The Legacy of A. J. M. Smith

By Peter Stevens

At this point in the development of Canadian poetry and criticism the poetry of A.J.M. Smith is unfashionable and uninfluential.   The dominant chord now being struck and applauded critically, a chord gaining most attention from publishers these days, is the post-modernist delight in spontaneous serialism, a poetry that even in its self-conscious concern with the nature of poetry itself spawns a jargon as oppressive in its rigidity as the so-called lacklustre academicism it so roundly condemns, a poetry that allows for both colloquial vigour and digressive sprawl, a poetry that sometimes substitutes typographical meandering and convoluted wordplay for crafted form and serious imagery expressed in dense language.   In that poetic ambience Smith's insistence on craft, on constant revision, on reconstituting tradition and formalism even within the context of modernism can be dismissed as mere academic exercise.  But such dismissal ignores the value of Smith's career as poet and critic, for without his rigorous use of the examples of Yeats, Eliot, Pound, bringing them as living examples into Canadian poetry, together with his plea for high critical standards beyond the limited concerns of nationalism in poetry, the free and widespread acceptance of the differing kinds of contemporary poetry would not have been possible.

     Yet it may now be time to re-establish the tenets of criticism and the concern for craft that Smith represented, especially in the world of Canadian poetry that can consistently ignore, in the obsessive selfadvertising round of public appearance at home and abroad sponsored by much of our award-and grant-giving apparatus, such poetry as that written by Don Coles, for example.   And Coles is not the only poetry so consistently ignored.  Our current context for poetry can barely acknowledge the long-standing consistent poetry-making and editorial eclecticism of Robin Skelton, whose Collected Shorter Poems, a collection spanning some thirty years, has received such short critical shrift.  As Francis Sparshott has pointed out in a recent issue of Canadian Literature, Skelton's book is "a daunting monument," a "careful cultivation of his splendid, if rather unfashionable gifts," a volume full of "unfaltering eloquence."1

     Perhaps Skelton stands in the same relation to contemporary Canadian poetry as Smith did to the developments of the 'sixties when his meticulous concern for poetry tended to be dismissed as lifeless.   At that time certain ideas from American poetry became dogma for what has become a strange nationalism circling around the notion of discovering the true dimensions of the Canadian voice in poetry.  This development has ignored the fact that American poetry has also operated a colloquial voice in such widely divergent poets as Frost, Wilbur and Eberhart, as well as in the more recent poetry of Justice, Stafford, Dugan, Simpson and others (including a very much ignored poet, Henry Taylor) who have all used more closed and formal structures and language.  Indeed, this new ambience of Canadian poetry from the 'sixties on is being touted as the real Canadian tradition.  This revised image of Canadian poetry, as D.G. Jones tellingly summarizes,

reflects a fairly current literary bias, in favor of open forms, direct speech, direct perception of place, preferably local, and against traditional forms, obvious literary conventions, the deliberate use of classical and Christian myth, any suggestion of the poem as conscious design rather than spontaneous process.2

And it is in these contemporary terms that the history of Canadian poetry, a history that Smith with his firm but sympathetic criticism and anthologies did much to establish, is seen and found wanting.  Only certain poets measure up in this new tradition, and they are mostly those poets emerging into Canadian poetry from the 'sixties on.

     Obviously, in this context Smith's poetry suffers, and, according to Jones, it suffers on two general counts.   Jones suggests that Smith

had no special interest in Canadian nationalism . . . .  He was for a long time the only 'modern' poet in Canada, his conception of the poem being symbolist and metaphysical, poles away from the Canadian'documentary poem.'   Secondly, he was more interested in the relation between time and eternity than between history and space.3

In opposition to the current way of seeing the Canadian poetic tradition, Jones continues by listing the virtues of Smith's poetry: "the rigorous passion, the exuberant eroticism, the highly varied — semantic, formal, bawdy, delicate, and ultimately metaphysical — humour."4

     In any case, some contemporary critics surely misread Smith.  For them, the essential Canadian quality of his poetry resides in the imagistic poems like "The Lonely Land" and "Sea Cliff", those poems grouped together as the second section of the Collected Poems (1967). While I appreciate these poems as verbal equivalents of the Group of Seven's work, that critical cliche surely hides something else.  Just as criticism of the Group of Seven has stressed that besides being a representation of typically rugged Canadian scenery, their paintings in their formal elements, though transmuted to a North American style, arise from examples in European paintings.  In the same way, then, Smith's poems in this manner still have that craft and formal concision that come from the English literary background that was transmuted into the Canadian tradition.  Thus, if those same contemporary critics can accept these poems, there is really no reason why they should not see that his other poems are formed from the same kind of elements.  And, given Jones' insistence on the wide spread of humour in Smith's poems, it may also be possible that Smith is having a little fun here with the pretensions of imagism even as he works so well with imagism in the poems themselves.

