Page 1: Biography
Smithyman, William Kendrick
Poet, teacher, literary critic, university tutor
This biography, written by Peter Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in March, 2014.
One of New Zealand’s most prolific and widely published poets, William Kendrick Smithyman was born on 9 October 1922 in Te Kopuru, a milling town near Dargaville, Northland. He was the only child of William Kendrick Smithyman and his wife, Annie Lavinia Evans, both of whom were in their mid 40s. They managed an old men’s home in Te Kopuru until the family moved to Auckland in the early 1930s. A lonely youth, Smithyman read voraciously. He went to various Auckland schools, including Point Chevalier (where Keith Sinclair, poet and historian, became a lifetime friend) and Seddon Memorial Technical College. He attended Auckland Training College in 1940–41 and published his first stories and poems in Manuka, the college’s magazine, edited by Robert Lowry, later Smithyman’s first publisher.
During the Second World War Smithyman served first in the New Zealand army (1941–42) and then in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (1942–45); he was based in New Zealand, apart from a brief visit to Norfolk Island in 1945 which resulted in a sequence of poems called ‘Considerations’. From 1944 he began to publish poems regularly in journals in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the United States, rapidly establishing a reputation in New Zealand as a leading poet of the post-war generation. His status was confirmed by his inclusion in A book of New Zealand verse, 1923–50 (1951), edited by Allen Curnow. Subsequently, his work was included in all significant anthologies of New Zealand verse. He was closely associated with other Auckland writers, including Sinclair, Robert Chapman and Maurice Duggan.
On 26 August 1946, at Auckland, Smithyman married Mary Isobel Neal (née Stanley), also a poet, whose first husband had been killed in the war. His first books, Seven sonnets (1946) and The blind mountain & other poems (1950), were dedicated to her. The couple had three sons. From 1946 to 1963 he was a primary and intermediate teacher at various schools in the Auckland region, specialising in teaching children with learning difficulties. He lectured and wrote about special needs education, advocating that more provision be made for psychologically impaired and high-achieving children, particularly through the training of special-education teachers. He also attended Auckland University College as a part-time student at various times but did not complete a degree.
Intellectually curious and widely read, Smithyman assimilated a wide range of poetic influences, in particular those associated with Anglo-American modernism in the post-war decades. He was also interested in seventeenth century poets (especially John Donne) and in writing an irony-inflected and anti-Romantic love poetry which was noted for its syntactical complexity and density of argument and reference. The influence of New Zealand poets was less evident; initially he avoided the preoccupation with landscape and colonial history of older New Zealand poets. During the 1950s Smithyman frequently contributed poems (and some criticism) to journals; much of the poetry was eventually collected in the volumes Inheritance (1962) and Flying to Palmerston (1968).
In terms of his poetry the early 1960s was a comparatively lean period, much of his energy going into literary criticism, especially A way of saying: a study of New Zealand poetry (1965). This idiosyncratic book – the first full-length study of the subject – analysed the Romantic affiliations of earlier New Zealand poets, and pointed to subtle regional differences (especially between Auckland and Wellington poets) in his own generation. His account of the aesthetics and practice of Auckland poets, whose work he designated ‘academic’ in character (notably M. K. Joseph, Keith Sinclair, Mary Stanley, C. K. Stead, and the later work of Curnow), also provided revealing insights into his own theory and practice as a poet.
From 1966 to 1987 Smithyman was a senior tutor in English at the University of Auckland. In 1969 he spent six months at the University of Leeds as a visiting fellow in Commonwealth literature, and wrote a large number of poems stimulated by his travel experiences in the United Kingdom and North America. Many of these were published in the collections Earthquake weather (1972), The seal in the dolphin pool (1974), and Dwarf with a billiard cue (1978). His return to New Zealand in 1970 stimulated some of the finest of his poems. These engage with the landscapes, history and people of his beloved Northland, the region of his childhood, and include ‘An ordinary day beyond Kaitaia’, ‘Tomarata’, and ‘Reading the maps: an academic exercise’. They are among his most admired and most anthologised poems.
In 1980 Smithyman’s first wife died after a long illness, and on 27 January 1981, at Auckland, he married Margaret Ann Edgcumbe, a university tutor like himself. That year he took part in the Harbourfront literary festival in Toronto, a visit productive of many poems. In 1986 he was awarded an honorary LittD by Auckland University and he won the New Zealand Book Award for poetry for Stories about wooden keyboards (1985), which was notably more accessible to the general reader than earlier collections and which demonstrated a narrative, anecdotal and comic tendency. This continued in Are you going to the pictures? (1987) and Auto/biographies (1992). Selected poems (1989) included significant revisions of many earlier poems.
In addition, Smithyman wrote essays on New Zealand philology and produced critical editions of novels by William Satchell and of the stories of Greville Texidor. He was made an OBE in 1990. Shortly before his death on 28 December 1995 at Takapuna, Smithyman gave a reading of his poetry which was recorded on videotape as Closing the chocolate factory. He also completed ‘Atua Wera’, a long poem-book largely about Penetana Papahurihia (otherwise known as Te Atua Wera), a remarkable early nineteenth century Ngāpuhi religious leader whose life Smithyman had researched for more than 20 years. Consisting of almost 300 separate parts, Atua Wera was published posthumously in 1997 and was immediately recognised as perhaps his finest work and one of the major New Zealand poems.
Smithyman was survived by his second wife, Margaret, and two sons. He was remembered for his voluminous body of information, his intellectual curiosity, and his ceaseless flow of jokes, anecdotes and gossip. A memorial reading of his work was held at Auckland University in 1996, at which a limited edition of his poem ‘Tomarata’, incorporating facsimiles of the poet’s annotated typescripts, was released.