Smithyman's Shifting Landscapes: Commentaries on Some of the Major Landscape Poems

Ian Richards

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'Along the way he turns aside to explain that nature as manifested in the climate of New York is displeasing to him; Nature, he remarks, never intended anybody to live in such a place, "only in a little bit of Europe and New Zealand". A welcome moment of light relief'. (Frank Kermode, quoting W.H. Auden.)[1]

In 1961 the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, a science-fiction novel about the discovery by humans of sentient life on a distant planet.[2] The planet is given the name Solaris and at once becomes the object of study by Earth's scientists. But these scientists soon find to their amazement that it is the entire planet itself which is alive and not simply some creatures inhabiting the surface. Attempts are then made by the scientists to observe and understand this phenomenon, and several chapters in Lem's novel offer detailed catalogues of scientific data concerning the ocean which seems to cover the planet, though none of this information gives any insight into the deeper workings of the living organism. The ocean, which at first is imagined to be the source of the planet's life, turns out to be only something else which resembles an ocean. Eventually a space station is built in orbit around Solaris which scientists can visit, and in an attempt to communicate with this baffling planetary life form X-rays are fired into its surface. This action results in a series of bizarre appearances on the space station of people created by the planet from the scientists' own memories, soon revealing a lot about the scientists themselves but failing to reveal anything about the planet's consciousness, much less any way of communicating with it. At the end of the novel the scientists are no nearer to understanding or communicating with this exotic form of life which they have found than they were at the book's beginning.

It is possible to read Solaris as a contemporary updating of the many European voyages of discovery in the centuries between Christopher Columbus and James Cook. European explorers, and then settlers, arrived in lands so alien as to baffle them, and any indigenous inhabitants, to the extent that these were regarded as anything other than a hindrance, were often viewed simply as extensions or reflections of the Europeans themselves. Bafflement and a limited viewpoint were natural responses to an alien world, just as the scientists in Solaris can understand the living planet only in terms of its not being like themselves. For European settlers their new landscape--the primary node of contact with a new environment, a something-else which only spuriously resembled things at home--could offer no easy point of entry. Thus among early New Zealanders a sense of anxiety, an intense desire to understand and feel at home in a foreign landscape that they had chosen to inhabit (or even more alarmingly in a still-pristine landscape they had been born and raised in), permeated through settler life and art from near the very beginning, and continued to be a common theme among local writers for most of the first half of the twentieth century.

Edward Tregear's 'Te Whetu Plains' is a case in point. It was published in a collection in 1919, though possibly it was written as early as 1872.[3] The poem therefore frequently appears near the start of anthologies of New Zealand literature since, as Tregear's biographer, K.R. Howe, has noted, 'Te Whetu Plains' 'has often been seen as encapsulating a more general state of mind--that of an immigrant's alienation in the strange landscape of a new country'.[4] In the poem Tregear regards Te Whetu Plains at night, an empty place in a densely forested area near Tokoroa--a place notable above all for being dark and silent--as a kind of primitive isolation tank. He makes the place stand for an image, redolent with nineteenth-century religious doubt, of the horror in any possible life that might exist after death. If the newly scientific view of the creation of the world is correct and any afterlife does not involve a conventional Christian heaven, Tregear reasons, then that afterlife would be somewhere permanently removed from all the sights, sounds and sensations of home, somewhere just like Te Whetu Plains. It does not matter to Tregear that the plains are perhaps beautiful in their own 'moonlit darkness'; he cannot see anything familiar in the outlines of the 'giant terraces' below him. Despite the plentiful bird sounds to be heard during the New Zealand daytime, at night this antipodean landscape is silent, without birdsong and with no noise from a 'far-off' stream, and Tregear can express this only with a kind of colonial negative capability, as lacking English and Romantic-literary sounds:

'tis a songless land
That hears no music of the nightingale,
No sound of waters falling lone and grand
Through sighing forest to the lower vale,
No whisper in the grass, so wan and grey, and pale.[5]

Unlike most birds, nightingales sing after dusk, and moreover they were a common Romantic-era trope for the nature-inspired poet, so that Tregear's 'songless land' suggests a cultural as well as a geographic failure. Tregear may even have in mind John Keats's Romantic reverie in his famous 'Ode to a Nightingale' as an implicit contrast, where the sound of a nightingale's song, allied to 'the wings of Poesy', puts the poet into a blissful reverie which he then compares to the ecstasy of being in heaven after death. But the antipodean plains offer only a 'ghastly peace' of silence, mocked by the sonority of Tregear's own versifying, a nothingness for an alienated consciousness totally deprived of any familiar comfort. Unlike Keats's cosy garden with its English nightingale singing in the twilight, the exotic Te Whetu Plains fail as a site for any ecstatic release from the self in nature; and once Tregear feels deprived by science of the spiritual comforts of Christianity, his immediate environment no longer allows him any opportunity for the worship of nature as a substitute for religion.

The uneasy relationship to the landscape expressed by Tregear, in which the the environment is viewed wholly in terms of non-recognition and negatives, so that its birds are not nightingales and its rivers are not well-known streams, coalesced in the later work of several New Zealand-born writers, most of them based in the South Island, into an attitude, a myth, which was then available for poetry. The New Zealand environment was soon deemed recognisable--since it was the only landscape available for direct experience--but it was one still unwelcoming and indifferent to its new inhabitants, unlike the British landscapes of the settlers' origins. It was seen as unwelcoming in its rugged contrast to the civilised countryside of Europe. It was indifferent because, despite its evident beauty, it offered only cold comfort to settlement. Sometimes the environment was even viewed as downright hostile, the sort of place in which a new people's development was left stunted and damaged. This unwelcoming quality in the local landscape appeared to a greater or lesser extent in the work of New Zealand poets as otherwise diverse as D'Arcy Cresswell, Ursula Bethell, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow, and it became known loosely as the 'South Island Myth'. The critic Lawrence Jones's excellent account of the growth of this idea and of the literary movements which developed in the early 1930s and 40s details how the South Island Myth actually grew into fruition as an 'anti-myth' to the rosy-tinted view that 'New Zealand was "God's own country", a pastoral paradise and a Just City, based on an ideal English model, being perfected through an historical process of triumphant progress'.[6] It was a view fuelled by disappointment. The South Island Myth was nicely epitomised by Allen Curnow's 1941 poem 'House and Land', with its Auden-influenced, proletarian-style rhymes describing a New Zealand 'spirit of exile'. The poem's much-quoted closing lines are:

Awareness of what great gloom
Stands in a land of settlers
With never a soul at home.

The South Island Myth was also described at length, and often in mystical terms, in the essays of M.H. Holcroft, and perhaps reached its high-water mark when Holcroft's book The Deepening Stream won the essay prize in the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Literary Competition. The idea also received possibly its most plaintive, Romantic articulation in several of Charles Brasch's poems, notably 'The Silent Land', where 'The plains are nameless and the cities cry out for meaning', and where the problem with the landscape is explicitly diagnosed as a lack of satisfactory history:

Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,
Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh
Of a century of quiet and assiduity

It is worth noting that the South Island Myth was, above all, a Pakeha notion of the land. Maori, the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand, featured in this view of the land scarcely at all, a fact that seems incredible today. But at the time the prevailing view was that the Maori were a dying race, a tragic group of Romantically dusky forebears being swept away by more advanced Pakeha arrivals. Furthermore, those Maori who might survive this replacement process would do so by becoming thoroughly assimilated into Pakeha ways, so that any remnants of indigenous familiarity they might have with the landscape would become, at the very least, irrelevant and quaint. It was a convenient view, if you were Pakeha, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the South Island Myth flourished in the South Island, where picture postcard scenery was plentiful and the Maori population was low. But excluding Maori from any consideration of the relationship between Pakeha and the new land also masked a subtler and darker aspect.[7] On the whole the alienation of Pakeha from their new environment was seen within the framework of the South Island Myth as a failure on the part of the environment itself, and thus not so much a failure by Pakeha settlers. The Maori, with their own indigenous culture already adapted to their homeland, could figure in such a relationship merely as a reproach for Pakeha failure or, at the very best, as an encouragement, a pointer towards future adaptation by Pakeha and the possibility of later success. But such views would only contradict the notion of Pakeha as more advanced, civilising arrivals than their fading Polynesian predecessors, and then highlight the ruthlessness of Pakeha appropriation of Maori territory. While the scenery was being observed with anxiety, suspicion or disgust, Maori were best left out of the picture.

Waikato Railstop

The Pakeha sense of alienation from the land and the disappointment that fuelled it did not vanish with a generation so much as decline over successive generations. Born in 1922, half a generation after Brasch and Curnow, and having grown up in Northland and Auckland instead of in the south, Kendrick Smithyman saw the South Island Myth and its conventions for writing about the New Zealand landscape from some critical distance, both in terms of time and geography. Early on, together with fellow aspiring poets Keith Sinclair and Robert Chapman, Smithyman even formed the Mud Flats School in specific opposition to the dewy-eyed mysticism of South-Island-Myth-inspired writing. The School did not last, but from the outset Smithyman clearly intended to write poetry that was tougher and smarter than the work of his predecessors, and which would be more of a direct response to the New Zealand landscape than a complaint of what the landscape was not.[8] It was a tall order, but from the start of his career Smithyman was a very fluent composer of poetry and technically gifted. C.K. Stead has noted shrewdly of this prolificacy that 'Baxter and Smithyman seemed to compose quickly and constantly, as if poetry was no more than the way you talked to a blank page'.[9] Smithyman himself referred to this fluency much more modestly as 'verbal diarrhoea' and even seemed suspicious of it, so that he frequently revised his poems throughout his writing life.[10] As a result Smithyman's initial, diary-like process of composition stands in curious contrast to the appearance of his finished poems, which on the page are polished and famously difficult.

