You Again: Last Poems and Other Words, by Ken Smith

Final words put a stellar life in context

Tim Cumming
Tuesday 03 August 2004 00:00

The late Ken Smith was a poet and writer who spent a lot of his time and his talent exploring connections and byways ignored by the makers of framed objects.

"My methods are serendipity," he said. "I frequent railway stations and markets and the back of magistrates' courts." He had his own beat, whether in border country, hill country, the urban diaspora, or the country of memory.

As a poet, his voice was always historical, always contemporary, often restlessly on the move. "Why aren't you famous?" I remember Jo Shapcott asking him. I don't think Ken had an answer. It is a mystery: this encroaching invisibility of his in England, when he was celebrated internationally and acknowledged as the godfather to a generation of British poets.

I knew Ken, so this is a partisan review, but I know that he was one of the few writers who lived as he wrote, the line between poetic and private voice rubbed out of the picture. The late poems collected in Shed (2002) have no equal in British writing, and that level of achievement continues in the 20 pages of poems that open You Again.

The sequence "Almost" stands beside his best for its speed and its weight, its push towards infinity through the visceral, the momentary, its images of fleeting beauty "glimpsed in an autumn country runny with fruit".

There is only the shocking fact of his death to contend with, and that there will be no more poems after "The White Chair", written in Cuba where he caught Legionnaires' disease. Not that killed him.

Secondary infections are the scourge and scandal of Britain's hospitals, the consequence of political decisions that go back to Thatcher and thrive under Blair. They killed Ken Smith. Poetry lovers will know where to spit.

Beside the poems, You Again supplies invaluable insights into the life and work via Ken's own prose. There are vivid tales of his childhood and his father (an itinerant, unlettered farm labourer), consummate stories about memory. These are interspersed with selections from keynote poems and photographs that remind you just how much like Lemmy from Motorhead he looked in the 1970s.

The interviews include "Tough Shit Plato", transcribed from a 1986 conversation. Here, and via contributions from Roger Garfitt, Jon Glover and Colin Raw, readers will discover a great deal about the context of Smith's poems, and it is context this valuable book offers.

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His last poem, "The White Chair", is suffused with the finality of last things: one wonders whether he knew this, somehow. He was a poet of end-points and borders, a wanderer and an outsider, with an outsider's responsibility to illuminate those inside the ring.

His work has that kind of finality about it. These nearly new poems are the last. There are not enough of them, there will be no more, and it's enough to make you weep.

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