Ken Smith | Collected Poems | Bloodaxe Books £14.99
The slight sense of a jostling masculinity in Ken Smith’s poetry might be part of the reason that it is often described as ‘muscular’. In part, this jostling feels as though it rises from the abundant contradictions of his life and manifested in the poetry; that Smith, the son of an agricultural labourer is a university graduate; that he is capable of writing deeply empathetic poems about both the prison life of Wormwood Scrubs whilst also writing a series of persona poems in the voice of Sir John Hawkwood, a fourteenth century mercenary who ended up a freeman of Florence; that this poem is itself followed immediately, in this volume, by the poem ‘Colden Valley’ whose ‘children [are] gone through millyards / into stone they chiselled Billy, Emma, Jack’. Thus, there is in Smith’s writing a sense of working the tainted, deracinated working class masculinity that manifests itself in the poetry of Tony Harrison, and the early writing of Douglas Dunn.
The other name that rises around Smith’s work is that of Ted Hughes. This comparison is not only to do with Smith’s own context of being brought up in the north of England; but there is also in Smith’s work an early interest in the matter of ‘England’. An example of this is, ‘A description of the Lichway or corpse-road across Dartmoor’, which begins, ‘From Babeny and Powell / west to Lydford 11½ miles / as the crow flies who needs / carry his own death.’ It needs to be made clear that this poem of Smith’s was written before Hughes published Crow in 1970. But the poem sits with a concern, like Hughes’, for ‘legendary depth … as deep as England.’ This concern in Smith’s writing can show itself in such lines as ‘I ran with the Swale, / clear mountain river, / around me, learned / in its stones. I was // its listener, that country / of turf and hill / falling into the cut / but oh slowly.’ Here, the narrator sees the landscape in stark terms, the nouns unadorned by adjectives, ‘stones’, ‘turf’, ‘hill’. These objects are items which are listened to and teach.
Central to Smith’s oeuvre is the magnificent ‘Fox Running’, from 1980. This is a poem of rare sustained drive and brilliance, possibly unique in the range of post-war ‘British’ poetry. As the title suggests, the poem begins by describing Fox running through the suburbs of London. That Fox could be the persona of Smith himself, a country man then living in London, is perhaps contained in the early lines, ‘Fox wanting to be alongwind / amongst bracken his own shade / the breeze at his back’. ‘Alongwind’ has a technical definition meaning the mean wind force when the wind speed and other factors are taken into consideration. However, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary offers no definition of the word at all. If we surmise that this word is part of Smith’s childhood lexicon, perhaps we might guess that it means running ‘with the wind’ in the bracken. If ‘alongwind’ does mean this, then Smith’s vocabulary is metonymic of the presence of the country in the town, of the northern dialect in the language of the city dweller. Fox also ‘runs’ in the city’s underbelly as part of its process of marginalisation, ‘In Brady’s Tavern with a cashflow problem / exchanging alcohol for coin of the realm.’ Or, ‘Holed up with Baudelaire and Lorca. / On Sundays picking up exotic fruit / along the market side, selling half a dozen ties he’s nicked.’ Smith’s bare, colloquial vocabulary driving home the economic marginalization which the city breeds; the rapid colloquialisms being part of a language which Smith wields with real skill and energy.
If Fox has cashflow problems some of which he knows that he causes himself, he is also suborned within the bureaucracy of the city within the state, ‘investing in the breweries / his last Isaac Newton portraits / and never coming up all day / cashing in his cash card / ripping up his cheque stubs // waiting for his giro / arguing his earnings related // always with the wrong form / in the wrong office / on the wrong floor.’ In the age of the performance poet, you can hear the audience whooping and hollering at all this. And Smith maintains the political element, ‘This the bullnosed politicians / cadge votes for’, the poem modulating at that point into a vivid description of the effects of a nuclear bomb falling on London; a destruction in which ‘Goodbye love. Woman I loved.’ But also a destruction in which we say ‘Goodbye Areopagitica, Aeneid, / Assyrian Winged Genius, alphabets // running from aleph to zero.’ This destruction also is wrought upon the identity of Fox who comments, ‘once upon a long time / I was a good dog. // I ran around town / with the other good dogs.’ But as part of his self-exculpation also Smith writes, ‘I come from a broken home / and I broke it.’ And off he runs again.
This running and destruction eventually seeps into the language itself. And, in a slightly Eliotic way, snatches of conversation crowd into the poem, and into the disintegrating mind of the narrator, ‘”has he for whom you / left yours now gone?” // he’ll never be a buttercup / in God’s shining garden’ and there is more to come. These voices which suggest not just the disintegration of the narrator, are part and parcel of the disintegration and alienation of the city itself; an alienation which moves from speech and conversation into the very language itself. ‘I want the word / for the many lives he might have lived / if he’d gotten off anywhere, Moorgate / for instance or Tooting / in a single room’. When Smith asks for ‘the word’ as opposed to ‘a word’, and a ‘single’ word to describe the ‘many lives’, the poet places his limits on the surface of his work. Smith carves out a place for these people which sets their existences in front of the reader and admits his own defeat; as Smith comments below this, ‘With his word that was word / of the unmasked betrayer / a beaten man knowing better’.
Sean O’Brien commenting on ‘Fox Running’ writes; ‘What lends the poem its alarming coherence is the energy and unsparing accuracy Smith brings to presenting the descent into the most harrowing of derelictions’ and comparing the poem to The Waste Land, O’Brien writes, ‘Smith’s poem, on the other hand, is written from below, at a point when cultural referents have lost even residual authority and the “essential horror” of things is not subject to the liberty of irony.’
Bloodaxe have issued the only extant recording of Ken Smith reading ‘Fox Running’; although it should be noted that Smith’s reading has both additions and deletions from the version printed in this Collected.
A major thread that runs through this large compendious Collected Poems is Smith’s sense of empathy. That empathy starts, in the early poems, with Ken Smith’s clear need to understand his difficult, thwarted father, and runs through to the final poems, in particular his long, final sequence ‘Almost’ which touches on the war in the old Yugoslavia and much else beside. Smith’s empathy is always driven by a huge, sparking poetic intelligence, whereby almost every poem contains some moment of piercing imagery or juxtaposition that pulls the reader into the precisely realised text. Often this precisely realised empathy consists in dramatic monologue. Smith’s narrators come from many continents and many walks of life. Sometimes those narrators might be extreme, for example the poem ‘Figures in three landscapes’ contains ‘One: Brady at Saddleworth Moor’. As someone who lives on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, I can attest to the power of Smith’s description of the landscape and weather, and there is some power in Smith’s attempt to penetrate Brady’s mind. There are, however, limitations to the depth of engagement in a short, lyric poem. In these poems, Smith is good on the detail, but such a figure might need the expanse of a novel, as in Gordon Burn’s brilliant novel about Myra Hindley, Alma Cogan.
These, though, are quibbles. What we now have here is the collected poetry of a singular and driven voice. A poet who travelled widely both literally and imaginatively into some of the most difficult corners of the late twentieth century world; from Wormwood Scrubs prison, to the moors of his northern England, from Amish Pennsylvania to ‘a Sarajevo bread queue’. Part of Smith’s drive is to inhabit these places as nakedly and fully as he possibly could, and to write as clearly and unsparingly as he could about that inhabiting. Sometimes, therefore, he can remind the reader of an entirely different poet, someone like Keith Douglas, a poet whose voice and writing seems of another kind to that of his contemporaries. This book shows how hugely successful Smith was as a poet, and what a resource he provides for those writing in his wake.
by Ian Pople