In the editorial for The Typewriter, I promised to open the discussion of New Zealand poetry and poetics, in particular to address the elusive question ‘who is a poet’ in contemporary Aotearoa? The ‘editorial’ has historically functioned as an opinion piece, aimed at reflecting the circulating issues that the magazine/newspaper/weekly/blog believes their audience should be aware of. As editor of this distinctly New Zealand poetry blog aimed at engaging and inviting fresh New Zealand poets I felt that the above question was pertinent to The Typewriter and its audience.
To begin this editorial therefore, I was compelled to reach for the words of a little known New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman. Despite being posthumously labelled as one of New Zealand’s most prolific poets, writing from 1922 through to his death in 1995, he struggled for recognition as a ‘poet’ in his lifetime. Smithyman’s poetry is splendidly intricate and detailed. Despite this, he suffered from characterisation by many reviewers and editors (notably Charles Brasch) as a poet who engaged in ‘deliberate obscurity’ (a remark made by a Listener reviewer reviewing Smithyman’s first publication Seven Sonnets). In response to these not infrequent labels Smithyman argued that “A section of the poetry of an advanced and intricate community must inevitably be complex, and because complex, obscure – which is not to say that most of the obscurity cannot eventually be understood in the major part….We have to reckon in short that the mirror which art holds to nature may be a dark glass reflecting a paddock where undoubtedly dark horses are capering.” (Smithyman, pp. 14-5)
I always return to the sage-like words of Kendrick Smithyman when I am considering who operates as a poet in a society where even the Poet Laureate cannot survive on poetry alone. So, who is a poet? Are we all part-time poets? It seems to me that this is the status quo for most. I receive emails filled with poetry from public servants, students, teachers, lecturers, retail-workers, office workers and retirees. All are vibrant, eager, committed individuals willing to sacrifice time to this nebulous art form, and thus potentially gain the still illustrious title of ‘poet’. Because despite its disappearance as a profession or career (if it ever existed as such), it is still yearned for as a defining part of our selves.
A poet, in my experience as the web-editor of a New Zealand poetry magazine, is invariably all of these aspiring individuals who engage in this endless activity of poetics. So as editor I garner and amass gems from the unlikeliest of sources, looking, as Wallace Stevens suggested, at those in the community surrounding me “Why do you imagine golden birds? / Do you not see how the blackbird / Walks around the feet / Of the women about you?” I attempt to see the blackbirds each time I turn my attention to the wonderful source of emerging poets that together construct The Typewriter. I am sure, if I had been editing during Kendrick Smithyman’s publishing period, I would have embraced any arcane complexity like a treasure trove of riches, for who can miss the poet in the rhythmically stunning lines “where undoubtedly dark horses are capering.”
Elizabeth Welsh, The Editor.
– Kendrick Smithyman, Kendrick Smithyman Selected Poems, ed. by Peter Simpson (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989).