'Waikato Railstop' was regarded as an early success for Smithyman.[11] Smithyman's Collected Poems notes that the work was written on 15 March, 1958 (internal evidence shows that the poem itself takes place during the month of February), and it was first collected in Inheritance in 1962. By then the South Island Myth was already becoming old news, and 'Waikato Railstop' is an attempt to appropriate the ideas of the South Island landscape writers and marry them to an anti-Romantic stance. As Smithyman was to observe later: 'The romantic breeds the anti-romantic. Either has and had latent a capacity to be modified'.[12] One method of achieving this anti-Romantic transformation was to use an up-to-date form, in this case the syllabic stanza. The syllabic stanza is a technique in which corresponding lines in stanzas are each arranged so as to have a corresponding number of syllables; it was an experimental form popular with Modernist writers and made famous by Marianne Moore.[13] Another method was that Smithyman adopted the anti-Romantic step of making unusual syntax one of the features of his work, packing the lines tight while also increasing their ambiguity.[14] Finally the poem takes suicide as its topic, a subject which has been close to the heart of Romanticism ever since Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, though here suicide is stripped of any glamour and treated in a very anti-Romantic way.

Smithyman's Collected Poems notes that 'Waikato Railstop' is set in Te Kauwhata, a farming town in the Waikato which is known for its viticulture and for being bordered by the enormous Whangamarino Swamp. However, this fact of the poem's location is never mentioned in the text and the setting is instead presented as a generic small town which could be anywhere in New Zealand where the trains make a stop. The setting is thus not so much an instance of local colour as something like a paysage moralise, a landscape whose aspects suggest some kind of moral significance. 'Waikato Railstop' begins with an image of despair, with an announcement by the poet of not one but two local suicides which have occurred in or around the town, and this fact, together with images of gunfire, permeates the poem. The issue of suicide in rural New Zealand was something which interested Smithyman, supporting his belief that a failure of community in a new environment lay behind feelings of alienation and isolation, and also causing him to believe that the high rate of these sad acts was often kept quiet.[15] He makes reference to the suicide rate again in his 1967 poem 'Research Project'.[16] For Smithyman rural suicide was not an individual gesture of rebellion in a uniquely difficult environment but merely a commonplace sociological response to stress. In fact the writer Larry McMurtry has observed something similar amongst the settlers of the American west: 'Although there is an abundant diary literature piled up in state historical societies containing numerous accounts of hardships, child death, and general mortality in the West, not much has yet surfaced about prairie derangement. No one talked about it'.[17]

Following this announcement of suicide at the start of 'Waikato Railstop' the poet, who is apparently a bemused outsider to the town, intrudes further into the writing to observe that these twin deaths did not happen close together in one season 'materially,' that is, in terms of local weather patterns. Presumably, instead, these were suicides occurring within a single more spiritual season of depression. The poet then goes on to say that he has been in the town before and remembers it mainly for its sheer ordinariness, a quality 'so neutral' that the town is therefore only distinguished for (and by) 'what is unusual there,' namely its pair of suicides. Thus the town's reputation appears to rest solely on this small local scandal. It is February, the height of summer, and later in the poem the speaker will mention peat fires with 'acres of peat/ smoke' that seem to darken the surrounding area, but here at the start of 'Waikato Railstop' he talks of 'February's/ smoke and haze' in a more metaphorical fashion, imagining the pair of suicides as a window punched through the overbearing fog of the town's bland exterior. He suggests that by taking their own lives the suicide victims, presumably acting with shotguns, 'shot peepholes' through the veil covering the town's depressing everyday life. What the peephole-windows reveal are 'purest motives', an absolute willingness on the part of the suicides to link their own action of killing themselves to any possible perdition, or damnation of the soul, just in order to escape such a terrible place.

By this point already, after nearly two short stanzas, Smithyman's poem has imposed upon itself a limiting factor which it never really seeks a way out of. On the one hand, the poet who describes everything he encounters in a syntactically convoluted, tonally detached and educated manner, is an outsider who does not live in this particular place, along with his reader who is presumed to be capable of understanding such educated talk. On the other hand, both speaker and reader must be familiar with this type of place in order to grasp that the landscape is ordinary, neutral and typical, and thus the poem's speaker can only be a certain sort of New Zealander, disapproving and superior, speaking to New Zealanders of a similar background. This is a poem of disdain. And it is perhaps with this in mind that the poet next moves on to a complex disclaimer. He instructs the reader not to see the 'hamlet' as the sort of place 'mortuary-minded' people might 'misrepresent' to themselves and be ghoulishly enthusiastic about, not even in a 'death-centred/ democracy' where poets and readers alike are constantly concerned with the big questions of life and death. But the word 'hamlet' comes loaded for the literati with witty Shakespearean echoes of indecisiveness, and the sentence's imperative form is highly ambiguous. Perhaps the poet is at the same time instructing readers not to 'misrepresent' the town as promoting the poet's own enthusiastic endorsement of those 'mortuary-minded' victims of suicide who found a way out of a 'death-centred/ democracy', meaning a town where everyone is equal in their hopelessness and misery. Either way, the ironic cleverness of this sort of writing rather mitigates against any compassionate message. But the poet continues, and maybe a little more charitably, to speculate in a straightforward manner on the reason for the local suicides: 'That certain young women should find/ themselves unseasonably with child is to be/ understood'. He even concedes the inevitable gossip value of this to people on remote 'outlying farms'.

The locals lead isolated and thwarted lives. As an instance the poet in the fourth stanza mentions the sort of gifted eccentric who often appears in small towns: 'an engineer who built an aircraft in his backyard'. Perhaps the poet has half in mind the famous example of Richard Pearse in Temuka, who built his own flying machine and, it is claimed, flew it in 1903, several months before the Wright brothers in America. But in 'Waikato Railstop' the would-be aviator is unable to fly his aircraft and gain any kind of immortal reputation. His ambition is 'not licensed', suggesting local bureaucratic hindrances, or maybe the force of the townspeople's disapprobation. Returning to the notion that such unusual matters merely distinguish the featurelessness of the town by their contrast, the poet comments: 'Such an ascent measures most days'/ custom of being flat'. Even in comparison to the pottering activities of an engineer who makes a plane that never actually flies, the customary life of most people in the town is flat and earthbound.

At this halfway point in the poem, the poet addresses the reader with an impersonal 'you' and suggests that poet and reader together examine some of the surrounding landscape, though he does so in a characteristically ambiguous way. He begins with the expression 'You may set off/ one day from another,' referring once more to the distinguishing of any particular day amidst the unending sameness of the town's life, but he then uses the irony in the verb 'set off' to extend that sameness of time into the sameness of space as he leads the reader round the outskirts of the town. Still referring, perhaps, to days, the poet counsels 'skirting their outlook'--both the boring days' view and their attitude--by taking in the local scenery. But the scenery in this place offers up only a highway that 'consigns traffic elsewhere' and a 'rake', or line, of coal wagons which seems equally determined not to stop on its way south. The speaker also notes in passing that the disappearing train does not disturb the squabbling of local 'mynahs and bulbuls', introduced birds which are usually classified in New Zealand as pests. Neither of these quick snapshots of the local scenery is uplifting or reassuring, and already the poet intrudes again with the rather oracular comment: 'Let orchard/ and vineyard tally freights of purpose'. Perhaps he means that it should only be the orchards and vineyards local to the area which measure up the purposes and intentions behind sending their freight away out of town--and not the local people themselves, who might be tempted to reckon up and 'tally freights of purpose' in the suicides who got out of town by means of their deaths.

Unlike the local fruit which is taken away, and the local people who take their own lives, the best a person can really hope for from living in the town is to 'wither and rot' in the process of growing old. Entertainment in summer such as the February of the poem, the poet says harshly, consists of passively listening to the 'child's play/ musketry' in the crackling sound from the pods of gorse plants, another noxious pest, splitting themselves open to eject seeds in a random pattern and thus 'at no target big/ enough to miss'. Even nature in and around the town seems to be involved in shooting at the world, though here in an act of natural reproduction rather than a woman's unnatural suicide to forestall reproduction. Again the poet intrudes with an acid comment: 'Admiring does not get you far'. Nature here exhibits little to be admired, and its worship in the Romantic manner epitomised a century earlier and a world away by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats will not be any escape. Continuing his walk outside the town, the poet notes that the seeds he crushes underfoot from a wattle tree, yet another introduced pest and one notorious for its foul-smelling seeds, 'stink' in a way that Romantic versions of nature are certainly not supposed to. He heads a little into the Whangamarino Swamp on a tangled collection of tracks that appear to be 'ravelling out/ and winding mazily'. But the syntax in the poem here also becomes tangled and confused in its lack of helpful punctuation, and it seems to mix itself up with the tangled smoke trails from several acres nearby of burning peat. Peat, partially decayed vegetable matter which often appears in boggy ground or swamps, is highly flammable, and once ignited it can burn out of control for long periods. These burning acres in the landscape appear to send smoke signals, the poet muses, but there still seems to be no one around who 'cares to separate smoke hulk from thundery cumulus'. The swampy land has thus blended into the peat-fire smoke which has also blended into the cloudy sky, and there appear to be no witnesses anywhere to sort this all out except for the poet himself; and his own confused and unpunctuated musings here suggest that even he is failing to do so.

