A California Poet

William Foster Elliot

Ebony and Crystal by Clark Ashton Smith: The Auburn Journal Press, California, $2

A volume has just been issued from the press of the Auburn Journal which makes two distinct demands on the sympathies of Western poetry lovers. First, and vastly the more important, is the quality of the verse which this book contains, but when that has been duly appraised, it cannot fail to add to one's pleasure to know that the author is a Californian.

Clark Ashton Smith lives at present on a ranch near Auburn. He has already published one volume of verse, The Star Treader and Other Poems, and his work is known to the discriminating. George Sterling stands godfather to the present volume with a preface in which he does not hesitate to use terms of the highest praise. There have been times when a similar combination of events would have turned many feet towards Auburn. Today one may hope that a few hearts may be inclined in that direction.

For the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith is authentic poetry, of which there is not enough in the world at any one time to permit one to regard an addition to the supply as an ordinary event. This young man (he is still under 30) has had one love whom he worshiped and one allegiance which he has served. He has condescended neither to the theories of revolutionists nor the sentimentalities of the mediocre. Beauty has been his goddess; he has served her singly, with unbiased heart and unremitting ardor; and the result of this service lies in Ebony and Crystal, plain to be seen of eyes which also have sought her.

All classifications are impermanent, but for convenience some lines must be drawn, if for nothing else, to do away with the necessity for long-winded description. Poetry may be classified under roughly three principal heads. There is the poetry of the heart, of the head, and of both. None of the three kinds is ever found quite pure except in the impurity of the third, and here there is seldom a perfect balance; but the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith is as nearly pure as things are apt to be found in this heterogeneous world, and it is of the second kind, of the imagination.

He has, as Sterling has said in his gracious preface, "lent himself the more innocently to the whispers of his subconscious daemon". He is for the most part not of the world. He roams a strange land beneath the wan light of fleeing moons, beside dark pools where lilies gleam - a land whose geography need not be more specifically cited than as lying somewhere between Saturn and the sun.

A sense of space is his, and its natural correlative, an enormous distaste for limitation. He cries out for vast prospects. He is at peace among the thunder of planets. Comets are has familiar spirits; on the far rim of space he sifts falling star-dust for strange words of gold; he is intoxication with the reel of nebulae, and in the cold fire of Sirius his mind finds a natural affinity.

It is the fate of most poetry today to revolt more or less madly against things as they are. This poetry is no exception; but the intensity of Smith's revolt has effaced all consciousness of itself and become pure creation, erecting a new cosmos with laws and beauties peculiar to itself. It is not a pose. The far-off, the fabulous, the exotic, are necessary to him; and though now and then one finds a trace of preciosity in his phrasing, the most notable fact in this poetry is its almost desperate sincerity.

Naturally enough, it has the defects of its qualities. No man may turn his back completely upon common things without loss. Earth takes her revenge. It was not in mere fancy that the old Greeks pictured the giant with whom Hercules wrestled as gaining now vigor from each contact with the soil. Poetry is such a giant, and may also be conquered by removal from the earth; but with the conquest goes an inevitable loss of sheer human vigor in the verse.

In the case of Ebony and Crystal the result of this alienation from life is certain sterility even in the midst of its greatest beauty. The poetry describes himself as having
"-placed my wealth before thy fabled eyes,
Pallid and pure as jaspers from the moon."
And much of his verse is like the eyes of this goddess of Lemuria - fabled, pallid, pure, beautifully wrought with an almost flawless technique, but infinitely remote, a thin high music as of crystal bells chiming afar off in the night.

But there are unforgettable pictures on almost every page and in certain poems - notably in the sonnet Transcendence and the lyric Solution - there are definite traces of a broader comprehension and richer harmony. It seems to me as if in these Clark Ashton Smith had set foot over the borderline of pure imagination and breathed for a moment an atmosphere of sympathy which could fertilize his art and give it a far wider significance.
But one must not find too much fault with such work as this; indeed, one would find none at all if it were not that the fineness of this poet's achievement leads one inevitably to hope for him, as time goes on, a conquest finer still.

He has had courage to avoid the sentimental, the obvious, the trite. He has withstood the much more subtle seductions of the Time-Spirit which would make poetry out of street cars, hucksters, slum harlots and the dregs and refuse of life. His work bears no date line; it is neither modern nor ancient; it is merely beautiful.

This, it may be repeated, is no small achievement. He has a vivid imagination, a copious and personal vocabulary, an unfaltering sense for literary form. With some disciplining of the seductions of his own temperament, some warmer recognition of the beauty that also lies in the loves and hates, failures and successes of the world that surges around the base of his ivory tower, it would be hard to match him in the field of present-day poetry.

Source: California, Fresno, The Fresno Bee, 1922-12-30. Supplied the incredibly wonderful Theo Paijmans; typed by Simon Whitechapel.

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