Ian McMillan: Not beyond our Ken

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Lines from a half-remembered poem have been tickling the exposed wires of my memory recently, like lines often do. I read such a lot, and so much of what I read goes in one ear and then just stays there, waiting to be found again, before it tumbles out of the other ear and into the Barnsley air. Sometimes, though, lines stick and resurface like those songs you can’t shake off, no matter how you try.

The lines in question are: “Fox/running/loose in his sleek skin/loose in his soft fur./Fox/between lamp dark and daylight/loping through the suburbs…” I like them because they seem to understand the essence of a running fox; the idea that it could be “loose” in its “sleek skin”, and I love the evocation of a particular time around dawn as being “between lamp dark and daylight”. After some chin-stroking and a bit of research, I remembered that the lines were by one of the great (in my opinion) Yorkshire poets, Ken Smith.

Smith is, for me, a timeless rock dominating Yorkshire’s poetic landscape.

Sources tell me that Smith was born in Rudston, in East Yorkshire, not far from Bridlington, otherwise known for the Rudston Monolith, a neolithic monument that juts confidently into the Northern sky. I’d like to think there’s some kind of connection between these two facts, because Smith is, for me, a timeless rock dominating Yorkshire’s poetic landscape. He died in 2003 and, sadly, the memory of his work is fading and perhaps it’s time for a revival.

Although he lived and worked all over the world, Ken Smith always spoke and thought and wrote like a Yorkshireman. The sequence Fox Running that I quoted from earlier was actually about an urban fox in London, and was a metaphor for civic decay in that city, but for me the fox always felt like a Yorkshire fox, a cousin of Ted Hughes’s Thought Fox, a distant relative of the foxes in folktales that would be told around Yorkshire fires. He wrote about America but, again, the descriptions could have been of lonely farmhouses on the moors: “the houses/surprise each hill/white as a smoke, blue doors/for their marriageable daughters.”

He was one of the first poets in residence in a prison, and the poems and prose pieces he wrote from Wormwood Scrubs live long in my memory, illuminating the idea of time, endless time, time as punishment, time as reward, that all prisons are built around: “Time I could handle but all this dark stuff/either side between the light and the light./Time is what./Time is.”

If I could recommend one Ken Smith poem to begin with it would be Colden Valley, from his 1986 collection Terra; a meditation on history and landscape, and language with its memorable opening line “North I’m convinced of it: childhood’s over.” Seek out this poem and the rest of his work; you won’t be disappointed.

n Ken Smith’s books are published by Bloodaxe.

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