A.J.M. Smith: A Personal Memoir

By Frank Scott

(This address was given at the banquet in honour of the poet held at Michigan State University, May 8, 1976, following a symposium discussing his achievements as creative writer, anthologist, and literary critic).

Tonight we bring to a close our day of celebration of Arthur James Marshall Smith.  Tributes have been rendered to him by distinguished literary critics and writers, and aspects of his work have been analysed in the papers already delivered and in the discussions which followed.  Not being a literary critic, I am going to talk about Arthur as I have known him personally over a span of more than fifty years.  A long time — only Leon Edel and Jeannie Smith among those in this room can better it.  And although Arthur and I were separated by the distance between East Lansing and Montreal for most of that time, we nevertheless met at least once or twice a year when he would return for his Christmas holidays in Montreal or for his summers in our Eastern Townships.  His cottage is on Lake Memphramagog — no relation, incidentally, to Og and Gog, being Indian rather than Biblical — a long and cold lake running from Newport, Vermont and looking up to Mount Orford in Quebec; my cottage is on Lake Massawippi, fifteen miles away, a calmer and softer lake surrounded by low hills and gentle pastures.  I often think there is a tone, a note in his verse, "a difficult, lonely music," which is more his lake than mine.

     I owe Arthur Smith a tremendous debt, which I wish to acknowledge at once before I get lost in a variety of anecdotes and happy memories.  I met him at exactly the right time — for me.   I was three years his senior, I had already spent three years at Bishop's College in Quebec and three at Oxford, I had begun to write poetry, yet I was almost totally unaware of the new trends in poetry and important new writers that he was reading.  I had grown up in the small but closely knit English-speaking minority in Quebec City, where my father was an Anglican clergyman and also a poet; I had read history at Oxford; I had soaked myself in every form of European culture which, as a student, I could find and afford; I bought the Oxford editions of English poets in their collected volumes, bound in proper dark blue; I knew something of the Georgians from the little anthology called Poems of Today, whose second series came out as late as 1922; but I had not read a word of Frost or Williams or Pound or Eliot, or even heard of Poetry (Chicago).   Then came my meeting with Arthur on the editorial boards of The McGill Daily Literary Supplement and The McGill Fortnightly Review, in my second year as a law student — and a new poetic country opened before me.  It is for this that I am particularly grateful to him.  He showed me the wonders of a world I had been missing.

     The other day I went back to my diaries for the years 1925-1926 to see if my first meeting with Arthur was recorded.  It was.  On Tuesday, 20th October 1925, I made this entry:

Not much unusual till evening, when I dined with Coulborn, and met Latham and A.J.M. Smith.  Much interested in latter.  He has the poet in him.  They asked me to join the editorial board of the McGill Daily Literary Supplement, which invitation I was only too glad to accept.

The Literary Supplement was Arthur's first editorial venture at McGill; it appeared folded in Wednesday's edition of the McGill Daily, the student newspaper, and contained poems and literary pieces.   Students of Smith's work must go back to its pages to find his earliest verse.   But for a lucky accident, this Supplement would have been the only outlet for our newly formed group.  The accident was that a certain administrative official in charge of the Daily, bearing the Trollopian name Phineas Fletcher, decided that the Literary Supplement was too costly an addition to the student paper to be continued since it brought in no advertising, and therefore that it must be scrapped.   So our editorial board, duly constituted, was left stranded, without anything to edit.  Nothing produces a new magazine faster than that kind of situation.  So we founded a new magazine which we boldly called The McGill Fortnightly Review, somewhat to the concern of the University administration, and described it as "an independent journal of literature, the arts and student affairs." The editors were Coulborn, Latham, Smith and myself, with L. Edel as Managing Editor.   Our first issue was on November 21st, 1925, and the magazine folded two years later when all the editors graduated.

     I have another Diary entry not without interest in this story.  It is dated February 21st, 1927, and reads thus:

Feb. 21st. 1927: Spent the evening with A.J.M.   Room littered with literary magazines, half-finished MSS of poems, and books.   Coloured prints from the Dial on the wall.  A.J. himself in his checked jacket.  Discussed the projected Quarterly "Revision": scratched our heads for a milch cow.  Leo Edel opened the Golden Bough at random, placed his fingers on a line, and achieved "They tread on boards" as a title for a short story: I hailed it as the name of a poem, and A.J. at once dashed to his typewriter and produced some eight lines upon it.

