Masks of Criticism: A.J.M. Smith as Anthologist

by Eli Mandel

    Somewhere A.J.M. Smith speaks of the “value of calm analysis and objective appraisal” but since his own gift is for impassioned and intense speech and writing, I have often wondered whether that phrase concealed some sort of reservation, some coolness toward his subject at the time. I would not want the tone appropriate to scholarship or objective appraisal to indicate reservations in my own attitude to his work. After all, the debt of any contemporary Canadian writer, whether as critic or poet, to his pioneering work in the establishment of an atmosphere receptive to modernism is an objective element in the situation and properly should be reflected in any account of contemporary developments. But there are difliculties besides those of tone. There is the subject of this paper for example: Professor Smith’s literary criticism, or at least that form of it which finds expression in anthologies of poetry and prose.

    When I accepted the invitation to contribute to this symposium, it seemed to me that to write of Professor Smith as an anthologist not only be a relatively straightforward and pleasurable task but a useful one as well. His major collections are well known, their importance in clarifying the problems of defining a Canadian literary tradition sufficiently evident to warrant further discussion, and, particularly in the light of contemporary re-evaluation of the modern tradition, their defense of modernism worth looking at once again. But then curious questions come crowding in. How many of his dozen or so anthologies properly belong in the discussion, and if all of them, then how would so diverse and energetic a collection be brought into a reasonable and coherent pattern? Is there an historical question to be an swered, something about the history of anthologies before and after Smith? Or is that a question of another and much more mysterious kind? In a short introduction to Masks of Fiction, his collection of essays by “Canadian Critics on Canadian Prose,” Professor Smith wonders whether “the problem of Canadian literature for the historian [may] be the discovery [or perhaps even the invention] of a usable past,”1 a speculation that raises the daunting, not to say nightmarish possibility of finding oneself involved in a world of literary inversions like those Harold Bloom recently proposed lie behind all re-writing of the past. Who is the maker of anthologies and why? Is every writer his own secret anthologist? And after all, what is an anthology? A collection of poems or essays or stories? One long poem, itself, as James Crane wood have it? A critical rather than an historical comment?

    Trying to sort out the serious from the trivial in that list, I think two kinds of questions remain to be separated from each other; one having to do with the very odd business of collecting poems or stories into books; the other with a distorting element introduced into the matter of collection by adding the word “Canadian” to the title, a matter to which Smith returns more than once. A kind of duality, a doubleness, perhaps even a duplicity enters the discussion. On the one hand, poetry; on the other, Canadian poetry: “Critics arose”, Smith writes in 1939,

Critics arose, mostly college professors or journalists, who made it their main business to look for, and find, some special quality, tone of or thing in the verses written in Canada which was uniquely expressive of the Canadian soil or of the Canadian landscape or of Canadian human nature. The worst of these critics wrote the fattest books, and since the field was a new one and everyone was glad to be praised, their work was accepted as a just and sensible evaluation of the highways and headwaters of Canadian literature. . . . [But] An objective and uncompromising study of Canadian poetry as poetry remains to be written.2

This is bracing, stringent. And strangely enough, thirty-five years later it is an argument still in use, though the tone now is quite different from Smith’s. This tension between “Canadian” and what Professor Smith later calls “cosmopolitanism” in poetry is something I want to look at in some detail in this paper for from it the major questions about a Canadian literary tradition and its connection with modernism flow. But before that, before the Canadian anthologist, we find the anthologist, the collector, the critic, the historian, and we confront another (apparent) dualism.

    “When he looks back”, says George Steiner, “the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostsoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazova, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow?”3 Aside from whatever Steiner means by “A free gust of life,” the passage raises a curious distinction that has haunted criticism at least since the romantic era, if not before: between the critical and the creative, between the secondary or derived and the primary or original. “The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other men’s genius.”4 But it is surely a peculiar procedure that excludes from creativity that which is about or of something else. Or to put it the other way, it is not difficult to think of examples of criticism as invention, as fiction, so to speak, as about its own powers: Blake’s extravagant fancies, say, or Oscar Wilde’s outrageously convincing arguments in The Decay of Lying or The Critic as Artist; inventiveness, re-writing, speculation, like Coleridge on Shakespeare finding new lines for old masters. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if the critic-artist distinction is simply a disguised version of the form-energy tension within poetry itself, a means of talking about two opposing tendencies within art; those variously described as imitation and design, or the mimetic and the idealizing, the symbolic and the realistic, and so on. Obviously, since there are critical activities that have to do with what we normally call scholarship, this may sound like a dreary quibble of some sort. But if the urge to anthologize, to collect, to re-order, to invent a usable past, is to be thought of as any thing more than a convenient power to be harnessed for producing freshmen college texts, it becomes important to understand the possibility of reconciling the critical and creative acts.

