Waiting For The Critical Phoenix


John Ferns A.J.M Smith. Twayne Publishers, 148 pp.


"They say the Phoenix is dying, some say dead/Dead without issue". The phoenix is a symbol and logo A.J.M. Smith has stuck to throughout his poetic career and indeed it might appear that his poetry, with its stringent concern for formal organization, stanzaic tightness, conceits and figures, its mythological, classical, metaphysical referential texture is without issue in Canadian poetry of the present.

     But of course the image of the phoenix would seem to suggest that other phoenixes will arise from the burnt-out ashes — the phoenix indeed may be Smith's sense of the continuing tradition of poetry.

     That rejection of Smith's dedication to classical concepts of poetry —  and remember, his favourite poet is Pope — is at the back of Lionel Kearns' dismissive 1968 review of the poetry. There is no doubt that Kearns sees basically what is in the poetry, though he summarizes it very pejoratively: he describes Smith's formal concerns as "the time-worn gimmicks of traditional rhyme and regular metre", and his themes as "a low-keyed concern with love, death, and creation, spattered with smug erudition and polite unenthusiastic Christianity". As Kearns admits, this criticism comes from a mind which is not on Smith's poetic wave-length and it is true that contemporary Canadian poetry does not find much to elaborate and extend from Smith's poetry. Yet paradoxically Smith's poetry with its linguistic and associative connotations may be just as game-playing (what Kearns dismisses as pastiche and clever exercise), just as obsessively dependent on punning and word-play as the self-creating language of b.p. nichol as it occurs particularly in Book IV of The Martyrology. Indeed, nichol raises the question of poetic personality, of poetic voice in that very book which is conspicuously clever in its language, yet is very much a print-necessary form, a strange veering away on nichol's part from voice and the oral tradition of recent Canadian poetry, the kind of poetry Kearns seems to be calling for in his review: "poems which are direct and'unpoetic' enough to be somehow symptomatic of human emotion". The colloquial flair, the direct approach to poetry certainly bears no relation to Smith's classicism, yet in the recent work of poets like nichol and Bowering (in Allophanes, for instance) there is as much erudite, academic, even esoteric reference as there is in Smith, as well as a loosening of the concern for a strongly oral approach. Indeed, nichol claims he is looking for "the voiceless voice" in his poetry — Smith's voice, even accepting the pastiche of metaphysical poetry that permeates some of the poems, is still his own voice, a voice that is not static but can range through imagistic nicety, epigrammatic neatness, echoes of other poets to firm referential stanzas. So it is well to remember Earle Birney's remarks on the nature of Smith's influence on Canadian poetry — he was discussing the McGill Fortnightly Review but Smith was probably the most energetically critical mind behind that publication. Birney said that in its short life the magazine influenced "by stimulus or reaction most of what poetry has succeeded it in the country".

     In spite of the apparant disinterest in Smith's work by most working poets in Canada, it still seems necessary that a proper study of his work be made. There have been some good articles on Smith's poetry by George Woodcock and Milton Wilson, as well as the earlier reviews of E.K. Brown and W.E. Collin. More recently, Michael Gnarowski has placed Smith in the context of the New Provinces poetry in his introduction to the reissue of that book in 1976, and M.L. Rosenthal contributed a tellingly stimulating, critical introduction to Smith's poetry as published in the most recent selection of his poems, The Classic Shade (1978).

      And now John Ferns has written a survey of Smith's career for the Twayne series of critical introductions to twentieth century writers. Unfortunately, the book adds little to our understanding of Smith but whether that is because of the very restrictive parameters of a Twayne book or because of Ferns' rather summarizing way, particularly in his discussion of the poems, it is difficult to say.

     The limitations imposed by the series need not necessarily inhibit some vitality in discussion, though most of the Twayne books are plodding, lacking in critical penetration or in revealing approaches to the work under discussion. Of course, even within a restrictive format, a certain freshness can be achieved. It happens occasionally with some Twayne books — one example is Thomas F. Merrill's book on Allen Ginsberg which may not be very acute about the poetry but is interesting in setting the whole literary and social context of the Beat movement.

