An Interview with A.J.M. Smith

By Michael Heenan

The following interview with A.J.M. Smith was taped in Ottawa at the time of the Klein Symposium in the Spring of 1974.  A transcript of the interview was subsequently sent to Smith for correction and approval.   In accordance with Smith's wishes, it is the emended transcript that is here printed in full.

     In the letter to Michael Heenan (dated February 7, 1975) which encloses the emended transcript, Smith has the following to say about the interview by way of clarification:

The beginning is rather abrupt and unprepared-for, and perhaps an introductory note can fix this up.  There is a little confusion about the dates mentioned on pages 1 and 2.  My poor memory is mainly to blame I guess.  The Monroe and Henderson anthology I read was published in 1917 and the Hopkins poems in 1930.  So I didn't read that until the thirties.  A few dates will help you (and me) get things into perspective.  While I was still in high school my family moved to London, England, and I lived there from 1918 to 1920.  I "studied" for the Cambridge Local Examinations and failed everything except English and History, in both of which I did well.  Returning to Canada I was a junior at Westmount High in 1920, graduated in 1921, and went to McGill in the fall in 1921, graduating with a B.Sc. (Arts) in 1925.  In my junior or senior year I edited (and started) a weekly Literary Supplement to the McGill Daily.  Some of my first poems were published in that.  I continued as a graduate student in English and got my M.A. in 1926.  I taught in Montreal High School 1926-27.  In 1927 I got a fellowship in Education to Edinburgh University, got married and went over there for the two academic years 1927-1929.  I worked for my Ph.D. under H.J.C. Grierson.   Finished my thesis on the Metaphysical Poets of the Anglican Church in the 17th Century after returning to Canada and going to the U.S.  Got the degree in 1931.   When I came back to Montreal I taught for a year (1929-1930) in Baron Byng High School —  after the time of Klein and before Layton and Mordecai Richler.   In 1930 I went to teach English at a small college in Indiana, and since then (except for two months every summer and a couple of weeks most Christmases) was away from Montreal.  You might check through the interview to make sure all dates mentioned are in agreement with these.

Such are the "facts" of Smith's life as he saw them in 1975.  Seven years later, it is hoped that the following interview — and the special issue of Canadian Poetry which surrounds it — will fill in some of the areas left silent by Smith's spare account of a life that changed forever the shape of Canadian poetry and criticism.  (D. M. R.  Bentley)

Interviewer: Did you find that you had a sort of overweening interest in Pound as well as in Eliot and Yeats and that group of moderns?

Respondent: Well Pound, Eliot, Yeats, H.D., I tell you where I learnt all this was reading in the Westmount Public Library when I was a high school student at Westmount High in Monroe and Henderson's The New Poetry.

Interviewer: So this was 1920 at Westmount High that you were reading this poetry?

Respondent: Yes, and that's when I began to read modern poetry.  Before that I read Tennyson, and Shelley and Keats.   At school I used to read under my desk Poems of the Romantic Revival — Shelley and Keats and Byron — when we should have been doing geography or learning how much coffee was produced in Brazil and that sort of thing.

Interviewer: One of the things I noticed also was mentioned today in connection with Klein (and I wonder what the connection might be with you there) is that he had some notations of some of Hopkins' work.  Did you regard Hopkins very highly at that time?

Respondent: Yes; Hopkins as a matter of fact was featured in that Monroe and Henderson anthology.  They were the editors of Poetry Magazine, and I read Hopkins' poems there and then much later I bought his poems that were edited by Robert Bridges in 1930 (the second edition).

Interviewer: I think 1917 was the date of the anthology.

Respondent: Yes; but I probably got it about 1922.  I can't say that Hopkins had any influence on me.  His rhythms were much too intricate to be imitated or even to be very helpful.

Interviewer: How about Eliot?   Where would you place Eliot amongst the — I hate to speak of influences in a sense — but amongst those whom you were vitally concerned with?

Respondent: I always placed Eliot very highly, read him with great delight and pleasure — particularly the early poems.  As a matter of fact I have a poem called "My Lost Youth" which is really an Eliot early poem describing our life at McGill in those days.  You will find it in my collected poems.

Interviewer: When you mention your life at McGill in those days . . . I was wondering to what extent was the putting together of the magazine that was so vitally important as the McGill Fortnightly Review something that, well, "growed like Topsy" and to what extent was it something that started off in your eyes or for you people with a great bang, with a great initial burst of enthusiasm?

Respondent: Well, we had no idea that it was going to be either very permanent or very influential.  We were just having a lot of fun getting some of the kind of poetry that we liked written and published as a kind of reaction against the conventional, romantic, maple-leaf, Bliss Carman sort of poetry.  We were rather strong for Imagism because of its conciseness — and also for satire, as you can see particularly in Frank Scott's "Canadian Authors Meet." The Fortnightly Review wasn't exclusively by any means a literary magazine.  It was a kind of radical undergraduate political magazine.  By political, I mean simply college politics — the Scarlet Key Society and the emphasis on athletics and that kind of thing; we were attacking also the ROTC and things of that sort.  And trying to keep the McGill Daily on its toes.

