Ken Smith (1938-2003) was a major voice in world poetry, a writer whose work shifted territory with time, from land to city, from Yorkshire, America and London to war-ravaged Eastern Europe. He was called ‘the godfather of the new poetry’ because his politically edgy, cuttingly colloquial, muscular poetry influenced a whole generation of younger British poets, from Simon Armitage to Carol Ann Duffy.
Ken Smith was born in Rudston, East Yorkshire, the son of an itinerant farm labourer. He worked in Britain and America as a teacher, freelance writer, barman, magazine editor, potato picker, BBC reader and creative writing fellow, and was writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1985-87. He received America’s highly prestigious Lannan Literary Award for Poetry in 1997, and a Cholmondeley Award in 1998.
Ken Smith was the first poet to be published by Bloodaxe, with his pamphlet Tristan Crazy in 1978. Smith’s first book, The Pity, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1967, and his second, Work, distances/poems, by Swallow Press, Chicago, in 1972. His early books span a transition from his preoccupation with land and myth (when he lived in Yorkshire, Devon and America) to his later engagement with urban Britain and the politics of radical disaffection (when he lived in East London). The Poet Reclining: Selected Poems 1962-1980 (Bloodaxe, 1982; reissued 1989) covers the first half of his writing career.
In 1986 Ken Smith’s collection Terra was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award. In 1987 Bloodaxe published his collected prose, A Book of Chinese Whispers. Four of his collections, Terra (1986), Wormwood (1987), The heart, the border (1990) and Tender to the Queen of Spain (1993), were Poetry Book Society Recommendations. His last separate collection, Wild Root (1998), a Poetry Book Society Choice, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. All these collections are included in his second Bloodaxe compilation, Shed: Poems 1980-2001 (2002), the sequel to The Poet Reclining.
In 1989 Harrap published Inside Time, Ken Smith’s book about imprisonment, about Wormwood Scrubs and the men he met there. This was published in paperback by Mandarin in 1990. 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 (Hamish Hamilton, 1990; Penguin paperback, 1991. He edited Klaonica: poems for Bosnia (Bloodaxe Books, 1993) with Judi Benson, and with Matthew Sweeney co-edited Beyond Bedlam (Anvil Press Poetry, 1997), a book of poems by mentally ill people.
He died on 27 June 2003 from a hospital infection caught while being treated for Legionnaires’ Disease, which he had contracted months earlier in Cuba. His last poems were published in You Again: last poems & other words (Bloodaxe Books, 2004) along with other uncollected work, tributes from other poets, photographs, a biographical portrait and interviews covering the whole range of his life and work. His Collected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in October 2018, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the publication of Bloodaxe's first title, Ken Smith's Tristan Crazy (1978), and with what would have been his 80th birthday.
Ken Smith (1938-2003): a film portrait
This film portrait of Ken Smith celebrates the publication of his Collected Poems from Bloodaxe. It begins with a biographical sequence with commentary from My Father Fading Out, a BBC radio feature from 2003 in which he talks about his father and growing up on a north Yorkshire farm in the 1940s and 1950s. The rest of the film consists of archive footage from 1990 to 2002 including his readings of a number of poems. 1990: Berlin: ‘The pity’, ‘Being the third song of Urias’, ‘My father fading out’, ‘Hawkwood’ (two sections) and ‘Katya’s message’ . 1991: Cullercoats: ‘Eli’s poem’. 1999: IX Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín: ‘The Secret Police’. 1999: Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Galway: ‘Days on Dog Hill’, ‘Woman without a name’, Three in a play’, ’Task 17’, Task 18’, and ‘The telephone is in the key of C’. 2002: East Ham, London: 'Three Docklands fragments’: ‘The Enterprise Zone’, ‘Of things to come’ and ‘Yuppy love’.
Books by Ken Smith