Nothing can be useless to a poet: / that came last night in a dream. / Is it mine or am I quoting? / / Every wise man has his problems, / every idiot his theme (Vivian Smith)
About Vivian Smith
Vivian Smith (b. 1933) was born and grew up in Hobart, Tasmania. He lectured in French at the University of Tasmania for ten years before moving to the University of Sydney where he was Reader in English until he retired in 1996. Smith's first poems were published while he was still at school, in the Bulletin, the leading literary weekly in Australia from 1880 until its demise in 2007. His first volume, The Other Meaning, is romantic in its symbolist imagery, linguistic musicality and pensive sensitivity. Tasmania remains the focal point in his next volume, An Island South, which conveys the island's cold still luminosity and searches for a vision in which contradictions are held in balance, pain and fragmentation can be withstood and understood. A group of savagely comic satires introduces a new detachment and toughness of tone and a new range of human figures, especially of two Tasmanian women artists and a Sydney refugee from Vienna who were significant in Smith's development, and whose highly individual and isolated lives reflect wider human issues. His third volume, Tide Country, brings together the two poles of Smith's imaginative world, Tasmania and Sydney. Les Murray writes of Smith as "Slessor's natural successor in evocations of Sydney Harbour and its surrounds that few really match". Recent critics have contested simplified readings of Smith's work, seeing complex forces of change at work. The critic Noel Rowe has commented: "This is poetry that is always (re)turning somewhere else." Smith's work is increasingly concerned with the scrutiny of modes and codes of behaviour, the odd, the unexpectedly poignant, in the animal as well as the human world. The language becomes grittier, the rhythmic texture of the verse more complex. There is a fresh imaginative alertness and a harder-edged quality to the most recent poetry which develops Smith's preoccupations with notions of permanence and decreation, survival and renewal.
Smith's early work was highly praised and encouraged by Kenneth Slessor, Douglas Stewart, David Campbell and Laurence Collinson. More recently he has been enthusiastically rediscovered by a new generation of poets which includes Michael Brennan, Luke Davies, who sees him as "deeply aware of tradition yet astringently modern, profoundly of the landscape yet far beyond it", and John Kinsella who has said: "Vivian Smith is a true independent in Australian poetry. He is his own school – belonging anywhere the craft and necessity of poetry are respected and… affirming those points where the senses meet ideas and responsibility".
Smith's reading draws the listener into the inner mood of each poem. His phrasing is the perfect medium for his subtle and incisive observations; his voice, calm and thoughtful, has a resonance which, like his poems, stays with the listener.
The audio poems were recorded in February 2008 in Sydney, Australia for the River Road Poetry Series. Producer: Carol Jenkins. The Other Side of Things is available from www.riverroadpress.net/.