Helen Mort: Hearts and Borders

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THW2 June 1, 2016      THW1 March 1, 2016


loose in his sleek skin
loose in his slick fur

between lamp dark and daylight
loping through the suburbs
miles bridges canals rails…

(1980: 1)

Those are the words we encounter at the beginning of Ken Smith’s long poem ‘Fox Running’, broadcast earlier this year on Radio 4’s Poetry Please, offering listeners a rare opportunity to hear the words spoken by Ken himself. When I read those stanzas for the first time, I remember lingering on the phrase ‘lamp dark’, savouring the subtle surprise of it, how effectively Smith sets a dramatic, nocturnal scene in just a few, pared-back lines. It marked the start of a fascination with Ken Smith and his work that has led to me writing a long poem in response to ‘Fox Running’, a piece called ‘Bloodhound’, informed by research into Smith’s archive and published in my collection No Map Could Show Them.

As a Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds for the last two years, I’ve been all too aware of following in Smith’s footsteps, as he was at Leeds University as a Yorkshire arts fellow from 1976 to 1978, having previously studied English as an undergraduate. In a section of miscellaneous prose in his archive – a piece titled ‘Report from the Singing Buildings’, Smith summarises his tenure as an arts fellow at Leeds: ‘…I rode up and down the paternoster in the elephant building, drank plastic cups of tea in strange underground cafeterias amongst the mezzanines and humming pipes, dreamed movies I would never make, novels I would never finish, and wrote poems that were never the poems I intended to write about these singing buildings where I’d sit, holed up in my office in the School of English.’

Ken Smith’s life was always an itinerant one. Born in 1938 in Rudston, his father (a farm worker and then grocer) moved around, and Ken went to junior schools all over the county. After grammar school in Hull and Knaresborough, he did national service in the air force, returned to Hull in 1960 and married his first wife, Ann Minnis. That same year, he went to Leeds to read English where he was a contemporary of Jon Silkin and Tony Harrison and was involved with the editing and production of Stand magazine. His first full collection, The Pity, was published by Cape in 1967. In the late 1960s, he left England for the USA where he lived for many years, returning in 1973 and reacquainting himself with Leeds soon after that. Smith went to live in London after his marriage to Ann broke up. ‘Fox Running’ – the poem I’ll focus on in this essay – appeared in 1980 as a 32-page A4 pamphlet and just 150 copies were produced at £5 each. Neil Astley from Bloodaxe agreed to publish a second edition of it in 1981 after it received some favourable reviews.

Smith subsequently published a number of collections with Bloodaxe, including Terra (1986), A Book Of Chinese Whispers and Wormwood (both 1987); all of these were produced while he was writer-in-residence in Wormwood Scrubs prison between 1985 and 1987. His first Selected Poems – The Poet Reclining – was published in 1982. Smith married again after meeting the American artist Judi Benson and together they worked on a number of creative projects, including Klaonica: Poems For Bosnia (1993) which they edited jointly. He died in 2003 after contracting Legionnaires disease. To quote Jon Glover in an obituary for The Guardian:

‘To some extent his achievement…paralleled the expansion and influence of Bloodaxe. His journeys were both inwards and outwards. His poems were intimately related to self-discovery as he placed himself in stranger and more demanding situations.’ (Jon Glover, 2003)

Tim Cumming celebrated his achievements even more stridently in another obituary:

‘As a poet, his voice was always historical, always contemporary, often restlessly on the move. “Why aren’t you famous?” I remember Jo Shapcott asking him. I don’t think Ken had an answer. It is a mystery: this encroaching invisibility of his in England, when he was celebrated internationally and acknowledged as the godfather to a generation of British poets.’ (Tim Cumming, 2004)

Smith was a poet who remained interested in psychological, geographical, historical and cultural borders throughout his life, fuelled by his extensive travels (to America, Eastern Europe, Cuba and many more places besides). He was working in Berlin when the wall came down and made a programme about it for the BBC. In a piece about Smith’s work (first published in a Hungarian volume and later reprinted), Cumming identifies a searching, questing intelligence: ‘No apologies, no regrets, but a great wonder at how we got here. That’s the basis of Ken Smith’s tone poetry.’

