A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall)


Smith, A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) 1902–

Smith, a Canadian poet, editor and critic, has greatly influenced the development of modern Canadian poetry. Among the anthologies he has edited are The Book of Canadian Poetry and The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. His own verse, reflecting Smith's interest in Yeats and the metaphysical poets, has been praised for its austere craftsmanship and freedom from provincialism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A. M. Klein

An appreciation of Smith's craftsmanship—his hammered gold on gold enamelling—is not to be taken … as underestimating the content and essence of his verse. It is true that Smith's poems are never editorial; he is sybilline, not megaphonic; but the purposefulness of his writing cannot be gainsaid. He has hewed to the aesthetic line with a consistency and a devotion which is reminiscent only of Rilke; he has taken for his themes the grand verities and not the minuscule ephemera; and he has written of them in a manner which is never dated, only with difficulty placed, and always inalienably personal….

News of the Phoenix, Smith's long awaited first volume illustrates on every page … his fastidious manner, his subtle tone. Here, indeed, are a hundred felicities, each in its nature technical, but each serving the purpose of enhancing and intensifying the experience which prompted it. (p. 257)

The poems in News of the Phoenix, though not arranged in any definite order, may be divided into three categories—metaphysical poems, poems of Greek inspiration, and, in a third group, poems of a strange new quality—of a hardboiled classicism, an amalgam of Hellenic allusion, Elizabethan sonority, and vernacular cliché….

To readers in search of new caviar, it will perhaps be the third group which will be found most interesting. It is in this group that we find such lines as: "Or zero's shears at paper window-pane," "In minds as polite as a mezzanine floor," "The great black Othello of a thing is undone by the nice clean pockethandkerchief of 6 a.m." For here Smith has taken the language of modern life and naturalized it into his classic lines…. [Often] an ancient myth has been given new meaning. Nor is this technique adopted merely for the sake of novel confection; it has a purpose—to make feelings which in another context might be considered literary or romantic appear for what they are—true, realistic, a piece of vital experience.

Taken all in all, News of the Phoenix constitutes a historic contribution to Canadian letters. The record of an austere spirit, at once sensitive and intellectual, it marks the closest step a Canadian has taken towards a "pure poetry," a poetry which is pure yet does not live in a vacuum. (p. 258)

A. M. Klein, "The Poetry of A.J.M. Smith," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXIII, No. 277, February, 1944, pp. 257-58.

Earle Birney

Such of Smith's poems as "The Archer", "A Hyacinth for Edith", and "The Plot against Proteus" were, of course, no more independent of European traditions than had been the verses of Carman and Roberts which had bored us in high school; but the traditions were now contemporary, free of the colonial time-lag, tough and demanding, while the evidence of originality in their absorption was plain. (p. 4)

As it turned out, Smith was to prove less fertile a poet than most, and, though he was to continue to set us all high standards when he did publish, his dominance was elsewhere. What happened was not merely the absorption of his energies into the profession of teaching literature (one far less friendly to the creation of it than most people outside the universities realize): it was perhaps a conscious turning from creative towards critical leadership. He became our first anthologist of professional stature, and he is still essentially without a rival as such, however limited some now feel his judgements have come to be in relation to the newest generation of poets. He was the first of our critics whose opinions were based both on a close, sympathetic reading of the corpus of Canadian writing from its beginnings, and on a sophisticated awareness of contemporary critical ideas in the larger society of Europe and the United States. As a consequence he has been both historian and shaper of our literature, perceptive in discovering new talents,...

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Roy Fuller

[Like] Wordsworth, Smith has obscured his progress as a poet by arranging [Collected Poems] subjectwise, not chronologically. The book is divided into five sections, the opening poem of each nicely chosen to announce the section's mood or theme. Though one's chief curiosity about a poet who has reached the stage of his collected poems thus remains unsatisfied, it seems to me that the shape of the book comes off completely. Smith is above all a clever, literary and fastidious poet, and what, looked at over the years, might have seemed too fragmentary or eclectic in his work, is given by this arrangement a cumulative and intellectually stimulating effect. This is seen very clearly in Part 2, a section of "imagist" poems. We take these more as evidence of the poet's interest in the scrupulous finding of accurate words for the accurate observation of nature than, as might easily have been, a manifestation of the somewhat stale zeitgeist emanating from the vers libre, no initial capitals, period of Flint, H. D. and the rest. (p. 8)

[Against the background of the times] Smith's Collected Poems are all the finer an achievement. Not to have remained bogged down by either strict traditional forms of "strict" vers libre, not to have been daunted by the new-found social concerns of the poetry of the thirties, nor to have collapsed with their collapse—these are manifestations of character and intellect that must, I think, be taken into account in assessing the volume.

Of course, I have been conceiving of Smith as an English poet and I think this is right, though he has spent almost all his life in the Western Hemisphere and has clearly learnt much from his contemporaries in the United States. But he plainly takes his place in the gap between Blunden and Day Lewis rather than in that between (say) Hart Crane and Richard Eberhart. And, again, this is being complimentary about his...

