Ken Smith (1938-2003) was a major voice in world poetry, his work and example inspiring a whole generation of younger British poets. He collected his early prose writings in A Book of Chinese Whispers (1987), and his poetry from four decades in two volumes, The Poet Reclining: Selected Poems 1962-1980 (Bloodaxe Books, 1982) and Shed: Poems 1980-2001 (Bloodaxe Books, 2002). His later work was included in the posthumous You Again (Bloodaxe Books, 2004).
If you like his poems, you'll love his prose: extraordinary fictions, fables, ill-tempered jokes and (wait for it!) existential romances. Smith writes in the radical European/American (and most unEnglish) traditon of Borges, Brautigan, Burroughs and Buster Keaton. As in the game of Chinese Whispers messages are passed, repeated, misheard, misremembered, deliberately tampered with, fiddled in the interest of politics, commerce and the pursuit of power. Even the language is suspect. So are our perceptions. The book is illustrated with mysterious pictures of sub-reality.
‘Ken Smith was a great poet… His last retrospective collection, Shed, confirmed the immense power of his poetry’ – Jon Glover, Guardian
'Smith's writing exists in permanent disagreement with English fashion. A huge cast of overheard characters, wanderers, losers and remembrancers passes through his writing, bound by a common sense of loss and endurance' - Sean O'Brien, Sunday Times.
‘His poems are squeezed out from under the unrelenting pressures of history, politics and the natural elements… some of his poems read like translations from war-ravaged Eastern Europe’ – Charles Boyle, London Magazine.
'Ken Smith brought an original and memorable voice to poetry in Britain. He spent his writing life not so much swimming against the tide as ignoring the stream’s existence… He was one of those by whom the language lives’ – Sean O’Brien, Independent
Ken Smith in Berlin: five poems
Ken Smith was working in Berlin when the Wall came down, writing a book about East and West Berlin: this turned into Berlin: Coming in from the Cold (1990). He also took part in a series of readings and workshops in Berlin in 1989 and 1990 based mainly at the Free University of Berlin and organised John Hartley Williams for the British Council in partnership with Bloodaxe Books. This video shows excerpts from his conversations with John Hartley Williams and includes his readings of five poems: ‘The pity’, ‘Being the third song of Urias’, ‘My father fading out’, ‘Hawkwood’ (two sections) and ‘Katya’s message’, from The Poet Reclining and Shed.
Ken Smith reads 'Three docklands fragments'
This extract from Ivor Bowen's film of Ken Smith shows him reading Three docklands fragments from Shed (Bloodaxe Books, 2002). Ivor Bowen's film is a "bonus track" included in the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets.
Ken Smith: 'Eli's poem'
Ken Smith reads his poem 'Eli's poem' in settings on the North-East coast (at Tynemouth and Cullercoats). This poem is from The Poet Reclining (Bloodaxe Books, 1982). Made in 1991, the film is from the Wordworks series of short poem films made by Tyne Tees Television with Bloodaxe Books, first shown in May-June 1992, produced by Mark Lavender and directed by Rob Cowley.