Cutty Sark

In company with Cutty Sark at sea
only once, on Himalaya off Brazil.
They sailed into the doldrums.
Day after day another sail came into sight,
would lose the wind, then idle.
Forty-two ships counted from the masthead.

Sent up with a glass at daybreak
to mark if anything stirred, reported
a clipper coming from the south carrying
canvas, the mate observing from the poop
later was first to say ‘That’s Cutty Sark.’
They watched her through the day.
At last light she was hull down, northing,
had sailed right through the might as well
have been derelict fleet, forty-plus of them,
some getting on for four weeks there.

That’s what poetry may be about, the impossible
part of it which achieves insubstantial
fact, as little material as Sybil Sanderson’s
G in alt or Fonteyn’s unpredicted change
(‘If you didn’t see why I did it when I did
it then it didn’t work’) not to be described;
when seen, if seen, in kind a dumbshow
to strike dumbstruck any who looked out
hearing something beyond likely hearing,
seeing something not likely seen, gone
without leaving words for.

Kendrick Smithyman (1922-95) was one of New Zealand’s best and most prolific poets. During his 50 year career he published a dozen collections of verse including Seven Sonnets (1946), The Blind Mountain (1950), Inheritance (1962), Flying to Palmerston (1968), Earthquake Weather (1972), The Seal in the Dolphin Pool (1974), Dwarf with a Billiard Cue (1978), Stories about Wooden Keyboards (1985), Are You Going to the Pictures? (1987), Selected Poems (1989) and Auto/biographies (1992). His major book-length poem Atua Wera was published posthumously in 1997. Two other posthumous collections Last Poems (Holloway Press) and Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (Auckland University Press) – the volume from which ‘Cutty Sark’ is taken – were published in 2002.

Smithyman was born in Te Kopuru, a small village near Dargaville, in Northland, New Zealand, the only child of middle-aged parents. The Smithymans moved to Auckland in the early 1930s, eventually settling in Point Chevalier, a modest suburb on the Waitemata Harbour. His father William Kendrick Smithyman had been a sailor and waterside worker with radical political leanings who had fought both in the Boer War and the First World War. In the depression of the 1930s, however, the family had fallen on hard times and Kendrick’s father (‘Bill’) had to work on relief gangs to survive. Imperial Vistas Family Fictions is devoted to stories about Kendrick’s father and to other family members including English relatives of earlier generations whom Kendrick never met – especially his grandfather (also William Kendrick) – but whom his father talked about. Grandfather Smithyman was born in 1829, went to sea, fought for the Royal Navy in the Crimean War, and had adventures in various other parts of the Empire (Australia, India) before settling back in England. In later life he was harbourmaster in Ramsgate, a port town on the south-east coast of England.

Imperial Vistas Family Fictions was written in 1983-84, an immensely prolific period in Smithyman’s writing. None of the 134 poems was published during his lifetime. Smithyman said that he wrote the poems mainly for his sons to inform them about aspects of their family history. Much of Smithyman’s poetry is syntactically difficult, imagistically dense and intellectually demanding – especially in the early part of his career (up to, say, 1960). From the later 1960s onwards, however, he developed a more open and less convoluted style with a greater emphasis on narrative and character. Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985), a prize-winning collection, is typical of this aspect of his practice.

Imperial Vistas Family Fictions takes this anecdotal, yarn-spinning aspect of his writing further than ever before (or again). Many of the poems are based on his father’s stories of his adventurous life at sea and in war, and about his relatives in England. The term ‘family fictions’ suggests Smithyman’s awareness that not all of his father’s stories (or his own reconstructions of them) were strictly factual. Both father and son had the raconteur’s ability to work up a story in an audience-pleasing fashion. Smithyman was himself a notable raconteur and no-one who heard him spinning endless amusing and curious tales can fail to hear his voice in these poems. (For a video and audio recording of Smithyman reading see the Smithyman author page on the New Zealand electronic poetry centre.)

‘Cutty Sark’ is presumably based on one of Bill Smithyman’s sea-stories. Cutty Sark was a famous sailing ship, a 963 ton clipper built at Dumbarton on the Clyde in Scotland and launched in 1869. The opening of the Suez Canal that year, however, shortened her life as a tea-clipper, the tea trade being soon taken over by steam ships. From 1885 Cutty Sark became involved in the Australian wool trade and was famous for her speed, setting several records for the fastest passage between Sydney and England. Smithyman’s poem presumably offers a glimpse of the ship during this phase of her career, seen off the coast of Brazil miraculously avoiding the doldrums which had becalmed 40 other sailing ships. Later Cutty Sark was bought by Portuguese owners and continued to sail under various names up to 1938. The ship has been restored and preserved and is now at a permanent dry dock in Greenwich, UK.

The first two stanzas read as indirect reportage of another’s speech (presumably the father’s). In the final stanza the perspective seems to shift. The voice is presumably that of the poet (or his persona) discovering in the rare miracle of the Cutty Sark’s performance an example of the achievement which defies explanation or description, like the greatest poetry or performance, ‘the impossible/part of it which achieves insubstantial/fact’. Analogies are drawn to performances by Sybil Sanderson (1865-1903), an American soprano who had roles written for her by Massenet and Saint-Saëns, and Margot Fonteyn (1919-91), a famous English ballerina. The difference in generation between these artists introduces an element of doubt as to whose analogies these are, the father’s or the son’s. Perhaps the identities of father and son momentarily merge in evocation of such rare epiphanies. Smithyman wrote several other poems celebrating such moments including ‘About Setting a Jar on a Hill’ and ‘A Showing Forth by Day of the Nankeen Kestrel’.

(Note written by Peter Simpson)

Margaret Edgcumbe adds: This poem comes very close to the truth in spite of being ‘a family fiction’. It is perfectly possible that the young Bill Smithyman may have seen the Cutty Sark ‘slicing by at full speed’ some time between November 1893 and February 1895 when the iron fullrigger Himalaya was carrying emigrants to New Zealand. Both ships made two trips to the South Pacific and back at that time. As for the alignment of the record-breaking clipper with two other females at the top of their fields, that is a typical Smithyman touch.

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New Zealand Book Council author profile
Auckland University Press