Still Life: Art and Nature in Vivian Smith’s Poetry

Vivian Smith's poetry occupies an ambiguous position in Australian literature: it is highly regarded, but intermittently discussed. Perhaps some critics continue to find Smith's formalism anachronistic, an indication of how 'progressive' notions of poetry can in themselves be anachronistic or parochial. To see Smith's formalism as making his poetry merely controlled is equally superficial. As his criticism and translations demonstrate, Smith has an inclusive and informed interest in the poetry of Australia, America, Britain and Europe, and his non-sectarian style of anthologising makes him one of Australia's most important anthologists. This openness makes Smith difficult to pigeon-hole, and something of a critical challenge. In any event, diverse critics have recognised Smith's importance: James McAuley, Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, Bruce Beaver, Elizabeth Perkins, and Jennifer Strauss, among them. The issue may simply be one of production. Smith's oeuvre is not large (nor, incidentally, are those of many of the poets he admires, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, and Kenneth Slessor), and the long gaps between collections may mean that he drops out of sight a little. With the publication of his New Selected Poems it is time to re-attend to his work.

Because of his interest in the natural world Smith has often been seen as a pastoral poet. In 'Patience and Surprise' (one of the most detailed studies of Smith's poetry), Noel Rowe rejects treating Smith's Hobart poems as examples of pastoral 'if that implies more external order and interior simplicity than the poems themselves evidence' (179). Given such a definition this makes good sense, but a broader conception of pastoral can be usefully applied to Smith's poetry. Post-romantic pastoral may seem a contradiction in terms, but modern poets continue to demonstrate the workings of 'pastoral imaginations'.

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Published 1 October 1995 in Volume 17 No. 2. Subjects: Elegies, Literary influences, Pastoral poetry, Perceptions of nature, Poetic techniques, Regionalism, Tasmania.

Cite as: McCooey, David. ‘Still Life: Art and Nature in Vivian Smith’s Poetry.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 1995, doi: 10.20314/als.2e44df5257.