Thus the poet, near to the close of the poem, observes that the smoky, sooty noon sky that has been produced here, and which is complex and obscuring and gathered above, merely 'blackens cloudland', obliterating the literal view but also 'cloudland' in the further idiomatic sense of the imagination. The messy noon sky also blackens 'a cuckold/ below', suggesting, perhaps on first glance, the unhappy state of some local husbands whose wives became 'unseasonably with child' and committed suicide. Nevertheless, 'a cuckold/ below' is more likely refer to the poet himself, since the phrase is expressed with the singular indefinite article 'a', and since nobody else in the landscape is anywhere about. This cuckold is a poet who has been betrayed by the muse, because his capacity for an imaginative responsiveness to what is around him has been cheated by the realities of a harsh, inhumane antipodean environment, so that he does not feel at all uplifted or inspired. He has been denied any possibility of semi-divine Romantic inflatus. Certainly the confusion of the poet's senses brought on here at the close of the poem has not produced anything like the synesthesia of Romantic ecstasy famously described by Keats in 'Ode to a Nightingale'. In that poem, written at a time and place where poets could be real poets, Keats reported feeling mystically transported by birdsong at twilight, in 'verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways' until, he wrote: 'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs'. He approached a state of mind so ecstatic, so similar to being in heaven, that he felt it would be 'rich to die'. In 'Waikato Railstop', however, the natural environment around the poet--swamp, smoke and sky--is merely a churning tangle of layers 'seething skein by skein' in a manner surprisingly similar to Tregear's landscape in 'Te Whetu Plains'. Indeed, in 'Waikato Railstop' these complex blackening layers of muck are not even spiritually malevolent, but only act on the poet 'impartially'. Keats was brought back to reality by a word, 'forlorn', which for him tolled 'like a bell', but in 'Waikato Railstop' the poet is brought back from his reveries, if such they can be called, by a truck off in the town, backfiring near the billiard room. The sound closing out the poem is both trivial, in the sense that there is nothing Romantically poetic about it, and ominous, since it reminds us yet again of the fateful gunfire of the twin suicides, the event that started the poem and the poet's reverie.

'Waikato Railstop' is a poem written for the urban cognoscenti which strongly implies that any inhabitant of a typically bleak small New Zealand town would be foolish not to commit suicide. The poem cannot have been much liked by the people of Te Kauwhata, if indeed they ever encountered it. Thus the indifference or even hostility that New Zealand writers had sensed emanating from the landscape early in the century did not so much fade away as expand to include hostility from, and to, those people residing in the country who were struggling to adapt to their environment and accept its limiting qualities: the local-born population. Critical accounts of the South Island Myth usually end with the 1930s and 40s, but the South Island Myth may not have disappeared so much as evolved into something else, an idea not discarded but merely transformed.[18] Certainly, by the 1950s and 60s the New Zealand literati were noticeably affecting a kind of urban hauteur towards their still largely rural nation, and one could say that the disappointment behind the South Island myth had been modified into the complaint of the sensitive artist, an inheritor of European sophistications, about living in a philistine environment. The anxiety of New Zealand writers no longer indicated solidarity with Pakeha inhabiting the harsh wilds of a daunting country, but rather it had become an unease about living and creating art in a land where practical activities counted but where poetry and culture did not. This view, broadly speaking, has been interpreted in various forms by critics as indicating a Provincial period in New Zealand literature.[19] One good example of a direct engagement with this view, and of an interrogation of the advantages and disadvantages to being a member of the urban cognoscenti, is Smithyman's 'Colville'.


In comparison to 'Waikato Railstop', Smithyman strikes a rather more subtle note in 'Colville' because his evolving ideas cause him to take a more nuanced view of the local inhabitants he describes. Between 1961 and 1963 Smithyman had written a series of articles entitled 'Post-War New Zealand Poetry' for the literary magazine Mate and then expanded his views into a book-length work of literary criticism, A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry, which he published in 1965. Among other things A Way of Saying was a New Zealand anti-Romantic manifesto, and one of its aims was to reorient New Zealand poetry away from its focus on a uniquely hostile territory--a hostility which, in any case, Smithyman felt was not unique at all--and onto larger concerns such as the New Zealand community as a whole in its challenging new environment. Smithyman announced this reorientation as a rising poetic movement:

Some other activity, the assembling of alternative myths of settlement and occupation, was in the offing. The effects of landscape had been handled at length. The energies of society were less treated. The scene was still virtually to be humanized. The work was hardly begun that was, in poetry, to populate the country where previously the solitary walked with Wordsworth.[20]

'Colville' is a refashioning of 'Waikato Railstop' that attempts to show the way forward. Once again the poem is written in six-line syllabic stanzas almost as an exercise in technical virtuosity, this time with the added challenge of a rhyme scheme (involving pure and sometimes near-rhymes): a, b, c, b, c, e. Once again the subject is a small town which is presented as typical. Colville is located near the top of the Coromandel peninsula, with its lone general store regarded as a last stop for provisions and petrol, and since Smithyman's Collected Poems records 'Colville' as having being written on 11 January, 1968, the poem may have resulted from a summer-holiday visit. Smithyman had a son who lived for a time in a commune nearby.[21] The area is well known for its fishing, and today Colville has an alternative-lifestyle, cosmopolitan atmosphere that it did not have at the time when Smithyman wrote of it. For this reason Smithyman at one stage titled the poem 'Colville 1964', to place it in the context of the recent past, although the date was dropped from the title in his Selected Poems (1989) and in later publications.[22] But some years after the poem's appearance Smithyman was pleased to learn that a copy was being displayed on the Colville store's front-door noticeboard.[23]

The poem begins by describing a visit to Colville in the same dismissive tone as in 'Waikato Railstop', announcing that the town of Colville is typical of 'That sort of place' where you do not pause long except for buying petrol, local items like plums, and an ice-cream snack. As with 'Waikato Railstop' the poet employs an impersonal 'you' in speaking which appears to be the product of his train of thought as events unfold, but which also usefully includes the reader. The visiting poet's shopping activities involve entering the general store and thus, inevitably, being sized up by 'somebody local', a person who comes in and 'does not like what he sees of you'. This local hick is also presented as typical, an inarticulate 'monotone with a name', someone hard to read but nevertheless vaguely threatening and therefore 'intangible as menace'. The visiting poet concludes in a self-satisfied manner that as a place Colville reflects, and is shaped by, 'an aspect of human spirit' which is 'mean, wind-worn'. The degraded local people, so unlike the erudite poet, have turned the drab local environment into just another aspect of their stunted lives. But significantly it is the inhabitants here who have created such an unappetising environment, rather than the other way around.

Moving away from the counter at the store, the poet faces out towards the view 'over the saltings', the narrow bay of coastal water visible nearby, while also he takes in a broader view of the place as a whole. He asks himself what 'merit' the bay might have. His answer over the next two lines, addressed to himself and to the eavesdropping reader, is at once accessible in terms of a general impression but also frustratingly difficult to pin down in terms of its meaning. It highlights a feature of Smithyman's writing: his fondness for yoking together two words or phrases whose meaning is mostly abstract, thereby rapidly expanding the poem's thematic range. In 'Waikato Railstop' this appeared in the lines 'marrying perdition/ with action'.[24] In 'Colville' it appears in two gnomic phrases: 'wise as contrition, shallow/ as their hold on small repute'. The 'as' which forms the linking device may have appealed to Smithyman precisely because of its ambiguity; it can act, among other forms, as a conjunction meaning 'in the same way as' and as a preposition meaning 'in the form of'. To complicate matters further, the first of Smithyman's phrases seems to use 'as' as a preposition, and the second as a conjunction. Thus the two lines might be construed as the bay being: 'wise in the form of showing some sort of contrition or sorrow for its own sins' and 'shallow in its waters in the same way as the locals have any small claim to a good reputation'. Even this seems inadequate. Ultimately, the extreme compression of the phrases aims to yield the poet's fleeting impressions rather than his carefully formulated thoughts, so that the reader's first encounter with the vague 'feel' of the phrases may be the best way to absorb them.

After these moments of very abstract speculation the poet's mind directs itself further outwards again to take in more concrete details. He notes the bay's utility: it may be a handy spot for fishing with nets, and he observes some men doing just this in the late afternoon heat. The men are difficult to see and thus 'disproportioned' because the afternoon is 'down-going' into sunset while the rising tide is 'fire-hard' (meaning both intense and hardened) with sunset's colours. The poet's gaze lifts and he observes and half-imagines this geographical activity occurring 'upon the vague', perhaps meaning the indistinct horizon where time and distance intersect, and from where changes in time and distance at sunset appear to derive, or perhaps meaning the intersection of the space/time continuum upon the vagueness of the universe which produces a sense of here and now. Where, the poet seems to be wondering, does a merely human settlement, somewhere provisional like Colville, really fit into all this natural vastness and eternity? Smithyman may also be providing an echo here of Charles Brasch's famous line from his poem 'In These Islands', 'distance looks our way', a line appearing in Brasch's contemplation of the sea as a location for 'meeting and parting' and often seen as encapsulating the tone of the South Island Myth. What Smithyman is certainly doing is conjoining time and space, a form of conjunction which reappears on other occasions in his later landscape poetry and which carries over with it some of the anti-Romantic confusion that arose in the poet's senses at the close of 'Waikato Railstop', where the smoke from burning peat filled the sky and the poet's resulting departure from the space-time continuum meant only a failed mystical transportation out of the earthly realm into ecstasy. Furthermore, the tentative nature of all of the poet's musings here, on contrition, reputation, utility and the conjunction of time and space, is emphasised by the question mark that appears, a little surprisingly for the reader, at the very end of the third stanza and the long sentence that forms the poet's train of thought. Perhaps, the question mark offers as a warning, none of what the poet is observing should be interpreted solely in the manner it first appears.