     In the book under review, Ferns seems to have no firm approach to Smith. It details in brief Smith's biography, then splits his work under the three main headings of poet, critic and anthologist with a final short conclusion.

     Let it be said that as an introductory survey Ferns' book is a straightforward, but relatively simple account. Indeed, the book improves as it progresses — the best single chapter is the one on Smith's work as an anthologist. Ferns makes clear how Smith's tenacious critical acumen operates in his selection of material. He indicates the value of Smith's choices, for instance, in his first Book of Canadian Poetry, and raises some questions about some of Smith's omissions from that collection. Ferns has looked quite carefully at the other anthologies by Smith and discusses each one briefly with a few concluding paragraphs in summary about Smith's virtues and critical sense in assembling anthologies.

     Perhaps this straightforward method works best in discussing the work of an anthologist but Ferns adopts this method for the other two sides of Smith's personality. And it is not a method that leads to a new, or even refreshing approach to the works in question.

     Take, for instance, the chapter on Smith's criticism. Ferns applauds Smith's conviction that criticism should be evaluative, a reaction against Frye's tabulating, cross-indexing, and piling of references within generic patterns, but Ferns himself rarely indulges in evaluative criticism as such. Again Ferns gives fair, generalized summaries of Smith's views on poetry, particularly Canadian poetry, raising some brief objections to Smith's notion of "eclectic detachment". Yet, although he has mentioned the influence of Eliot on Smith's criticism and poetry, Ferns does not relate eclectic detachment to Eliot's notions about the use of, and borrowings from the past. This would seem to be a fruitful area for development, an insight into Smith's adaptation of the Eliot demands for the relation of tradition to the individual talent as Smith attempts to apply that to Canadian poetry, especially as, like Eliot, Smith tried to do some refurbishing of the Canadian tradition and some rescue operations on such poets as Carman, Roberts and Odell in particular. All of this seems to stem from the same kind of response that Eliot was using to English literature just a few years before Smith. The sense that Smith was probably trying to do for Canadian poetry what Eliot was doing for English literature in their respective criticisms is not really touched upon by Ferns. Eliot's notion of English poetry's wrong turn through Milton and the Victorian elevation of Browning and Tennyson is perhaps at the back of Smith's division of Canadian poetry into native and cosmopolitan. Obviously the context is different. But Eliot's rediscovery of the metaphysicals (and Smith also discovered these poets) and his insistence on their ability to fuse thought and feeling, form and content, is perhaps the equivalent of Smith's choice of cosmopolitanism, a fusion of many modes rather than a simple nationalist, maple-leaf mode. And just as Eliot had second thoughts about Milton, so too Smith redefined his position about the native and cosmopolitan sides in Canadian poetry.

     What is lacking in Ferns' summary of Smith as critic is firstly, the real urge behind the criticism to establish stringent standards for a Canadian literature that had somehow not developed its own concerns clearly in order to see what was viable as a tradition. Secondly, Ferns gives no real sense of the controversial excitement that attended much of Smith's criticism in the twenties through to the forties. Smith's 1928 piece, "Wanted-Canadian Criticism", evoked some bitter response in the columns of Canadian Forum. More obviously, the 1943 statement about native and cosmopolitan schools evoked John Sutherland's ire, eventually resulting in an answering anthology, Other Canadians. Little of this is mentioned by Ferns — Sutherland's objections sneak in briefly in a note, and Sutherland's anthology appears in the bibliography. The audience for this kind of critical hammering out of positions was very small, of course, but it was indulged in with fervour by poets and critics. Nothing in this Twayne book suggests that vigour. Even in the biographical chapter, Ferns makes very little of the intense effort that seems to have been required to get New Provinces into print. Gnarowski makes this very clear in his recent edition of that anthology. Gnarowski quotes sections from Smith's fervent letters of the time about his view of this new Canadian poetry. Whether the poetry itself was very new when it was eventually published is beside the point here. What is to the point is the appearance of the essential germs of Smith's criticism in his haggling correspondence about the poems in the anthology. One section of a letter to F.R. Scott includes much that will be later developed as part of his critical theories about Canadian poetry: of the language of this new poetry, he said it was "A mingling of the 'poetic' and the colloquial. Absence of fustian; overthrow of the 'poetic subject' and of 'poetic' language." The book needed to avoid nationalist overstatement by placing it in a large context according to Smith: "there is, of course a comparatively large body of contemporary writing of equal or superior merit." He pointed out that he found it significant "that there is nothing national about the contents of this book". But of all this, Ferns makes nothing.

