Over the Border: A portrait of Ken Smith

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An updated personal essay and conversation with on about Ken Smith, first published in Hungarian as part of a volume dedicated to Ken’s poetry, and later in English, in the long-gone Liar Republic from Paul Summers and Ian Dowson. There’s no anniversary, no new books, but many powerful and unbeatable old books that new writers setting out among their young poems would be wise to absorb as fully as sunlight, oxygen and alcohol. 

Let’s go and meet Ken, one of the great poets of Britannia. You take the Jubilee extension, if it’s open. There’s the stop you want, at the end of the line. Then the eastbound train. Mark the time. This line gets unreliable. It’s handy to have a phone when you arrive. Walk from the tube takes 20 minutes. There’s always people hanging around the station. Families waiting for family, men for women, girls for girlfriends. you won’t find a cab. Walk.

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The high street’s wide and quiet, as if something big had just happened. Somewhat abstracted, whited out, slipping from synch, closed. Could be me though. Not many chains reach this far East. There’s Woolworths and Sainsburys, a Dixons. Clothes at factory prices. Minimarkets, burger and chicken joints. It’s what’s called Multicultural, the East End’s Interzone. Depending on which way the wind blows, you can hear the roar of the crowd from the West Ham ground.

Ken and his partner, the American-born poet Judi Benson, have lived here for two decades now. There’s a curious wall mural at the top of their street, advertising a business that no longer exists. Here today: the doctor’s surgery’s a portakabin. There’s a feeling that everyone’s on the hoof. Who comes unless they have to, unless it is written? Where does it all go? Down to the road’s end. There’s a whole other world going down in this inner city suburb of London. Sometimes Dakar feels closer than the Kings Road. On a hot summer’s day, the mirage of the mosque’s dome rising over late Victorian terraces. Mosquitos by the river. Best flatbreads this side of Istanbul.

The poets’ house, it’s at the end of the street. First thing you see’s the pub sign in the porch: please leave quietly; do not disturb the neighbours. Few years back Ken and Judi had their own problem neighbours. A gypsy family moved in some doors down, extending themselves from back to front and out into the street at all hours of day and night, especially night. Before the BBC came to take back the recording equipment they’d given Ken, he spent some of those days and nights recording the riot that went on. Even considered calling the cops, he said. They came anyway, uncalled for. The family moved on somewhere else, somewhere new, at their own border always, the same tale where ever you find it. In his travels from the East of London to the European east, Ken Smith has heard some stories. The gypsy woman who handed him a cassette tape of her singing, her own particular song. She had no machine to play it on. She the last of her kind, the next generation already gone, the music fading from the soundtrack.

Stones and shells on the tiny porch’s mantle. Stained glass window through to the dark hall. The kitchen and lounge runs the depth of the house, and its where everyone talks, eats, drinks, smokes. The room’s divided by a kind of wall of brightly painted papier mache masks, all made by Ken and all of them self portraits, or so it seems to me. Trophy heads. And everywhere, the shelves filled with all manner of matter, a beachcomber’s trove. A wrought iron cog, wooden pegs and clay pipes and toy cars, plastic farm animals and standing figures, 50s figurines, bottled vinegars and shrouded masks. The shawled woman, a dusky senorita, a beak in a judges’ wig, towelheads in aviator shades, the laughing ghost, masks with teeth and headphones, the downcast mask, the mask in pork pie hat; mask in deep thought.

No death mask here, but paintings everywhere, Judi’s interiors, Chagall’s Poet Reclining, the title painting for Ken Smith’s first collected poems. And shelves of vinegars and books. Here’s a few spines from the shelf that snakes through the bathroom and up to the toilet cistern: America A Prophecy, Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, Creeley/Pieces, The Poetry of the Blues, Bone Thoughts, In the American Grain, The Major Young Poets, The War Poets. Poetry on and on and out the back into the private world of the garden. Shelves of seed pots and garden tools. The kind of farm tools his father would’ve used. John Smith, itinerant farm labourer. Propped against the wall a curved scythe, a double-headed blade, the one for reaping what you sow. Props from the Peasant’s Revolt. I have a photo of Ken holding them to his throat. He looks like he’s ready for it.