Indeed, in the next stanza the poet goes on to reconsider his previous views. He begins by thinking that the men 'dragging nets' might be doing so for 'plainly simple/ pleasure', like holidaymakers, but decides instead that their activities 'have another tone/ or quality, something aboriginal'. They are working in the manner of people who have become, at least to some degree, indigenous to their environment, and so their fishing is as 'reductive', or simple and unembellished, as the 'soil' or land which they live on. The poet now suddenly muses in more general terms, admonishing himself and perhaps the reader that 'bone/ must get close here'. Just as the beginning of the stanza played with the expression 'plain and simple', rendering it as 'plainly simple', so too here the poet plays cleverly with the expression 'close to the bone'. His cleverness may be a small, linguistic act of avoidance of the full implications of his thoughts here: it is certainly a bit close to the bone, or true to the point of discomfort, for the poet to acknowledge that this, the act of dragging fishnets in a shallow bay, is what it is to be local, adapted, like a native, rather than the urban sophistication which the poet evidenced at the start of the poem and which he has maintained until this point. But communal fishing, people feeding themselves, that sort of rough, basic work is how people get their living bones close to the soil. It is the 'final' state in the process of adaptation to a new environment, and yet it is not refined at all. European culture, in the sense of the word 'refined' as being highbrow, is not anywhere involved in this. 'They endure', the poet concludes of the local men going about their fishing, with the weighty implication unspoken that the poet and his big-city ways, which are merely imported from overseas, will not endure. The poet's initial consideration of the bay, 'wise as contrition, shallow/ as their hold on small repute', which was both unfocused and over-compressed, suddenly might apply just as well to himself.

Before leaving, the poet has a last look at Colville, taking it in at a glance. What he sees are buildings related to the simple necessities and rituals of a settlement, 'A school, a War Memorial/ Hall, the store'. After that there are only the saltings of the bay and the nearby hills. The poet announces that 'The road goes through to somewhere else', a line that could have been lifted out of almost any poem expounding the South Island Myth, except that in this case the poet's departure suggests only a revived self-importance which is also perhaps tinged with a sense of relief at his escape. He begins the second half of his final stanza with the observation that the place he has visited is not a 'geologic fault/ line', or some kind of mistake in the landscape (though like most of New Zealand Colville probably lies along earthquake fault lines, and the place does perhaps form a fault line, a pressure point, in the poet's thinking, albeit one which he is keen to deny). Colville is just a place which makes 'scars' of habitation on the environment and which is in turn scarred and shaped by that environment--the language in the poem here runs on without punctuation, as in 'Waikato Railstop' when the poet's musings became confused in response to a confusing landscape. These visible 'scars' of habitation are indistinguishable from 'textures of experience' of the landscape, the poet decides, as the locals' experience accumulates of and in this new land. (Furthermore, in terms of the poet's own thinking, the uncomfortable truth that ordinary fishing may be more important than high culture as a basis for people's adaption to the environment has left mental 'scars textures of experience' on the poet himself.) In the last line of the poem, as Colville recedes into the distance for the departing poet and becomes no more than a reference on his map, Smithyman uses the ambiguities available in the language of map-reading in a way that he will further exploit in later poems, notably 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise'. Colville can be 'Defined' and 'plotted' on a map, but it is defining itself and plotting its own story in a way which maps, the products of urbanized and sophisticated methodologies, cannot explain. At the poem's close Smithyman uses the word 'speak' in perhaps an ironic nod to the famous close of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, itself the product of urbanized and sophisticated philosophical methodologies: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence'.[25]


'Tomarata' is the product of a push by Smithyman towards a new level of attainment in his landscape poetry: an attempt at once more adapting the ineffable in the South Island Myth to his anti-Romantic agenda and this time at pressing it into the service of an anti-Wordsworthian attack, an attack specifically on the notion of the sublime. No other writer comes in for quite as much disapproval from Smithyman in A Way of Saying as does the Lake District poet William Wordsworth. Smithyman writes of 'the insidious effect of William Wordsworth' on New Zealand literature and declares himself 'in the anti-Wordsworth camp'.[26] For it is Wordsworth who is most associated with the sublime as a response to landscape, particularly in his famous 1798 poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'. The sublime, the articulation in poetry of lofty feelings of rapture or occasionally terror, began from the 18th century to mean a loftiness found in nature, especially any natural landscape that evoked wildness or grandeur. Thus in Wordworth's 'Tintern Abbey' the poet revisits a landscape that he is familiar with and, in the company of someone dear to him, feels restored by a connection with the environment which is so direct that he experiences:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:[27]

Contemplation of a landscape therefore makes possible the experience of transcendence. 'Tomarata', by contrast, is a poem in almost every sense antipodal to 'Tintern Abbey'. Lake Tomarata is an environment which is viewed as typical as much as it is special, somewhere encountered by the poet for perhaps the first time as part of an unremarkable group of visitors, a place which refuses to yield up information about itself and is available at best only for a relationship based on a hard-won respect. Any Romantic 'sense sublime' is noticeably absent as the poet's faculties struggle with what is before him; his environment is not in any way transcendental.

'Tomarata' was written only two years after 'Colville', but in the meanwhile Smithyman had travelled for the first time overseas, in 1969 when he was Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Literature for six months at the University of Leeds. Thus by 1970 Smithyman was seeing his native country with a new sense of perspective and in a much more concrete relation to the landscape of the old world of Europe. Significantly, too, he had published the poetry collection Flying to Palmerston in 1968, in which his mature style had begun to emerge. Displays of technical virtuosity are gone, replaced by a quick, efficient and organically structured free verse.[28] Smithyman's poem 'Flying to Palmerston' and its collection of the same name was influenced by his reading of the Confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, which itself first appeared in Lowell's collection Life Studies in 1959.[29] In his Confessional poems Lowell worked to get more immediacy into his work by using the first person and by introducing the poet as a character. He aimed to show the poet in the process of thinking in a manner similar to the novel's use of stream of consciousness. Lowell also loosened up the textural arrangement of his poems on the page to make the lines read more like the flow of thought, something which Smithyman also does in 'Flying to Palmerston' and in his work thereafter. Smithyman likewise introduces the poet as a character in his poems and, significantly, makes his poet no longer an all-seeing judge but rather what the critic Helen McCann labels a 'bumbler'.[30] The poet in Smithyman's mature work is a learned man who is struggling to understand what is happening around him, applying his considerable knowledge but mostly without much success (and thus he may, or may not, be a little different from Smithyman himself).[31] But this change in the character of the poet, from a man who knows and tells the reader what he knows, into a man who is trying to know and who lets the reader watch his efforts, is a crucial and invigorating step forward for Smithyman's poetry. The viewpoint of his new bumbling poet is not only more appealing for readers but also more inclusive, since his readers struggle to learn along with him. It also expands what Smithyman himself can do with his poems as they become investigations of the world rather than mere pronouncements, and there is a notable increase in tonal range.[32]

Lake Tomarata is a dune lake located off Atkins Road, near Te Arai Point on the east coast of Northland, about a 1,500 metres inland from the sea. There is a walking track along the eastern, seaward side. The land to the south and west is covered by swampy wetlands with dairy pastureland beyond it. The wetlands provide an important habitat for rare birds, such as the bittern, the fernbird and the banded rail. There are no streams or rivers flowing into or out of the lake, so that the lake's water accumulates from rainfall and seepage. The lake water is rather brown in colour, due to the peaty organic material coming into it from the wetlands. The lake is not especially large, at least not nowadays, being approximately 300 metres wide and 600 metres long and going down to a depth of about 4 metres. Vegetation around the lake includes sedge, raupo, and umbrella fern, and manuka further from the shoreline. For a long time lupins and other plants once grew on the sandhills on the lake's eastern side, and when Smithyman heard in 1970 that these were to be replaced by a stand of pines, he visited the lake in order to see the landscape before it was irretrievably altered.[33] Sometime after this a poem began to form itself in his mind, one of a number of longish, meditative landscape poems that Smithyman was writing at around this period.[34]

The critic and editor Peter Simpson has described Smithyman's composition of 'Tomarata' in detail in his 'Afterword' to a special edition of the poem, including maps and manuscript pages, brought out in book form in 1996 and published by the Holloway Press.

