Image by Jane Dove Juneau

Elizabeth Smither

b. 1941

In Smither's poems, the simplest details can be trapdoors to eternity - to 'take in life' can be a promise or a threat. - Hugh Roberts

from Parihaka - Twelve Little Poems

Elizabeth Smither

Listening to Handel with a cat

Elizabeth Smither

Sleeping on a waterbed

Elizabeth Smither

Barbara and the restaurant bill

Elizabeth Smither

Shopping with Beth

Elizabeth Smither

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About Elizabeth Smither

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.

Additional material and useful links

The Aotearoa & Waiata New Zealand Poetry Archive

This recording, bibliography and introductory essay are kindly provided by collaboration with the Aotearoa & Waiata New Zealand Poetry Archive, a pioneering resource of modern & contemporary...


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

Selected bibliography

The Blue Coat, Auckland University Press, 2013

The Year of Adverbs, Auckland University Press, 2007

A Question of Gravity, Arc Publications, 2004

Red Shoes, Godwit / Random House New Zealand, 2003

The Lark Quartet, Auckland University Press, 1999

A Cortege of Daughters, Cloud, 1993

The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected, Auckland...

A Pattern of Marching, Auckland University Press, 1989

Animaux, Modern House, 1988

Professor Musgrove's Canary, Auckland University Press,...

Shakespeare Virgins, Auckland University Press, 1983

Casanova's Ankle, Oxford University Press, 1983

The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni's Wife, Auckland...

The Sarah Train, Hawk Press, 1980

You're Very Seductive William Carlos Williams, John...

Here Come the Clouds, Alister Taylor, 1975

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