Interviewer: I wanted to ask you a few of your opinions about the Preview and First Statement groups.   I don't think (from what Patrick Anderson tells me) that you could call them warring factions, but they grew up with a different sort of aesthetic.  But looking at this from your viewpoint, and now in retrospect, what would you say were the major bones of contention between them?

Respondent: Well, actually, I'm not really an authority here because I was out of the country during the time those two magazines were going and I had only come in in the summer and met the various groups.   But the general difference was that the First Statement group were poets of "social significance" and I had no use for that.  I wanted metaphysical poetry, intellectual poetry and, perhaps, "pure" poetry, and I think that poets like Patrick Anderson, P.K. Page and myself were poets of that sort in contrast to the First Statement people.  Souster and Dudek and the early Layton, their hearts were in the right place all right but it seemed to me that their poetry was flat and prosaic — journalism rather than poetry.

Interviewer: I wanted to ask you a couple of things about the poetry that is contemporary today.  First of all, who would you say, if there are any now, are the major influences on the young writers who seem to be flourishing and who are establishing reputations for themselves?

Respondent: Well, I would say William Carlos Williams is the great influence, and then of course poets like Gary Snyder and the American poets generally.  It is a very curious thing with all the anti-American/Canadian national furor going on at the present time that the young poets or the OK poets according to our younger critics are those who are influenced by Americans, whereas those who have European influences are regarded as anti-Canadian, effete and imperialistic I think is the word.

Interviewer: Well, now William Carlos Williams, I believe, was pretty profoundly influenced by Pound.  Do you see any sort of new direction that Williams' concept of poetry took working from him into the Black Mountain group of Olson and Creeley?  A number of our younger poets for some reason or other do, I think, consider themselves sort of grandchildren of Ezra Pound and I was wondering to what extent you might yourself agree with the notion that what they're doing today is a total bastardization of what Pound said Imagist poetry was.  Do you think that there is a degree of legitimacy to that sort of statement?

Respondent: Well, I suppose the Concrete poets are following the use that Pound makes of Chinese ideograms and things of that sort to illustrate and perhaps even to express his poems.  Certainly some of the people you mentioned are very strong and I think on the whole very good influences — Creeley, Gary Snyder and Olson, though Olson's metrics are so specialized that they can't be useful to very many people.

Interviewer: Well, the contemporary poetry scene in Canada: how do you see it as standing today in relation to what it was during what I guess were the two very, very vital periods — the twenties and the forties — and you might want to divide this up geographically or you might like to speak on whatever areas you are interested in.

Respondent: I don't know whether you can divide it geographically because the poetry explosion of the fifties and sixties, the sixties particularly, has been all across the country and it's partly a question of generation, but it seems to me that poets like Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan from the Maritimes and Dale Zieroth and Susan Musgrave from the West — and of course the finest of all our poets, Al Purdy, from I suppose you might say all over, are simply continuing the tradition of variety and excellence that began in the twenties with the Fortnightly group and continued on in the poets of Preview and, yes, First Statement and Northern Review.  A little later came James Reaney, Jay Macpherson, and Margaret Avison.  There were differences of age and background, of place and poetic philosophy, but the one, and perhaps the only, thing they had in common was excellence and relevance.  I should mention Patrick Anderson too.  I don't know if you can call him a Canadian poet now, but he was certainly an exciting catalytic force.   And this has continued, partly owing to the encouragement, I suppose, of the Canada Council; but now every year at least eight or nine new books of excellent and original poetry by new poets seem to keep coming out.  I don't know if I can account for it, but it is very exciting and I think there is a continuous growth, development, change; it's different and it's there and it's exciting and it's alive.

Interviewer: What would you say is the state of criticism in Canada today?

Respondent: I don't know if it's come of age yet but it's getting there.  Of course, Northrop Frye is not only a Canadian critic but a world-wide critic — though I couldn't follow his argument in the final section of the Literary History of Canada where he said that quality was not the criterion at all.  It seems to me that evaluation is the raison d'Ítre of criticism and that if you don't evaluate Canadian works but simply deal with them because they're Canadian you're going to destroy the value of Canadian literature and make it impossible for excellence to be distinguished from mediocrity.   But nevertheless I think that Frye is a great critic.  He's a critic who has made use of myth and of his vast learning and intuitive intelligence with respect to Milton and Blake and applied it to Canadian literature.  And then Eli Mandel has recently become a very effective critic; and we have some extremely intelligent and sensitive academic critics like Milton Wilson, Desmond Pacey, and Malcolm Ross.  I consider myself a critic — even when I write poetry, most of my poetry as a matter of fact is criticism in the sense that it is pastiche and parody and an attempt to explore the significance of various styles and techniques and points of view.  Poetry of that sort is perhaps the highest type of criticism.  So I am quite convinced that although our criticism hasn't yet kept up with the explosive intensity of our poetry and perhaps some of the new fiction in Canada it's on the way.