‘A wonder at how we got here’ – one which often finds its expression through reference to boundaries and their crossing. Divisions and borders have always been a preoccupation in my own poetry – I named my first collection Division Street after a road in my hometown Sheffield, but I chose the title to reflect the themes of the collection: borderlands, boundaries and political divisions, epitomised by Don McPhee’s photograph of miners and police at Orgreave in 1984 which features on the cover. I’ve always been drawn to Ken Smith’s treatment of borders, the way his poems so often circle around the place (to quote ‘Fox Running’) ‘between the image and the next / clear instance’ (1980: 7) or ‘between denial and the fact’ (1980: 10) or ‘between the image and the next / sure moment’ (1980: 11), or even ‘between the running and the running’ (1980: 10). The refrains in ‘Fox Running’ – the phrases in the poem that recur in different form – create the impression of a lap, a loop, a search without an end.

Smith’s work with prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs in the late 1980s which gave rise to his collections Terra and Wormwood offers an interesting angle from which to consider the preoccupation with borders and freedom that finds its expression in Fox’s haunted quest. He described himself as a ‘non-residential writer in residence’ there and outlined how he helped inmates ‘to escape, through words, into their memories and imaginations’ in an article for – of all places – She magazine, a copy of which can be found in his archive:

‘In prison it’s difficult to think… So my job is to help men in prison complete a thought, write it down, develop it further….That everything works against achieving this is only one factor in the work I find challenging and frustrating.’ (p.84)

He seems to imply that, though the body might be imprisoned, the mind can range free. Working at Wormwood Scrubs prompted Smith to reflect on the boundaries between fiction and fact as well and the ways we mythologise our own lives through storytelling.

There’s an interesting tension between Smith’s work with people who were imprisoned – rooted in one place – and his own writing methods and sources of inspiration. Ken Smith was a writer who kept extensive handwritten notes on train journeys, often observing all the destinations he passed en route and the things that he saw happening there. Going through some of the prose notes on loose paper in his archive, I was pleased to find references to the train station in my hometown of Chesterfield, in fact (including a plan for a short story where a man suffers the horror of getting off the train in Chesterfield by mistake and experiences a ‘long night of the soul’ on a bus journey to his destination). In his assorted prose notes, there are recurring themes: trains, travelling, drinking on trains, monotony, Sundays. In an interview with Brad Evans, Ken Smith said of the geography of his work:

‘I like hanging around places like railway stations, where you get the drama of departure and arrival, and all that sort of thing. I sometimes consciously go out looking for images and language, like the city’s a great, big supermarket and you can pick & mix as you like…’

I think this motif of the city as a ‘pick & mix’ supermarket is an appropriate one for some of Smith’s urban poems, the way he rebelled against the idea of being called a ‘nature poet’. ’Fox Running’ is a poem which frequently returns to the ideas of boundaries, freedom and imprisonment which characterise many of Ken Smith’s poems. ’Fox Running’ was first published in 1980 as a limited edition – self-published by Ken and a friend who had access to printing resources, in fact – before Bloodaxe reprinted it and before it later appeared as a different version in The Poet Reclining. Set in London, it confronts the difficulty of ever fully inhabiting a city and the constant movement in the poem often signifies a sense of dislocation and rootlessness, even when Fox is immersed in London, even when he is:

Running into the tube maps
into the bus routes into the rails
learning the districts
learning connections and running…

(1980: 2)

Tim Cumming describes it as ‘the great London poem, panoramic, microscopic, the only London poem that gets to grips with the modern, post-industrial chaos of the city and its scars’.

Though the movement of running might seem to signify freedom or escape, Fox is:

Running into his death
and his death always with him

Running into the razor
heart attack up his sleeve
shotgun pepper in his backside.

(1980: 3)

The materials in Ken Smith’s archive suggest ‘Fox Running’ started as an idea for a novel and there are lots of notes towards this plotted out on a series of typed pieces of paper, with other characters called Joe, Annie and Brandywine fleshed out too. There are prose notes entitled ‘Fox’s mates’ where Smith considers different narratives and relationships between a ‘fox’ character and others. The final note suggests the possibility of ‘fox loose in London’. Then there are short stories or novel extracts which include reference to a character called Fox who travels around, or seems to be leaving his family after a separation. Smith said that the poem itself started on about the 15th January 1980 when he dated something he called ‘Fox’s poems’. He was taking a computer course at the time and apparently the non-linear nature of programming influenced the way he approached the poem, as ideas came to him in a disparate order and he realised that he just had to ‘get them down’ on paper. As he puts it: ‘I wasn’t trying to tell the story of it, I was trying to arrange the ‘Imagistic’ events.’ (Slightly Soiled Literary Review (undated issue, ed. Tim Cumming and David Crystal), p. 13)