He is like that — from inner image to typed word, without hesitation.  Revision comes by further typing and retyping.

He will go far, for he is genuine, and gifted.

The question is, what happened to those eight lines? The story illustrates one principle of poetic composition that I have often heard Arthur affirm, which is that a good poet is so master of his craft that he can write a poem on any given subject, if he puts his mind to it.

     Another incident at this time illustrates the difference between Smith's and my early poetic experience.  He tells us in his delightful paper called "Confessions of a Compulsive Anthologist" that while an undergraduate at McGill he came across the anthology The New Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson, where he first found Stevens, Pound, Eliot, H.D., Aiken and the middle Yeats.  He was then about twenty-two years old.  After I joined him on the Fortnightly board he told me to get this anthology, which I did, and my copy is marked "McGill Fortnightly, 1926."  I was then twenty-six years old, and encrusted with the Victorians, particularly Tennyson.  My favourite form of verse, the one that came most easily to me, was the regular sonnet with its carefully rhymed octave and sestet.  Of free verse I had not written a line.  It is not surprising that when I first showed Arthur a batch of poems for possible inclusion in the Fortnightly he said "Throw away that crap."  At least, that is what has stuck in my memory after fifty years, though it is not noted in my diary and he has disowned the remark.  This was as good as "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" for me! Remember Pound's

"Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase?"

I am not repudiating my poetic past, only saying that it was high time for The New Poetry to move in.  My ideas about society, about the capitalist system, about international relations and collective security, brought back from Oxford, were considerably left of the Canadian political centre; it was the poetry that was lagging, and Arthur supplied the new influences and motive force.

     As I remember, the poets he mentioned in The New Poetry that appealed to him, they were all but one American, albeit Pound and Eliot were expatriates in England.  Arthur was not an expatriate when he found these great pioneers of the modern movement.  Anyway a Canadian settling in the United States as he later did, is not expatriated to the degree experienced by American writers crossing the Atlantic.  Least of all Arthur, who over the years from the safe haven which Michigan State College provided, when our universities could find no place for him, developed into what I and others believe to be one of the most important influences that ever shaped the course of Canadian poetry and criticism.   He came at a critical time in my life, and in the life of the new poetic revival in Canada.  That his influence has been felt here too at Michigan State is also evident, not only in this symposium of today, and in the A.J.M. Smith poetry prize, but particularly in your special interest in Canadian-American relations which I hope will long remain a tribute to his presence among you.

     I do not wish to suggest that American poets were the only ones that stimulated the Fortnightly editors and the McGill poets.  For me they provided an excitement, a sense of new directions, an immediate perception of the real world around us, more than did any other contemporaries.  But the English influences never ceased.  D.H. Lawrence was increasingly felt, Yeats was entering his greatest period, Hopkins was virtually rediscovered, Edith Sitwell was a challenge, and of course in the 1930's came Auden, Spender and other contributors to the magazine New Verse in which Arthur also appeared.  It was from the English anthology New Signatures that Smith and I derived the title for our counterpart New Provinces, published in 1936.  Our tradition was, I think, more cosmopolitan than that of a later generation of Canadians who found their affinity with Williams, Olson, and the Black Mountain group, or in the entrancing contemplation of their own reflections.

     Was there ever such an anthologist as A.J.M. Smith?  Northrop Frye has said he brought Canadian poetry into focus with his Book of Canadian Poetry, now in its third edition.  This is no mean achievement for a man who, when I first met him, spoke disparagingly of all Canadian poetry then existing, with the possible exception of Bliss Carman — the man of whom Pound remarked that he was the only "American" poet who "would not be improved by drowning."  When Smith returned from Edinburgh in 1929 he told me that he had reduced all the important English language poets to five in number; unfortunately this story would be much improved if only I could remember who the five were.  Emily Dickinson was one; there was one of the English metaphysicals.   Even without names the tale is neither mythical nor pointless.  He always held to exacting standards of taste.  I once asked him what his Seven Centuries of English Verse was like, and he replied "It is what the Oxford Book of English Verse would have been like if it had been done well." He was so right one could only applaud.

     I worked with him on only two of his seven anthologies, and I would like to add something to what he has written about them.  I refer to New Provinces and The Blasted Pine.   Before I touch upon them, however, I want to point to what is perhaps the first example of Smith the anthologist, which the critics seem to have overlooked.  Though it contained only six poems, in their selection and in the title he gave it he shows all his later characteristics.  It will be found in Volume I of the McGill Fortnightly, and is entitled "A Child's Garden of Verses."  One of these poems for "children" was Blake's

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair
But desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.

