I trail Ken Smith’s ghost around the University of Leeds campus. He’s long dead – claimed by Legionnaire’s disease in 2003 – and I’m an unreliable witness, living in the creative fog of a two-year Cultural Fellowship in the School of English. Still, I kid myself that I can hear his heavy footsteps on the stairs, or see his shadow in the vast amphitheatre of the Brotherton Library, hunched over a volume of Geoffrey Hill. I look for him in The Faversham Hotel, the pub where he used to spend long afternoons, leaving a note on his door for the students: he would be conducting his office hours at the bar. There is nothing, no whiff of smoke, no glass cobwebbed with beer froth. Like the character in his greatest poem ‘Fox Running’, he is always shapeshifting, always one step ahead of me. All I have are his words and the words of his many admirers. Tim Cumming summarised his underrated talents:
“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 too think of Smith as one of poetry’s best kept secrets: a writer whose work encompassed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the isolation of Thatcherism, the terrain of myth and the mysteries of his own body, his own heart. He was always on the move and ‘Fox Running’ dramatises a character who has stepped outside society and stepped out of his own skin. It was a role Ken Smith felt comfortable in. As the son of an itinerant labourer, Smith spent his childhood moving around and attending different schools across Yorkshire. He is a poet constantly wishing to be somewhere else, preoccupied with what Rebecca Solnit calls ‘The Blue of Distance’, the bittersweet pull of elsewhere. It was his love of travel that led – indirectly – to his death: he was in Cuba when he caught Legionnaire’s disease at 64.
Smith emerged in the 1960s with other important new voices in Leeds. He was a poet of personal experience and the urban landscape. Summarising his own approach to writing, he said: “I like hanging around places like railway stations, where you get the drama of departure and arrival… I sometimes consciously go out looking for images and language, like the city’s a great, big supermarket and you can pick and mix as you like.” His collections were often loosely themed (his achievements ran parallel with the expansion and influence of Bloodaxe and there have been several Collected Poems since his death), but his work often defied genre conventions. Many of his books integrated photographs and drawings into the experience of reading. His BBC radio programmes also merged speech with music and sounds. He was an interdisciplinary, collaborative writer and a champion for poetry: as a writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs in the 1980s, he worked with prisoners, attentive to their stories.
He was an instinctive, prolific writer. In Leeds, I pored over his messy archive, found that he often started poems on the backs of receipts or envelopes and used the blank side of notes scribbled to other people. The more I read, the more I admired his intense political conviction, his appetite for travel and his dedication to giving voice to the too-often unheard. I also developed an affection for his brusqueness, his wit. I began to admire his approach to editing, to preserving the intention of the poems. In a letter to Neil Astley, he said: “I’ve included all yr suggestions apart from those I was violently opposed to.” He worried about whether his collection had “too many wolves” in, whether it contained any “obvious horseshit”. Such was Ken Smith: uncompromising, passionate, alert to the surreal qualities of the world, its violence and its humour. A new Collected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in 2018, containing work from four decades. Writing in the Sunday Times, Sean O’Brien summed him up thus:
“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.”
I hope that the work and the spirit that produced it proves just as enduring.
Helen Mort is a five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2007 and won the Manchester Young Poet Prize in 2008. In 2010, she became the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the TS Eliot Prize.
Ken Smith (1938-2003) was born in Yorkshire and later studied English at the University of Leeds. His poetry was influenced by other cultures, peoples and landscapes, and his travels were a key inspiration for his work. In life as well as art, he was interested in the stories of marginalised people.