Cutty Sark has provided the inspiration for poetry across the globe. Today we look at ‘Cutty Sark’ by well-known New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman.

‘Cutty Sark’ is featured as one of the poems that make up Imperial Vistas Family Fictions by well-known New Zealand poet, Kendrick Smithyman (b.1922 – d. 1995). Written 1983-1984, the collection of poems was published posthumously in 2002.

This anecdotal collection is largely based on stories from the poet’s father, Bill, who was a sailor and waterside worker and also fought in the Boer War and the First World War. The poem ‘Cutty Sark’ is presumably based on one of Bill Smithyman’s sea-stories.  

It begins as an indirect narrative from a member of crew on board the ship Himalaya stuck in the doldrums and spies Cutty Sark in the distance, carrying canvas. In the final stanza the perspective shifts to that of the poet, drawing an analogy between Cutty Sark’s impressive performance and those of American soprano singer Sybil Sanderson and the famous English ballerina, Margot Fonteyn.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich

Cutty Sark

By Kendrick Smithyman

 

In company with Cutty Sark at sea

only once, on Himalaya off Brazil.

They sailed into the doldrums.

Day after day another sail came into sight,

would lose the wind, then idle.

Forty-two ships counted from the masthead.

 

Sent up with a glass at daybreak

to mark if anything stirred, reported

a clipper coming from the south carrying

canvas, the mate observing from the poop

later was first to say ‘That’s Cutty Sark.’

They watched her through the day.

At last she was hull down, northing,

had sailed right through the might as well

have been derelict fleet, forty-plus of them,

some getting on for four weeks there.

 

That’s what poetry may be about, the impossible

part of it which achieves insubstantial

fact, as little material as Sybil Sanderson’s

G in alt or Fonteyn’s unpredicted change

(‘if you didn’t see why I did it when I did

It then it didn’t work’) not to be described;

when seen, if seen, in kind a dumbshow

to strike dumbstruck any who looked out

hearing something beyond likely hearing,

seeing something not likely seen, gone

without leaving words for.