"To Hold in a Poem": Tension and Balance in A.J.M. Smith's Verse

By Roderick Wilson Harvey

Although the late A.J.M. Smith was a fine anthologist and perceptive critic, there has been, until recently, a limited amount of interest shown in the techniques and themes of his poetry.  As Sandra Djwa emphasizes, Smith, a "dazzling poetic craftsman, who makes every word — and every sound — count, has not been given any sustained consideration at all."1  Of the six books of poetry Smith published during his lifetime, only the last, The Classic Shade (1978), is generally available — a strange situation when the poetry itself appears in virtually all major anthologies of modern Canadian writing.  And the eclectic, experimental nature of the poetry has made Smith difficult to evaluate as a poet, most early critics describing him as an internationalist, classicist, modernist, or metaphysician.2

     However, one of those critics, George Woodcock, now concedes that the poetry moves "into areas of literary contrivance and conceit which show Smith recognizing that even if literature derives from experience, the experience of a literary man is likely to be that of books."3  And several recent essays explore this important question of "inheritance and adaptation in Smith's poetry," as I.S. MacLaren aptly describes it.4 Assuming that Smith is, as MacLaren suggests, a poetic "chameleon,"5 we begin to see the belief emerging that Smith was consciously experimenting with a variety of forms in his work.  As Gordon Harvey suggests in a provocative study, "A.J.M. Smith and the Classic Shadow," Smith "dabbles in so many styles that it is almost impossible to speak of a typical one,"6 yet it seems to me that the poet's work is unified by his concern with the very experiments, the tests, that have so frustrated his critics, most of whom are looking for a thematic or stylistic unity in the poems.  Indeed, my focus in this essay is on Smith's use of the poem as test, as, in Marshall McLuhan's terminology, a "probe" to question the relationship between language and experience.7  Using different voices, influences, and carefully selected symbols, Smith creates models of language which actually comprise an interesting and challenging group of experimental works by an important Canadian poet.

     Reading the books of poetry from News of the Phoenix (1943) to The Classic Shade, we discover many elegant, experimental poems; Smith has consistently used different styles, and when he uses a model he does so with intelligence and imagination.  For Smith neither developed nor inherited a single speaking voice: his personae shift from one voice to another, yet the poems are not long enough to demonstrate the sort of transformation within a poem that we see, for example, in The Waste Land, in which the personae represent different European countries and times.  Nor does Smith maintain the intensity we sense in A.M. Klein's poem "Lone Bather," where the voices are those of several imaginative transformations:

Upon the ecstatic diving board the diver,
poised for parabolas, lets go
lets go his manshape to become a bird.
Is bird, and topsy-turvy
the pool floats overhead, and the white tiles snow
their crazy hexagons.  Is dolphin.  Then
is plant with lilies bursting from his heels.8

The imaginative shifts in this single poem correspond, in Smith's poetry, to many voices of many poems; some voices are those of other poets, some are not; some voices come from the past, others from the present.   To read the poetry in search of a single perspective would be disappointing, for Smith seems to have deliberately cultivated the ambivalent position expressed in the early poem "On Reading an Anthology of Popular Poetry":

What shall we say now
To these whose shrill voice,
Giving the game away, now
Less by chance than by choice,

Cries from the stitched heart
In soft melodious screams
The sweet sweet songs that start
Out of alluvial dreams?

The old eternal frog
In the throat that comes
With the words mother, sweetheart, dog
Excites, and then numbs.

Is there no katharsis
But 'song' for this dull
Pain, that every Saul of Tarsus
Must pant himself into a Paul?9

     Two poems in particular seem to be central to Smith's exploration of tension and balance as metaphors for creative expression.  The short lyric "To Hold in a Poem" uses images taken from the Canadian landscape; another short poem, "Bird and Flower," explores the creative process in a more complex way.  Taken together, these poems demonstrate Smith's abstract concern with creativity as a complex, organic force that uses the raw materials of experience — including literary experience — to create new forms.  Such a dialogue with language expresses itself through language itself, for the poetic vocabulary must be refined to its essentials and used with a full awareness of its limitations.  Language, therefore, becomes both an element of the experiment and the final, contrived solution.  In "To Hold in a Poem," Smith explains that he "would take words / As crisp and as white / As our snow . . . " (p. 42); images are sharp, clearly defined:

Sweet-smelling and bright
As new rain; as hard
And as smooth and as white
As a brook pebble cold and unmarred.
                                                   (p. 42)

Words themselves become new objects and assume physical properties.  In Smith's poetry, colours are sharply etched; his poems often remind us of realistic black and white photographs.  "Tree," for example, tells us that

Words are ciphers
denoting speeds and directions
not of thought only
but of things.
                                                   (p. 49)

