeha Maori in relation to the poem of that name and the one called ‘At Jacky Marmon’s Grave’.
Speaking as one who has attempted through my own editing and writing to make Smithyman’s writing accessible and better known, I am delighted to welcome a scholar of a younger generation who is carrying on the work of introducing new readers as well as convinced Smithymaniacs to new aspects of one of our most prolific and engaging writers. Congratulations to Scott Hamilton and to Titus Books for bringing us this absorbing and important book".
My thanks to Peter Simpson for making this thoughtful address available to my blog and its readers.