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Collected Poems 1943 -1995 by Kendrick Smithyman

  

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Smithyman Online: Collected Poems 1943-1995 by Kendrick Smithyman. Edited & with notes by Margaret Edgcumbe & Peter Simpson

                     once after a very long day I drove
to make camp at Mitimiti. The coast road burns out
in sunset, no one to see beach-wise
as the sea darkens, nobody seen for miles back
as wind darkened.

– Smithyman, “Mitimiti and Gaia” (3.3.89). Folder XI: 1988-89

It’s still comparatively rare to review websites in literary journals, which seems a bit of a shame. I guess the audience for such high-culture authors as Smithyman remains basically print-oriented, and therefore likely to concentrate on his extreme posthumous productivity solely in terms of the books which have come out so far – Atua Wera (AUP, 1997); Last Poems (Holloway Press, 2002); Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (AUP, 2002); and – most recently – Campana to Montale (Writers Group, 2004).

And, without directions, this website might be a little difficult to find. A Google search brought up, first, the nzepc author page for Smithyman, then the Book Council entry, then my old pander essay on “Kendrick Smithyman’s Northland.” Even the Holloway Press’s own 1996 edition of Tomarata came up before the Collected Poems. And unless you happen to know to click on the words Mudflat WebWorks at the top of the Holloway Press page, you could still miss this fascinating edition.

It’s no big deal, though. The nzepc page provides a direct link to the Collected Poems, and that’s probably quite sufficient for most poetry-oriented readers.

So why a website rather than a series of separate volumes? Well, sheer bulk is one reason. The collection was divided, by Smithyman himself, into twelve chronologically-arranged folders (a thirteenth held the long poem Atua Wera; a further boxfile the materials for the Italian translations, Campana to Montale). Even the shortest of those folders, the last (1990-1995) is the size of a slim volume of verse. In fact, Peter Simpson’s Holloway Press has already issued it as a book, Last Poems. Cost is another factor. One doubts the traffic would bear another ten or so such deluxe volumes.

Of course there’s always the option of putting out Smithyman’s lifework as two or three close-packed scholarly volumes. I recently had occasion to consult Christopher Rick’s magisterial annotated Longmans edition of Tennyson (1st ed (1969) 1 volume, 2nd ed. (1987) 3 volumes – available now only in selected form as a paperback). The Ricks book is beautiful but somewhat cumbersome, and the fact that he wasn’t allowed to quote from the treasure house of manuscripts on deposit at Trinity College Cambridge in his first edition, a deficiency made up in the second edition., gives one more reason for preferring the practicality of the web.

An electronic edition can be continuously updated. Those who’d forked out for Ricks’s first version might have felt a bit reluctant to have to buy its greatly-enlarged successor, but what choice did they have? Nothing in the first edition could be seen any longer as authoritative. Smithyman Online may change over time (in fact there’s an invitation to send in notes and emendations included on the site) but no-one in their right mind would ever dream of printing the whole thing out. That’s not what it’s for.

There are a few surprises in the way Smithyman has been presented by Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson (thought one should also mention in this connection their indefatigable web designer, Brian Flaherty). It took me a while to notice that I could bring up an entire table of contents simply by clicking on the various folders, but once I had worked it out I was greatly impressed by the simplicity and elegance of the arrangement.

The thing that’s really exemplary about the site, though, is the Search function built into it. Not only can one find individual poems in this way, but keyword searches can be done to compile anthologies of poems dealing with particular Smithyman obsessions or themes. Just out of curiosity, I put in “Northland,” and got thirty references straightaway. In a collection of 1500 poems it’s hard to overemphasise how useful this is.

The notes are still a work in progress (as is the whole site, really – though fortunately only folders IX, X and XIII remain to be put up), but they’re already extremely useful. It’s great to find out what is known about the incidental detail of a typically allusive Kendrick poem before going off on one’s own individual tangent. This is where Margaret Edgcumbe’s close acquaintance with the day-to-day evolution of his work really pays dividends – not to mention Peter Simpson’s detailed bibliographical research.

Serious scholars of the poet (and there are already quite a few) would scarcely even think to question the longterm utility of an edition such as this. It costs nothing to access, is immensely convenient to use, and gives a good basis for the further archival work undoubtedly needing to be done on the “several hundreds” of poems not included in Smithyman’s own final cull.

The general reader, though, is the real longterm audience for this magnificent work. The Browse page of the site, where one can simply click on individual poems at random, is certainly a better way of idling away your time online than just playing another game of Freecell. Smithyman had something interesting to say virtually every day of his life, and – thanks to Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson – those complex, multi-faceted words are now accessible to poetry-lovers everywhere.

We must use, to stand open, to experience.
Do you need us, World, to query your answers?
Actually, do you need us

                           – “Mitimiti and Gaia”

Yes, we do. We need this site, and I hope we’ll soon be seeing more like it for our other poetic pioneers.

 

Jack Ross
brief 33 (2005): 60-62.

 

 

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