Such "ciphers / denoting speeds and directions" are the elements of tension and balance.  As in a photograph where the foreground is in focus and the background is blurred, Smith's poems invite the reader to consider how the aesthetic balance of objects changes in different environments and situations.  The poetry, Smith tells us in "To Hold in a Poem," is "austere / As the spirit of prairie and river" (p. 42), and the implication is that such austerity permits us to see beyond language, beyond symbols.  Indeed, in Smith's poetry there often seems to be an almost utopian wish for the well-wrought urn of classical antiquity.  Symbols are timeless, for they are both young and old, of the present and of the past.  The poetic landscape goes beyond temporal reality, transcends the world we know, and becomes a theoretical model of aesthetic harmony.   To view such poems as merely derivative, as some critics have done, is to ignore the distinctive quality of these experiments in verse.

     In "To Hold in a Poem," Smith is specific about the landscape he describes: the Canadian north, "lonely, unbuyable, dear" (p. 42).  And as in a carefully structured painting, the artist places images against a deliberately undefined background.  A number of birds, "Swift and sure in their flight," pass over a land that is "cold and unmarred" (p. 42).  Yet there remains a static quality to the poem, a factor that limits the reader's emotional identification with the work.   Compare "To Hold in a Poem" with the varied grace of William Carlos Williams' "The Yachts":

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is feckless, free and
naturally to be desired. . .10

Although Smith may well be more modernist than imagist, and hence closer to T.S. Eliot than to Williams, the contrast emphasizes the lack of life apparent in many of the poems.  Using such phrases as "lumbering / and flittering . . ." and "free and / naturally to be desired . . .," Williams infuses "The Yachts" with a sense of vitality.  Yet Smith's rain, though "bright" and "new," seems to lack a natural existence.  The artist seems to omit any but the most formal outlines from his portraits.  Moreover, as Smith points out the beginning of "To Hold in a Poem," he is highly tentative in his selection of images, almost as if he does not totally trust language, and claims he "would take" particular symbols from the lexicon available to him.  Such artistic reserve implies that Smith carefully avoids using words whose symbolic connotations might be misinterpreted.

     Tension in Smith's poetry implies the existence of surfaces, and, beneath these, of areas over which we have no control.  "Bird and Flower" presents an atmosphere of danger:

A spiritual pigeon catapults the
Air around you; a loaded violet
Is dangerous in your fur.  Tenderness, set
Like a mousetrap or poised like a bee,
Falls from you — God's angry love.  Lucky
The lean communicant whose table's set
With you; he banquets well, and rises fed
With innocence and Apollonian energy.
                                                 (p. 22)

While a pigeon "catapults" through the air, a waiting violet becomes "loaded" and "dangerous."  Even tenderness, which usually suggests love and sharing, has been "set / Like a mousetrap or poised like a bee" (p. 22), a state of tension maintained throughout the poem.   In "The Archer," Smith describes this state as "fixed between time and time," waiting to

          . . .  fling
The hissing arrow like a burning thought
Into the empty sky that smokes as the hot
Shaft plunges to the bullseye's quenching ring.
                                               (p 158)

The poet, "motionless, serene," hopes that this state of balance will be released, that the work of art will strike truth, the "central black, the ringed and targeted grave" (p. 158).  Creating such tension, however, seems to be an end in itself, for we frequently discover that the expected resolution is absent.  And Smith tells us in "The Fountain" that in art "Time is fooled, although he storm[s]" (p. 63), affirming that such statis for its own sake is an important element in his work.

     The poem, therefore, becomes a sort of balance, a fixed model or form beyond time, a timeless version of experience seen through language.  Ideally, the poet seeks to clarify his works of art by using this technique:

To hold in a poem of words
Like water in colourless glass
The spirit of mountains like birds,
Of forests as pointed as grass.
                                                (p. 42)

Whatever voice the poet uses should be clearly defined, yet the image of "water in colourless glass" suggests Smith is aware of the contradictions implied by his aesthetic approach: a glass may contain many images, but when motionless it will appear almost transparent, without substance."11  In a similar poem, "A Glass of Water," Wallace Stevens argues that such a state of being is incomplete, that "this object is merely a state / One of many, between two poles."12  Stevens suggests that "in the metaphysical, there are these poles," but implies that we cannot allow the process of intellectual abstraction to divide us from temporal reality; as he points out, "Among the dogs and dung, / One would continue to contend with one's ideas."13