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The garden’s in profusion, you can feel the life that goes into the life here. Pick your way down the path to the shed. For every man must have his shed. In November comes Shed: new & Collected Poems 1981-2001. Publication date’s the Day of the Dead. And you shall shed what you reap. There’s a tall wooden totem at the door to Ken’s shed. Inside, room for two, three at a push, one at the door and one craning his neck, listening in. Ken had his book launch here. The world’s smallest literary festival. It’s only half a joke.

The roof needs fixing, the door’s fucked. Someone fell through the roof one night, jumping the gardens to the end of the terrace. On the back shelf there’s seedlings in rows, the garden at work, and empty pots, and more masks. An Islington street sign, broken bowl, human skull, eyemask from a long-lost long-haul flight. A row of tabletop footballers in red and black. They’re a poet’s cut-ups from this material world, the outline of a certain train of thought, the things that are left out of the box. And bleached blue by sunlight, in the middle of the wall above the shelf, a framed picture of a fox.

Smith was born in rural East Yorkshire in 1930, the son of an itinerant farm labourer. Father’s name was John. John Smith, an alias, Everyman’s name. His son Ken, far-away author in 1986 of The John Poems. ‘Officer, I’m one among others, / every day we are more and we’re called John.’ His father is a powerful, powerfully mute figure in many collections. These father poems are brought together in Fatherfading. A father as a presence, like a weather system that never crosses the horizon to elsewhere. There is barely a collection in which the big booted heavy handed father god does not appear, shouting and pulling on his mask of anger.

Fatherfading explores the secret history his father left behind. The son turns detective, following his story where he can, across the Irish Sea to the back of beyond, hill country, the border country where bombers disappear, checkpoint country. John Smith. Could be anybody, right? Not in these parts. John Smith’s father courted a Catholic girl, tied the knot across the sectarian divide. Locals didn’t like that so well, not this close to the border. She died delivering her fourth child, and he left for another life and the three children, Ken’s father among them, were put in a home in Derry. John Smith. No one in her family to help the son of an Englishman named Smith.

Aged ten, Ken Smith’s father was sent to the mainland, where he worked for an uncle who was no uncle, but his first master, a farm-owner. John Smith worked as an itinerant farm labourer from ten onwards. Set it all in motion. And then:

‘For the next 23 years, nothing, till he turns up in 1937 in a cinema queue on a Sunday afternoon in Hull, where he gets chatting with Milly, who was to become soon enough my mother.   All he had with him for his thirty three years in this world was a small brown attaché case wherein a couple of shirts, some socks, his shaving tackle.   And nothing of his past or where he came from.   He told her nothing of himself.   He had no paperwork, nothing to say for himself Then they were courting. When she took him home to meet her people he came into the house saying Goodnight, and he seemed unfamiliar with the uses of knife and fork, and he was no good at all with conversation.   She married him anyway, the man without a past, whose only names were John and Smith.’

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And married, on the move, following the work. Didn’t look back. Picked produce for his masters, for the family table. Ken’s escape from his unwritten working class heritage began with the 11-Plus IQ examination that determined the life programme of generations of children in Britain. Education is one of the first borders he crossed. From then on he needed maps to get back to where he came from, where his father always is.

The family moved to a slum street in Hull when Smith was thirteen. Lived above a grocer’s shop. His father was illiterate but hid it somehow and traded successfully. Avoided paperwork. Made his son work all the hours he could. The teenage Smith slept in the attic, under a dormer window. His early sexual education came from the conversations between the prostitutes from the house across the road. The oldest whore in her seventies, stood at the door eulogising the generous Swede, the sailor who brought her gifts from the sea.