There were no handwritten manuscripts; the poem was composed (as was evidently his usual practice) directly onto the typewriter [...]. Composition began on 21 October 1970, a first draft of 55 lines (equivalent to the first four sections of the finished poem) being completed the following day. This draft is already surprisingly close to the published poem [...]. On 22 October this draft was set aside and the poem was immediately recast into numbered sections, spaces being introduced between groups of lines [...]. These changes of lay-out opened up the texture of the poem considerably, aerating it, so to speak [...]. The poem was virtually completed on 24 October by the addition of sections 8, 9, and 10. Apart from subsequent minor changes and additions the whole poem of almost 200 lines had been completed within four days.[35]

Poems can sometimes be written at great speed--Wordsworth claimed to have written 'Tintern Abbey' entirely in his head after his visit to the spot.[36] But despite the speed of 'Tomarata's' initial composition, Simpson notes that it was first published in the collection The Seal in the Dolphin Pool in 1974, as long as four years after it was produced. It was not included in Smithyman's 1972 collection, Earthquake Weather, perhaps because Smithyman already had the poems he wanted for Earthquake Weather, or perhaps because he put the poem aside to consider revising it further. But though Smithyman was what Simpson calls 'a compulsive tinkerer', he clearly decided that 'Tomarata' needed no further revision after its initial publication, since thereafter it remained unaltered.[37]

'Tomarata' begins with an epigraph from a most non-antipodean source, the English sixteenth-century scholar, Roger Ascham, a didactic writer and tutor to Queen Elizabeth I when she was young. The quotation from Ascham is taken from his book The Schoolmaster, published in 1570, specifically the section entitled 'What We May Learn From Athens', which discusses methods of obtaining knowledge. Smithyman's quotation is only half of a sentence in which Ascham weighs the benefits of gaining knowledge through book learning against learning from the direct experience of life.[38] These two approaches to knowledge are generally considered to be the ways available to humans for understanding the world. But in 'Tomarata', a twentieth-century New Zealand landscape poem which the reader is invited to go through in much the same way that the poet walks through the landscape itself, and in which the reader overhears, and is thus privy to, the poet's observations and analytical musing, both traditional methods of obtaining knowledge will prove utterly inadequate. Neither learning nor experience will succeed in fathoming the mystery of a small, rather obscure dune lake on Northland's east coast.

The poem starts briskly but indirectly, with its first section linked to the Ascham epigraph, by announcing: 'Open as experience, this day, this/ high-flying island coast'. This statement involves another yoking together by Smithyman of two abstract words, 'Open' and 'experience', linked by a characteristically ambiguous 'as'. It is possible that Smithyman is using a conjunction to imply a comparative expression here: that the day and the coast will be as 'Open' as experience itself can be. But more likely 'as' appears here as a preposition, suggesting that the day and the coast, like the poem itself, are now 'Open' in the form of being an experience available for the poet and for the reader.[39] The adjective 'high-flying' may refer to the ongoing development and growth of the east coast of Northland, or it may be an ironic reference to driving fast towards the lake over the rather flat, rolling terrain of the surrounding area. In any event, both day and coast are presented as being ready for experience at just before midday, 'a mile beyond the top of noon's arc', with time being measured in terms of space through the old-fashioned manner of judging the hour of the day by the position of the sun.[40] Thus at the beginning of the poem Smithyman has managed once more to conjoin time and space, as he did earlier in 'Colville'.

However, the long opening sentence which continues on from this ambiguous start, running across most of the first two stanzas, is without doubt one of the more remarkable examples of Smithyman's mastery of tricky syntactic tangles. The expressions 'this day' and 'this high-flying coast' only appear to be noun phrases acting as subjects which are 'Open to experience' but are in fact, grammatically, prepositional phrases with the word 'on' deliberately omitted. What is actually 'Open to experience', i.e. the subject of the sentence, will come later. The subject is certainly not the expression that immediately follows: 'opened/ a mile beyond the top of noons's arc/ a mile further east than a gumland pond', since grammatically this is a relative clause, minus the initial pronoun and auxiliary 'which is'. Nevertheless, with this expression Smithyman is here introducing Lake Tomarata itself, albeit in undistinguished terms, as a mere 'gumland pond' 'a mile further east' than the coast in midday sun. Northland, including the Te Arai area, was briefly famous at around the end of the nineteenth century for its swampy 'gumland' places in which men could dig pieces of buried kauri tree resin, or gum, from the soil for profit, and Smithyman in A Way of Saying makes reference to 'the sour wind-beaten gumlands of the North'.[41]

Next in the poem a first impression of the lake and its brown water is offered up, as a 'severe quartz-brown puritan face', and this at last appears to be the true grammatical subject of the very long, convoluted sentence which makes up the bulk of the first two stanzas. It is, with the indefinite article omitted, the lake's 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' which is 'Open to experience.' (It is perhaps also worth noting that the line 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' appears at the exact centre of the first two stanzas of the poem: at line 5 out of 9, assuming that the two half-lines count as one). This little moment of personification in the word 'face' links the hard, flat surface of the lake with the austerity of the puritan, gum-digging settlers of the past and also with the brown quartz often used in the hard surface of floor tiles--and further, perhaps, with the serious and sun-bronzed faces of the lake's visitors, including the poet. Kauri gum-resin is not directly related to quartz, but Smithyman's rather surprising initial description of the lake seems more like a vague compendium reflecting what is around the lake than a precise depiction of the thing itself. At the very start of the poem, then, the complex syntax is working in accordance with Smithyman's purposes, to confuse and misdirect the reader about a feature in the local terrain which is itself difficult for any poem to capture exactly.

Indeed, the place does not even set itself up like a proper lake. The poet notes that its alienating hard brown face is unadorned, 'not figured', by the typical water birds one might expect to find in order to identify such a spot. The normally ubiquitous 'duck or swan' are not present, nor even native birds like the 'swamp/ hen or bittern'. Instead of the noise of birds, the lake exhibits only 'an indrawn quiet', keeping itself to itself. Once again yoking two abstractions, Smithyman compares the 'stiff' inflexibility and introverted quality of this quiet to 'doctrine', and doctrine in its purest, most inflexible form, when it is 'revised and contracted to/ the essential'. It is unclear whether Smithyman has any particular doctrine in mind, but it is certainly possible to insert here the doctrine of the South Island Myth, an idea that, when reduced to its purest terms in the alienating and hostile qualities of the land, Lake Tomarata seems perfectly to embody.

However, Smithyman has not finished playing syntactic games with his poem's first sentence. The noun phrase '[a] severe quartz-brown puritan face' appears to be the subject of the sentence and thus 'Open to experience', with the verb 'is' omitted and understood; but the expression 'an indrawn quiet' which follows later, in a half-line which deliberately omits any helpful punctuation that might connect it to 'hen or bittern' and clarify its grammatical position, could also equally be the subject of the sentence and thus what is 'Open to experience'. This would relegate 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' from subject to the grammatical status of a mere phrase in apposition. All this is confusing--purposefully so--but for some clarity here the two possible opening sentences might be written out in full as follows:

Open as an experience on this day and on this high flying island coast, which is opened a mile beyond the top of noon's arc, a mile further east than a gumland pond, is a severe quartz brown puritan face that is not figured by duck or swan, and not by swamp hen or bittern, an indrawn quiet which is stiff as doctrine revised or contracted to the essential.


Open as an experience on this day and on this high flying island coast, which is opened a mile beyond the top of noon's arc, a mile further east than a gumland pond, a severe quartz brown puritan face that is not figured by duck or swan, and not by swamp hen or bittern, is an indrawn quiet which is stiff as doctrine revised or contracted to the essential.

Is the 'puritan face' of the lake or its 'indrawn quiet' the subject of 'Tomarata's' elaborate opening gambit? Smithyman offers no clues. What is clear is the second, very simple declarative sentence which rounds out the stanza: 'Maps call it a lake'. This sentence is so simple and bland in comparison with its baroque predecessor that it seems almost robbed of any referential power, so that the reader is left with little confidence in the second sentence's ability to mean anything much at all. Maps may very well call the 'gumland pond' of Tomarata something grand, a 'lake', but that is only a word. Tomarata is something other than an empty word: it is itself, and this fact--that Tomarata is beyond empty words as labels and also the slippery syntax which organises words into arrangements for communication--embodies the ineffable in the South Island Myth.

But this extraordinarily knotty start to the poem is not the end of things--far from it--and in the second half of the first section the poem's style and tone change dramatically.[42] The first half of section 1 is written in the compact descriptive language Smithyman used in his early works like 'Waikato Railstop' and 'Colville', but he now seems to reject this approach and a new and more accessible sort of voice becomes apparent: the mature, ruminative voice of a poet who clearly is thinking to himself about what he is encountering. And what the poet first notes is the instability of the body of water he is seeing in the distance, an 'uncertain' shoreline which is uncertain also on the 'same maps' that record it--the maps mentioned earlier which he has apparently consulted. The poet observes that 'Only/ the name is constant,' although the name Tomarata is a purely human appendage. But in addition, since the lake plainly exists in the world, the poet then acknowledges that something vaguely like 'the heart of it' must also be a constant, and his own use of the metaphoric word 'heart' sets him off on a meditative reminder to himself that a geographic 'event in terrain' may have a 'physical reason' for being but may know 'nothing readily about feeling'. All the same, everything that the poet says in the course of this meditative display of common sense undermines his own point of view. The language he chooses, such as 'event,' 'know' and 'readily', all hint at dealing with an animate object. The oddly placed comma between 'alien' and 'to an event in terrain' encourages the reader's eye to connect 'talking' in the previous line with 'to an event,' an intransitive verb with an indirect object, as though the 'event in terrain' were something sentient that could be communicated with. (The poetry of clever syntax has thus not entirely disappeared but has now been subsumed within the poetry of a contemplative persona.) Finally too, the poet's refusal to allow the term 'heart of it' to slip into any kind of animating personification has plainly been contradicted by the expression 'severe quartz-brown puritan face' earlier in the poem, so that the poet simply cannot help thinking of the lake as an animate creature, and this ambiguity in his own feelings informs the somewhat stern three lines addressed to himself which round off the first section of the poem:

Tomarata is the name
for which the lake, reserved to
its own logic, has no word. Needs none.

