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.