"I" in A.J.M. Smith
By Leon Edel
"No anecdotes please; no biography; only
criticism." Smith was inviting me to East Lansing to join others in a symposium
on his own poetry. The year was 1976. I hadn't seen him for some years.
His voice sounded as it had always sounded; as if he were shouting. That was
the way he read his poetry; and the way he lectured in a kind of toneless megaphone
style, designed I always suspected, to banish emotion. He sought to be the
impersonal poet. Je est un autre.
He had called me long
distance in Hawaii and I found his appeal irresistible. I had never been able to
resist him. He had been a kind of elder brother when I was in my teens and he was
turning into his twenties. I had to go to London that summer and I stopped over in
East Lansing. I was dutiful no anecdotes, no biography; but I did begin by
saying that it was impossible for a biographer like myself, and such an ancient friend, to
read Smith's poetry without reading the poet. The Je is the poet
however much (like Rimbaud) he denies it; he is also un autre. The
poet is never conjured up mysteriously his poetry is some kind of expression of
himself. I carefully avoided reminiscence and praised Smith's tri-partite career
poet, anthologist, critic. Smith listened to all the papers with a glum
look on his face. I dissected one of his poems and sought to show how much sexual
imagery resided in his description of a creek flowing over its damp stones and the moss
and dried bits of grass. The poet seemed depressed he who had been so
ebullient in his youth. I think praise embarrassed him. It had taken him years
to acquire a modicum of self-esteem. He valued poetry highly and spoke noble words
in its behalf. But he tended to retain that ironic pose of the 'twenties which said
"we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, should we?" For Smith, the
world was a sham. People usually uttered stupidities. The establishment was
stupidest of all. Life was a few rituals many of them damn fool
touched by a "sort of ecstasy" the occasional moment of the orgasm or of
I think that is a fair
summary of Smith, the poet hidden in his verses. But it only tells us one side of
him. The other side is the extraordinary lyricist, the craftsman, the ironist, the
word-fancier. Smith's regular denial of the self was at the heart of his work and
the lack of energy in it. He described himself very accurately in 1963 when he wrote
My poems are not
autobiographical, subjective, or personal in the obvious and perhaps superficial sense.
None of them is reverie, confession or direct expression. They are fiction,
drama, art; sometimes pastiche sometimes burlesque, and sometimes respectful parody;
pictures of possible attitudes explored in turn; butterflies, moths or beetles pinned
wriggling some of them, I hope on the page or screen for your, and my,
inspection. The 'I' of the poem, the protagonist of its tragedy or the clown of its
pantomime, is not me.
But he did not allow himself altogether this
simplification: he admitted that there was a "bossy intelligence" that
intervened; that part of the poet's creation was a struggle between the presiding ego (I
put it in my words not his) and what manages to escape "what a lot escapes it
or cajoles it, or fools it." Smith here is simply saying what poets and
novelists have told us again and again: that somewhere behind the grasped pen or the
fingers on the typewriter mysterious voices, unconscious stirrings, conspire in the
dialogue between the "I" and the crowded imagery that seems to rise
from nowhere with resulting ecstasies, caught moments of inspiration.
But a biographer notices
that Smith is able with precision of date and time to describe how certain images came to
him and acquired personal symbolic meaning. He remembers, he says,
as in a dream many times, always at evening or in
the early morning, the swallows skimming over the rapids by the old mill at
Laval-sur-le-Lac near Saint Eustache where we used to go for the summer when I was a
child. I remember 4 August 1914 there, and I remember helping to search for the body
of a young man drowned in the rapids. And so the swallows, associated with
loneliness and death by water, swerve into one or two of the more intimate of the poems
and become a source of simile and metaphor.
Smith is transferring the trauma of the drowned
youth into literature; he recalls Eliot's "death by water." There has thus
been a literary accretion in the inner process. In a poem written when he was twenty
it is in all but one of his collections called "Hellenica," he
distances himself from the original child's sense of horror by placing the St.
Eustache swallows into Greece:
Are swerving over the waters
But we shall see no more
The faint curves
Of Iope's sweet mouth
The starkness of death has been aestheticized in
this quasi-imagist poem of Smith's precocious youth; it has been washed clean and made
classical. The swerving of the swallows and the curving of the dead Iope's mouth are
touched now with tempered sexual nostaglia. So the mystery of image and the poet's
own memories testify to the private imagery; the poet even uses the same word, swerve,
in recalling loneliness and desolation upon which he superimposes his reading of The
Waste Land (when he was eighteen).
We know that we cannot
trace all the filaments of consciousness and that the unconscious is an abyss. Still
Smith's memories, and his use of them, enable the biographer to piece together the
functioning Je the life sources of poetic association, in this case
swallows and death. The Je is not an unmaterialized ghost and contributes
to the grasp of a totality Smith the poet, anthologist and critic and
sentient being poetry derived from total experience. But why did he then
become an anthologist? What kind of Je went in quest of the whole of Canadian
poetry as if being poet wasn't sufficient task for a lifetime? And what kind of poet
needed to be critic as well?