In an interview for Slightly Soiled Review  which was later republished, Smith described the narrative that informs the poem:

‘The idea is a man (like me) coming up to London, can’t get any work, can’t get anywhere to live, the whole bloody chabang, but he’s got this ghost-figure he keeps seeing, going the other way all the time. And this is his chance, because he finds him dead, and he looks like him, is him, so he swaps identities, swaps wallets.’ (Slightly Soiled Literary Review (undated issue, ed. Tim Cumming and David Crystal), p. 13)

Reflecting further on Fox’s story, he said:

‘The narrative story is the facts of this person’s life, which could be anybody’s, but when you meet a person, you don’t know the facts of their life. You deal with the person as they come onto you.’
(Slightly Soiled Literary Review (undated issue, ed. Tim Cumming and David Crystal), p. 13)

The loose, non-linear narrative of ‘Fox Running’ suggests that borders are being crossed linguistically, too. It is a permeable, fluid kind of poem, where past, present and future frequently overlap. In fact, near the beginning, the poem alludes to Muybridge’s experimental studies of motion. Ken Smith said of his writing process:

‘The poem feels like music. In writing it I had a sense of it being like a triptych with a fast section where he’s going on the tubes and the trains and surrounding slower ones.’ (p.13)

The description of the piece as ‘music’ is particularly interesting because there’s often a theme of language being futile or inadequate in some way to describe Fox’s journey. The narrator is always searching for a language to capture his experience and finding it wanting.

I often worry that the word ‘liminal’ is used too frequently with reference to poetry (perhaps because all literature occupies a liminal position, between imagination and world) but I think ‘Fox Running’ is a poem that might be considered ‘liminal’ in the original, anthropological sense of the term as it was conceived by Arnold van Gennep in his 1906 Rites de Passage and developed by Victor Turner in the 1960s. There’s a sense that Fox’s journey through London embodies a ritual of transition, and the ambiguity and disorientation that follows dissolves the established order, disrupting the conventional ‘Dick Whittington’ narrative of someone going to the city to ‘find themselves’ or make their fortune. The poem starts with the narrator crossing a border to exit society (becoming fox, somehow, and running loose) and ends with an exit from the body or from personal identity – Fox looking down on his own image, asking ‘who all belongs to this blood then?’

In The Forest of Symbols (1967), and particularly in his exploration of ‘betwixt and between’, Turner argued that liminality can form an alternative structure as well as a temporary state. This ‘alternative’ seems to be part of the escape that Smith’s Fox longs for, a place beyond identity and the self, not so much removed from his old life but running in parallel to it, moving in and out of the map, drifting between frequencies on the radio. Fox is a Wanderer. His strange, impossible journey through London seems to make him timeless, running clean out of the text to find us, wherever we are, whoever we might be (or think we are).

The great thing about ‘Fox…’ is that it is also a circular poem. As Smith noted, there’s something of music, of the fugue about it, the sense that we can enter the poem at any point and keep reading it, over and over in a loop. Writing my own poem in response to Smith’s work, I decided to begin with an image of a woman ‘circling the city’s rim’, continually in orbit. Sometimes, as a reader, I feel as if I’ll never leave ‘Fox Running’. But it’s a poem of Ken Smith’s I’d be happy to dwell in forever.

1 Glover, J. (2003) ‘Ken Smith’. The Guardian. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jul/03/guardianobituaries1
2 Cumming, T. (2004) ‘You Again: Last Poems and Other Words’. The Independent. Available:http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/you-again-last-poems-and-other-words-by-ken-smith-49960.html
3 See https://timcumming.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/over-the-border-a-portrait-of-ken-smith/
4 SHE magazine – September 1986 p. 84-5
5 Brad Evans interviews Ken Smith, August 2000,
6 See https://timcumming.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/over-the-border-a-portrait-of-ken-smith/


Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. She has published two collections with Chatto & Windus, Division Street (shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and Costa Prize) and No Map Could Show Them (a PBS recommendation). She is a Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and a judge for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

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