Wittiness and cleverness are hallmarks of Elizabeth Smither’s poems. Whether she is writing about colonial Parihaka, a small community in Taranaki, New Zealand (close to where she lives), listening to classical music, shopping, dining out or sleeping on a waterbed, she displays a gift for wry comedy combined with an eye for pinpoint detail. Take, for instance, the black shoes “polished by the husband” and the rainbow bikini in the poem ‘Shopping with Beth’, or the straight, stiff “other bed” and duvet “which is the colour of water seen through wharf slats” in the poem, ‘Sleeping in a waterbed’. Listening to these works read out in the author’s composed, quiet delivery, our minds retain her rich, evocative use of language in a series of intense mental pictures.
Such command of craft is not surprising, given Smither is the author of 15 volumes of poetry, the first woman to be New Zealand Poet Laureate and a recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry (NZ). As the poems on this site illustrate, Smither’s command is also accompanied by an ability to mine an envious breadth of poetic territory.
‘Twelve Little Poems About Parihaka’ is a good example. During the 1870s and 1880s, Parihaka was the focal-point for non-violent Maori resistance to European occupation. Smither’s poetic homage to the place is a series of short poems which emphasise more than just the township’s symbolic importance in the early colonial history of New Zealand. In her work, the land, its ghosts, its people (Maori and Pakeha), the monuments built upon it and even its seemingly inconsequential animal occupants (such as an arachnid) are all given voice, a choir whose combined efforts sing out the richest possible hymn. Here, as elsewhere on this site, Smither is very conscious of precision not just in the images she uses, but also in evoking the times she writes about. So her late Victorian Parihaka abounds with references dear to the dominion, such as Austen, Byron and Hardy, the Industrial Exhibition and the Botanical Gardens, and (of equal footing) to Maori like the leaders of the resistance movement, Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. This same attention to place is there in her ability to site the reader/listener in the spare bedroom in ‘Sleeping in a waterbed’ and the eatery in ‘Barbara and the restaurant bill’.
At the close of the poem ‘Listening to Handel with a cat’, Smither’s serene voice says of the titular composer’s music:
“and not a drop is wasted, not a vapour
above the darkening river, in the mist
but everything accrues to grand and majestic.”
She could easily be speaking about her own work too.
1983 Freda Buckland Award
1984 University of Auckland Literary Fellowship
1987 Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Scholarship in Letters
1989 Lilian Ida Award
1990 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry
1992 Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Scholarship in Letters
2000 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry
2001-2003 Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate
2008 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry