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This article is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

on Ken Smith
Among Strangers and Distances
Sean O'Brien
Ken Smith, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe), 647pp, £14.99

IN 1978, KEN SMITH (1938–2003) was the first poet to be published by Bloodaxe; it is fitting, then, that the publication of his Collected Poems marked Bloodaxe’s fortieth anniversary. It is a cause for celebration, although, as we know, most poetry does not survive its authors. Secondhand bookshops offer an object lesson in hopes which have been not simply disappointed but obliterated. I don’t think either of these things has happened to the work of Ken Smith, but he seems not to have as wide a readership his work deserves. He may have to be introduced to younger readers. For some of them the world he occupied may seem more like an interesting allegation than an actual passage of history in which, among other things, the grim conditions of the present were created and foretold.

Roger Garfitt, in the revised introductory essay included here, portrays a writer born to travel light. The son of an itinerant farm worker, Smith grew up in Yorkshire, his family finally settling in Hull to run a grocer’s shop. After national service in the RAF, during which he took A-levels, he went to Leeds University to read English. Like Smith himself, the centrality of Leeds in British poetry in the 1950s and ’60s is currently under-recognised, though a roll-call which also includes Tony Harrison, Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill, Jeffrey Wainwright, James Simmons and Martin Bell should speak for itself. After working on Silkin’s magazine Stand, Smith set out on his travels, firstly in the United States. His first collection, The Pity (1967) was enthusiastically received, but Smith wanted to release his work from what he saw as the constraints of much English poetry (to which he would later refer as the ‘Rupert Bear School’). The result was Work, Distances / Poems (1972), which did not find a publisher in Britain. It was not until Neil Astley began to publish Smith’s work in 1978, with the pamphlet Tristan Crazy, that a second phase of recognition in the UK could begin, by which time Smith’s combination of lyricism and laconic observation was clearly taking shape. Here was a poet to be reckoned with.

The extinguishing fact of time fascinated Smith. In ‘Country: Keld to Reeth’ from his first book, The Pity, he wrote, ‘we left / not a mark, not a footprint; / the cold forest, the birds of the moor / do not recall us’. Smith is hardly alone in this sense, except that for him it is an apprehension rather than merely a habit. ‘To Survive’, from The Poet Reclining: Selected Poems 1962–80 (1982) makes the case still more austerely and vertiginously: ‘Each day the last, / each a survivor. A shaft / other days fall into.’ And later, in ‘Movies after Midnight’, one of the ‘London Poems’ from Terra (1986), he returns to the theme with abrasive, sceptical humour: ‘Even the prime numbers are slowing up, / all the best words have moved to Surrey / and we have just a few at discount now / to make farewells that vanish with us.’ All oblivions are equal, but some are less equal than others, as it were. Smith was imaginatively in on the ground floor of financial deregulation and the boom for which the Docklands Development Corporation served as the starting gun. ‘After Mr Mayhew’s Visit’, a response to Thatcherite ‘Victorian values’, foresees what our experience has confirmed in the years since Smith died: ‘Only this time it never ends: the master / continually remarking how the weather bites cold, / the brandy flask stands empty, and the poor / are pushing to the windows like the fog.’

Smith is not beguiled by ‘relevance’ or content to vent anger. He speaks to the recurrent conditions of life, especially as they act upon those who, like him, grew up without power or expectations. In ‘Sunk Island, that winter’, from The Poet Reclining, Smith writes of ‘a man at the end of himself’. The work is rarely far from a sense of absolute exposure, vulnerability, cancellation by history. The prospect is witnessed in ‘To Survive’ by ‘a man made of nothings’, where, ‘At night the dark / looks out on itself, and the days pass, / a chain of black flowers’. In this period, Smith’s faith in the integrity of his own perceptions allows him to write of the barbarism of the Holocaust without inflated language and without making special claims to insight – errors that would risk making history into a kind of property. In ‘Het achterhuis’, he imagines a glimpse of Anne Frank at a window, while the world proceeds: ‘Mice on the stairs, grey packets of dust. / The ice making its maps out of water. / On the square stones of the Prinsengracht / Soldiers’ boots tapping links recht links, / In its season the chestnut’s sudden blossom.’ To the older generation the mice on the stairs may well evoke the novelty song ‘Old Amsterdam’, the last chart entry by the Hull singer Ronnie Hilton. The cognitive dissonance produced by this connection serves to enforce Smith’s recurrent sense that the world is indivisible. This deceptively modest ‘Het achterhuis’ makes a provocative contrast to the urbanity of Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and ‘The Fall of Rome’. For Auden, the vantage-point of poetry is somehow separate from its material and enables the poem to contain it. Not so for Smith, who is ‘always lost in it’.

