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SMITHER, Elizabeth (Edwina)


Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Elizabeth Edwina Harrington, New Plymouth, 15 September 1941. Education: New Plymouth Girls' High School, 1955–59; extra-mural studies at Victoria University, Wellington, and Massey University, Palmerston North, 1959–60; New Zealand Library School, Wellington, 1962. Family: Married Michael Duncan Smither in 1963 (divorced 1984); one daughter and two sons. Career: Library assistant, 1959–62, cataloguer, 1962–63, children's librarian, 1963–64, and since 1979 fiction librarian, New Plymouth Public Library. Awards: New Zealand Literary Fund bursary, 1977, 1988, and traveling bursary, 1984; Freda Buckland award, 1983; University of Auckland literary fellowship, 1984; Scholarship in Letters, 1987, 1992; New Zealand Book award for poetry, 1990 Address: 19-A Mount View Place, New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Publications

Poetry

Here Come the Clouds. Martinborough, Taylor, 1975.

You're Very Seductive, William Carlos Williams. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1978.

Little Poems. New Plymouth, T.J. Mutch, 1979.

The Sarah Train (for children). Eastbourne, Hawk Press, 1980.

Casanova's Ankle. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1981.

The Legend of Marcello Mastraoianni's Wife. Auckland, AucklandUniversity Press-Oxford University Press, 1981.

Shakespeare Virgins. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1985.

Professor Musgrove's Canary. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Gorilla, Guerilla. Auckland, Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 1986.

Animaux. Wellington, Modern House, 1988.

A Pattern of Marching. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1989.

A Cortège of Daughters. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cloud Press, 1993.

The Tudor Style: Poems New & Selected. Auckland, AucklandUniversity Press, 1993.

The Lark Quartet. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1999.

Novels

First Blood. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.

Brother-Love, Sister-Love. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

Short Stories

Nights at the Embassy. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1990.

Mr. Fish and Other Stories. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1994.

The Mathematics of Jane Austen. Auckland, Godwit, 1997.

Other

Tug Brothers (for children). Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Taranaki, with David Hill, photographs by Jane Dove. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987.

The Journal Box. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1996.

Editor, with David Hill, The Seventies Connection. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1980.

Editor, with C.K. Stead and Kendrick Smithyman, The New Gramophone Room: Poetry and Fiction. Auckland, University of Auckland, 1985.

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Manuscript Collection: Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Critical Studies: "A Way of Understanding Ourselves" by Elizabeth Caffin, in Landfall 118 (Christchurch), 1976; "Maurice Shadbolt Talks to Elizabeth Smither," in Pilgrims 5 and 6 (Christchurch), 1978; "The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni's Wife, and Casanova's Ankle, Elizabeth Smither" by Shawna Macivor, in Landfall 141 (Christchurch), 1982; "Elizabeth Smither interview by the Editor" by David Dowling, in Landfall 151 (Christchurch), 1984; "Smithereens" by Bill Manhire, in Listener 127, 4 June 1990; "Tremendous Forgeries, Confabulations and Graphologies Elliptical: The Lyric/ Anti-Lyric Poetry of Sharon Thesen and Elizabeth Smither" by Pamela Banting, in Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada (Prince George, British Columbia), 6, fall 1991.

Elizabeth Smither comments:

Poetry, to me, remains the most exciting form, the most compressed and vital; formal or informal, it perpetually re-creates itself to new demands. Other mediums have evasive techniques, but poetry is direct, forcing a confrontation between the world and the self. For me there is no forward planning or even knowledge of the subject; technique is created at the moment of writing. I write to find out everything. The best poems are both intensely personal and impersonal, teaching something about the true nature of personality. I see poetry always expanding, in advance of theory, like the universe itself, and if few poets write the poems they want, the chase is the greatest pleasure.

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Elizabeth Smither began writing effectively when she was about thirty and fairly quickly found her voice and a reputation, so that she is substantially a poet without any juvenilia. She has done some traveling beyond New Zealand, where her home is not in one of the larger cities but in a provincial port, a Sleepy Hollow backed by a lush pastoral scene that is dominated by a spectacularly dead volcano. It is a place grounded in a long-term history of Maori settlement and a short-term history of European settlement but one with a notable passage to it of nineteenth-century colonial warfare. There is little recourse to local history in Smither's poems, although she has explored something of it in her prose, and there is scarcely more to do with either landscape or seascape or evident awareness of the transforming of the area as the oil rigs on- and offshore work away at their surroundings, the natural gas enterprises breed, and the petrochemical plants riot over the paddocks. In neither earlier nor later books does much occur that may be confidently thought to come from family or immediate social experience. There is some from family and some from friendships, but there is much from the poet's imaginative response to literature. What is impressive about her work is that it is a poetry of imagination. Where the poetry is of experience, it is likely to have some qualifying or mediating effect, again from literature or from a quiet Roman Catholicism.

Smither's poems are rarely long lined, and they are customarily shortish pieces that do not reach halfway down the page. They have a peculiar punctuation, of a kind that M.K. Joseph, another Catholic poet, used at one stage in his career. The syntax is disrupted in a modestly venturesome way, which one may judge is aimed at evoking an illusion of immediacy, as of a slightly breathless utterance. This is the case whether the poet is assumed to be speaking in her own person, in one or another of her male or female personae, or through a speaker whose sex is in neither way assertive. The voice of the later poems, including those of Casanova's Ankle, is more likely to be a woman's and so too the viewpoint.

Smither's poems are sympathetic and empathetic, able to command that quick, shrewd comment that delights the reader simply because it is so aptly shrewd or provocative. They are not poems of wit in any usual sense, any more than they are in a usual sense self-centered. She may be in them, but she is also distant from them. She may advertize that she attaches herself to modernist modes, like those of Williams, Lowell, or Kinnell, but she is also distanced from such modes, not fully committed to them. To be more venturesome would become her.

Smither is a conservative modernist. If you look at her evident Catholicism, you see the Catholicism of family custom plus an awareness of tradition—Saint Teresa, Saint Ignatius, Saint Paul—and something of latter-day religion, Teilhard de Chardin perhaps but not as late as Hans Küng. The poems of faith are poems of rapprochement, of subjective-objective or attachment-detachment, records of an impulse to reconcile at least two modes of tradition. She effects a reconciliation that complements by way of one particular universe of discourse the compromises apparent in her favored strategies as a "maker."

The matter of playing off traditions is one thing. Recurring to compressed statements is another, in which the calculated, quizzical relating of tenor and vehicle in metaphor continues to result not so much in conveying a metaphoric statement as in exciting a sense of incongruity without, as one might expect, a consequent nuance of comedy. Yet this approach is increasingly more likely to dispose toward irony. Prosy reality reimagined is heightened, disturbingly heightened even if Smither has from the start pinned and still usually pins her poetics on and over a firm basis of sentences. It is only when the sentences cumulate that the exposition becomes something other, a deceptive something other.

The heavy haulers pull their sometimes fantastically sculpted pieces of machinery to the industrial sites. Lights blaze from gantry and rig between sea and mountain. As Wallace Stevens did in Hartford, Smither sits to work with her back to the window.

—Kendrick Smithyman

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Smither, Elizabeth (Edwina)

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