    This is not simply a matter of recalling the long tradition of critical writing by poets, or remembering and reciting the honoured names: Sidney, Dryden, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Blake, Arnold, Wilde, Yeats, Pound and Eliot, Olson and Creeley. It is rather to remind oneself of the process Eliot wrote about in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the means by which the writer re-makes the whole of literature in and by way of his own writing. Perhaps that is a Harold Bloomsday vision, with ancestral implications, but whether psychological or not, it is evident in most critical efforts by poem I once remarked that Karl Shapiro introduces Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer with the comment that “Poets are always celebrating the burning of libraries.”5 Elias Canetti’s “Auto de Fe” suggests a reason: like something in a story by gorges, books begin to take over, the library becomes the world, writes itself into existence. Literature itself de-realizes the world, presents us with the fictional nature of reality. One obvious line of defense against books is to burn them, a solution proposed in Don Quixote as a means of restoring the hero to sanity. In the name of his art itself, the writer becomes an enemy of books but, paradoxically, his defense must be the building of another library in the place of the one he has just burned down. In Ezra Pound’s Literary Essays, for example, the audacious section entitled “The Tradition” replaces one set of literary sources with another, one that not only defines Pound’s sources but redefines the past to justify his methods. Karl Shapiro invokes his own version of magical redefinition in citing a past defined by Miller’s work: Not, he says, “Milton, Marlowe, Pope, and Donne”, but “Dostoevsky, Kurt Hamson, Strindberg, Nietzsche . . . Faure, Spengler . . . Rimbaud, Rarnakrishna, Blavatsky, Huysmans, Count Keyser ling, Prince Kropotkin, Lao-Tse, Nostradamus, Petronius, Rabelais.” And there’s more to come: “Carroll, Chesterton, Conrad, Cooper, Emerson, Rider Haggard, Henty — Joyce, Machen, Menken, Cowper Powys, Spencer, Thoreau, Whitman, Goldman, and Twain.”6

     Ludicrous, perhaps. Grotesque, almost certainly. But exuberant as well, alive with an imprudent reckless energy that tempts us to poetry, naming the world to which the poet belongs. For a variety of reasons, not altogether clear, among Canadians the role of the poet as critic has been largely ignored; perhaps because of the extraordinarily sustained and vituperative attack on academic criticism in Irving Layton’s polemics, a form of what Northrop Frye calls Tarzanism, or the view that the aboriginal is to be preferred over the original or the return to literary origins; perhaps because of Professor Frye’s own commanding and overpowering presence and his own frequent dismissal of poet-critics on their own work; or perhaps because Canadian criticism itself came late to the sort of theoretical power and assurance represented by Frye’s work and which, as Professor Smith argues, may very well be necessary in order that a genuine sense of tradition assert itself. His words, written in 1928, about the role of what he calls “the philosophic critic” are worth recalling. They constitute a relatively long comment but it is worth quoting not only for its prophetic power but for setting out, more precisely I think than in Smith’s own remarks on Canadian anthologies, the underlying relationship of poetry and theory, tradition and innovation, the exceptional and paradoxical forces demanding the creation of a usable past; especially in Canada.

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 it 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 shallow and obvious way, is the nearest we can come to being traditional. To be unconscious or overconscious — that is to be merely conventional, and it is in one these two ways that our literature today 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.7

He could have been describing Northrop Frye — or himself. “Modernity and tradition alike demand. . . .” There is the rationale, in its public formulation at least, for a new kind of anthology, for an auto de fe and the building of a new library, for composing the tradition of the modernist writing in Canada. Smith’s instinct to ground the modern in tradition, that is to bring it into a body of literature which is its true form, was absolutely certain and right, however finally the tradition itself and his modernism may be assessed. Moreover, it is his awareness of the distinction between the merely conventional and the traditional that distinguishes his work as an anthologist, though in saying this I recognize the bias of my argument toward the importance of his historical and critical versions of Canadian poetry. Of his other kinds of anthology, I have little to say now, except by implication. It is the poetics critic and historian we are observing here and too the process bar which the one interacts with and necessarily becomes the other.

