About Ken Smith
Ken Smith (1938-2003) was born in Rudston, Yorkshire, the son of a farm labourer whose work meant Ken had an itinerant childhood. He attended Leeds University at a key time when Geoffrey Hill was teaching in the English Department and fellow students included Tony Harrison and Jon Silkin. He later co-edited Stand with Silkin, the politically radical and socially engaged poetry magazine which had an important influence. In 1964 Smith won a Gregory Award for his first pamphlet of poetry, his first full collection, The Pity, appearing from Jonathan Cape in 1967. After joining the student and staff protests at Leeds in 1968, Smith left for America. His experience of the States opened up his poetry to new influences and a greater sense of freedom and possibility as evidenced in his second collection published in Chicago, Work, Distances/Poems. American culture, poetry and landscapes were to remain key inspirations. Smith returned to England in 1973 and his work gradually began to attract notice at a national level, especially through the influence of Bloodaxe which began publishing his poetry in 1978 and which became an increasingly significant player in the poetry world.
His poetry, both accessible and highly individual, developed a wide readership happy to join Smith on his voyage of self-discovery as he sought out "a language to speak to myself" (Times Literary Supplement). This he did, paradoxically, by looking outwards to other peoples and cultures and through developing a series of outsider personas. Smith was always drawn to the marginalised in his work, those excluded from mainstream society - he was writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs Prison - but in whom society's contradictions and injustices can most clearly be seen. A twin concern was the concept of borders - geographical, historical, psychological - which informed his vision, including a radio programme on the Berlin Wall for the BBC. Smith continued to travel widely and his poems remained eclectic in their frames of reference. It was on one of his frequent trips abroad, to Cuba, that Smith contracted the Legionnaires disease that was to kill him. By this point his work had achieved considerable recognition - he received a Cholmondeley Award in 1998 and his collection, Wild Root, was a Poetry Book Society Choice and nominated for the T. S. Eliot Prize: the outsider had become an insider but without compromising his vision.
These two poems, recorded as part of the British Council/Bloodaxe Poetry Quartet Series, are concerned with both division and unity. In 'Malenki Robot' "an old working man" in Hungary speaks matter-of-factly about the deprivations he's suffered under the Soviet authorities and the emotional implications of living on a closed border, "the wire" that "runs through the heart". Although written during the Cold War, its investigation into the way a border forces us to be on one side or the other has continuing resonance. 'In praise of vodka' by contrast is a journey of the tongue: through the spirit of vodka Smith is able to travel across different times and continents, and the boundaries of language. Russia and the West are brought together in the lulling rhythms of the final few lines: "Voda/Water/Vodka". Smith has a wonderful reading voice, deep, strong and flexible, his Yorkshire accent giving an extra edge to his work.
I've avoided poems that other writers here have recommended, but which otherwise would certainly have been on my...