Family and early life
Smithyman was born in Te Kopuru, a milling and logging town on the Wairoa River near Dargaville, in the Northland Region in the far north of New Zealand. He was the only child of William "Bill" Kendrick Smithyman, an immigrant from England and a former soldier who had fought both in the Boer War and World War I and who had radical political sympathies. Before World War I, he had worked in sugar plantations in Fiji. The poet's father had also been a sailor and waterside worker but fell on hard times during the Depression when the poet was growing up. The father at some points had to work on relief gangs to earn money. His wife, Annie Lavinia Evans, was born in Christchurch. His parents managed a home for elderly men in Te Kopuru before moving to Auckland in the early 1930s. Some of Smithyman's poems, especially in Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (written in 1983-1984 and posthumously published in 2002) are about his father and other relatives from previous generations whom Smithyman had never met, including his grandfather, also named William Kendrick, born in 1829, who became a sailor, fought for the British Royal Navy in the Crimean War, traveled to Australia and India, then became harbourmaster at Ramsgate on the southeast coast of England.
The family moved to several communities in and around Auckland before settling on Boscawen Avenue in Point Chevalier, where the lonely boy read voraciously and attended Point Chevalier Primary School. There he became a lifelong friend of future poet and historian Keith Sinclair. Smithyman also attended Seddon Memorial Technical College (1935–1939) and Auckland Teachers' Training College (1940–1941), from which he earned a teacher's certificate. There his first stories and poems were published in the college magazine, Manuka, edited by Robert William Lowry, who later became Smithyman’s first publisher.
In World War II, Smithyman served in the New Zealand Army artillery as bombardier (1941–1942), then as a quartermaster in the Royal New Zealand Air Force from 1942 to 1945. His service in the armed services was spent in New Zealand except for a short period in 1945 when he was stationed on Norfolk Island, resulting Considerations, a sequence of poems later published in Landfall and after that in the 1951 edition of Allen Curnow's Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–1950.
By 1944, his poetry started appearing regularly in journals in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the United States, quickly establishing his reputation in New Zealand as one of the leading poets of the nation's post-war generation. This status was confirmed by his inclusion in A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923–50 (1951), edited by Allen Curnow. Thereafter, Smithyman's poetry made it into all significant anthologies of New Zealand poetry.
In August 1946, at Auckland, Smithyman married the poet Mary Isobel Neal (née Stanley; 1919–1980), whose first husband had been killed in the war. The couple had three sons. He dedicated his first books, Seven Sonnets (1946) and The Blind Mountain & Other Poems (1950) to her.In 1949 the couple moved to Pine Island (now known as Herald Island) in the Waitemata Harbour. Both poets wrote about this time on the Island where they were living in a remote environment, only accessible by boat.From 1946 to 1963 he was a primary and intermediate teacher at various schools in the Auckland area, where he specialised in teaching children with learning difficulties. In lectures and articles he promoted special needs education for psychologically impaired and high-achieving children, and the training of special-education teachers. Smithyman also attended Auckland University College sporadically, as a part-time student, but did not stay to get a degree. When the Education Department refused to allow him a leave of absence to work on a book of literary criticism, he resigned his position in 1963 and that year took up a teaching position as a tutor of English at the University of Auckland. From 1964 to 1965 he also edited and presented a radio programme, Perspective: A Programme of Critical Writing
Intellectually curious and widely read, Smithyman assimilated a wide range of poetic influences, especially post-war Anglo-American modernism. The English poets T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Americans John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore were all influences. He initially avoided some of the preoccupations of earlier New Zealand poets with landscape and colonial history. He was also fascinated by 17th-century poets, especially John Donne. At this time Smithyman wrote ironic, anti-Romantic love poetry thick with syntactical complexity, dense argument, and many references. "[H]is poetry, above all, was academic in style. Smithyman's verse was notorious for its knotty language and allusive obscurity." Many of the poems from this period were eventually collected in Inheritance (1962) and Flying to Palmerston (1968).
The early 1960s he spent less effort on poetry and more on literary criticism, notably A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry (1965). The book's description of the aesthetics and practice of Auckland poets, whose work he dubbed "academic" (including M. K. Joseph, Keith Sinclair, Mary Stanley, C. K. Stead, and the later work of Allen Curnow), also provided insights into his own outlook and poems. "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," according to Peter Simpson.