Section 2 then opens with the poet reasserting the simple objectivity of his view of the lake, claiming that it is not his task 'to value' the place by making judgements, and he makes a rhetorical gesture towards the Biblical verse from Christ's Sermon on the Mount: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.'[43] But it is a peculiar matter to think of an event in terrain being judged and somehow judging its human visitors back, and if anything this emphasizes the alien nature of the terrain under observation. The poet next goes on to observe that there is certainly life to be seen which is 'near while not of the pond' and he offers some examples. It turns out that there are birds at least in the vicinity of the lake--magpies and 'a single black shag'--and the poet watches them carefully. Towards the end of the section he notices that 'East, larks went up' and this supplies the first instance of dramatic action in the poem, an event which intrudes on the poet's thoughts. For 'Tomarata' is not just a poem about a person contemplating a bit of landscape but about a person experiencing and exploring that landscape, and trying to come to an understanding of it through interaction. The poet's position is roughly analogous to that of the scientists orbiting the planet Solaris, or to the explorers--Polynesian as well as Pakeha--who arrived in New Zealand in the past. The section ends with the poet doing precisely what he said he would not do: making a judgement. He mentions 'the warm mazy scent of lupins flowering' near the lake, undermining his resolve with the words 'warm' and 'mazy' in much the same way as he did concerning the act of personification in the first section.

Section 3 opens abruptly with 'In which', referring back to the lupins in section 2, and suggesting that the poem's division into sections should not be read as involving a series of complete breaks or any lack of interrelatedness between parts. The poem itself is happening within the poet's unifying consciousness. Indeed, section 3 introduces human beings as genuine actors into the poem at last, since until now only the lake's geology and fauna have been accounted for. The use of 'we' indicates that the poet is part of a group visiting the lake, and that the 'We' which opened section 2 was not merely a rhetorical device referring to humanity in general. The visiting group attempts to approach the lake 'after a track of sorts', appearing to have a definite purpose and to make progress, but once again this is subtly undermined. In the next line it is the personified track, not the humans, which in fact 'intended to get to the fishing grounds'--the humans are merely following along with it. Furthermore, the track only leads them into a 'domain of rabbits' with a swamp harrier hawk hunting overhead. The humans are still not really at the lake, and nature seems indifferent to their presence. The poet has time to observe the plants around him, which yield no useful information about their age or condition, and then the track peters out, leading to no goal. The poet's initial sense of progress has got him nowhere.

In section 4 the poet examines the sand dunes, a key feature of the area around Lake Tomarata, in which he now finds himself. Indeed the nearby Mangawhai Forest, which extends over ten kilometres of coastline, was established precisely to prevent the drifting inland of coastal sand. The stanzas of section 4 are very much ruminative poetry--more so than was the case even in the preceding sections--and to this end Smithyman employs several devices lifted from stream of consciousness: a general 'You'; imperatives directed at oneself; and the hesitating search for the appropriate word in 'canyon,/ basin, inept gully system' at the section's close. In section 4 the poet focuses in particular on changes in the dunes, since sand dunes are a famously changeable form of terrain, even more so than the changeable shoreline of Lake Tomarata itself. Firstly the poet notices 'patches where sand is missing' underfoot and, since these are exceptions to the sandy terrain around him, he concludes that this is where former swampland has been taken over by sandhills. Next he observes the shape and colour of the sand formations, all in the careful and technically precise language of a lay geologist. He even recalls aerial survey photographs of the location that he has seen--also very much like a geologist--which indicate that 'ten years ago here was wholly sandhills'. His rather expert eye observes that in the interval the sandhills have 'opened': a surprisingly non-technical term and one rather undercutting his previously assured language, which presumably means that the sandhills have become bare. Then he notes that: 'They may/ close again, as the plants take over'. After this the poet focuses on a single dune which he claims is 'building', though in fact all he can really observe is that it is also being cut back by water and wind eroding 'the weather side'. Clearly the poet's confident geological appraisals are being undermined by evidence, and once again the landscape is shutting down the poet's perceptions, resisting any useful engagement. The erosion reveals to the poet only 'old haggard disorder, signifying/ a sometime liveliness', with the personification employed in 'haggard' and 'liveliness' indicating an abandonment of any attempt at the jargon of scientific objectivity. The poet's observations then become vague, as he notes how this old disorder is 'less sombre/ in temper' than that exposed and on view at the base of the dune. Finally he is left merely fumbling for the correct word for the dune's base, 'canyon,/ basin, inept gully system' (with the telling word 'inept' smuggled in), as his skill with technical terms deserts him altogether.

In section 5 the poet solves the problem of the unknown technical term for the base of a dune by means of a pronoun. 'We blunder to it,' he announces vaguely. He then adds that this feels like entering a separate world of 'total theatre' (meaning a performance that includes equally all the elements of theatre: music, dance, song, spectacle and so on), suggesting an environment which is new but utterly enveloping for those who are experiencing it. Thus the environment around him is 'inordinately/ involving', and in addition he notes that his group is 'entering into contriving' this place, altering it even as they perceive it. As if free and on holiday from reality in this separate world, the group feel their responsibilities have vanished, left behind them 'locked up in the car'. However, in the second half of this section the poet stresses that his group is here for the purposes of scientific inquiry, and not just for play. He lists the technology they have brought along, 'a camera, a set of lenses, a book on botany'. It is equipment for recording and classifying this new environment, although the poet has previously admitted that the group's own 'contriving' presence is already altering that environment and thus making impossible any objective measurement and appraisal of the sand dune in its pristine state.[44] Furthermore, despite having declared at the beginning of section 2 that they are not coming to the lake 'to judge/ or be judged', the poet now concedes that the group has brought along in tow with them 'the manner of our lives'. They are people engaged in a serious investigation and this itself is 'open/ to be judged' as non-frivolous. The poet then alters the word 'judged' to 'tested'--somewhat mimicking the tentative way that his own presence is altering his environment. The group's serious investigative purpose will be 'tested' by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those circumstances are the 'discrete, particular silence' of the area around the lake, a distinct silence arising from the indifferent landscape--a silence mimicked also by a gap after the preceding lines--which suggests that yet again the landscape is resistant to any attempt to get at 'what/ ever (you might say) was the heart of it', as the poet put his case near the poem's start. In addition to the reappearance of the word 'judged' in this section, the word 'open' appears for the fourth time (and by no means be the last) in the poem, forming something like an ironic motif.[45] Other verbal motifs and also variations on concepts will begin to recur, creating a network of internal references, a structural device Smithyman found increasingly valuable in long poems.[46]


1. Kermode, Frank. 'Auden on Shakespeare' in Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003: 395.

2. Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris (trans. Kilmartin, Joanna, and Cox, Steve). First published in English by Walker & Co., New York, 1970, and Faber & Faber, London, 1970. Solaris also famously appeared in a film version, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, in 1972.

3. K.R. Howe, Tregear's biographer, has found evidence for this early date. Howe, K.R.. 'The Dating of Edward Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" and an Unpublished Companion Poem.' Journal of New Zealand Literature 5 (1987): 55-60.

4. Howe even goes on to say that: 'Thus while most "colonial" poems no longer appear in modern anthologies, Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" is still included'. Howe, K.R. 'The Dating of Edward Tregear's "Te Whetu Plains" and an Unpublished Companion Poem.' Op. cit.: 55.

5. In the 1985 edition of The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, where 'Te Whetu Plains' appears on page 97, the first poem in the anthology by a Pakeha writer, the editors observe in their introduction how Tregear's 'description drops wearily into negatives'. Wedde, Ian, and McQueen, Harvey. 'Introduction' to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1985: 32.

6. Jones, Lawrence. Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2003: 73.

7. The critic John Newton has written in much greater and subtler detail about this dark aspect of the South Island Myth, characterizing it even more sinisterly as part of Pakeha efforts at 'the prime ideological task of disavowing colonial conquest'. For Newton the presence of the Maori did not merely offer an affront to Pakeha attempts at adaption to a new environment. With particular reference to Allen Curnow, Newton writes of a nationalist intention which aimed, through culture, to legitimize a Pakeha presence in New Zealand after the appropriation of indigenous Maori lands: 'the history on which nationalism seizes in order to establish its legitimating ground, superimposing this contingent local narrative onto a grimly romantic landscape, as if the landscape itself could account for it'. Newton, John. 'The South Island Myth: A Short History.' Australian Canadian Studies 18, 1 & 2 2000: 23-39. Also available at:

8. Much of this toughness is connected to Smithyman's notorious employment of literary wit, a habit which he seems to have had from the very beginning. It is on display in the early and much-anthologised 'Hint for the Incomplete Angler' (1955), a memento mori poem about a fisherman whose dignified response to the inevitability of his death is held up as an example for readers who in turn are fishing their way through their own lives. The trope of the poem is thus not especially complex, but Smithyman cannot resist the clever distraction of adding a title which ironically refers to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler (1653) and addressing his readers as those whose fishing-lives are still 'incomplete' (i.e. unfinished).

9. Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002: 234.

10. Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 403-20. Also available at: In the same interview Smithyman recalled: 'I'd bat stuff out on the principle of let's have a look at it and see how it goes, you can always stick it aside and come back and have a look at it later.'

