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LEON EDEL The Worldly Muse of A.J.M. Smith I am a biographer and it is therefore impossible for me to read poetry without reading the poet. The voice I hear within the beat of the line is never a disembodied voice, even when ] may not know the countenance. It can be highly suggestive when it speaks with wit and intelligence; it is certainly civilized when it is controlled and disciplined; it is complex, inflected, nuanced, and produces delight when it talks of things human and humane with a kind of sovereign calm; it impels me to listen and to discriminate and be analytical. A poet's landscapes are himself; the private myth is made decently public. As Thoreau reminded us, the secrets of a poet's life are in his poems. In this sense all poetry is confessional. Not a poet exists who does not write the book of himself. He is never more personal than when he thinks himself impersonal. My problem in dealing with A.j.M. Smith afterfifty years offriendship is to distance myself from him intellectually and not go aground on the reef of reminiscence. [ have done this by rereading him with eyes fifty years older than when I met him. The experience has been salutary, at once a renewal of an old intimacy and at the same time the intervention of a long-trained critical intelligence [ could not then possess. To be sure, things are a bit mixed: criticism and sentiment are there, but the challenge is also there to discover thepoet in poems [have for too long taken for granted. Once I have brought this into awareness, I am able to see, and to have a renewal of feeling. Where does Arthur Smith, who can now be called the doyen of Canadian poetry, belong in our twentieth century of verse? What is his achievement? What are his shortcomings - his limitations? I recognize at once his personae. There is Smith the scholarly anthologist , subject for serious study; there is Smith the theorist, who has made a doctrine out of his poet-self; there is above all Smith the poetclever , witty, bawdy, sincere, insincere, genuine, poseur, so intent on being clever that he can on occasion sacrifice truth to good rhyme.. and stilt his verses with his technical virtuosity; and on occasion there is Smith powerful , clear, potent, free of cant, and (rare being) unvulgar. All UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME XLVII, NUMBER 3. SPRINC 1978 0042-0247178/0500-0200 $01..50 Copyright© LEON EDEL 1978 A.J .M. SMITH 201. these strands interwoven make him perhaps our most complex poet. The younger poets are freer, less formal, less traditional - and simpler. I set biography aside to see what I can discover in our poet. But let me deal first with the anthologist. No discussion of Smith is possible without tribute to his strong stomach for bad poetry - and his capacity to see the fun of the thing. No one in Canada read so much of the indigestible, in order to weed it out - all the misguided and strident patriotism, all the sentimental and over-plastered landscapes. Smith himself has recorded this experience in a poem entitled 'On Reading an Anthology of Popular Poetry. ' It suggests the extent to which he had to immerse - I should say immolate - himself on old altars of Tennyson, the laureate-model, or Felicia Hemans; such a warbling as surrounded us in the earlier years of the century, such pretty prettiness, such coyness, cliche, and pomposity of platitude. He had to ingest all this to produce the anthologies we know. By such labours he brought about an entire revolution in Canadian poetry and almost Single-handed. How much of a revolution anyone can judge from the moment one looks at the Smithian shelf, the many editions of Th e Book of Canadian Poetry, The Book of Calladian Prose, the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, the volume of Modern Canadian Verse, and turning their pages one recognizes that the anthologist has been severe, selective, demanding, inflexible; there are no compromises; there is no misguided indulgence of the third rate; and all this while remaining loyal to chronology and literary history...


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