The Je was a
troubled Je and in childhood often a squelched Je, and a hundred
memories of our young years when Smith had just attained adulthood and I was still
sophomore come back to me as I write. I can sketch a few, allowing myself
anecdote and biography now that Smith is gone: the touch of cockney in Smith's mother's
voice and way of speech, when Smith invited me to take tea in the trim little suburban
house in Westmount: the mother openly aggressive about her son's desire to write poetry
"there's no money in it" "be quiet mother,"
"I think it good he's taken up science." "Please mother."
She talked to me as if I were a familiar in the house I had entered for the first
time, and as if I knew all about her continuing colloquy with her son.
We drank our tea
quickly, and ate the bread and butter and munched the cake, and Smith took me upstairs to
his room large, comfortable, looking down on the quiet street and the maples.
He had three or four drawers in his bureau the bottom one filled with what
looked like a ream of poems; the second drawer had many fewer; the top drawer had half a
dozen. "I promote my poems," Smith explained. "The ones at the
bottom don't count. Only a few make it to the top." In his middle age he
still maintained this system for in the end, as we know, he published one hundred
poems as his entire canon: he considered this enough for a lifetime.
intervenes then to inquire why such severity, why this souci de perfection?
I remember many lively little poems, happy improvisations, in the bottom drawer.
But those three drawers were like Smith's consciousness: vigorous controls
vigorous guards against leaking emotions, banishing of feeling from the voice and from
expression lest feeling should run away too much with him. The "repressed"
Smith could anthologize because he could sift, judge, weigh the poems of others and engage
in the impersonal of literary history. Smith the poet is in many ways the poet of
muted feeling: the bottom drawer and the middle drawer were under control of the
intelligence and only the intelligence could preside and judge and maintain the control.
There was something parsimonious about his work, a reflection of the early
parsimonies of his middle-class home. If one had to be chary of feeling, one was
chary of giving. And how much easier to simply polish a few diamonds rather than
shape a goodly number. But Smith did possess one kind of generosity the
generosity of friendship, the willingness to share his taste, his standards with other
poets, and it was a part of the fun of life to do so with wit and charm and subtle verbal
play. The way in which he befriended me when I was an ignorant sophomore at McGill,
the influence he exerted on an entire generation of poets and poetasters, the large
feeling he could allow himself to have for modern poetry and modern creation these
were all a part of his personality that was so dear to those of us who knew him into his
The "I" in
A.J.M. Smith was modest, unpretentious, somewhat restless (he had a roving eye, and I
recall the ease with which he picked up girls in London coffee shops). He was happy
to take life as it came. There wasn't too much drive or push. His marriage
modified what conflicts he had the memories of his insistent mother, his mild
father, his sister with whom he could not share his aesthetic feelings. At McGill,
by the time he graduated M.A. in his mid-twenties, he had written many of his best poems
later much revised and improved. They were almost half of his first book
which he didn't bring out till after he was forty News of the Phoenix in
1943. An exposure to British poetry at the end of the first war during a stay in
England had been his prime initiation: that and the atmosphere of Harold Monroe's Georgian
bookshop. In his verse he took as models first Yeats, the Imagists, T.S. Eliot; he
imitated Sitwell and Conrad Aiken; and he had a kinship with Wallace Stevens. He
became a high school teacher on graduation. I think he would have stayed in that
position writing his verses if I hadn't found out there was a fellowship available in
Edinburgh and McGill was looking for a candidate. Smith applied and got it
instantly. "I can't go without marrying Jeannie." he said. I went to
their wedding. He enjoyed his Edinburgh years steeped himself in modern music
and modern art, visited the little Canadian enclave in Paris myself, Buffy Glassco
and his friend Graeme Taylor and came back to the Montreal scene during the depression.
He taught in various places for a pittance but he was satisfying mainly his
Judaeo-Christian work ethic: his wife's parents had money and were I believe helpful.
And that was the way he finally settled into Michigan State College long before it
became a university and he its poet-in-residence. A tranquil life on the surface:
but tensions beneath the skin:
teach English in the Middle West; my voice is quite good.
My manners are charming; and the
mothers of some of
my female students
Are never tired of praising my two
slim volumes of verse.
"Lived has he? Suffered has he?"
Smith wrote in a jocular vein in a poem addressed to Ralph Gustafson, a fellow
poet-in-residence at Bishop's University. But Smith was wondering about himself: he
hadn't suffered as ghetto poets suffer, or "lived" in the Greenwich Village way:
I myself am a whimsical chap
A Betjeman manqué, if not a Donne
Who dwells in a suburban sort of hell
The word "hell" pulls us up short.
Somewhere within, behind those controls and the ironic laughter, we sense the drama
of the word and it presents a problem and a quest for future biographers. Smith
acknowledged he was lazy and had a temporizing soul. He had certainly not
experienced the struggles and stresses of poverty. A benign environment and the
muffled emotions of the Westmount home perhaps accounted in part for his limited creation.
