Feature Articles

SYDNEY BERNARD SMITH (1936 – 2008) by Kevin Kiely

(Poetry Ireland News, November/ December 2008)

Sydney Bernard Smyth died on 11 October 2008 from cancer. He spoke about it openly as ‘a crab on the liver’, and other names indicative of this poet’s power in the Sydney Bernard Smithface of the inevitable, coupled with his capacity for galgenhumour. Chin up, as the hangman said. His journey began in Glasgow. ‘Portstewart’ is his only poem about childhood revisited. Lured by Dublin, SBS also ‘did time’ on the offshore islands, becoming one of the ‘Inisboffiners’: hard drinkers, driftwood collectors and operators of Ireland’s only vaporetto system outside Venice. As the Class Bohemian he exceeded 50 addresses, and also fathered five children, God rest him. The distinguished academic background included Oxford, Liverpool, and Iowa University; thereafter, sporadic teaching at various levels, and latterly sporadic acting. He wrote twelve plays, including the ‘successful’ How to Roast a Strasbourg Goose (1985).

Publicly, he appeared like a Branch Man crossed with what the Third Policeman might have looked like; he could be Anew McMaster and turn into Tristan Tzara, addicted to street lore rather than famous writers to whom he ‘awarded’ the ‘Nebel Prize for syntax’ (‘Nebel’, Ger. fog). He had a penchant for public house graffiti, finding ‘THE BEING OF BEING LIES IN ITS BEING’ in The Cellar Bar, Galway worthy of praise. Shamelessly experimental work was his metier as ‘Form of Application to Ted Berrigan for Country or Associate Membership of the New York Poets’, an anti-poem within an anti-poem, whose footnote explains: ‘…we talked about how one would write a New York Poem. Among the ingredients must be time, date, weather, the first names of your friends & the important trivia of their lives’.

John F Deane, Tom McCarthy and James Simmons found his work non-traditional, ultimately a two-fingered poetry: the bitch muse usually stirred into activity through a raging hangover; ‘To my Typewriter, on its 21st & my 42nd Birthday’: ‘…from a self sufficient garden which I/ tend with pensive toil / I could bring you thyme and basil (what you really / need is oil); but some class of gallant gesture / is certainly due, / since you are 21 today, and I am 42’.

His most confessional poem ‘Recitation’ is about a marriage split, and at the other extreme is ‘Addicts’: ‘My name is Frank & I’m a recovering intellectual…’ He threw overboard the ideological creeds of his generation early on, especially the Marxist literature that still finds shelf-space in the Connolly Bookshop on Essex Street. Sydney’s ire, like that of many satirists is hard to gauge, as in his The Immodest Proposal: A Satire (2005). The satirist, actually a sadist, has a major problem in not knowing if the audience will listen, laugh, or walk away. Kavanagh exercised the same demonic sadistic spell, even in his wake when the PK Poetmetre, a system for measuring ‘greatness’, was wielded in the cathedral-pubs where Paddy, the barstool Pontiff, had offered first a lung and later himself as unwanted sacrifice. Kavanagh’s disciples are easily located according to Yeat’s philosophy of antithetical figures. 1970’s and 1980s Irish Poetry down South yielded to Northern Supremacy: they had the war, the London publishers, and found sympathy from a wider audience. SBS found ‘Drum Ceatism’ in all this, and put on his Dunciad’s hat.

Yeats on gaining the Nobel Prize for Literature, told friends in the Shelbourne  hotel, ‘we are so ridiculous even children laugh at us.’ Sydney might have agreed: none of that RTÉ-poetry-presenter-voice, none of your Druidic high-priestism of poets, or high-poet-priestesses. In 1985 he was listed by The Irish Times as one of the 100 key names in Irish literature, and loathed those who quoted the IT: he was not of the Irish Times School of Writers.

He vented his ire at the Richelieu of Art, and like Hugh Maxton reviled them and their Taoiseach who wrote his own fictional bank-balances behind a pseudo-Celtic-Georgian-Versailles, and held office. Prime Ministers admiring poets was fakery to SBS, though he needed the academy’s dole, and acceded to Aosdána, despising the Miltonic lust for a hierarchy of ‘friends’ within the corridors of power. He played the role of wigless judge in the literary courts where everyone was guilty as charged. Yeats had stolen Mangan’s cloak, Pound was a bumbling professor of classics. Auden a champagne socialist. His contemporaries are in Flannery (1991): you must not have achieved total vileness if you are not in its pages where he unravels as a Diogenes, a savagely indignant Swiftianm a Rabelaisian-Mozartian in scatological verbiage with occasional hints of the clubman; feisty as Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis.

Post-Dadaist or member of the ‘non-Expressionists’, he ended his poetic work with brief sketches from Sappho, Aeschylus and Dante. The Immodest Proposal: A Satire (Lapwing, 2005) caught the eye of Ted Hughes in an early draft, who wrote from Devon (5 February 1997): ‘Thanks for the enlivening read and surprising lines.’ It is a long Byronic poem: it might yet have its day for the sake of poetic justice:

All text is equal. Hence: no high no low art,
no classical, no thoroughbred no runty,
no opera worth more than Broadway Show-art –
the norm is inside-outed back-to-fronty…
But why then study –Why Genet? Why Homer?
Austen?! Why not Beano? Why not Bunty?
If no one text’s more worthy than another
& thinking hurts the mind so much – why bother?

Sydney Bernard Smith was neglected; but let us face it; nearly all poets could subtitle their Collected Poems, Neglected Poems. His Poems 1957-2006 is available online: the ultimate revenge in that the web will destroy the power of commissioning editors, newspaper editors, and publishers’ power of acceptance and rejection. In his signing off, Dear Sydney reached out to another satirist, the most sacred one, and rendered plain the overwhelming evocation of St Bernard, giving us a glimpse of Dante’s vision: ‘All I remember – I grew hardier / became able to endure it and reached the / point where my glance was one / with that limitlessness, that wealth of being.’
(Paradiso XXXIII, 79-820).

Kevin Kiely is currently on a Fulbright scholarship to the United States of America

Sydney Bernard Smith's works online.

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