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ALMOST FEELING GUILTY

SHED: Poems 1980–2001 by Ken Smith
336pp, £10.95, Bloodaxe

‘Personally, what is a poem to you?’

‘A poem is something that moves me, something that sings, something that has a lyric line in it, something that asks a question and tries to pose an answer. That’s about all I’ve got’
               – Ken Smith, interviewed by Brad Evans, 2000

The cover of Ken Smith’s Shed: Poems 1980-2001 features a painting by a Hungarian artist – Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary. It’s called Old Woman Peeling an Apple’ and is of an old woman, her grey-hair drawn plainly and tightly back. She is dressed in a long brown skirt and black overshirt of some kind, under which can be glimpsed the collar of a white shirt or blouse, and over which is a long pale blue apron. She is also wearing a brown scarf, which appears to be quite thick and warm. Her shoes are some kind of plain black slipper or pump. On her lap is a flat brown dish, with five items of fruit on it. I’m not sure they are all apples, but two or three of them would appear to be. The woman is holding a knife in her right hand, and her left is poised, about to pick up one of the fruits from the dish. Contrary to the title of the painting, she’s not actually peeling an apple. She is about to. The expression on the woman’s face is difficult to interpret confidently. Face and eyes are downturned in the direction of the fruit on her lap, and she could be calm, with the merest hint of a smile on lips barely discernible. Or she could simply be resigned to a task, such as it is, that she has performed countless times before. She is set against a black and dark background, on a plain brown floor. The overall impression, I would suggest, is of a  fairly austere life. One might be stretching things a little to go on to say that the picture is an image of someone who has known hardship, or that this is a painting of a woman who has seen life’s struggles at very first hand, but it might be justified.

I mention all this because I feel reasonably safe in assuming that the poet chose this image himself. If he didn’t, I feel very safe assuming that he is happy with it on the cover of this big book of poems, which runs to over 300 pages, and has in it ‘all the poems [he] wishes to keep in print’ from his Bloodaxe collections starting with 1981’s Burned Books. If any cover of a book has a relationship with what’s inside it, it’s this one, jammed full of people with whom this old lady might well have something in common.

I’ve always thought Ken Smith an interesting, readable poet – though it’s a while since I read him – and the first poem from Burned Books is a good starting point in explaining why. It also signals most of the poet’s preoccupations throughout the rest of the book

     Recitation at the burned books:

     taking a handful
     of rainy ashes
     crimped halfburned
     paper into his fist
     what was some tale
     of fair women or
     tinker song how
     Queen Miracle was
     with the stable lads

     he’s caught sight
     of hawthorn hedge
     drizzle & honeysuckle
     asking what chance
     of nirvana for this
     wet rubbishy fistful

     and longs to be
     merely a grassblade
     the singular stare
     of the speedwell
     maybe a reed flecked
     by the reeds
     his brothers

Images of desolation or abandonment or hardship or grievance or suchlike – each of which is apparent either in the person or persons of the poems, or in their social and physical environment – are common. It’s pretty much what the poems are about. There is a sense of resignation to the fact of remaining unfulfilled. Literature and lyric are continuing points of reference, through the written or spoken or sung word. Nature, as evidenced here by hawthorn hedge and honeysuckle, speedwell and reeds, is another permanent presence – if not in all the poems, given their urban settings, then always in the poet’s continuing larger world. Here, the drizzle casts across the poem what will become a familiar air as the book progresses.

The conventional lyric skill of a genuine lyric poet is partly concealed in this unpunctuated poem: the a  sounds that fill the first two lines, the alliteration of ‘hawthorn hedge’ and ‘honeysuckle’, the assonance of the speedwell and the reeds. A signature Ken Smith poem will employ a longer line than this example, and will also use punctuation when it seems fit, rather than in obedience to the so-called rules of grammar. There is always a preparedness to stretch the sentence and phrasing to accommodate what needs to be accommodated at any particular time, and rules of written grammar are bent and come secondary to the practice and vitality of the spoken word and the human breath. Smith isn’t an experimental poet, particularly, but his preference for the spoken language over the written to be at the heart of this poetry is always to the fore, so those who prefer things the other way around may frown a little. But what Smith actually demonstrates is the energy and capacity of both:

     We find the river again, the ferry
     south over the great water, on the shore
     you read Take Courage and you’re not joking.
     In my fear the city, the blue misty planet

     vanishes, a curtain ripped away
     and nothing in back but fire, the river
     and the busy roadway rolled aside
     in our bad dreams from nights we don’t sleep.