The figure of the solitary is ever-present in Smith’s work – in the form of the wanderer, journeyman, non-aligned observer, a voice somewhere among the hundreds of speakers who pass through the Collected Poems. In his long narrative poem Fox Running (1980), we hear from a man who has somehow fallen through the economic and familial net. Fox is at the mercy of homelessness, joblessness, lost love, lost conviction, near-destitution. He also endures the response of what sounds like what was then the Department of Social Security, when a functionary enquires, ‘oh we’ve written a book have we?’ The degree of exposure, want and desperation endured by those in Fox’s situation has of course worsened in the years since Smith wrote Fox Running, but the re-conversion of poverty into disenfranchisement was being extensively rehearsed at the time. The line is also a nod to Basil Bunting’s ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’, where the poet Tom Pickard, seeking support for his writing, is instructed by a council committee man to ‘Go and find work’. Generally speaking, Rupert Bear and his chums do not encounter such treatment, but for Smith, like Pickard, it is part of the territory, which in any case he does not own.

For signs of permanence and of home in Smith’s work we seek out references to a beloved ‘dancing partner’ and to herbs grown in a back garden. Everything else is transitional or momentary. There is also an unbreakable strand of black humour at the absurdity of circumstance. In a slightly later poem, ‘Departure’s Speech’, we hear:
        Is there no end to this?
Will no one switch me off, unplug me at the wall,
disconnect the supply or seal me in a vacuum flask?
Will no one tow me out to sea and sink me at night,
shoot me into space or shoot the pony out from under?

The exuberant negation is oddly cheering. Smith steps lightly among the grim instances, sustaining the momentum over 100+ lines. The humour itself is a form of dissent, its dark glee recalling jokes from Soviet Russia but also the margin of self-possession often found among working-class men including members of the armed forces, prisoners and others under the scrutiny of the state, for whom rancour is a form of dignity and wit a kind of victory: ‘Let’s hear it for the secret police, / a much misunderstood minority.’

Smith was quite an early example of the prison writer in residence – at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs (1985–87), about which he wrote both a prose work, Inside Time (1989) and much of Wormwood (1987). The name was a gift for Smith. He was a keen herbalist and quick to spot the word’s apocalyptic dimension. The prison itself seems set apart from the world, and yet the voices to be heard there are, but for the grace of God, our own. Someone sings ‘I’m nobody’s child’: ‘And no wonder’, someone replies. Smith remains unsentimental: there are men inside whom you could help, and others whose gaze you do not meet. It’s tempting to think of the gaol as the quintessence of everything it is set apart from, where the notional visitor may encounter his ‘dark brother’. In ‘What the righteous don’t know’, we hear, ‘we’re their shadows / wherever they are in the light’. In comparison with Smith’s work at this stage, much other poetry can seem cluttered and perhaps inhibited by anxieties about achieving a desired gravity. The plainness of Smith’s work, which is not the same as simplicity, reads like a liberation. The poems breathe, rather than standing to attention. They offer a bracing, wintry vision of an England we recognise as both ours and a place of exile.

Smith rarely settles to a set piece. In ‘Zoo Station Midnight’ (from The Heart, The Border (1990) where the Zoobahnhof in Berlin would provide an irresistible temptation to many poets in this regard, Smith treats it as a space where history is always arriving. There are Nazis on the streets once more, and the cries of the animals in the Tiegarten during the air raids can be heard. The train ‘arrives in a flurry of flags and snow / with wolves howling, taking the width of the night / to get here. It arrives dragging the sheets // of its landscapes – peasants, fires, shoes, no shoes, / speeches, snags of barbed wire, bayonets, / the apple blossoms of spring, the marsh air.’ The effect resembles waking up while still awake, with the sense that for all the theatricality of the train’s arrival, the properties it carries with it remain real, more real, perhaps, than the daily assurances of so-called ordinary life. More than this, a stranger appears and offers ‘a bar, a taxicab, a place to stay, / a woman, it takes a little paper money, / a word from him and we’ll be out of here and into history.’ What we may have considered to be the stagey rhetorical apparatus of a universe whose centre is 1933-1945 turns out to be ‘the real thing’.