     It seems to me that Smith was nearly always conscious of the artifice (and I intend no pejorative nuance here) of his own poetry, so that sometimes his poetry, in its self-conscious apprehension of the struggles and failures of the poetic process, is not so far removed from that theme of the constant analysis of poetry itself that is often at the heart of post-modernist and other contemporary Canadian poetry.  How often does Smith's poetry fix on the figure of the poet himself, not in any personal way but rather as general persona! Some of the poems in Section 3 of the Collected Poems focus on the poet — "One Sort of Poet" and "Three Phases of Punch" very specifically, and in many others as an image of the romantic poet, as in such poems as "Poor Innocent" and "A Dream of Narcissus" with their warnings against self-indulgence and over-emotionalism.

     In the same way, even "Like An Old Proud King in a Parable" with its generalized Canadian landscape of "northern stone" and "barren rock" can be seen as a poem which turns in on itself, working to its last line as a general simile of the bare narrative of the poem, but also forcing the reader back to the title, making of the poem a dizzy circle, a poem within a poem, the poet playing games with the reader, and also with himself as poet.   Such game-playing is part of the contemporary fashion in Canadian poetry, and it is part of Smith's poetic world, surfacing in all the pastiche and parody.  While most critics disapprove of Smith's Yeatsian borrowings in his ode on the death of the Irish poet, Smith stays ahead of the game by poking fun at his use of Yeatsian symbols in "The Adolescence of Leda" where Zeus is described as being merely a "rather sexy swan" and the classical allusion to the birth of Helen and the subsequent events, "All that portends, now and hereafter," buzzes into the poem as "Water midges" which are transformed, not to become the fleet sailing to Troy, but to figure as "U.S. destroyers at Villefranche."

     Smith's pastiches and translations are also part of his substantiation of a Canadian tradition in a larger context, for he places French-Canadian poems side by side with translations from Gautier, Prevert and Mallarme, and with pastiches of Sitwell, Yeats and Eliot, together with his poems about certain Canadian poets.  He of course did the same thing in his anthology of modern Canadian poetry for Oxford University Press by including both French and English poetry.  It is a wide-ranging nationalism that can slot all these differing poems with their own language and allusions together comfortably.

     While Smith's poems do not harp on Canadian details, a generalized theme which most commentators see as Canadian is implicit in his poetry, and that theme is the notion of opposites that exist as paradoxes within the Canadian temperament, even within the Canadian constitution itself.   The central opposition in Smith's poetry for me is the one between his demand for classical restraint against the constant inroads made upon it by romanticism.  It may also surface as the conflict between rationality and emotion.  Romantic images do occur in Smith's poetry, even though they may be railed against or mocked.  There is a kind of swaying ambivalence in the poems, an attraction and repulsion similar to the ambivalence he finds in the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott.  Smith returns often to the notion of "heart" in his poems; he keeps it caged like a bird but it is still a singing bird.  Or perhaps it is the phoenix, always ready to rise from its own ashes, its own cage.  Maybe the poetry itself becomes an expression of love, the song of a romantic bird, as he suggests in another poem: "The hieroglyph / Of ash / Concedes an anagram / Of love" ("A Soldier's Ghost").  Even this image is transformed, repeating the image of the poet as naked bridegroom who will sing the heart's "difficult lonely music" in "Like An Old Proud King in a Parable" as another bridegroom rises as if from a tomb into the deep valley (or hell) of romanticism with its sound of "frustrate lungs or deep involuntary sighs, / Or sinews shrieking, sounds / Squeezed out in spite / Of bitten lip or eyeballs magnified" ("The Bridegroom").  The description in this poem may in itself be Smith's bitter repetition of Lampman's City of the End of Things, so that the bridegroom / romantic poet can never return "To his innocent bride" (perhaps an image of refined classicism).  He must somehow retain "heart" or "love" by accepting that outer reality:

The only peace
That he shall know
Is love of these: but it will stop
Far short of hope.

