Private Bestiary: Selected Unpublished Poems, 1944-1993 by Kendrick Smithyman, edited by Dr Scott Hamilton, Titus Books, ISBN 9781877441172, RRP $34.95, Available now.
Poetry, to me, is like music. You feel it in your soul. Even if you can’t play a note/write a sonnet to save yourself, you still know good music/poetry.
Kendrick Smithyman is probably a name heard of but not familiar to the general New Zealand reading public (outside of NZ Lit 101 students) but Private Bestiary is the perfect example of why this really shouldn’t be the case. It’s a collection of unpublished poetry from Smithyman (who was a prolific NZ writer during last century, writing poetry, criticism and literary history).
Editor Scott Hamilton* accompanies the selected poems with a short but insightful biographical overview of Smithyman’s life, times and career, as well as a note on every poem with context and background.
And it’s all fascinating! Insights into the drudgery of Smithyman’s WW2 service, his domestic life in the 60s and 70s, even just documenting a stay in a dreary small town motel – it almost seems he wrote about everything, and in a rare (but not rarefied) voice.
Hamilton makes a point about Smithyman’s poetry being considered “radical” during his lifetime, particularly by literary editors of the day who by and large seem to have been mostly rather conservative in their choice of poetry to publish.**
The irony now is that it’s Smithyman’s difference in voice that makes his poetry so enjoyable to read; you can hear a person’s voice – not just a poet’s. As Hamilton says:
The truth is that Smithyman was not some convoluted, self-absorbed word-geek, but a man with a great deal to say to his fellow New Zealanders… The best of the poems Smithyman left behind are carefully crafted, multi-faceted portraits of New Zealand’s past, present, and possible futures. They should be seen as part of the cultural inheritance of every Kiwi.
With Private Bestiary Hamilton and Titus Books have contributed a vital piece in ensuring that happens.
the sky looked at the ranges
and the ranges bent back at the sky
*Also known as Maps from the stonkingly awe-inspiring blog Reading the Maps.
**Which got me pondering how times have changed with regards to content publishing. Writers of Smithyman’s time who wanted to publically publish writing were so behoven to the opinions of others – unlike today where, let’s face it, this blog is a prime example of the interwebs ethic – have content, will publish. I’m not reliant on literary journals or similar publications to find an audience for my writing. We have an amazing choice; to publish and to read in different voices.
And I’m honest enough to know that my blathering about books is probably not “Landfall” material. So the editors of Landfall don’t have to be all “Unicorns is not an adjective” and I don’t have to be all “I am The Writer and I will bend the language to my will” and you don’t have to be all “We only get one choice in our reading about reading and it doesn’t have enough unicorns.” Interwebs win!