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.