11. See for example Peter Simpson's inclusion of 'Waikato Railstop' in his list of Smithyman's 'splendidly intricate and subtle poems written in the late 1950s'. [Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989: 15.]

12. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry. Collins, Auckland, 1965: 133.

13. C.K. Stead writes about Smithyman's use of this technique at some length. [Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 236-7.]

14. Smithyman's use of syntax has been a matter of some critical controversy. Reviewers have attacked him for it: for example Peter Crisp complaining of 'writing that twists experience into words that insist how cerebral, how fearfully complex, their job is' and Iain Sharp complaining that 'His syntax is often distorted to no good purpose' [Crisp, Peter. Review of Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Landfall 112, Dec. 1974: 363-7. Sharp, Iain. Review of Stories About Wooden Keyboards. Landfall 156, Dec. 1985: 515-521.] On the other hand the critic Reginal Berry has argued that Smithyman's poetry, from his earliest work onwards, 'is and always has been about syntax'. Berry points out that 'syntax is what draws the reader into participating in the conceptual activity of the poem'. [Berry, Reginald. 'Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman's Colourless Green Ideas'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 388-402.] Heather McCann has conceded that: 'Even those who enjoy the verbal engagement and exuberance of the work sometimes find the complexity and deviance of his syntax to be a stumbling block since the twists and turns, incomplete structures, and unusual syntagmatic choices make reading the poetry extremely hard work. Many question the necessity for a syntactic strategy that seems to get in the way of the poetry's ability to communicate'. But McCann then goes on to demonstrate convincingly that 'in fact it is possible to use the syntax to open up the poetry'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at:]

15. Elsewhere Smithyman noted: 'Perhaps, indeed probably, our so often debated feelings of alienation and isolation go back in the long run to an acute and fairly widespread feeling about our lack of community, about the instability of our community which is historically the product of social mobility.' Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 113. During conversations connected to a biography of Maurice Duggan which I had with Kendrick Smithyman in the early 1990s, Smithyman mentioned on more than one occasion to me the high number of suicides among farmer's wives in the isolated backblocks of New Zealand during the mid-twentieth century. He implied that these events were often hushed up. Whether this concealment is a verifiable fact or not, it is certainly something Smithyman held as a belief.


In newspapers,
reports (so many more than one would have
expected) of suicides, until you remember
how commonly men were alone.

'Research Project' was collected in Earthquake Weather (1972).

17. McMurtry, Larry. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999: 74.

18. John Newton, for instance, claims the demise of the South Island Myth occurred in 1951. Newton, John. 'The South Island Myth: A Short History.' Op. cit.: 36.

19. Labelling and dating literary periods will always prove a challenge for critics of New Zealand literature, as with literature elsewhere, and not least because in New Zealand's case overseas fashions interfere heavily in any natural development of the nation's literary culture, however 'development' may be defined. Lawrence Jones, writing of the New Zealand novel, usefully 'periodised twentieth-century New Zealand literature into late colonial, provincial, and post-provincial, with the last period beginning in 1965'. [Wevers, Lydia. 'The Novel, the Short Story, and the Rise of a New Reading Public, 1972-1990' in A History of New Zealand Literature (ed. Williams, Mark). Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016: 249.] Jones characterizes the Provincial period, which he dates 1935-64, as managing 'the painfully accomplished formation of native traditions of critical realism and impressionism', as opposed to the mid-1960s when 'a "Post-Provincial" sensibility begins to emerge in the novel as the conventions of the earlier period are recognised as conventions and increasingly seen as outworn'. [Jones, Lawrence. 'The Novel' in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (ed. Sturm, Terry). Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 119, 154.] Patrick Evans also usefully comments on the mentality of the Provincial writer: 'Two things happen: through constant representation in literature, the metropolitan setting becomes the only setting legitimate for "true" art, so that, conversely, writing set in the provinces cannot be "true" (and this, I take it, is why the provincial writer has such a horrified distaste for the environment he is obliged to describe); and second, literature, through its detachment from the here-and-now and through its depiction of a prettier, happier world than that of the provinces, becomes elevated above the processes of everyday life and is given the status almost of a religion.' [Evans, Patrick. 'Maurice Duggan and the Provincial Dilemma' in Landfall 142, June 1982: 221.]

20. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 141.

21. Hamilton, Scott. 'In Search of Smithyland'.

22. Smithyman, Kendrick. Personal communication. 17 May, 1994.

23. Smithyman, Kendrick. Personal communication. 17 May, 1994. The critic Jack Ross, as part of an engaging account of a Smithyman-inspired visit to Colville, also notes: 'For one thing, on his Stout Centre recording of the poem, Kendrick remarks that the poem caused quite a lot of fuss when it first appeared, and that people kept on assuring him that "it's not like that now." As a result (presumably), when it was included in Ian Wedde & Harvey McQueen's 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, the title had been changed to "Colville 1964". Subsequently he seems to have gone back on that decision, though, and the title reverted to its original form.' []

24. Heather McCann touches on this obliquely when considering criticisms others have made of Smithyman's poetry, citing a 'lack of consistent hard image'. She also observes Smithyman's fondness for 'the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at:]

25. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: 7.

26. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 81, 88.

27. Wordsworth, William. 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798.' Lines 94-9.

28. C.K. Stead observes: 'In the post-1960s phase such experiments are almost entirely abandoned. The poems dictate their own forms from within. This change, too, seems directly connect to Smithyman's six months in Leeds.' [Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 237.]

29. The critic Peter Simpson describes this process in detail in his introduction to Smithyman's Selected Poems [Simpson, Peter. 'Introduction': Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989: 9-20.]. Simpson also cites two other critics, Reginald Berry and Martin Edmond, who perceptively discuss the shift from syntax to persona as a central strategy in the development of Smithyman's poetic technique. [Berry, Reginald. 'Hard Yakker: Kendrick Smithyman's Colourless Green Ideas'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 388-402; Edmond, Murray. 'Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry'. Landfall 168, Dec. 1988: 447-56.] See also: Richards, Ian. 'they flower/ in an air of being suspended': Kendrick Smithyman's 'Flying to Palmerston'. (

30. McCann, Heather. 'Deconstructing space: making truth in landscape and poetry'. Journal of New Zealand Literature 22, 2004: 157.

31. Smithyman was an immensely learned but also a habitually self-deprecating man. Something of this appears in the poem 'Stories About Wooden Keyboards', where a charming, very successful artist (based on Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a man chosen in the poem for his exoticism, a man almost beyond the limits of our usual knowledge or experience) is juxtaposed by Smithyman with an obscure and downtrodden artist imprisoned by circumstances in a war camp, and Smithyman then identifies himself with the latter. For an excellent reading of the poem, see Simpson, Peter. '"Sinfonia Domestica": Mary Stanley & Kendrick Smithyman' in Between the Lives: Partners in Art (ed. Shepard, Deborah). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2005: 81-2.

32. The shifting of tone, so beloved by the later generation of Manhire-influenced poets, was something that Smithyman became adept at in his mature poetry. A good example is 'Waitomo', written in the 1970s and published in Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985). Set at the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves, a popular New Zealand tourist destination, the poem opens with a tour guide asking for silence as a tour party, including the poet, is led underground. The poet, however, cannot seem to stop talking--perhaps to himself, but also addressing the reader--in a manner that implies he has seen everything in the caves before and wants to show off his experience. He points out the nicknames of the caverns and their features, even taking over the role of the guide to declare: 'We call this the Modern Art/ gallery'. In the Glowworm Grotto, where visitors get onto boats to pass along the underground Waitomo River in a cavern lit only by shining glowworms, the poet cannot help unpleasantly explaining that the delightful larvae shining above are in fact cannibals. His rather smug tone then moves to clever musing on the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge's celebrated opening to the poem 'Kubla Khan': 'Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea'. As if in competition with Coleridge, the poet insists on calling the calm river water under his boat 'verbless' (since it needs no verb to describe it). But in the next stanza the poet's tone suddenly changes from his hectoring manner to something much more tentative, since what he is seeing in the glowworm-illuminated underwater cavern all at once triggers a romantic memory of his own, of the intimate moments after the 'climax of love'. Because physical presence together is enough for lovers in such delicate moments, he feels that at such a time 'If you speak, all the lights will go out'; and from this point in the poem it is unclear whether the poet is now reacting to what is going on around him (and the necessity for quiet in the Grotto to keep the glowworms from ceasing to glow) or to his own memory of a loved one (and the desire to keep a special moment between them alive). What is clear is that, in contrast to the start of the poem, the poet now commands himself to 'Say nothing'. The tender moment of mutual physical contact that follows--reaching for a hand, pressing a finger--may be occurring only in the poet's memory or may be happening in the boat with the person he is accompanying. But finally the boat is back at the landing stage and, far from now insisting, explaining and hectoring because of his experience of visits in the past, the poet is reduced to asking a question, put with a note of awe. The question itself goes unanswered, but the sense of mystery it invokes remains, both for the poet and the reader. The core of meaning in 'Waitomo', therefore, derives precisely from Smithyman subverting the tone of know-all bluster that he is sometimes accused by critics of displaying. [For example in, Stead, C.K.. 'Kendrick Smithyman: Hiding the Lunch.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op.cit.: 243; or Sharp, Iain. Review of Stories About Wooden Keyboards. Op.cit.: 518-9.]

