Learning from Ken Smith
4 December 2018 would have been Ken Smith’s 80th birthday. That he died in 2003 remains a colossal tragedy for all who loved and knew him, and, more broadly, for English poetry. Had he survived until now I don’t believe he would have seemed much different to the man I first knew more than fifty years ago. The humorous, quizzical manner, the entirely independent and original view of the world, as if seen through one of the spiders’ webs he delighted in making, would surely have remained intact.
I first knew Ken when I was a callow undergraduate at Leeds and he a recent, mature graduate and Assistant Editor of Poetry and Audience, through which I got to know him. This was the time when he was working closely with Jon Silkin just before he became co-editor of Stand. He was writing the poems that came to make up the Eleven Poems of his Northern House pamphlet and eventually The Pity (1967). I would visit him and Ann, first in Pudsey and then in Chapeltown, and passed some of the most enthralling and inspiring evenings of my poetic life. Ken would show me and comment on his own new work. He shared with me his enthusiasm for Lorca and other Spanish language poets such as Otero, Vallejo and Machado, as well as the Americans, Bly, James, Wright and Merwin who were involved with the Sixties Press and related magazines.
Later Ken was reluctant to own his poems of this period, finding them ‘too hammered’ ...
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