    The Book of Canadians Poetry in its first version of 1943 remains, quite probably along with Rlph Gustafson’s anthologies, a landmark collection, a sort of watershed; on the one side of it, stretching back to E.H. Dewart’s pioneering Elections from Canadian Poets in 1864, the introduction to which Smith returns often, on that side we find an unweeded garden of “songs,” “withy,” “treasures,” “flowers,” titles presumably influenced by the etymology of anthology and by genteel taste, and on the other side, from 1943 to the present a sort of mad numerology of proliferating collections reminding us of regional diversity, ethnic differentiation, urbanization as a social reality, class structure, changing taste and preference, Maoism, Sexism, and Saskatoon. The titles are instructive, the differences revealing of the pivotal mo ment when Smith put together his own version of a modern tradition in Canada, when for one moment at least the centre seemed to hold. Among the early versions we find Songs of the Great Dominion, Canadian Singers and Their Songs, The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse, A Wreath of Canadian Songs, Flowers from Canadian Garden, A Century of Canadian Sonnets Containing Biographical Sketches and Numerous Selections from Deceased Canadian Poets and (my own favourite), The Canadian Birthday Book with Poetical Selections for Every Day in the Year from Canadian Writers, English and French. The contemporary taste is very different; instead of flowers and wreaths and songs — statistics, numbers, the quantitative anthology: 15 Canadian Poets, 11 Canadian Novelists, 5 Modern Canadian Poets, Eight More Canadian Poets, Sixty Poets of Canada (and Quebec), Forty Women Poets, Fifteen Winds, Four Perspectives, Ninety Seasons, One Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec, A Second Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec, 39 Below, Fourteen Stories High, A Hundred Nineteenth Century Poems and Seven Centuries of Verse. It is with a sense of relief that one discovers a work recalling an older, less hectic time: Three Early Poems from Lower Canada; or such directness as The Book of Canadian Prose: Early Beginnings to Confederation; or such oddities as Skookum Wawa and Poets of Greater Edmonton.

    Of course, it is precisely this proliferation of the anthology form and its diversity that suggest difficulties in Smith’s own version of a Canadian literary tradition, at least in its earliest formulation. Historically, it is now possible to see the anthology form in Canada as a weapon in a war of taste and ideology, not simply a retrospective survey. It has been an aggressive form as works like New Provinces or New Wave: Canada or Storm Warning suggest in their very titles. But it is probably a measure of the majority of collections that they have yet to focus in as clear and precise a fashion as Smith’s own major anthologies from 1943 to 1967 the important and central questions of Canadian literary criticism.

    These are questions, no doubt, of a peculiar kind, broadly speaking environmental and sociological rather than purely literary, or questions in which the literary tends to be seen as a metaphor of environment or the other way around. Northrop Frye, for example, remarks in a justly praised conclusion to The Literary History of Canada that in the Canadian context, “The conception of what is literary has to be greatly broadened,” adding, “The literary, in Canada, is often only an incidental quality of writings which, like those of many of the early explorers, are as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon.”8 Or, to take another example, Miriam Waddington, writing on “Literary Studies in English” in a recent survey, places the questions of literary criticism here in their widest context when she remarks that Canadian literary criticism has concerned itself largely with interpretations of the shaping forces of geography, bi-culturalism and colonialism in Canadian life and writing.9 A central parody of this position remains Paul Heibert’s Sarah Binks, a pseudo-study of a prairie poetess specially created for the occasion. Who can forget his marvellous dead-pan remark about Sarah, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan? “This simple country girl,” he tells us, “caught in her web of poesy something of the flatness of that great land.”10

In the three versions of The Book of Canadian Poetry from 1943 to 1957 and in The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, Smith’s concern to clarify the nature of the modern spirit in poetry led him to distinguish between a native Canadian tradition and a modern cosmopolitan concern and increasingly to praise those poets who made a heroic effort to transcend colonialism “by entering into the universal civilizing culture of ideas.”11 In practice, as the in troduction to the Oxford Book especially makes clear, this meant the gradual clarification of modernism and its rationale as the point at which writing free itself finally from nationalist restrictions. The modern is increasingly identified with “a variety of subtle rhetorics” in the work especially of certain poets of the early years of the twentieth century, and develops in what is called “a progressive and orderly revolution” under the influence of imagism, the symbolists, and modern metaphysicals until by the fifties “The themes that engage these writers are not local or even national; they are cosmopolitan and, indeed, universal.”12 The development receives what looks very much like historical sanction because it parallels stages Smith locates in the history of Canada: the colonial, the national, the cosmopolitan.