33. The critic Scott Hamilton mentions this in his blog 'Reading the Maps': 'Lake Tomarata sits close to Te Arai Point, on the eastern coast of Rodney District. When Smithyman came visiting in 1970, lupins and other unglamorous plants grew on the stabilised sandhills on the lake's eastern edge. At the launch of the Holloway Press edition of Tomarata, Smithyman scholar Peter Simpson said that the poet travelled to the little lake because he had heard that pines would soon be planted on its eastern shore. Smithyman "wanted to have a look at the place before it was altered"'. [Hamilton, Scott. 'On the Island'. See also: Hamilton, Scott. 'Reading Kendrick Smithyman.' brief 26, Jan. 2003: 51-5.] Smithyman himself also alludes to this in his later poem 'Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise', where he writes:

You follow me: I talk of what we have
and have not, of a sandhill lake
which comes and goes. Or maybe, came and went
since when I was last probing there
forestry men and engineers intent
on reform were then debating
how best to right an aberrant nature.

34. In an interview Smithyman commented on this process of visiting a particular place and then writing about it: 'I'm a very literal sort of person, and I like to sort of have my feet on a fact before I start to write about the place. That's the kind of thing...I go and walk the ground, see what's there, and smell it.' [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.]

35. Simpson, Peter. 'Afterword' to Tomarata. The Holloway Press, Auckland, 1996.

36. Simpson, Peter. 'Afterword' to Tomarata. Op. cit..

37. The full sentence reads: 'Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty; and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable, than wise.'

38. The full sentence reads: 'Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty; and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable, than wise.'

39. The poem 'A Showing Forth by Day of the Nankeen Kestrel', also written in 1970 and published in Earthquake Weather (1972), begins like 'Tomarata' with the word 'Open', which may be one reason why it immediately precedes 'Tomarata' in Smithyman's Selected Poems (1989). Smithyman remarked in an interview that his own religious conviction was 'nil since an early age' [Jackson, MacDonald P.. 'Interview with Kendrick Smithyman'. Op. cit.: 403-20.], but 'A Showing Forth by Day of the Nankeen Kestrel' is a landscape poem in which the poet, an atheist, is haunted by a moment of unexpected faith. The poem begins at Herekino harbour on the west coast of Northland, near to Kaitaia, in midsummer, with a description of the shallow coves and their shoreline, including slabs of exposed mudstone and dry sand which is 'powdered crisp'. Amongst this the poet wanders alone, regarding himself as little more than a type: an unhappy man 'on the brink' and 'wanting policy', or a course of action. He has been hurt or jilted in love and is 'broken-/hearted', and he remembers happier times when he felt free and was sure of himself 'in the world and the world was/ wholly fact'. In the happy past the poet had no need for any divine providence to be standing behind the facts of his world, but on such a day as this he feels 'you might wish for/ an illustrious providence, to be/ convinced'. Then at that moment the poet sees a Nankeen kestrel, a bronze-coloured Australian falcon very rarely found in New Zealand, hovering in the air near the harbour's south head. He regards the bird with awe, a 'creature of its own music', one so seldom observed as to be 'part fable', and pronounces it a miraculous 'improbable fact'. There is, however, some ambiguity hidden in the language about whether the poet really sees the kestrel or just wishes it up, since the expression 'then see/ the Australian windhover' could be using the word 'see' in the exclamatory sense of 'behold!' or could be using it more conditionally, extending the earlier 'might wish' to 'then [you might] see'. It is worth noting that for a supposedly academic poet Smithyman is a master at writing poems that reproduce certain emotional states, and that at their best Smithyman's poems often show a strong tension between an undercurrent of feeling and a framework of thought which seeks to hold emotions in check. In any event, in the next stanza the poet announces that his sighting of the kestrel is an 'Epiphany', though at the same time undercutting this idea self-consciously with 'you may well wish that it were so'. But the 'Fact' of the kestrel's appearance gives him 'more/ to ponder' and he tries to place this fact within the context of the harbour's landscape. Further off he can see the surf throwing up leaping mullet, which he notes are 'ecstatic' and which he cannot help concluding must jump for no other reason than 'the pleasure of leaping'. This natural beauty on show then leads him in the next stanza to feel that the scene is 'As though it were all designed' by God, although he remains uncertain about whether this is true, as a fact, or not. He tries invoking the writer Thomas Hardy, whose religious views were notably ambiguous, and who was interested in the relationship in this world between what appears to be godless chance and providentially-fuelled fate. Attempting to have it both ways, the poet concludes with philosophical seriousness that 'Unconscious mindless nature/ culminates in design'. But the poem then continues for one more stanza, returning the poet's thoughts to the scene, the kestrel, and the ambiguous 'as though or as if' of why beauty might manage to exist. The poet then remembers a 'morning at Worcester' where, presumably in happier times, 'we stopped'. Together perhaps with the person who has now left him, he went 'on impulse' into the local cathedral and there, inside a church in a moment of serendipity, he heard the organist practising one of Edward Elgar's Enigma variations. Elgar was himself once an organist in the cathedral, and his Enigma variations are pieces of music with real people standing behind them as inspirations; and the church, the music and the presence of a loved one make the moment feel for the poet almost 'right as of design?'. What else, the poet asks himself, could sudden consoling happiness in beauty be but the apprehension of something deeper?--although it is significant that he can frame this thought only as a question which then goes unanswered, like the enigma behind the Enigma variations themselves.

40. The lake must be approached by road from the west and so the sun, still slightly to the east of its midday zenith would seem to an observer to be still a little 'beyond' the peak of its noonday ascent.

41. Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying. Op. cit.: 91.

42. Smithyman's poems occasionally begin with just this sort of knotty opening, a barrier which then operates as a gateway to the more accessible verse that follows. The poem 'Backwaters', for example, written in 1971 and published in Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978), starts with the poet meditating on what constitutes a 'Masterpiece', and his suggestion in answer to this question is a paraphrase of Stendhal's famous definition of a novel as something open to experience: 'a mirror dawdling/ down a lane'. (Stendhal in fact wrote: 'a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below'. [Stendhal. Scarlet and Black, 1830. Part 2, chap. 19. This translation Shaw, Margaret R.B. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1953: 365.]) The poet's use of the British word 'lane' immediately prompts him to think 'after Old World fashion' of the obscure Kiwi turn-off which he is heading into by car from 'a side road' as an English-style 'lane'. His thoughts then run on to wondering in general what kind of person can 'master the hold' that such language, with received terms like 'lane' acting as 'precedent', has on the mind. But at length he cannot 'piece together' all this speculation, and without being able to draw any conclusions, the poet is left to reflect further on what is merely appearing in front of him. After this difficult start, the poet proceeds to describe arriving at a run-down mill town, its local economy dead, and its history mean. In the poem's second section the poet then employs a tactic very similar to that used in the final sections of 'Tomarata' and contrasts this mill town with a remembered visit to Fettercairn, a village in Aberdeenshire in Scotland, in the old world, a village with a long and rich history. He does not know what 'Hope' this Scottish village may have in the future, but he is well aware of what it already has as 'Memory', and he feels that he himself may be able to share in this 'vicariously'. Such sharing is possible because the poet is of British descent himself and as a colonial has been brought up on this sort of history and imagery--an old-world history and imagery which, in turn, have corrupted his ability to be truly open, to be a mirror on the roadway, when it comes to experiencing his own new country's history and imagery. For the poet the local mill town seems already dead, while Fettercairn, where 'Hope' conspired even in the selling of contraceptives in the pub's toilets, seemed fertile. In the poem's third section the poet wonders how W.B. Yeats, a writer from a rural country, and Stendhal, a writer born in a provincial town, would cope with living in and writing about a New Zealand mill town. In such a culturally impoverished setting history seems to be merely newspaper pages used as wallpaper and a memorial to a war which took place overseas. The only people the poet observes are a woman whom he cannot help likening to Rapunzel, a character in an old-world fairy tale who tried to escape from imprisonment in a tower, and 'her prince', a man who in the fairy tale unsuccessfully assisted her. Finally the poet has to decide whether to go, ominously, 'forward or back'--implying thoughts about his own future here in philistine New Zealand or in the Britain where he feels, at least vicariously, at home. The refuge of the nearest city, which he ironically refers to as Saint Augustine's holy city of God, is off on the highway to the south, although people on 'another island', presumably Britain, regard it as the sort of place that already has philistine 'barbarians rumoured at its gates'. At last the poet acknowledges that the town he is in has been built from milling and its resultant sawdust on 'sectarian', or narrow-minded, zeal, a mentality which will not allow him to enjoy old-world thinking if he chooses to stay on in such a backward place. The poem, without a definite conclusion, tails off and is left with what 'one may reflect'.

43. The Bible. Mathew, 7.1.

44. In this paradox Smithyman nicely anticipates the so-called 'measurement problem' of quantum physics, where it is believed that the process of locating and examining the wavefunction of a system alters the properties of the system so that it cannot therefore be observed in its pristine form.

45. The word 'open', in various forms, appears eight times within the body of the poem.

46. McCann refers to Smithyman's 'constant revisitation to certain themes that appear repeatedly throughout the poetry, resulting in what Robert Chapman called a "reiterative musical style"'. [McCann, Heather. 'Introduction' to 'Syntax and Theme in the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman.' M.Litt thesis, University of Auckland, 2002. Also available at: The Chapman quotation is from: Chapman, Robert. 'An Approach to the Poetry of Kendrick Smithyman' in New Zealand Poetry Yearbook 5 (ed. Johnson, Louis). Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1955: 90-101.]

Copyright Ian Richards, 2017

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