     And no one to remember. No messages
     passed late at night across borders, by hand,
     by word of mouth, we who are lost together
     telling tales the prisoner spins the jailer.

This is from ‘The London Poems’ in Terra, 1986. Phrases are strung together, as they are when someone speaks rather than writes. And most of those phrases are, in this instance and in most others, pretty ordinary. But they’re not pretty. I haven’t come away from reading this big book thinking that Ken Smith spins a wonderful line of poetry. I never once read a line or a poem that, to coin a phrase, did my head in with its wonder and marvellousness. They’re not about that. Lots of Smith’s poems have their genesis within actual speech, but actual speech can contain as much of the mad and marvellous as anything you could ever make up. But Smith is justifiably and understandably selective. In the same interview with Brad Evans quoted from at the beginning of this essay, Smith describes the beginnings of the process:

‘I like hanging around places like railway stations, where you get the drama of departure and arrival, and all that sort of thing. I sometimes consciously go out looking for images and language, like the city’s a great, big supermarket and you can pick & mix as you like……… Places like that kick me off with some idea, or phrases that cling together………. Usually when I go on a trip somewhere I, again, collect ideas, images, language, and it usually leads to something.’

The traveller and note-taker decides where to go. One of the places he used to go was the magistrate’s court. He was, almost famously, writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs Prison. More lately, Smith has travelled widely in Eastern  Europe. Guess what kind of lives and language you find in places like those.

I’ve read a couple of reviews of Shed, and one of them refers to Smith’s ‘personae’ in these poems. This is where I come unstuck, because I don’t think these so-called personae work the way they are supposed to. In individual poems perhaps they do, but after a couple of hundred pages…..

I think the last time I actually read  Smith was on the publication of Wormwood, which is the book associated with his residency at the Prison. I can remember thinking then that it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I could see how good it was, by which I mean how accomplished. I knew I didn’t like the poems, though. I can’t remember what else I thought, because it was a long time ago. I seem to remember a friend of mine rated him because of his politics. This time around, I can remember, because it’s only been a few weeks. I read

     nor am I awake nor am I asleep now
     in the walled city, the boy in me still
     bawling for love, and in me the animal
     prowling, and the shadow of my shadow,
     and the man I am sometimes a glimpse of
     almost half human again, so where am I?

and I was a third of the way through this big book and I realised that not only was this relentless ploughing through poem after poem not the way to read poetry (I already knew this, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Nobody in their right mind sits down with 300 pages of poetry and sets about reading it.) but I was getting bored. I took the book on holiday with me, and figured 20 pages a day would see me through. I didn’t count on the Cyprus sun, local beer, and a Mediterranean warm as a lukewarm bath. Talk about two worlds…..  I tried not to become depressed. I knew the world was filled with people who were not on holiday in Cyprus, and with people who were up against it a bit. More than a bit. I had no idea if this piece from ‘it happens’  in Wormwood was Smith or a persona, but as time went by I began to understand that it makes no difference.

If on page 30 a poem’s speaker (or speakers, perhaps) says

     we repeat ourselves
     we repeat ourselves
     suffering is good for one

     try the lemon sole darling
     off he goes in his porsche

and on page 130

     Bricks made of clay. Clay dug
     in the river leas in the Thames flood plain
     brick cut fired tapped to the trowel
     coursed brick on brick making prison.
     Prisoners brickies once labourers
     thieves from the bridewell hard men
     from the Millwall to dig in the mud
     their own quarters the cells
     of all who came after

and a hundred pages later ‘Archive Footage’ is about war:

     And there’ll be bluebirds. Jess. Jeff.
     5th East Yorks wet and seasick off La Rivière.
     Shot or drowned, face down in the sea,
     his white enamel mug drifting after him.


and yet another hundred pages on there’s

     A ragged country, the roads under fog,
     small towns and their flags of allegiance:
     Prod. Taig. No Bigot Parade. No Pope. No RUC.
     No Agreement. Dungevin supports
Garvaghey Road.

a certain mood sets in. It set in ages ago, to be honest. I became awfully tired reading this stuff in bulk. It doesn’t matter that there’s a constant undercurrent of strength and optimism coursing through and between the lines, even though sometimes it’s struggling to hold up its head:

     What else I recall are tiny white roses
     growing in the Basques’ country of the tongue.
     And wayside herbs: feverfew, yarrow,
     soldier’s wort, all good for something.