Many of Smith’s extensive travels took place in Europe, including trips behind the Iron Curtain pre-1989. He never wrote ‘travel poetry’, partly because he never seems like a tourist, partly because, as has been said, it’s hard to tell where he considered home to be, given his inexhaustible restlessness. The worlds he observed, the sometimes enigmatic comments he overheard and noted down, seem as fleeting as the traveller’s connection with them: conversation in a bar in the East End can seem as strange and evanescent as a central European city glimpsed from the train. ‘Blue Prague: the worst you can say in Czech’, from Wild Root, opens:
It’s true I desire to go far away
and mutter to myself in the wind,
taking the long train of myself off,
lost among strangers and distances.

Nearby is ‘Narrow Road, Deep North’, recounting a journey to the Western Isles, which seeks to go still further off, to close the distance between wish and deed. ‘Let the light bleed out. / Let there be me and the landscape / and the moon, dreamer // when the dream goes out / into the next and the next’. Mortality, the ultimate elsewhere, seems to be a part of this aspiration. It was while travelling, in Cuba, that Smith contracted Legionnaire’s disease, from which he recovered, only to contract a secondary infection, from which he did not.

It comes as no surprise that Smith seems not have been a joiner, politically speaking. His affiliation seems to have been to a tolerant humanism, whose frequent denial and deformity he took care to record. In Wild Root (1998), he included the damning ‘Part of the Crowd that Day’, which considers the propensity of ignorance, idle curiosity and lack of imagination to produce complicity in horror. The poem deserves to be printed in its entirely, for its own sake and for its renewed timeliness:
They watched the pilgrims leave for Santiago
gawping by the roadside. In the harbour
watching the boats gather they knew something
was afoot, so many horses and these armed men.
Mostly, it was all too difficult to believe.
They watched the stones rise in the cathedral.
They watched the stars. They watched winter
follow summer and the birds fly south again.
They watched the thieves carted up the road
to Tyburn and the beggars whipped through town.
They were townsfolk, craftsmen, shopkeepers,
the labouring poor who came in from the fields.
They watched the witches burn, the heretics.
They watched the ships leave for the Americas.
They were on the bridge at Sarajevo the first time.
They saw. They wondered. They shouted
burn her, hang him, slaughter the Albigensians.
They were the onlookers, the crowd a gasp runs
mouth to mouth down the grumbling street
as Marie Antoinette goes by, and this time
they are shouting for her head. There goes
the Iron Duke, there the beaten Corsican,
and this the little father of all the Russians,
this the firing squad. They were on the hills
looking down on burning Rome, and still around
when Il Duce came to town, and how they cheered.
They gawp at the hungry, they gawp at the dead.
In the end they are not spared. In their turn
everything happens to them. Of any half dozen
one has a secret vice, one an incurable disease,
one a deep faith in God and the rest don’t care
one way or the other. But they see it happen.

This remarkable poem depends on something that became characteristic of one area of Smith’s work at quite an early stage – a confident plainness, generally avoiding figurative language and rhetorical flourishes, in favour of lucidity and a faith in the power of uncluttered sentence construction. This approach is not really typical of recent English poetry (though there are affinities with Jeffrey Wainwright’s work). ‘Part of the Crowd that Day’ takes a place alongside Louis Simpson’s ‘To the Western World’, for example, or Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead’, as in important public poem of history. Roger Garfitt suggests that Smith learned from American poets such as David Ignatow and John Haines, which seems true in some earlier work. But ‘Part of the Crowd that Day’ has stronger European affinities. The comparison that comes to mind is with Zbigniew Herbert of ‘To the Hungarians’ and ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, where a near-taciturn irony is a means neither of evasion nor display, but a measure of moral sanity and integrity. Testimony may make no difference, but it remains a final obligation, its very futility a sign of probity. 

This article is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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