    It is around this version of Canadian writing that the main concerns of Canadian criticism took shape, opposing positions polarized, and contemporary theory developed. Two questions, especially, became crucial here, one about the nature of the tradition or traditions which Smith’s anthologies seek to establish; the other concerning evaluations of his view of modernism and the modern movement. About both, considerable controversy developed, provoking some of the most remarkable critical writing we possess: angry splutters from the poet Irving Layton, bemused imaginings from an other poet, James Reaney; Marxist revisionism from John Sutherland, and extraordinary and brilliant schematizing by Northrop Frye.13 It is not my purpose, nor is this the place, to go over all that ground again, but some points on the map are worth locating, since they clarify implications in Smith’s own argument.

    Much of the controversy turns on Smith’s version of “cosmopolitanism” and his distinction between the modern and colonial phases of Canadian writing. The colonial-cosmopolitan tension, as Smith observes more than once, appears as an objective condition inherent in Canadian society and history as well as in its literature and criticism: “At the beginning of Canadian literary criticism, the issue is clearly stated. The value of independence is asserted and the dangers of an imitative colonialism boldly faced.”14 But the terms of the argument remain baffingly ambiguous. For some, “cosmopolitan” appeared simply a disguised version of colonialism; for others it quite possibly concealed the genuine potentialities of Canadian writing; for still others (and this becomes the starting point of contemporary thematic critism), it overlay a national tradition established by a unity of tone or impression in imagery coming from the material itself rather than from the limited sympathies of the anthologist. John Sutherland’s introduction to his Other Canadians is an example of the first; Milton Wilson’s “Other Canadians and After”, the second; and Northrop Frye’s review of the 1943 edition of Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry, like James Reaney’s “The Canadian Poet’s Predicament”, the third.

    In an introduction still capable of surprising contemporary readers, Sutherland simply inverts Smithts argument. Smith’s native tradition consists of British colonials sentimentalizing nature; his cosmopolitan tradition consists of British intellectuals avoiding the real life of Canada. He calls for recognition of a genuine Canadian writing, proletarian in sympathy, American in its sources and feeling. The true Canadian tradition will be Marxist and American, the voice of the Brooklyn-Bum inside every Canadian trying to get out and express himself in real North American language, the tough, colloquial, realistic proletarian language of Brooklyn, Canada’s halfway house.

    Not wholly unsympathetic to either Smith or Sutherland, Milton Wilson in “Other Canadians and After” plays ingeniously with other possibilities, suggesting that since the “other” poets mainly come after 1943 they correct an unavoidable imbalance in Smith’s analysis, particularly Smith’s “reliance”, as Wilson put it, “on such prestige words as ‘classical’ and ‘metaphysical’”. This looks like an argument for the centrality of poets like Layton, Dudek, and Souster, on the one hand, and P.K. Page, Anderson and Wreford, on the other, but oddly enough it turns into a paradoxical defense of regionalism and colonialism.15

    James Reaney, as any one might expect who Mows this brilliantly eccentric poet, goes the other way, seeking not individual talent but tradition, not a contradictory path from Smith but a uniform vision in his book. He produces a Reaney-like poem made up of single lines and images from the book, his version of the native tradition:

Rude Spring
My Father is the Sun, the Earth my Mother
Love has its own Sun
The Grim Idiot at the Gate
Bittern Booming
Vines of Lightning
Fibrous Jelly
Cylindical Brushes
This Cracked Walrus Skin
Tansy . . . my sister
I am the Emperor Solomon
a lung-loom land
The meaning of the moth
Can’t we stab that one angle into the curve of space . . .16