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Milton Wilson

Certainly you don't have to talk to Smith for long to realize that he relishes the thought of being odd classical man out in a society of romantics, and, from the jacket blurb of his Collected Poems, we once again learn, presumably with the author's sanction, that he knows how to be "austerely classic" in his own graceful way. It's something of a let-down to discover how merely Parnassian or decadent or imagistic his classicism can be. (pp. 11-12)

More obtrusive and far less legendary in the Smith terminology is "metaphysical" and all the phrases that Eliot … has taught us to trail along behind it: the "disparate experience", "passion and thought" or "sense and intellect", "fused" into a "unified sensibility". (p. 12)

Do unskilful classification and a perfunctory terminology really stand in the way of Smith's critical achievement? Not, I think, if we recognize where his real and remarkable virtues as a critic lie and refuse to demand what he has no intention of giving in the first place. Smith's key terms and classifications are useful only because, having provided something of the sort, he can then feel free to exercise his best talents elsewhere…. He is lucky to have discovered, and been encouraged to take on, the rôle for which his critical skills best suit him. He seems born to be an anthologizer, not of familiar, well-stocked and well-combed fields, but of virgin territory; he is happily doomed to exercise his finely perceptive and carefully developed faculty of choice on the dubious, the unpromising, the untried and the provincial, and by his example to show his readers that such choice is both possible and necessary…. In the successive editions of [A Book of Canadian Poetry] and in the more recent Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, he has given us a model of discrimination and scrupulous choice, which is salutary even for those whose preferences are very different from his. Smith offers no hard-won aesthetic principles, no freshly cleaned critical concepts, no brilliant arguments to inevitable conclusions; but one cannot read his Canadian anthologies (introduction and critical apparatus included) without responding to the firm, delicately sharpened, continuous pressures of a mind exercising its powers on materials which he finds half-alien and grudging in their Victorian beginnings, and perhaps equally alien, if a good deal richer, in their post-war ends, but which he manages somehow to coerce into satisfying the personal demands...

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A.J.M. Smith

When I write a poem I try to know what I am doing—at least with respect to craft. Luck is needed too, of course, and luck is unpredictable. All I know about it is that it has to be earned. Everything beneath the surface of technique remains obscure. It is this subterranean world … I shall try to explore in these very tentative notes. (p. 20)

I do not believe in progress in the ordinary sense of the word. The more recent poems in [Collected Verse] are neither "better" nor "worse" than the earlier, and what differences there are depend on the genre or the occasion, not on the time of writing…. The different voices and different modes called for by the different occasions should not obscure...

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George Woodcock

There are few poets whose work keeps well over a generation; Smith is one of them, and in my view [his collected poems] places him clearly among the more memorable lyric poets writing in our time, not merely in Canada, but in the whole English-speaking world…. [Smith's] gathering of the poems according to manner and mood rather than time emphasises his remarkable sustenance of both emotional intensity and the lapidary craftsmanship he has always sought,

… as hard
And as smooth and as white
As a brook pebble cold and unmarred …

Smith, in fact, is a poet little bound by time or place. Even the...

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Northrop Frye

Mr. Smith has the reputation of being a metaphysical poet in the tradition of Donne…. Certainly Mr. Smith is scholarly: [in A Sort of Ecstasy] we meet such phrases as "proud Romanticism" and "Apollonian energy," and part of the point about a poem on the H-bomb turns on the ironic application to it of a phrase from Shakespeare about mercy and from Hopkins about the Holy Spirit. Every poet demands his own kind of erudition; we need some knowledge of the Odyssey to understand "The Plot against Proteus," but we need much more classical background than that to follow Carman's Sappho lyrics, and in both cases whatever obscurity there is is due to the reader's ignorance and not to the poet's wilfulness....

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Munro Beattie

Clearly Smith has refined and polished his own poems with unremitting care. His subtle imagination and skilful craftsmanship most strikingly display themselves in the poems ("Shadows There are," "Ode: The Eumenides," "The Bridegroom," "News of the Phoenix," "Like an Old Proud King in a Parable," and "The Plot against Proteus") which most clearly derive from the poetic strategy learned, through Eliot, Stevens, Edith Sitwell, and the later Yeats, from the Symbolistes. If a few of these poems produce an effect of airlessness, that may be because they seem to have been composed on the same principle as some of Mallarmé's sonnets: imagery, rhythm, and incident evoke the emotional quality of an experience without...

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Certainly the one hundred pieces [in Poems New and Collected] show Smith to be a chameleon—he can viciously dismiss the vacuity of 'popular poetry', he can articulate his committment to sing the "lonely music" or to encounter "voluptuous" death, and yet he can delight his reader with such flippant remarks as:

McLuhan put his telescope to his ear;
What a lovely smell, he said, we have here.

The question raised by the bewildering variety of Poems New and Collected is whether to assess the poems individually in their own terms or to attempt to discover whatever unity lies at the core of the collection....

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