So the visionary poetry may be trapped in the trammels of sordid existence, like the bird in the cage, but also like that bird, the poet must continue to sing in spite of the trap.  And surely that idea is at the back of his pastiche of Vaughan; it is certainly at the centre of "The Bird", perhaps the best expression of this conflict inherent within poetic vision as romanticism at odds with the formal control of classicism.  This, then, makes of Smith a much more romantic poet than is usually conceded.  Even though Smith's overblown romantic poet lifts "his voice in a great O" in "One Sort of Poet", much of the last two sections of Collected Poems with their meditations on death ring with references to cries, shouts, speech against mortality.  The poems often mention singing and voices, and yet again that image of the bridegroom and the connected image of marriage (some sub-text of connection between heart and mind, classicism and romanticism) surfaces in a poem that equates it with death ("Prothalamium").

     It is in this context, as well as the context of consummate craft with hints of good-natured mockery of formalism that these last sections move to what for me is Smith's finest poem, "The Wisdom of Old Jelly Roll."  Even the title hints at that opposition of classicism / romanticism and the finding of love and wisdom in real existence, the ambivalence of heart / mind in the notion of wisdom residing in the life and music (singing?) of a jazz musician.  Smith sets up the sonnet with opening lines rooted in what at first seems merely a crabbed syntactical confusion.  However, I feel this holding up of the main verb till the second line is quite deliberate, not only for the sake of the rhyme but also to set an oppositional frame for the poem — the inversion of the first line is finally changed to the direct 'thingness' of the catalogue of the grounds of Jelly Roll's wisdom in the last line, and those things are in themselves seeming opposites, perhaps examples of the senses (romanticism) and exact spiritual knowledge (classicism): "whisky, ragtime, chicken, and the scriptures."  So the process of the poem moves from abstract, convolute statement to direct indication, even though that last line also echoes briefly the inversion of the first sentence of the sonnet.  That process between the beginning and the end of the poem sets up various other 'lists' which, I suppose, will echo subconsciously in the mind of the reader as he reads the 'list' in the last line: "Parson, poetaster, pimp" (and, incidentally, Jelly Roll himself was ironically a little of each of these), "prettify / Dress up, deodorize, embellish, primp" and "touches, tastes, and smells."  At the centre of the poem is the essential paradox: " 'Nothing' depends on 'Thing' " which is encased in two specific images: "the diamond holes that make a net" and "Silence resettled testifies to bells."  And that paradox is the wisdom of old Jelly Roll: "Cry at the birth, / Rejoice at the death."

     Within this poem there is a marvellous use of paradox and contrast — in the grammatical structure moving from the convoluted opening lines to the simple declarative sentences invested in other lines, and in the language moving from Latinized vocabulary to simple words and slang.   It uses the sonnet form strictly, yet it includes a particularly 'modern' split with "met / aphysics," even isolating the acceptance of death away from the notion of birth in its closing couplet.

     This concern with a paradoxical statement as argument for the poem, with consummate choice of language, with serious humour and metaphysical wit, all contained within a rigorous concern for structure is the legacy Smith's poetry has left, together with his demands for severe critical standards.  Of course, not all his critical vocabulary has remained valid, as he himself recognized by the way he qualified it through his career: his native and cosmopolitan split now seems too generally schematic, his eclectic detachment makes of poetry too distanced an art for contemporary tastes (though I have tried to suggest here that his poetry is less detached than most critics grant).  To read Smith's collected poetry right through may also lead to seeing it as too level, too sure-footed, too much all of one piece.  Perhaps that equation I made earlier of Robin Skelton's poetry and its position in the contemporary Canadian scene also elucidates Smith's position in our current poetic concerns further.  Sparshott, in his review of Skelton's work, suggests a reaction to it which could be very similar to a reaction to Smith's poetry:

Perhaps the excess of competence creates an illusion of facility . . . .  Perhaps we feel, ungratefully, that in poetry as in prayer one should somehow betray one's weakness.  Is it possible that poetry, at least here and now, is something one can be too good at?  If so, it seems rather unfair.5

     And perhaps it does seem unfair that Smith's reputation as poet and critic has fallen into shadow, for he has still a lot to offer us, a critic and poet who, in his own words, had his "Eye open to daylight, foot on the firm earth."


  1. Canadian Literature, 92 (Spring, 1982), 137.[back]

  2. "Canadian Poetic Traditions," Queen's Quarterly, 87 (Summer, 1980), 273.[back]

  3. Ibid., p. 274.[back]

  4. Ibid., p. 274.[back]

  5. Op. cit., p. 137.[back]