“Now” says Reaney, “I wonder what this looks like. It sounds like the results of a Ouija board conversation with Tom O’Bedlam. I chose the original phrases not because they fell into any sort of pattern, only the pattern of liking them. Although I don’t know quite what to do with it I like the mad monster above, for it represents to me what every poet in Canada can hang around his neck if he likes.”17 The mock-naivity should fool no one. Reaney’s poetic amulet for Canadian poets draws on primitive, mythic sources, “some sort of ancestral pattern to go by,” where in his words, the images “move from things outside of personality to a place somewhere inside personality.”18

    Reaney’s is, of course, close to Frye’s reading of Smith’s book. Slaying North American and other dragons right and left as he goes, Frye locates a distinctive Canadian poetry in a nature myth of incubus and cauchemar. Neither regional nor colonial writing could be called Canadian then since they amount to nothing more than either yammering or stuttering, certainly not poetry. But in ruling out external forces like British imperial influences, Frye has to move quickly to protect his flank against the American and he does so in a brilliant manoeuvre. There are two North-American influences and attitudes to guard against: one he calls The Ferdinand the Bull Theory of Poetry; the other, the kind of primitivism that even E.K. Brown falls victim to in seeing Canada as a pioneer or new country. That condition is a) not true and b) irrelevant: Canada emits in the present, not as a kind of retarded infant, only 100 years old; and in any event, pioneers, like the New England Pilgrims, will write poetry, if they choose to. Tarzanism, a more important fallacy is the view that poetry is made of experience, not poetry (hence Ferdinand: smell the flowers, don’t read books to be poetic). Frye distinguishes between the aboriginal and original, between Tarzanism and poetic energy. The real source of poetry is a poetic tradition, not a land. So Canadians are neither Brooklyn Bums nor English Butlers—as writers, they are those bringing literature into contact with a new and extraordinary environment that gets into the literature as a myth, the myth of the land or terror of the north.

     Frye’s review, in short, argues for a unity of tone or impression in Canadian writing: “the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is the evocation of stark terror. Not a coward’s terror, of course, but a controlled vision of the cause of cowardice. The immediate source of this is obviously the frightening loneliness of a huge and thinly-settled country.” He speaks of “a sphinx-like riddle of the indefinite like the Canadian winter”, “the riddle of inexplicable death”, a nature blankly indifferent to life, “the source of the cruelty and sub-conscious stampedings of the human mind”.19

    It is worth noting that in this reading the question of modernism itself recedes in favour of continuing patterns, and a conception of a unified poetry consequently appears; though interestingly here, quite at odds with his view in the later preface to The Bush Garden, Frye’s concern is to find the link between nation and poetry in a sort of environmental mythology. Later, Frye dismisses that link as a piece of romantic folklore. Nonetheless, it persists in all those contemporary and popover accounts of the Canadian imagination which seek to find an easy way of putting culture and society together. The political consequences of such vulgarity have been spelled out clearly enough by a distinguished young historian, Ramsay Cook, who argues convincingly that for a multicultural country like Canada, the identification of culture and nation (or society) would be dangerous, if not fatal.20 But consequences seem of little concern to nationalists, historians or for that matter critics in their more visionary moments. Frye’s reading of The Book of Canadian Poetry is, says Smith, “a conception of Canadian poetry as being in its essence heroic and mythological rather than personal and lyrical.”21 It is also a conception, like James Reaney’s and Margaret Atwood’s that does two things: it links the past to the present and it rewrites the past in terms of the present. In those senses, it does create or invent a usuable past and further seeks to resolve dualities, to a degree, as Smith does himself, by internalizing tensions. “I think it was Northrop Frye,” Smith comments, “who added the necessary corrective — that this dichotomy [of native and cosmopolitan] is not a matter of division between poets or groups of poets but a division within the mind of every poet.”22

     Is it wrong to hear a sigh of relief in that? For now, it appears, the long battle is finally over, opposites reconciled — or at least shifted to another, and probably less contentious realm, the head of the poet. But the essay I quote from was published in 1968, and no sooner had the one set of tensions disappeared, then up popped another or perhaps the same one in a new disguise: “The division that exists today,” notes Smith immediately after the above, “ . . . between poets and groups of poets is between the traditional or academic, the cultivated poets, you might say, and the new primitives, whose tradition goes back no farther than to William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, or his disciple Robert Creeley.”23 The Whirligig begins again. Instead of Sutherland and his neo-American Marxism, Robin Matthews and Germaine Warkentin and their neo-Canadian nationalism; instead of the urban critic Milton Wilson postulating a regional and colonial art, the new nationalists, determinedly parochial, refusing to allow poetry to relinquish its commitment to specific social conditions, arguing, in other words, a kind of cultural determinism; on the other hand, as in Davey’s From There to Here, the argument that we now inhabit a post-modern world, modernism itself a synonym for all that is narrow, limiting, ill-onceived in structure, hierarchy, order, shapeliness, coherence, clarity, intensity.