A change in style
From 1960 to 1965, Smithyman stopped writing poetry. Smithyman's poetry changed in style at some point or points in the 1960s or very early 1970s, although critics differ as to when the new style started appearing, and they can't pin down the cause. According to Ian Richards, the poem "Flying to Palmerston", which Smithyman wrote in an airport lounge in 1966 and which later became the title piece for the 1968 book, "signalled a new start in a new manner" in the poet's verse. "There is critical consensus that between this poem and his next collection, Earthquake Weather, in 1972, Smithyman's mature style emerged."
Smithyman was promoted to senior tutor at the University of Auckland in 1966, and he held the post until 1987. A six-month stay in 1969 at the University of Leeds as a visiting fellow in Commonwealth literature resulted in travel in Britain and North America, which stimulated many poems. On returning home in 1970, his poetry engaged the landscapes, history and people of his native Northland, as seen in Earthquake Weather, as well as The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974), and Dwarf With a Billiard Cue (1978). "Whatever the biographical reasons (travel, maturity, a grown-up family) the next book, Earthquake Weather (1972) is a different kind of book, more like the four volumes that have followed than anything previous", Murray Edmund wrote in 1988. Some of these works became his most admired verse and are his most anthologized poems, including "An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia", "Tomarata", and "Reading the Maps: an Academic Exercise".
Although Smithyman initially seemed to shy away from writing poems about the landscape, he did write some even in his earliest years ("The Bay 1942", "Bream Bay"), and he turned to that subject in some of his later poems. He wrote about his 1969 travels in North America and Britain in 1969 and about his trip to Canada in 1981. Concerning New Zealand, he wrote about Coromandel ("Colville" and "Where Waikawau Stream Comes Out"), Auckland ("About Setting a Jar on a Hill"), the coast around Pirongia ("Bird Bay", "Below Karioi"), and other areas in the Central North Island ("In the Sticks", "Tokaanu"). The Northland came up in his writing quite a bit, with verses about Puhoi, Waipu, Kaitaia, and the area around Dargaville where he grew up. The Bay of Islands and Hokianga sites were mentioned in his posthumous book, Atua Wera.
In 1980 Smithyman’s wife died after a long illness, and in January 1981 at Auckland he married Margaret Ann Edgcumbe, like himself a university tutor. Participation that year in the Harbourfront Literary Festival in Toronto, Canada was fruitful in generating many poems.
In 1986 he was awarded an honorary LittD by the University of Auckland, and he won the New Zealand Book Awards for poetry for Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985). The poems in that volume were more accessible to the general reader than his previous books and tended to use more narrative, anecdote and comedy. This vein in his poetry continued with Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987) and Auto/biographies (1992). He revised many earlier poems in significant ways for his Selected Poems (1989).
Smithyman's other writing in his final years included essays on New Zealand philology and critical editions of novels by William Satchell and the stories of Greville Texidor. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature in the 1990 New Year Honours. He died in December 1995 at North Shore Hospital in Auckland, after falling ill at his home in Northcote.
At his death, Smithyman left five volumes of unpublished poems, including a number intended for an eventual Collected Works edition and more than 500 other poems he didn't intend to publish. Shortly before his death, he completed Atua Wera, a long poem of almost 300 parts largely about Penetana Papahurihia (also known as Te Atua Wera), an early 19th-century Nga Puhi religious leader. The poem appeared posthumously as a book in 1997 and "was immediately recognised as perhaps his finest work and one of the major New Zealand poems", according to Peter Simpson. In 2006, "Mudflat Works", the online division of Holloway Press, published online Smithyman's 1,500-poem Collected Works, which Smithyman had selected, made final revisions for and put aside in 13 manila folders.
Each year links to corresponding "[year] in poetry" article:
- 1946: Seven Sonnets, Auckland: Pelorus Press
- 1950: The Blind Mountain & Other Poems, Christchurch: Caxton Press
- 1955: The Gay Trapeze, Wellington: Handcraft Press
- 1957: The Night Shift: Poems on Aspects of Love, by James K. Baxter, Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson and Kendrick Smithyman, Wellington: Capricorn Press
- 1962: Inheritance: Poems, Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade
- 1968: Flying to Palmerston, Auckland: Published for the University of Auckland by the Oxford University Press
- 1972: Earthquake Weather, Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1974: The Seal in the Dolphin Pool, Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1978: Dwarf with a Billiard Cue, Auckland : Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press
- 1979: Menu, Departmental Dinner in Honour of Professor S. Musgrove and Professor M.K. Joseph, the Senior Common Room, 30 November 1979 / [Poetry by W.K. Smithyman], Auckland: s.n.