No, it doesn’t matter, because after 300 pages I’m beaten. I’m feeling a tad irritated too, because I almost feel guilty for not being moved quite as I suspect I should be by all this hardship and grit. Here’s Ken Smith again, talking about a poem (I pulled this off a BBC website):

‘My interest in exiles is part of my interest in outsiders, people who see us as we do not because they are in some way outside the cultural consensus we operate. Prisoners, foreigners of all kinds, Gypsies, immigrants, the homeless, all of them in some way outsiders……. the things I’m interested in: alienation, impermanence, the capture of the fleeting moment among the endless stretches of time, the passing show, signified in images, in a long procession of associations.’

And as I say, I come unstuck with the notion of ‘personae’ because half the time when there’s an ‘I’ in a poem I don’t know if it’s a persona or the poet or a mixture of the two. But after a while I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter because most of the people who may well be the personae of these poems wouldn’t be anywhere near as literate as Ken Smith, and poetry would not be their chosen form of expression. Sometimes their chosen form of expression lands them in prison, but more often they’re gagged and rendered voiceless. But this is poetry, and really it’s always Ken Smith you’re reading. And I don’t have a problem with that. But I think it would be awfully easy to say something pleasantly politically correct about these poems and shrink from saying that these 300 pages demonstrate that Ken Smith does what he does very well but it’s a bit samey after a while. And whilst I agree with a comment from Sean O’Brien on the back cover, to the effect that ‘One of the signs of an important poet is that he or she leaves with an expanded sense of imaginative possibility.’ (I think there should be an ‘us’ in there between ‘leaves’ and ‘with’…) I can’t say it applies to the poetry in this book. I mean by this that I didn’t come away from reading these poems having learned anything much about people like ‘prisoners, foreigners of all kinds, Gypsies, immigrants, the homeless’. Mind you, that’s not what I read poetry for. But I still know the stuff I knew beforehand about this area of human existence, stuff gleaned from personal experience, reading, watching television and listening to the radio, and generally keeping my eyes and ears open. I’m not sure that particular stock of knowledge has been added to. And none of this has anything to do with “imaginative possibility”. It’s not that kind of poetry. Nor are my feelings of irritation and guilt anything new: I don’t watch the 6 o’clock news, but turn over for The Simpsons. Somehow I manage to live with myself.

This is a poetry drenched in language, though. Not all poetry is. Found and overheard colloquial pickings merge seamlessly with a robust and robustly loved wider vocabulary, and a love of words:

     It is the war of the language
     where the neighbours don’t agree about history,
     too much bloody water, too much misery,
     the Vlachs become the Rumanians
     kin with Trajan’s soldiery
     settled on the Dacian frontier
     where begins the East, serfs
     tolerated by grace
, banished
     from the proud fortified towns, forbidden
     chimneys, windows, public office,
     embroidery, furs, shoes, boots.

This is from ‘The Other Shadow’, one of the new poems in the book. Earlier, ‘Unaccompanied singing’ is a prose meditation on the phrase ‘À capella’, which traces linguistic relations through centuries and nations and demonstrates beautifully the ties that bind. Which I know is also one of the things Smith’s poetry might be said to be doing, pulling all the outsiders together into itself, expressing on their behalf. Is this an aspect of “imaginitive possibility”? I have no idea, and find it quite difficult to get my head around. Does poetry do such apparently big things? Or do we just like to think it does? Discuss…… Personally, I suspect that poetry might do those big things in cultures where thousands turn out to poetry readings, where it has some kind of cultural clout because it’s part of peoples’ lives in a way that the English have lost. Here, this big book with 20 years’ worth of poems in it isn’t in the local Waterstone’s, and nobody gives a damn. But the book has left its mark on me: I feel almost guilty for not giving much of a damn either.


© 2002 by Martin Stannard