A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) Smith A. M. Klein - Essay

A. M. Klein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.