- 1983: Centennial Poets, Auckland: Printed for the Centenary Celebrations by the Mt Pleasant Press, University of Auckland; Poems by Kendrick Smithyman, Riemke Ensing, Terry Locke, Mervyn Thompson, Wystan Curnow, Peter Dane
- 1985: Stories about Wooden Keyboards, Auckland: Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press
- 1986: An Informal Occasion in the English Department for Peter Dane, Bill Pearson, Karl Stead, 5 December 1986: Three Poems, Auckland: Department of English, University of Auckland
- 1987: Are You Going to the Pictures, Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1989: Kendrick Smithyman: Selected Poems, "Chosen and introduced by Peter Simpson", Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1992: Auto/Biographies: Poems 1987-89, Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1997: Tomarata, afterword by Peter Simpson, Auckland: Holloway Press; First published in: The Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1974.
- 1997: Atua Wera, Auckland: Auckland University Press (short-listed for Montana Book Awards in 1998)
- 2002: Last Poems, "With notes by Peter Simpson"; Auckland: Holloway Press
- 2002: Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, Auckland: Auckland University Press A total of 134 poems written in 1983–1984, but none of them published in his lifetime. Smithyman said he wrote them largely to inform his sons about aspects of their family history.
- 2004: Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, Auckland: Writers Group
- 2004: Collected Poems, 1943-1995, edited & with notes by Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson, Auckland: Mudflat Webworks, ("Electronic book offered as part of the Smithyman Online website compiled by the University of Auckland and published by the online facility of the University of Auckland's Holloway Press, Mudflat Webworks," according to the University of Auckland Library website.)
Edited by Smithyman
Each year links to corresponding "[year] in literature" article:
- 1971: William Satchell, The Land of the Lost, edited and introduced by Kendrick Smithyman, Auckland: Auckland University Press
- 1985: The New Gramophone Room: Poetry & Fiction, selected by C.K. Stead, Elizabeth Smither, Kendrick Smithyman, Auckland: Department of English, University of Auckland
- 1985: William Satchell, The Toll of the Bush, Edited and introduced by Kendrick Smithyman, Auckland: Auckland University Press, Oxford University Press
- 1987: Greville Texidor, In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot: Selected Fiction, edited and with an introduction by Kendrick Smithyman, Wellington: Victoria University Press
- Simpson, Peter, "Smithyman, William Kendrick 1922–1995 / Poet, teacher, literary critic, university tutor", article in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography ("This site includes the collected biographies originally published in the printed Dictionary of New Zealand Biography series between 1990 and 2000, and in the parallel Maori-language series, Nga Tangata Taumata Rau"), website accessed 27 April 2008
- Web page titled "Kendrick Smithyman (1922 - 1995 ) / a chronology" at the Smithyman Online website, accessed 27 April 2008
- Simpson, Peter, Web page titled "Kendrick Smithyman" at the Best New Zealand Poems 2002 website, accessed 27 April 2008
- Web page titled "Kendrick Smithyman" at the Best of New Zealand Poems 2004 website, accessed 28 April 2008
- Richards, Ian, "'they flower/ in an air of being suspended': Kendrick Smithyman's 'Flying to Palmerston'", article at the "No Frills New Zealand Literature" website (Richards cites "Simpson, Peter. "'Sinfonia Domestica': Mary Stanley & Kendrick Smithyman" in Between the Lives: Partners in Art (ed. Shepard, Deborah). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2005: 80"), accessed 27 April 2008
- Edmund, Murray, "Divagations: Kendrick Smithyman's Poetry", article in Landfall 168, December 1988, accessed 27 April 2008
- Ross, Jack, "Kendrick Smithyman’s Northland" "pander OS 2.0" website of pander, New Zealand cultural magazine (undated article), accessed 28 April 2008
- The London Gazette: . 30 December 1989. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
- Web page titled "Collected Poems 1943 -1995 by Kendrick Smithyman / an introduction by Peter Simpson" "Smithyman Online" website, accessed 28 April 2008
- Web page titled, "Kendrick Smithyman / New Zealand Literature File" at the New Zealand Literature File website of the University of Auckland Library, accessed 27 July 2012