This could serve as an epigraph for the early poems of Layton.  The other poets selected for his Garden were Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Ralph Hodgson, J.M. Synge and someone then unknown to me, William Rowley.  I remember complaining to Arthur that the Fortnightly should only publish original work: his answer was that the idea, the selection and the title to this anthology were original.  Right again! Here in miniature is the "compulsive anthologist."

     The making of New Provinces is a story all its own, and a long story.  Six years (1930-1936) elapsed between conception and publication.  Arthur has spoken about it in his "Confessions" paper; more is told in the introduction to the re-issue which was published by the University of Toronto Press and edited by Michael Gnarowski; the full account can only be found in my private papers for I acted as the go-between for Arthur (who was in Chicago first and then here in Lansing), for Pratt and Finch in Toronto, and for Kennedy and Klein who were at my elbow in Montreal.  Pratt, already a leader of the establishment and the Canadian Authors Association, was somewhat put out that we young and virtually unknown poets in Montreal should presume to question which of his poems deserved publication; it was this feeling which produced in a letter the great and still, perhaps, unanswered question: "Who is this man Smith?" I had to play the part of a Kissinger, the detentiste, when first Pratt and then Smith threatened to withdraw from the venture, Pratt ostensibly for copyright reasons and Smith for the justifiable reason that his first Preface had been rejected.  It took my most powerful ICBM's (Inter-City Ballistic Missives) to hold the alliance together.  And I had to exert a certain control over myself when the short Preface I wrote to replace Arthur's drew this succinct comment from him: "This vague, aimless jargon (cf. par. 3) is not going to do the book much good."  It was a rather strange little Preface, I must admit, reflecting mostly my personal feeling that the revolutionary forces let loose by the world economic depression were going to compel the poets to find new directions for their verse.  Just what that direction would be, I admitted, though I was obviously flirting with socialist realism, was not clear.  What became clear was that New Provinces only sold 82 copies in the first eleven months and 15 in the following year.  Of these I bought 10!  Two years later I bought the remainders back for 0.18 cents a piece.  The last of these I sold for $25.00.

     It was the publication of Arthur's first comprehensive Canadian anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry, in 1943, which immediately established him in the position of authority which he has ever since maintained among Canadian critics.  He gave shape to what had been before him an unmapped waste poetic land, and while avoiding the excessive praise which other anthologists had lavishly applied to their mostly mediocre contemporaries, gave everyone a proper recognition in their time and place.  I had no part in this work or in the subsequent revisions.  Nor was I involved in the preparation of the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, except in a very minor degree in helping Arthur to meet French Canadian poets with whom he wished to discuss their poetry.  He wanted to make this new anthology representative of the best poetry, in French as well as in English, written in Canada, and in this he admirably succeeded.  His first anthology had printed no French texts.  While of course every French inclusion was based on his own judgment, he took care to inform that judgment by consultations with other writers and critics.   I vividly remember one occasion when I had invited to meet him at my home Louis and Micheline Portugais; they knew all the younger French poets, and Louis was the editor of an avant-garde publishing house called Hexagone.  We sat and waited at 451 Clarke Avenue for a long time, but our guests did not arrive.  Then the telephone rang; it was Portugais.  He had been arrested for going through a stop sign, and was waiting in Police Station 26, trying to raise cash for bail of $100.  We could only scare up $34 between us.  So we decided to go down to the Station and talk to him while he waited for his friends to raise the funds.  The police were very friendly and allowed us to sit in a small room whose only peculiarity was that it had a lot of stolen bicycles hanging from the ceiling.  Under these we set to work.  Part of the OBCV anthology was born in these surroundings.

     My last memorable collaboration with Arthur was in the planting of The Blasted Pine, published in 1957.  I say planting, because while the original idea of an anthology of satire was mine it was Arthur who thought of the appropriate tree and stuck it firmly in the ground, where it has taken such root that last year, the nineteenth after publication, it sold 1700 copies — not bad for that kind of book in an English-speaking population in Canada of approximately sixteen million.  Arthur also thought of the sub-title, "Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse," three categories to which we held ourselves rather rigidly, excluding parodies or merely humourous lines.  The final editing took place in this very centre at Lansing.  It is time for a third edition, but the task of reading through the excessive mass of poetry now being published in Canada for new material appalled Arthur when I suggested it to him.  One omission which I think we would both willingly repair is that we have not included selections from Marshall McLuhan's Counterblast, which contains such delightful remarks as "Bless the U.S.A. for saving Canada from the fate of Australia."  We had hoped to be able to match this anthology of satirical poetry with one of satirical prose but the book proved stillborn, except that Arthur had found for it the perfect title, namely "The Ruddy Maple."