     Modernism comes under attack on two fronts: its cosmopolitanism betrays the concerns of locality, region, and nation; its elitism, the anti-literary bias of mass culture. To put the issue this way, as one between literary and anti-literary, I realize will sound extraordinarily simple-minded, but it is not unhistorical and it does mark a moment of such extraordinary change in Canadian and North American culture as to call into question early achievements and evaluation. It seeks again a realignment of sources. It becomes implicitly more than a critique, a rejection of the aesthetic and poetic values most strikingly represented by Smith’s work.24

    Irving Layton was, I think, not the first but the most articulate of our poets on the kind of change writers confronted in the ’sixties. In part his abrasiveness stems from his awareness that mass culture threatened poetry, his kind of poetry, and he opposed to it the figure of the poet as symbol of the best part of man, his individual power of creativity, the expression of freedom. Leonard Cohen, who follows Layton so closely, chooses another route, not to oppose mass culture but to give it expression, to become the voice of the culture itself. This, I think, is what he means by the energy of slaves, the empty, dry, voiceless anti-art of the mass. Or to put it otherwise: as Smith knew — and knows full well, the meaning of tradition is, as he puts it so beautifully, “to enter into the universal civilizing culture of ideas.” What ideas? The field of reference of modern poetry is poetry itself. That is why the key words of evaluation, the lexis of judgement, if you will, in Smith, are words like “pure”, “honest”, “intense”, and key terms and phrases are those like “revitalization”, “universal and emotional”, “simple and inclusive”, “intelligent and discriminating.” The field of reference for the contemporary poet is not literature but mass culture: film, television, media — all the reduplicating sources of imagery for memory and its illusions So it is one of our novelists, Robert Kroetsch, speaks of three imaginative acts: to name the world, as A.M. Klein, say, does so superbly and poignantly in “Portrait of the Artist as a Landscape”; to rename the world, as Kroetsch himself does in The Studhorse Man or as those did who took the traditional and rooted stories of Western mythology and gave them a habitation and a nag in the barren places of our imagination: Stratford, Lake Roblin, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto — or whose mythologizing and domestication of myth was so wonderfully achieved in the 1950’s (Smith speaks of P.K. Page, Jay McPherson, Daryl Hine, in this context. I would add Ann Wilkinson, Wilfred Watson, James Reaney—and especially Irving Layton). But to these two acts of imagination, Kroetsch adds a third: to unname, to uninvent the world, pointing at once to the shabby theatricality of contemporary work, to what John Barth has called “The Literature of Exhauation”.25 Facing the blank, pitiless eyes of the uninvented what could a tradition, a spirit, a mode of language, a poetry called modern have to say to the generality of men, to us, at this late hour?

    It is customary to say “he gave the best expression to the kind of poetry he believed in” or more narrowly, “he brought Canadian poetry into the modern world.” Here, we do well, I think, to step back from immediate historical considerations, though I began with these, to ask ourselves what it is Professor Smith’s insistent, even obsessive arrangement of others poem — and their prose too — really stands for. Knowledge, of course. Knowledge. And intelligence, even in Canada. Taste: to rescue more than one early Canadian writer from oblivion (“unearthed them” will not be too strong a term for most readers, remarks Frye) and to put other’s work in a new perspective. But above all else: standards. This is the sticking point today about his modernism. Knowledge, intelligence, taste, these may have gone by the boards and apparently with little regret. We live in an ignorant, uncaring world, poetry itself little more than illiteracy. But standards raise another banner entirely, and if we are to trust some contemporaries, on that ground alone the real battle will be fought. And to my mind that is what Arthur Smith’s career is all about, to find the means by which it is possible to face the world honestly; and not without irony, I might add.

    “What I have thought it best to offer”, Professor Smith says, “is literary criticism, which, whether right or wrong, is at least in intention something more significant than a mere chronicle of dates and facts.”26 I would want to end this in the same vein but with a personal allusion that bears upon this matter of standards.

