Wednesday, July 11, 2007

i'm thinking i don't understand a. j. m. smith

I don't get this A. J. M. Smith fellow, I really don't. I see that his poetry is beautiful and basically formally perfect, but as far as an important poet of Canada I have to say I kind of fail to get why Smith is such a man of stature. Maybe it's because I'm coming off of Scott, who is so obviously a poet of Canada and Canadianness, and interested in the future of this country -- but I just don't have any patience right now for artistically perfect depictions of the Canadian wilderness. Frankly, it bores me pretty freaking quickly.

That said, I have to grow an opinion pretty quickly if I want to bang this out before heading for Transformers. I hear that they are robots in disguise. Potentially more than meets the eye. I'm not sure, and I'm trying not to buy into hype or anything, but it's what I've been hearing.

Selected Poems from Poets Between the Wars
by A. J. M. Smith, edited by Milton Wilson

Swift Current

This is a visible
and crystal wind:
no ragged edge,
no splash of foam,
no whirlpool's scar;
-- in the narrows,
sharpness cutting sharpness,
arrows of direction,
spears of speed.

I think my biggest problem with A. J. M. Smith is rooted in my biggest problem with how we classify writers as Canadian. Do we really get to lay claim to a writer simply because he was born here? If his writing is more about the Thames than the Rideau, is he still Canadian? These questions plagued me while reading Smith's poetry, because his is the writing of a poet looking beyond the borders of Canada and abroad for his poetic scope. He left Canada at the age of 24, never to return, and where other ex-pats spend their lives recreating their Canada in words, Smith seems to have had a far more cosmopolitan scope. Smith is a "pure poet" by his own monicker too, which makes it even more difficult for me to access his poetry -- I don't really have even a flying interest in poetry that exists only to be pretty or capture an emotion. I wouldn't read a novel that had nothing to say about social issues I care about, and I feel the same about poetry. Especially given the fire and power of Scott's social conscience. Frankly, I read Smith grudgingly, and feeling more than a little bored and alienated from the poetry.

I decided I needed to flesh out my understanding of Smith a bit, and looked him up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, which pointed out quite a bit of interesting things about Smith. He was an important figure shaping the modernist poetry movement in Montreal, editing the Literary Supplement to the McGill Daily at an integral time in that publication's growth. He and F. R. Scott co-founded The McGill Fortnightly Review which would go on to be a premier literary publication in Canada. Smith apparently through this tenure influenced Scott, as well as A. M. Klein and others. Smith went on to be one of the foremost anthologists of Canadian literature in his day, and though he became a naturalized American his impact on Canadian literature was felt through to the publication of his final Canadian anthology in 1974. And his criticism has been well represented in my own readings for these comprehensive examinations. According to this Oxford Companion,
"Smith's critical essays -- written in an easy, lucid, and sometimes poetic prose -- reassert his doctrines of intensity gained through discipline; the negative effects of colonialism, which Smith equated with parochialism; and his reiterated belief that a poem is not a description of an experience, it is in itself an experience."
So now I see why we need to remember Smith. His impact on Canadian literature was massive, as he influenced two poets (Scott and Klein) who went on to be two of the most influential poets of their own age, and furthermore through his anthologies and criticism he has created and maintained an excitement about the literature that this country has to offer.

I still don't much care for his poetry. I think the emergence of looser forms and more socially conscious verse has made his image-driven poetry seem, to me, quite quaint and out-moded. Smith viewed his own poetry as decorative or ornamental, and I'm not sure poetry like that is of much value to me (or to audiences in a post-WWII world). That said, I understand better now his place in the Canadian literary canon, and I understand the importance of understanding his work and the works that he influenced.

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