Poet and critic Kendrick Smithyman was born in Te Kopuru, near Dargaville, and was a serviceman in World War II. Smithyman’s poems, which he published widely, were often highly allusive, intellectually demanding and syntactically complex. Smithyman joined the University of Auckland in 1963 as a senior tutor in English, a position he retained until his retirement. He won the 1985 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, and in 1990 was awarded the OBE. Shortly before his death at age 73, Smithyman completed Atua Wera, the product of some fifteen years’ research and writing and his magnum opus.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Smithyman, Kendrick (1922–95), poet and critic, was born in Te Kopuru, near Dargaville, where his parents ran a boarding house. They moved to Auckland during the Depression and he went to various primary schools including Point Chevalier and to Seddon Memorial Technical College.
He attended Auckland Teachers’ College 1940–41 and (with Keith Sinclair, a lifetime friend) published early stories and poems in Manuka, the college magazine. From 1944 he began publishing poems regularly in journals such as New Zealand New Writing, the Yearbook of the Arts, Kiwi, Book, Arena, Hilltop and the Australian journals Angry Penguins and Meanjin.
He also published occasionally in the USA and UK. Serving in artillery (1941–42) and then the air force (1942–45), Smithyman spent the war years in New Zealand, apart from a visit to Norfolk Island in 1945, which suggested an important early sequence (‘Considerations of Norfolk Island’—the title was later shortened) included in the second edition of Allen Curnow’s Caxton anthology (1951).
In 1946 Smithyman married Mary Stanley, also a poet. From 1946 to 1963 he was a primary and intermediate schoolteacher, specialising in children with learning difficulties. His first book was Seven Sonnets (Pelorus Press, 1946), followed by The Blind Mountain and Other Poems (Caxton, 1950).
In his earlier poetry he assimilated a great many Modernist influences, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and the Americans John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. New Zealand influences were less evident, Smithyman preferring (at least initially) to avoid the ‘land and the people’ preoccupations of his elders, which he associated with a South Island Romantic mythology (see Mainland).
His poems were often highly allusive, intellectually demanding and syntactically complex. He defended his work against criticisms of obscurity on the grounds that complexity was unavoidable in the modern world: ‘A section of the poetry of an advanced and intricated community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure’ (New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, 1954).
During the late 1940s–50s he published frequently in journals, including the first (in 1947) of the extraordinary total of sixty-four poems he eventually placed in Landfall. But apart from a pamphlet, The Gay Trapeze (Handcraft Press, 1955), and The Night Shift (Capricorn Press, 1957)—a joint publication with James K.Baxter, Louis Johnson and Charles Doyle—he did not publish another book until Inheritance in 1962.
This collection was a mix of both very early and more recent poems, including (among the latter) some of memorable subtlety and intricacy, such as ‘Parable of Two Talents’, ‘Zoo’, ‘Climbing in the Himalayas’ and ‘Snapshots from the Pigbreeder’s Gazette’. Few new poems were written in the early 1960s; Flying to Palmerston (1968) consisted mostly of revisions of poems written in the 1950s, though the title poem pointed in promising new directions.
In 1963 Smithyman joined the University of Auckland as a senior tutor in English, a position he retained until his retirement in 1987. He was awarded an honorary DLitt in 1986. He was a visiting fellow in Commonwealth Literature at the University of Leeds in 1969, and wrote many poems stimulated by his travel experiences in the UK and North America, such as ‘English Effigies’ and ‘Reflections from Golden Gate’.
These figured prominently in his next three collections, all with Auckland University Press, Earthquake Weather (1972), The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974) and Dwarf with a Billiard Cue (1978). His return to New Zealand stimulated some of the best of his poems which engage with the landscape, history and people of Northland, including the sequences ‘An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia’, ‘Tomarata’ and ‘Reading the Maps: An Academic Exercise’, which are arguably his finest achievements.
Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985), which won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, revealed an increasingly anecdotal and narrative tendency, and the corresponding development of a comically loquacious and self-deprecating persona, directions taken still further in Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987) and Auto/ Biographies (1992). A Selected Poems (AUP, 1989), edited by Peter Simpson, included some previously uncollected poems and revisions of many earlier ones.
Shortly before his death at age 73, Smithyman completed Atua Wera, a lengthy, idiosyncratic poem-book about Papahurihia, the remarkable nineteenth-century Nga Puhi religious leader who had been Hone Heke’s personal tohunga. The product of some fifteen years’ research and writing, Atua Wera is Smithyman’s magnum opus.
In addition to being a prolific poet Smithyman wrote criticism intermittently, especially during the period when he was literary editor of Here; Now (1949–57). In the early 1960s he wrote four articles about post-war New Zealand poetry for Mate (8–11), which were later revised and expanded to a book-length study, A Way of Saying (1965).
This idiosyncratic book shrewdly revealed the Romantic affiliations of earlier New Zealand poets, and pointed to subtle regional differences, especially between Auckland and Wellington poets, in his own generation. His account of the aesthetics and practice of Auckland poets (notably M.K.Joseph, Keith Sinclair, Mary Stanley and C.K.Stead) in the period 1945–60 also provided insights into his own poetic theory and practice.
He also produced critical editions of novels by William Satchell, The Land of the Lost (1971) and The Toll of the Bush (1985); and of the stories of Greville Texidor, In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot (1987). He remarried in 1981 and was awarded the OBE in 1990. A prolific, demanding and rewarding poet, Smithyman is perhaps most noteworthy as a kind of literary archaeologist whose self-imposed task was to investigate ‘What place means’ (‘Bream Bay’) in terms of the northern parts of New Zealand he knew so intimately.
Stories About Wooden Keyboards won the 1986 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.
His latest book, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (2002), is the third Posthumous collection to be published after the critically acclaimed Atua Wera (1998) and the limited edition, Last Poems (2002)
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
- There is a bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File.
Updated January 2017.