    I remember it was in 1955 at the Kingston Conference of the Arts I first met Professor Smith and heard his address on “The Poet”. Late, home at St. Jean, Quebec, I re-read his “Canadian Poetry — A Minority Report” with its concluding address to “The Young man who has talent, who lives in Canada, and who wishes to be a poet,” a rigorous, uncompromised, idealistic passage:

    Do not be anxious for fortune or fame. You will probably get neither.  Do not think of writing as a game or a racket. Do not try to get in the literary swim. Do not flatter reviewers or butter the critics.

    Set higher standards for yourself than the organized mediocrity of the authors’ associations dares to impose. Be traditional, catholic, and alive. Study the great masters of clarity and intensity. . . . And remember, lastly, that poetry does not permit the rejection of every aspect of the personality except intuition and sensibility. It must be written by the whole man. It is an intelligent activity, and it ought to compel the respect of the generality of intelligent men. If it is a good, it is a good in itself.27

I read that, determined there and then I would set higher standards for myself and write with such rigour neither fame nor fortune would sully my work, even if the only audience for that difficult lonely music turned out to be the barren rocks of Northern Ontario. I can report now, of all my literary efforts, in this one alone I was completely and totally successful.


This paper was originally delivered at the Symposium in honour of A.J.M. Smith at The State University of Michigan in 1976. In a different context a part of this argument appears in Another Time (Press Porcepic, 1977).

  1. “Introduction”, Masks of Fiction, ed. A.J.M. Smith (McClelland and Stewart, 1961), p. x.[back]

  2. “Canadian Poetry — A Minority Report”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters (University of British Columbia Press, 1973), p. 179.[back]

  3. Language and Silence (Aetheneum, 1967), p. 3.[back]

  4. Ibid.[back]

  5. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, “Introduction” by Karl Shapiro, 1961, p. xii.[back]

  6. Ibid, pp. xi.-xii.[back]

  7. “Wanted — Canadian Criticism”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 169.[back]

  8. “Conclusion”, Literary History of Canada, eds. Carl Klinck et al. (University of Toronto Press, Second Edition, 1976), II, 334.[back]

  9. “Literary Studies in English”, Supplement to the Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 206.[back]

  10. Sarah Binks (McClelland and Stewart), p. xviii.[back]

  11. “Introduction, The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 4.[back]

  12. Ibid., pp. 17-21.[back]

  13. A convenient collection of the documents under discussion here, and a volume that presents its own view of the development of modernism, is The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, eds. Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski (The Ryerson Press, 1968). An important essay that, like Dudek and Gnarowski, emphasizes an empirical methodology and the complexity of historical and social elements in the development of modernism is Miriam Waddington, “Canadian Tradition and Canadian Literature”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature No. 8: 124-141 (December, 1969).[back]

  14. “Colonialism and Nationalism in Canadian Poetry Before Confederation”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 34.[back]

  15. Other Canadians and After”, Masks of Poetry, ed. A.J.M. Smith, (McClelland and Stewart, l962), pp. 123-138.[back]

  16. “The Canadian Poet’s Predicament”, Masks of Poetry, p. 117.[back]

  17. Ibid.[back]

  18. ibid.[back]

  19. “Canada and Its Poetry”, The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, pp. 95-96 and passim. Also see Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Anansi, 1971), an important collection of essays on “The Canadian Imagination”.[back]

  20. The Maple Leaf Forever (MacMillan, 1971), pp. 1-11.[back]

  21. “Eclectic Detachment”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 25.[back]

  22. “The Canadian Poet: After Confederation”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 162.[back]

  23. Ibid.[back]

  24. See especially Frank Davey, From There to Here (Press Porcepic, 1974) and Germaine Warkentin’s review of Towards a View of Canadian Letters in Canadian Literature, No. 64 (Spring, 1975), 83-91.[back]

  25. See Robert Kroetsch, “Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction”, Journal of Canadian Fiction, III, No. 3 (Autumn 1974), 43-55; and John Barth, “Jorge Luis Borges: The Literature of Exhaustion”, in Essays on Contemporary Literature, ed. R. Kostelanetz (Avon Books, 1964).[back]

  26. “The Poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott”, Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 95.[back]

  27. Towards a View of Canadian Letters, 185.[back]