From: The Canadian Forum. April 1928, 600-601.
Wanted Canadian Criticism
by A.J.M. Smith
One looks in vain through Canadian books and journals for that critical enquiry into first principles which directs a new literature as tradition guides an old one. Hasty adulation mingles with unintelligent condemnation to make our book reviewing an amusing art: but of criticism as it might be useful there is nothing. That this should be so at a time when we are becoming increasingly Canada-conscious may seem strange, but the strangeness disappears when we examine the nature of the consciousness in question. This, judging from its most characteristic forms of expression, is a mixture of blind optimism and materialistc patriotism, a kind of my-mother-drunk-or-sober complex that operates most effieciently in the world of affairs and finds its ideal action summarised in the slogan Buy Made in Canada Goods. There is, perhaps, something to be said for this state of mind if cultivated within certain very definite limits, if it be regarded solely as a business proposition and with due regard for economic laws; but when duty and morality are brought in and the above mercantile maxim is held to apply to things of the mind and spirit: that is an altogether different matter.
The confusion is one between commerce and art, an error which a society such as ours has some difficulty in escaping. A small population engaged in subduing its environment and in exploiting the resources of a large new country may very easily develop an exaggerated opinion of the value of material things, and has some quite understandable doubts as to the necessity of artists. Indeed, most of our people are so actively engaged in tilling the soil or scrambling to the top of the tree in the industrial and commercial world that they have neither the time nor the inclination for reading poetry on the back porch unless it be inspiration stuff or He-man canadiana. The result is good for business, but bad for poetry, and if you happen to think that poetry is the more important, you are tempted to ask what is to be done about it.
To the serious Canadian writer this is a vital question, for to him the confusion between commerce and art presents itself in the light of a temptation to effect a compromise. If he chooses to work out his own salvation along lines which cannot be in keeping with the prevailing spirit of pep and optimism he finds himself without an audience, or at least without an audience that will support him. The one canadian magazine, it must be noted, for which such an artist would care to write is at present unable to pay contributors, while poor imitations of the Saturday Evening Post are ready to pay him handsomely if he will cease to be an artist and become a merchant. This is the temptation with which the devil has assailed the Canadian Authors Association, and the whole communion has succumbed in a body. There would be little harm in this if everyone knew the nature of the compromise that has been made, if, for instance, the Canadian Authors had the honesty to change the name of their society to the Journalists Branch of the Canadian Manufacturers Association and to quit kidding the public every Christmas that it (the public) has a moral obligation to buy poor canadian, rather than good foreign books.
So far, it is true, literature as an art has fought a losing battle with commerce, but the campaign as a whole has barely begun. Reinforcements are on the way. Young writers like Morley Callaghan and Raymond Knister have contributed realistic stories of canadian life to foreign radical journals. Mazo de la Roche, having won an important literary prize in the United States, has a firmly established reputation in her native land. E. J. Pratt and Edward Sapir are demonstrating that canadian themes are improved by modern treatment. All these examples are definite, if modest, successes, but reverses are encountered too. A good poet such as Wilson Macdonald is praised for the wrong things, and seems likely to succumb to the blandishments of an unfortunate popularity, the sort of popularity that appears to be at the command of any poet who hammers a vigorous rhythm out of an abundant assortment of french and indian place-names. If you write, apparently, of the far north and the wild west and the picturesque east, seasoning well with allusions to the canada goose, fir trees, maple leaves, snowshoes, northern lights, etc., the public grasp the fact that you are a canadian poet, whose works are to be bought from the same patriotic motive that prompts the purchaser of Eddys matches or a Massey-Harris farm implement, and read along with Ralph Connor and Eatons catalogue.
The picture, on the whole, is one of extreme confusion. There are little skirmishes, heroic single stands: but no concerted action. Without a body of critical opinion to hearten and direct them canadian writers are like a leaderless army. They find themselves in an atmophere of materialism that is only too ready to seduce them from their allegiance to art, and with an audience that only wishes to be flattered. It looks as though they will have to give up the attempt to create until they have formulated a critical system and secured its universal acceptance.
What are the tasks that await such a criticism?
First and foremost, as a sort of preliminary spadework, the canadian writer must put up a fight for freedom in the choice and treatment of his subject. Nowhere is puritanism more disastrously prohibitive than among us, and it seems, indeed, that desparate methods and dangerous remedies must be resorted to, that our condition will not improve until we have been thoroughly shocked by the appearance in our midst of a work of art that is at once successful and obscene. Of realism we are afraid apparently because there is an impression that it wishes to discredit the picture of our great Dominion as a country where all the women are chaste and the men too pure to touch them if they werent. Irony is not understood. Cynicism is felt to be disrespectful, unmanly. The idea that any subject whatever is susceptible of artistic treatment, and that praise or blame is to be conferred after a consideration, not of its moral, but of its aesthetic harmony is a proposition that will take years to knock into the heads of our people. But the work must be done. The critic-militant is required for this, not a very engaging fellow, perhaps, but a hard worker, a crusader, and useful withal.
It is the critic contemplative, however, the philosophical critic, who will have the really interesting work. It will be the object of such an enquirer to examine the fundamental position of the artist in a new community. He will have to answer questions that in older countries have obvious answers, or do not arise. He will follow the lead of french and english critics in seeking to define the relation of criticism and poetry to the psychological and mathematical sciences, and will be expected to have something of value to say as to the influence upon the canadian writer of his position in space and time. That this influence, which might even become mutual, be positive and definite seems desirable and obvious: that it should not be self-conscious seems to me desirable; but not to many people obvious. Canadian poetry, to take a typical example, is altogether too self-conscious of its environment, of its position in space, and scarcely conscious at all of its position in time. This is an evident defect, but is has been the occasion of almost no critical comment. Yet to be aware of our temporal setting as well as of our environment, and in no obvious and shallow way, is the nearest we can come to being traditional. To be unconsious or overconscious that is to be merely conventional, and it is in one of these two ways that our literature to-day fails as an adequate and artistic expression of our national life. The heart is willing, but the head is weak. Modernity and tradition alike demand that the contemporary artist who survives adolescence shall be an intellectual. Sensibility is no longer enough, intelligence is also required. Even in Canada.
From: A.J.M. Smith, Poems New and Collected (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1967).
Like an Old Proud King in a Parable
To a Young Poet
The Lonely Land
What the Emanation of Casey Jones Said to the Medium
The Wisdom of Old Jelly Roll