There is an elliptical allusion to Westmount in his confessional poem "My Lost
Youth" where the "I" is unmistakeable:
I thought of my birthplace in Westmount and
what that involved
An ear quick to recoil from the faintest 'false note'.
The "false note" in the parental house
would have been any indiscretion of the emotions, any flying off the handle: gentility and
This kind of economy of
emotion presided over Smith's five separate books of verse. News of the Phoenix of
1943 contained thirty-nine poems. A Sort of Ecstasy (1954) printed
thirty-nine poems, fifteen out of Phoenix and twenty-one out of early and later
work. Twelve years later Smith issued his Collected Poems including the
seventy-five from the two previous books plus twenty-five more to make up his announced
canon of one hundred. In 1967 however, in the paperback version of the Collected
Poems he dropped one of the poems in his century and added twenty-two. This
volume was accordingly retitled Poems New and Collected. And finally in
1978, after Jeannie's death and feeling his own end near, Smith put together an ultimate
volume, The Classic Shade, in which he included sixty-two poems from his original
hundred and added about a dozen (some from New and Selected). The new ones
were "occasional" poems celebrating F.R. Scott's seventieth birthday or mocking
the mutual admiration of Layton and Dudek. One can see from this brief and cursory
bibliographical recital that Smith's canon is self-critical and repetitive. One
regrets that there does not exist a posthumous Collected Poems that would reflect
Smith's work and not simply Smith's judgment of his work. One regrets equally that
in his new and valuable bibliography of Smith published in Montreal last year, Michael E.
Darling did not give us a complete collation of the contents of Smith's volumes of verse,
his exclusions and inclusions from book to book, or noted for example that in Poems
New and Selected the contents were considerably re-arranged from the Collected version.
What is clear is that
Arthur Smith's top drawer poems had become a private pack of cards shuffled from book to
book; occasionally a few cards were subtracted and bright new ones added; the pack was
occasionally inflated by returning some of the old cards; and Smith always used the
Jokers. In each of the five books of verse he affixes the same epigraph. It
becomes a label, a trade-mark: "Every animal has his festive and ceremonious moments,
when he poses or plumes himself or thinks; sometimes he even sings and flies aloft in a
sort of ecstasy."
In adopting this
epigraph again and again, Smith's "I" defined itself. Not ecstasy, but
"a sort of" ecstasy (the title of his second collection of poems.) Not
life, we might say, but the ceremonies and plumings of life. One understands why a
critic (I think it was Earle Birney) described Smith's work as "lapidary."
And yet he didn't stick to his bejewelled or ritualistic stance: even when Smith is
at his most decorative he jibes at the irrationalities of the totalitarians and he is
capable of becoming a crusader when he talks of his anthologies and tries to define
Canadian poetry. In spite of the decorative and ornamental, Smith still was
didactic: he taught through his anthologies refinement of poetic taste; he spoke for
durability and classicism "the classic shade" which encased his own
jailed romanticism. He gave Canadian poets and readers significant touchstones; he
was always terribly polite when he listened to what he deemed inanities, but when it came
to asserting his views he was firm and unyielding. He had been one of the rare
Canadian poets published abroad in the Dial when he was in his early
twenties and New Verse where his name, I note in an old copy, is placed ahead of
Dylan Thomas and Louis Macneice on the cover. Sureness of form and taste, irony and
delicacy, and an unfailing wit Smith moved in and out of his ivory tower.
Perhaps a larger collection, which digs into the lower drawers, may reveal more
spontaneity, less artificiality, and other concealed facets of the poet.
For there were other
sides to Smith: his ability to mourn for the young dead in wars not of their own making;
his Chaplinesque mockery of State ceremonials or mediocrity or the "used" common
man "the unseen watcher standing there / By the sweating statue in Parliament
Square;" or the twin poems one dated 1946 about "the spears / That clank
but gently clank but clank again!" and the second dated 1954 which
picks up where he left off "But gently clank?
clank has grown
A flashing crack the crack of doom.
It mushrooms high above our salty plain,
And plants the sea with rabid fish.
These are his most energetic poems in which we
discern the stance of a poet laureate ready to write an "occasional" poem, and
the occasions call for muted indignation. We begin to see that probably some of his
faults could be strengths. And if he did not have abundance in him how much he
shines when set beside the uncontrolled flood of diluted Whitmanisms of Irving Layton.
If Smith espoused "nobility and formal rigor" (as M.L. Rosenthal says in
his introduction to The Classic Shade) he was able to show this nobility in
certain exquisite lyrics that reflect a love of pleasure and wit and a wholesome respect
and fear of death. Placed within his own time not viewed in
retrospect from a time of looser and more unbuttoned verse Smith's voice acquires
great strength and the power subsumed in his air of passivity.
Perhaps he intuited the
form of his own death. He wrote it out long ago in the way of a "Blues"
Speaking about death they said
Speaking about death
What is there to say?
What a waste of breath they said
What a waste of breath
There is nothing to say.
Smith's final struggle for breath is an anguish
to contemplate until we pick up his books again, and read his hundred poems.