Hull was the end of the open itinerant horizon. The streets and docks and heavy machinery moved in. Sailors from ships from all over the world. The first black people he ever saw. American music. The street education of human trade, groceries and sex. The alcie woman pissed on meths who screamed on the street at nights. His father’s hearthside violence. Keeping out of harm’s way and no end to the shouting. The move from country to city, from open field to shop store, the first blow he landed on his father to stop him hitting his mother. These are the border crossings that stay important, the lines that are crossed and stay crossed. Took National Service at 18 to get away from home, got married to get a grant to go to university to study literature when service was completed. Got out into his own story.

Smith’s first book was published by Jonathan Cape in 1967. The Pity was his only to be published in Britain until Arc brought out Frontwards in a Backwards Movie in 1974. ‘I grew up in the country,’ he has said, ‘and when I moved to the city I was 13. And suddenly and dramatically there isn’t this endless landscape to walk across, there’s endless streets, but you can’t see the horizon. It was brick and stone and unfriendly.’ After The Pity his writing changed for good. ‘It was partly reconciling the fact that I’d moved to the city, and the feeling of embarrassment I had at being called a nature poet. But I’m not a nature poet. I’m interested in nature, but nature poetry means some kind of rural reserve, it’s the whole ethos of pastoralism, which is something that occurs in the imagination when it is finished… I really turned against The Pity.’

So Smith went to Leeds University where his contemporaries included Tony Harrison and Jon Silkin. Silkin had started Stand, and Smith became an editor for the magazine for several years. This was a valuable crash course into the mechanics of contemporary poetry, a place where lessons could be learnt.

By the mid sixties Smith had moved to the West Country where he found himself teaching art students. They were a big influence. Artists didn’t think like the committees, judges, panels and adjudicators of Literature. It took him away from what he’d been taught. Like Klee taking a line for a walk, Smith learnt through the artist’s approach to take his own line on its own freedom dance. He broke out of the ABC linear line of The Pity and became Ken Smith the traveller in the line and on the borders of the world. End of the 1960s, he goes to America, finds a different culture, drug culture, waist length hair, Indian rivers, malevolent neighbours, career opportunities. In the early 70s various chapbooks came out from small American and British presses. The Wild Rose, Hawk Wolf, Wasichi, Island Called Henry the Navigator. Borderland titles.

Most of this was collected into The Poet Reclining, published by Bloodaxe in 1982. But we’re running ahead of ourselves here. It’s the mid seventies, he’s back in Britain, strikes and punk rock and no work. At the end of the seventies, Bloodaxe publish their first pamphlet, Ken’s Tristran Crazy, then Fox Running on paper Smith had come by and bundled in a van up to Newcastle. Punk publishing, the ethos of new times. Thatcher’s elected. Fox Running came running back and never stopped running.

Fox Running is one of the essential Smith poems. It is the great London poem, panoramic, microscopic, the only London poem that gets to grips with the modern, post-industrial chaos of the city and its scars. Fox is one of Smith’s Wanderers, down on his luck, on his heels, spring heeled jack cleaning glasses in the bars of Kilburn. Breaking up, as his language does to tell its story. Many other wanderers have come into poetry since then, from Armitage’s Robinson to Brendan Cleary’s Sensitive Eddie. Return to source; Fox Running is in the first Collected – The Poet Reclining. Read it.

And then the later books. The poetry that confirmed his powers and made his reputation as a remarkable and singular poet – the Babylonian prose poems of Burnt Books, a secret, ancient history translated into Smith’s late modernist argot. A Book of Chinese Whispers, strange fictions as curious as the art boxes of Joseph Cornell. And then, one of the great books of the 80s, Terra, published 1986. Terra is one of Smith’s finest achievements, really several books in one, and the book in which his poetry achieves its full maturity. Let’s take a look.

There’s the London Poems. Thirty 12-line poems, three verses each. This is where London as it is comes to life. The human scale of the city, all its secret voices, hidden communiques, its loose screws. There’s Hawkwood, a meditation on an English mercenary in the pay of Italian princes, a war criminal in modern argot. A Yorkshireman far from his country, imaging his heart flying over where he’s been, the men, women, children he’s slaughtered. All Smith’s histories are contemporary, and 15th-century Hawkwood is no exception. No apologies, no regrets, but a great wonder at how we got here. That’s the basis of Ken Smith’s tone poetry. Then as now. A year or so before he died, Smith wrote his versions of Piers Ploughman, the deadly sins, for one of his radio broadcasts for the BBC. I have a copy of the script, marked up and scratched with a few reading notes. All of it deep history and next-door contemporary.