     To this rather rambling memoir of A.J.M. Smith as I have known him, I will add two anecdotes.  The first comes from the occasion when he was being presented with the Lorne Pierce medal of the Royal Society of Canada, in 1966.  The Royal Society is an ancient and honourable society of learned men, as in England; membership in it entitles one to use the initials F.R.S.C. for all time.  It is divided into five sections, and Section II, which includes all the humanities and social sciences, presents this medal annually for contributions to literature, named after Dr. Lorne Pierce who was an early friend of Canadian poets.  The president of Section II might be from any one of the disciplines that compose its membership; on this occasion he was an important civil servant in the Department of Finance, Ottawa.  He had to read out Arthur's citation, which had been written by me but had obviously not been studied by the president beforehand, for when he came to the name of Arthur's first published book News of the Phoenix, he told us its title was "News of the — News of — the the Fornix." Incidentally, one Canadian reviewer of that book said that an equivalent recognition to giving the Lorne Pierce medal to A.J.M. Smith would have been to have made Tim Buck Prime Minister of Canada — Tim Buck being then the leader of the Communist party!

     This story may just get by in an after dinner speech; the next I think belongs in Arthur's biography.  It was at the time of a meeting of The League of Canadian Poets.  I feel I may say of the League, of which I was a founder in Ralph Gustafson's garden in North Hatley, what was once said in defence of the old League of Nations: it may be only half a League, but at least it is "half a League onward." I was in a hotel room late one night with John Glassco and the literary editor of the Montreal Star, John Richmond.  We decided to call Arthur in East Lansing and to ask him what message he had for the League of Canadian Poets, of which incidentally he has never been a member, not being this kind of activist.  The answer came back firm and clear: "Tell them to think before they write."

     I had hoped to be able to close this talk with a poem to Arthur written for this happy occasion.  He did me the honour of composing a poem to me for my seventieth birthday party, full of wit, warmth and wisdom.  Alas I cannot respond in kind tonight.  But I can and shall read two poems of his which describe him, I think, better than I could do myself.  The first is called simply "To a Young Poet" — which surely he has been all his life.  Here it is:

To a Young Poet

Tread the metallic nave
Of this windless day with
A pace designed and grave:
Iphigenia in her myth

Creating for stony eyes
An elegant, fatal dance
Was signed with no device
More alien to romance

Than I would have you find
In the stern, autumnal face
Of Artemis, whose kind
Cruelty makes duty grace.

Whose votary alone
Seals the affrighted air
With the worth of a hard thing done
Perfectly, as though without care.

The hard thing done perfectly, as though without care, but only seeming so because of the immense care taken — that is an aesthetic principle exemplified in Arthur Smith's work.  The word "elegant" is one that fits.  Today that word has an objectionable sound, suggesting something at once affected and a bit dandified, but in a Smithian context it is restored to its true meaning of grace, propriety and refinement — something chosen with taste.

     The other poem I shall choose, a supremely good example of Smith at his best, is his Sonnet "The Archer":

Bend back thy bow, O Archer, till the string
Is level with thine ear, thy body taut,
Its nature art, thyself thy statue wrought
Of marble blood, thy weapon the poised wing
Of coiled and acquiline Fate.  Then, loosening, fling
The hissing arrow like a burning thought
Into the empty sky that smokes as the hot
Shaft plunges to the bullseye's quenching ring.

So for a moment, motionless, serene,
Fixed between time and time, I aim and wait;
Nothing remains for breath now but to waive
His prior claim and let the barb fly clean
Into the heart of what I know and hate — 
That central black, the ringed and targeted grave.

The quality of this sonnet is pure and hard.   Classic in style, yet avoiding the too-regular iambic line, it carries itself forward with the force of its inter-locked images.  The compact form is the clothing for the packed thought.  The Archer is not only, in the octave, the art of archery, he is his own statue, a perfect, Grecian image of controlled power, and yet more than that, the symbol of fate itself striking the predestined object.  In the sestet this is the poet's challenge to and mastery over death, destroyed by the performance of art.