The "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 sensuous delight.

     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 "A Self-Review:"

     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:

White-throated swallows
Are swerving over the waters
Of Mitylene,
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.

     The biographer 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 old age.

     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:

         I 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 puritanism prevailed.

     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?

                                         The 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.