     Smith says in "The Archer" that he is unwilling to "waive / His prior claim and let the barb fly clean" (p. 158), and he clearly prefers not to progress beyond the balance implied by the creative act.  Idealization becomes method; the "poem of words" becomes an end in itself (p. 42).  When he composed "The Archer," he tells us, his concerns were formal ones.14   Through the process of experiment, those formal concerns finally produced a poem.   The poet, Smith tells us in "Bird and Flower," is a "lean communicant whose table's set," a man who then "rises fed / With innocence and Apollonian energy" (p. 22) when experience is presented to him.  The poet gains his identity through the tensions explored through language; the process of creation is a communion with the self, a ritual that includes balance but does not necessarily express it.  Such a creed may lead to intellectual introspection, a state that must be accepted and, if possible, overcome.  "Some holy men so love their cells they make / Their four gray walls the whole damned stinking world" (p. 22), Smith realizes, implying that the poet who cannot range outside his own expertise is, like Browning's Andrea del Sarto, a mere technician, an artist content with only the possible.

     The necessity of maintaining this balance, while being aware of its limitations, leads Smith to define the process of poetry as a concern with the way language can be used to "probe" experience, to create new models, new forms of art.  As he says in "On Knowing Nothing," "I cannot let the hollow / Interval alone, / But pick it like a scab" (p. 156).  Yet after the artist, the "lean communicant" (p. 22) of "Bird and Flower," has been renewed through poetic experiment, no one role is assumed, for if the poet were to inhabit a single space, "God comes in and fills it easily" (p. 22), and the challenge of creativity is lost.  Instead of such creative stagnation, Smith suggests that the "Christian bird" and "Grecian flower" could be better explored through "gamblers' spirals," which form a "trickier stake, / Grounded, O Love, in holiness and joy" (p. 22).  Like the poet-entertainer of Layton's "Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom," Smith's poet is an eclectic trickster, the instigator of various experiments with language that cannot, and should not, be the same.  And the gamblers' spiral, like the gyre of Yeats, is an expansive metaphor for the unity of all art forms; the controlled tension of Smith's poems suggests that his work could be viewed as a modern poetic attempt to unify approaches to experience through the testing of language.  Indeed, some of his poems might well represent the ideal art form that, as Yeats suggests, "Grecian goldsmiths make," even though the totality of his poetry has yet to reveal "what is past, or passing, or to come."15  However, we require this total vision from only the greatest of our poets, and when measured against what other poets of this century have to offer, Smith's experimental poetry seems very interesting indeed.


  1. Sandra Djwa, "A.J.M. Smith: Of Metaphysics and Dry Bones," Studies in Canadian Literature, 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), 17.[back]

  2. See, for example, George Woodcock, "Two Aspects of A.J.M. Smith," Odysseus Ever Returning (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p. 114, Milton Wilson "Second and Third Thoughts About Smith," Canadian Literature, No. 15 (Winter, 1963), p. 13; Earle Birney, "A.J.M.S.," Canadian Literature, No. 15 (Winter, 1963), p. 6 Roy Fuller, "A Poet of the Century," Canadian Literature, No.  15 (Winter, 1963), pp. 7-10; A.M. Klein, "The Poetry of A.J.M. Smith," Canadian Forum, 23 (February, 1944), 258.[back]

  3. George Woodcock, "On A.J.M.S.," Canadian Literature, No. 87 (Winter, 1980), p. 157.[back]

  4. I.S. MacLaren, "The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smith's 'Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable'," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, No.  4 (Spring/Summer, 1979), p. 64.[back]

  5. Ibid., p. 59.[back]

  6. Gordon Harvey, "A.J.M. Smith and the Classic Shadow," The Compass: A Provincial Review, No. 8 (Winter, 1980), 2.[back]

  7. I am grateful to Professor D.M.R. Bentley for drawing my attention to the relationship between McLuhan's "probe" and Smith's experimentation.  See also Marshall McLuhan with Wilfred Watson, From Cliche to Archetype (New York: Viking Press, 1970), pp. 53-62.[back]

  8. The Collected Poems of A.M. Klein, ed. Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson 1974), p. 321.[back]

  9. Originaily published in News of the Phoenix (1943), reprinted in Poems: New and Collected (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 97.  Further references to this edition will be included in my text.[back]

  10. 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. Gary Geddes, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 43. [back]

  11. Note Smith's comment that "The Lonely Land" is "overdone . . .  too romantic, too theatrical," in Michael Darling, "An Interview with A.J.M. Smith," Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 9 (Winter, 1977-78), 59. [back]

  12. American Poetry, ed. Gay Wilson Allen, Walter B. Rideout, and James K. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 721.[back]

  13. Ibid.[back]

  14. See Smith's comments on the composition of "The Archer" in his Towards a View of Canadian Letters: Selected Critical Essays 1928-1971 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973), pp. 224-227.[back]

  15. 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics, p. 11.[back]