     Much of Ferns' chapter on the poetry consists of a listing of the poems in Poems: New & Collected, with a sentence or two on each. Ferns chooses this book as it is the fullest collection of Smith's poetry. As Smith's note to the volume says: "This book contains all but one of the poems in Collected Poems (1962), now out of print, and twenty-two new pieces." While Ferns wants to deal fully with all of Smith's poetry, given the Twayne limitations, it probably meant that he could not develop any real critical perceptions about any of the poems. Most of them are discussed in a sentence or two, and even though he starts by seeming to want to mention every poem, he omits several from his discussion. What this chapter needs is some focus rather than this rather dull cataloguing with obvious summaries of theme and a generalization about each section of the volume.

     More revealing approaches might have concentrated on Smith's rewriting of his poetic career: from the hundred representative poems of the Collected in 1962 to the blossoming to a hundred and twenty-one in the 1968 edition, and then to the trimming to seventy-five in The Classic Shade. What poems appear and disappear from these volumes? And why? Is there any pattern about Smith's disapproval of some of his poems? For The Classic Shade he took out fifty-three of the poems from the volume Ferns uses as his prime text, even ridding himself of what Ferns considers as his typically best poem, "Epitaph". Even more surprisingly, of the four poems included in a Smith volume for the first time, The Classic Shade rescues an early poem, "Cavalcade". What are we to make of this refurbishing of a poetic career? There is a really fruitful area to open up here: a review of all Smith's volumes, his choices and rejections, the appearance of poems in journals and magazines from the beginning of his career, his occasional rewriting, and how all this illustrates what he considers to be the real strength of his poetry and whether, in a distinctive and evaluative approach to his work, a critic would agree with the poet's own opinions. This could then be placed in the context of his criticism, perhaps particularly in relation to his own "Self-Review" and even with his selection process in his anthologies. Such a concerted and over-all re-evaluation of the work of Smith would serve him best, and would certainly serve better than Ferns' book.

     It is probably unfair to belabour Ferns in this way, for there is no doubt he admires much of what Smith has done for Canadian literature. But this book misses a real concentration on Smith's qualities — his personality and his concern for literature do not come through with any great force, and that is the quality of the man that is continually stressed by those who knew him. A quotation from Leon Edel, whom Ferns quotes with obvious approval, will suffice as testimony to this: "Smith first taught me the meaning of literature, how words could be made expressive and shaped into a poem. He made me feel the modern idiom, the use of words as this year's language shorn of old accretions of meaning". We need a study of Smith which attempts to see Smith's whole oeuvre in these terms in relation to the development of Canadian poetry in the twentieth century, to its continuing tradition (whether Smith's idea of tradition or Frye's and the variations thereon) and to the larger context of all literatures in English. Ferns closes his book with a kind of placing of Smith in terms of tradition and his individual talent, but the volume lacks a really invigorating sense of the Smith that obviously penetrates the consciousness of such first-rate minds as M.L. Rosenthal (whose critical essay in The Classic Shade Ferns fails to mention) and Leon Edel. This book, however well-meaning it may be, is certainly not the book Smith deserves.

Peter Stevens