The first definition of poetry

On Simon Smith's 'Navy'


Poet Simon Smith is in the midst of a remarkable proliferation, with book following quickly upon book. He has recently published a selected volume — More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry (Shearsman 2016) — and, the same year, the book Navy (vErIsImIlItUdE). The selected brings together poetry from five previous collections, as well as a number of uncollected poems; editor Barry Schwabsky associates Smith’s work with “the New York School’s love of speed, wit, and variousness of tone,” which is true, although this only tells half the story. Smith is a fabulous diverter of syntax (and one of the best lyric line workers I can think of) — of the line which slips swiftly and unexpectedly on to a new perception (this is especially so in the gorgeous poems of “Reverdy Road”) — as he moves softly over the quanta of daily life: “there is no getting away from detail” he writes, even when the details are the slips and shifts of a speedy consciousness pecking at “thought / about thought.”

But I am going to focus here on Navy and the long poem with which it opens: “England, A Fragment.” Smith lives and works in the south east of England, in what is essentially border country — the Kent of the white cliffs of Dover, along the marker of where England “begins” and the rest of the world ends. More than this, Kent is also the frontier of British xenophobia, the heartland of the anti-immigrant UKIP party, and home to a number of “immigration removal centres.” “England, A Fragment” was written in the lead-up to the Brexit fiasco, and is less a plug for the “remain” vote than it is a diagnosis and laying bare of the worst aspects of the nationalistic “leave” vote. More than this, I see the poem — the entirely of Navy too — as essential reading for the present moment of resurgent fascism and white nationalism.

This is all the more affecting because Smith is not primarily a “political poet” (whatever that problematic designation actually means), and because “England, A Fragment” stages the speaker’s growing disgust and — in some ways — dawning commitment. Formally (other than in terms of its length) “England” is of a piece with Smith’s work in the selected volume: largely immersed in daily life and local detail, and following the subtle shifts and digressions of a mind processing (and, really, enamoured with) the immediate and ephemeral. What has changed is the tenor of daily life, the local, and the immediate. The “labour of attention” continues, Smith writes, but all the more urgently because (as he writes elsewhere in Navy, in “Love: A Political Poem”) “increasingly the culture [is] contactless” — a “fragment,” disconnected from all and any outsides, desperate for that laborious “attention” that might bring us back into “contact.”

A poet often engaged with the aesthetics of the journal and day book, Smith begins with the quotidian: the borderland of beach and gulls, the commuter’s life of train times and “a station pie / from the Pumpkin Café.” The speaker is presumably a stand-in for Smith; they are someone listening to classical music on their commute “whilst reading Berrigan / off of my iPhone.” Their journey, however, is through “england dead space” — a heavily policed and surveilled sub/urban landscape of “refuse” and “waste” made in capital’s own image: “the day already lost / to markets & account // town centre gutted.” It is an environment that registers the transformations of human activity at many levels, tracing the links between social/political decay and ecological degradation, as the speaker notes “green parrots” — presumably an invasive species — “bombed out // of their roost by native gulls” (insert xenophobic symbolism), and beaches where “plastic pellets” and “nuggets of crude” dot “the shoreline.”

UKIP’s Nigel Farage (and his “clan”/ “Klan”) gets a kick or two, but so does an ineffectual Labour Party under then-leader (“useless” Smith dubs him) Miliband — “the politics of the handshake / the politics of the milkshake” simply greasing the wheels of the status quo. Smith is carefully diagnosing the England of austerity and prolonged economic stagnation, but he is not going to offer a cleanly structural and economic analysis that might be used to excuse working class racism and violence: “most of these people / are just not nice people.” That, of course, is also an oversimplification, but Smith does not want to let anyone off. Thus when he writes of

            the UKKK bringing law to town

                        & clubs & chains & the noose

                                    in broad daylight their fear of invasion

it is not only to condemn rampant racist violence and anti-immigrant xenophobia (upon which the poem touches). That “UKKK” may be a riff on the UKIP party and its thuggish constituents, but it is also a rejection of the imperial and militaristic heritage of the UK itself. “England, A Fragment,” and the entirety of Navy (the book’s title is a metonymy), is replete with references to invasions and military campaigns past and present, both offensive and defensive — references to the border as a militarized, policed and patrolled space. The view across to Calais may be “luminous / most clear days,” but the “ferry-port” is a place of “desperation” for “its barely legal cargo.”

Calais stands, I think, as a “luminous” alternative to the direction the UK is headed (an epigraph from John James runs: “but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that / despite everything / France is still there”). Not that France, or Europe for that matter, are held up here in any sort of utopian terms — but in the “fragmented” England of Smith’s poem Calais is, perhaps, diversity, immigration, hope, human need, difference, and “contact.” Whatever the economics of Brexit, it is a door, Smith susses out, through which barely hidden racism bursts.

            ‘RACIST’ aerosoled on a garage

                        door KKK stenciled in red beside

                                    the white sand of Botany Bay


            the white cliffs of Dover

                        the white faces of smack boys

There is a struggle underway here, between the UKKK of an oh-so-terribly “white” and insular polity and history (the “whiteness” clearly marked as an aspect of the very landscape), and a more open England willing to push and fight back against its own enclosures — willing to call racists racists, and more. Even those “smack boys” are tricky. Are they simply toughs aiming to engage in racialized violence? A little research shows that “smack boys” are sailors (fitting, in a book titled Navy). Indeed, a plaque on the Ramsgate Sailor’s Church refers to sailors as “smack boys” and notes that the church historically welcomed shipwreck survivors “of all nationalities and religions.” I think Smith has embedded a subtle antifascist counter-discourse in the poem — one which bursts out a little more loudly at the poem’s conclusion.

“England, A Fragment,” ends with what I read as something of a credo and call to arms.

            the first definition

                        of poetry where

                                    to raise the barricades


            fire the first shot

                        the words between us

                                    maybe nothing else


            white       white       white

                        black       &       white

This conclusion comes after Smith’s speaker has already distanced themselves from the straightforward politics of aesthetics (“& all the poetries in the World / won’t change the World”). But now in the poem’s final lines, the “first definition / of poetry” — the first question of poetics — is “where / to raise the barricades” and where and when to “fire the first shot.” This is a sobering and almost militant conclusion, with perhaps only “words between us” and a situation that is increasingly “black & white” — but still mostly “white” — almost erased by whiteness.

If I were to read a little more into Smith’s lines here, I’d suggest that the poem arrives at a potent paradox: all the poet has are words, but mere words are never enough — BUT, perhaps words sight through their lines at more material engagements, pulling us through towards the fray, leading us to our necessary commitments. When a poet who can ask

            would it be wrong   

                        to write a beautiful book

                                    in these ugliest of times?

 comes to the conclusions Smith does in “England, A Fragment,” I think we may be getting somewhere. Smith has written such a “beautiful book,” and despite the continuing ugliness of the times, the poetry keeps us engaged, if nothing else. This is it’s “Gift” — the title of the final poem in Navy, which I add here in its entirety:


            what would I give

            towards another morning

            & him reaching


            equally share the hours

            days weeks months & years


            not given up on politics

            don’t give up on politics