Hawkwood presages works like The Shadow of God in Wire Through the Heart. Smith’s reading is predominantly history, and he is a poet of our history, approaching it as an artist would, rubbing out the time lines, keeping all that’s human and pertinent. The details of a Smith poem are amplifiers of what’s come and what’s in store. Loudspeakers for the heart’s speech, the direct hit. Smith’s uncertainties, loves, losses, howls and explorations are closer to the unreconstructed infant response to stimuli than to the arch reconstruction of feeling you get in a lot of English writing. That kind of writing that’s like overboiled vegetables. You know what I’m talking about.

As Terra appeared, Ken had just started work as the first ever Writer-in-Residence at one of her majesty’s prisons. Wormwood Scrubs. The lifer’s wing. It’s all there in the prose book Inside Time. And there are the poems, Wormwood. Less broad in the beam as a book than Terra. A darker, thicker stew. Working in the Scrubs changed Smith and his preoccupations. The long journey into Europe’s East, and the history of a country that’s more border than centre, reflecting the border country life we all live to some extent, pushed back hard against ourselves on every level. Fox still running. Prison, where ‘time is what it is’. Smith discovered some of time’s secrets – inside time, outside time, as poetry lives outside time, useful to no one. The two sides of the one face behind bars. The secret history of how they got there, the killers, rapers, sex murderers, dirty white collar criminals. Smith noted the great border of time taken away when it was pushed right into his face.

Being poet in residence in a prison brought Smith a higher profile. Appeared on Wogan’s TV chat show. Availed himself on primetime. The Wormwood launch was at the Riverside in Hammersmith with actors reciting off and on the specially built stage, in the centre of the crowd. Best launch of a poetry book I’ve witnessed, best way of making poetry happen that I’ve heard about. That was 1987, year of the Big Bang in the City, the myth of the free market and furious brokers dancing on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Smith was there at the end of the 80s to watch it come down. Berlin: Coming in from the Cold is one of the most vivid reports on the ground from that place and that time. Not an easy book to find these days. Not the right message. Berlin was the border town to end all border towns. The Heart, The Border dealt with this, and with his own breakage. A heart attack, a bypass on the screen above his bed in the operating theatre. Under local, he watched them rewire the heart, his border. Warned him from tobacco and alcohol, the very muck and brass that’s always worth trading at any border.

Tender to the Queen of Spain came through in 1993, and Wild Root five years later in 98, and from Wild Root, the Hungarian poems that appear in Wire Through the Heart, with new poems that came in Shed. It’s my feeling that these, along with Fox Running and Terra are Smith’s finest poems. Who knows what’s in store.

Tender to the Queen of Spain opens with the title poem; a modest, lovely prose ode to a boat seen in Weymouth harbour, a gem from the notebook, taken down as written, as seen at the harbour’s edge in the south of the country. The beginning of everywhere, knocking the side of the hull to get its history spoken. You can see the prison ships of Portland Bill from Weymouth, the Victorian spa town where the ferries used to run back and forth across the channel. Little employment today. This is where the English come to die, to look, their very own Florida, a town of picture windows and a hundred empty bars.

Tender to the Queen of Spain: The first explorations into the eastern states of Europe begin with this book. The poem By the Master of Jakabfalva is dedicated to Miklos Zelei, who will become his friend and guide and translator in the border regions of the East. The fall of Communism brings the old gods back into the farms and fields and villages and cities and mountain country. Weather gone bad, rivers blackened by central planning. The worst of history comes stomping through the streets from the hearth and home of ancient modern history. What goes around comes around and war break out, the jokes have new punchlines, Kate Adie tells us what happens as it happens.

History is the bird that flies between borders. Ken Smith’s borders stem from East to West, East Ham to the West End of London, The City and the ring of steel in between. Watch what you carry with you when you go where you go. From the room where the news comes in, Smith begins to make masks – his own self portrait on the cover of his book, more like Smith than the man himself. That’s the point of masks. That’s why people make them, wear them. His house filled with his masks. Some are him, the rest are his other faces, the submerged characters we like to get our hands around, the ones that come out drinking, steaming drunk and swathed in blue smoke, singing lullabies and songs to lovers, In Praise of Vodka, gateway to the East

And into the present, the recent past. Five years after Tender to the Queen of Spain, Wild Root is published by Bloodaxe. Major sections of the book have already been broadcast by the BBC. The Lynchian sequence of voices and confessions in Eddie’s Other Lives – scenes from America’s hinterland – derives from an American reading tour Smith arranged by himself – and from his own past life there.

Festival appearances in Colombia, Italy, Hungary follow. Through the late nineties, Smith makes several journeys into Hungary and the Ukraine, accompanied by Ziklos and armed with recording equipment for the BBC. And notebooks. The Shadow of God was one of three broadcasts from Smith’s travels in Eastern Europe. He reads his text over recordings from the festival of Busojaras in Mohacs. Bells, horns, music, voices, dogs and a cannon from the Battle of Mohacs of 1526.

Let Ken speak: ‘The Buso tradition is a Dionysian explosion, part of a carnival tradition involving masks and masking common to many countries in central and southern Europe, and whose origins are lost in the mists. Unique to the Mohacs tradition, however, its declared link to the Turkish occupation and the site of the nearby battlefield of 1526, where the flower of Hungary fell before Suleyman.’

The poem opens with the voice of Suleyman, shadow of god, as he prepares for the eight-day march in the rain with all his army to do battle. And then there are the scenes of masked riot and celebration. Modern Europe exploding its cannon shot back into history and always in the present. And the wanderer figure amidst them, Fox again.

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The last time I talked to Ken was long after this was written, sent to an editor in Budapest and translated into Hungarian to accompany a book about his poetry. Me and Dave Crystal went to see him at his room in St Thomas’s. He been transferred from Newham the week before. A few weeks before that, he’d flown back from a reading in Cuba, feeling groggy, under the weather. Not good at all. A day or two before flying home, he’d taken a shower in his Cuban hotel. Walked back into the light with Legionnaires’ spores knitting at the foot of their scaffold, preparing the ground inside him for a terrible and terminal invasion. Though he did write one more poem, the final poem, it seems. The White Chair. An empty seat, waiting to be claimed. Generous of itself.

Ken Smith died in the summer of 2003. It remains a passage of life with scorch marks, that pulls me up short when I look back on it. We’d been to see him in Newham, with Judi and her knitting and her notes and her unending attention. He couldn’t speak when we were there, too weak and desperately wired up to the latest medical technology. So the Legionnaires had passed, but the hospital infections, the superbugs of a super-drug world, would be the agents that did for Ken Smith in the end. At St Thomas’s, he was all talk, but his voice had lost its accumulated inflections – those touches of American, west country, east London, and the original hard northern voice was back, twisting round the back stairs to the root tongue, the first one that grew into him. But he was talking again and looking stronger. Dave and I left the hospital and made for the King’s Arms on Roupell Street, raised Guinness and vodka in Ken’s honour, and felt sure we would see him again. It’s a striking little street, between the Thames, the South Bank and The Cut. It’s retained its old street furniture of gas lamps and cobbles, London cries from the late Victorian shadows of the occult writer Arthur Machen.

We buried Ken at the East London cemetery, in a wicker casket, under mature trees on the edge of hallowed ground. You really find out what ‘dead weight’ means, and never, ever forget it. It’s a shock. The weight is enormous, as if everything is in freefall, hurtling down to the very bottom of things, and raising the sweat on the six of us stationed around the coffin. Large Admiral butterflies opened and closed their fans in the long grass, and a fox was seen, fox running behind the cortege, at the angle of stray arrow from a long-ago hunt for a lost quarry.