Displacement is at the heart of Ken Smith's poetry. Introducing three of his poems, the e-journal spacesofidentity.net observes that ‘Smith's verses come to us from a no-man's land that lies in-between placement and displacement. His fascination with languages and mobility makes him constantly wanting to be somewhere else.’ Bloodaxe, the publisher of Smith's last book before his premature death from legionnaires’ disease in 2003, the selection of new and earlier work called Shed, spelt out in a blurb that was probably written by the author himself the ambiguity of his title:
Shed houses poems from all the poetry books by Ken Smith published by Bloodaxe in the last twenty years. Shed as in the shedding of skins in these poems, the shedding of lives and identities: a journal of journeys East and West, a deliberation between the longing for home and the longing to keep going through the babble of languages in a world that is all of it borderland and all of it dangerous.
In an interview with Brad Evans in The Poetry Kit, Ken Smith recorded that he was born in 1938 in the Yorkshire village of Rudston, the son of an itinerant labourer who was ‘always moving around’, so that he attended junior school all over Yorkshire, before getting a scholarship to grammar school, and subsequently Leeds University, interrupted by two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force. He had worked, he explained, in a number of casual jobs, as ‘Teacher, bartender, potato picker, some work from time-to-time as a BBC reader, telephone salesman – I was lousy at that. All the jobs I got were crooked in one way or another.’
This itinerant identity explains Smith's identification with the image of the feral fox, loose in London, in one of his key volumes, although this was in fact a motif that had infiltrated his work from the start, expressed for example in the early poem ‘The Dream’, from work, distances / poems. Here, even the apparently rooted tree is full of restlessness, aware of its transience, haunted by elsewhere:
Where we are we belong,
here or another place
How the tree speaks, talks
of a fox passing through.