Reading the Book of the World
“I thinke this worlde a boke and wolde rede it. . .”
Ken Smith’s personae in these poems range from a fourteenth century war criminal to a Venetian baron, from Moors murderer Ian Brady to Christopher Columbus, from the wise-guy pub-speak of ‘Abel Baker Charlie Delta’ to the voices of prisoners captured in the poems in “Wormwood.” In each case, the cadence and tone is distinct, the language clear and alert, the message simple but profound. Smith is a poet of voices, a ventriloquist in writing, drawing on ancient traditions of balladeers, troubadours and wandering poets in which to couch his own experiences and his responses to the experiences of others.
“I speak from the lost world of all the living,” he tells us in “Wall Dreams”:
“I am someone becoming someone else,
I have a name somewhere about me.
I am muddy with others, a body
Separating itself from the common grave.
. . . I am in praise of all that breathes.”
This late poem, published in 2001, offers both a celebration and a summation of all that precedes it, opening itself to “the world’s mundane chatter” in order to select and structure that mundanity into moments of startling clarity, sharply defined by the flexible line and loose metre that Smith’s poems characteristically use.
Shed collects together into one impressive volume most of the poems published in Smith’s previous eight volumes, from 1981’s Burned Books onwards. In 1978, Smith had the distinction of being the first poet published by Bloodaxe. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Shed adds to his previous selected volume, The Poet Reclining: Selected Poems 1962-1980, and extends the mapping out of a career in which one can see clearly the lines of development, the contours of an emerging and evolving style which responds to the history of its own time and to the voices around it.
“Shed” implies the shedding of skins and identities, or perhaps (as the book’s blurb suggests) the garden shed “where the first scribblings that begat many of these poems took place”. But it also operates as an implicit thematic rhyme for many of the preoccupations that haunt and structure Smith’s poetry - head, bed, wed, led, red, bled, dead, read and said, words which summarise human lives by suggesting human activities both physical and intellectual. Smith’s poems combine effortlessly these twin dimensions of human life, and make subtle intellectual demands of their readers even as the reader’s heart is being tugged at too.
Smith is deeply literate and has the poetic skill to both accommodate and transform his sources without distorting them. His “response” to the Chinese poet Basho (a writer already explored by, among others, the playwright Edward Bond), in Narrow Road, Deep North, situates itself amongst “the wild flowers / Of Scotland” and meditates upon displacement, travel and the Yorkshire poet’s sense of new accents and dialects. These experiences, grounded in the specificity of real names and places, invoke a momentary sense of historical solidarity, which the poem seeks to express via echoes of Yeats and Shelley:
“Things the heart
will no longer hold,
and bursts with, thoughts
on the waves and the west wind . . .
The best monuments
belong to the defeated.”
Smith’s world is one in which differences - cultural, political, religious, linguistic - are overridden by shared experiences, the shared possession of culture, politics, belief, and the power of words to express them. Poetry, in exploring these differences, brings people together in seeking ways of expressing their historical and geographical inheritances, and Smith, as a traveler through Britain and Eastern Europe, finds in words the evidence of shared traditions and landscapes. The prose poem “Unaccompanied Singing,” an etymological meditation on the phrase a capella, demonstrates most forcefully this function of words as bearers of multiple meanings and traces of contexts.
Elsewhere, Smith and his personae meditate upon existence and mortality, presence and loss, history and memory, writing and reading, always drawing and pulling back to the common thread of commonality. John Hawkwood ponders the meaning of his life, stained by blood but living “the life of his time”:
“I move between the dead and the dead,
always erudite and fractious,
in their different speech the same.”
In “Bogart in the dumb waiter,” a poem impossible to read without attempting the Bogart accent, Smith takes quotable fragments of the Hammett style and works them into a coherent monologue which illustrates the flexibility of spoken English transcribed and becomes, in the words of another poem, “part of the world’s chatter that’s all of us.”
If Smith’s great strength as a poet lies in the powerful sense of sympathy his work evokes, he is also (as great mimics usually are) an accomplished comic poet, and sequences here like “The Chicken Variations” and “The Great Hat Project” (“The last hat on the Yukon. The hat’s death in Venice. / Superhat. Hat’s last ride. Exit hat left.”) demonstrate an extraordinarily rich facility in creative absurdity.
Ultimately, though, it’s the sense of social and human inclusion that one is left with after reading these poems. Smith’s ear hears all that is said by everybody but missed by most, and affords each utterance equal weight, balancing and judging only in relation to the whole of humanity. Smith’s poetry, distantly related to that of his fellow Yorkshireman and near contemporary Tony Harrison by way of Samuel Beckett and Paul Muldoon (the voice brooding upon silence of the former, the serious intellectual playfulness of the latter), inscribes its own “book of the world,” a book in which the immense babble of human voices is made coherent and accessible, and meaning drawn from it. Smith is a poet endlessly making and remaking out of the unheard voices of the lost, the dead, the dispossessed and powerless, his own voice, in which he speaks to, of and for them.