Letter to George Sterling

From Clark Ashton Smith

Auburn, Calif.
Apr. 28th, 1912.

My Dear Friend:

Many thanks for your sonnets! Both are good, and I can't criticize except to say that I like "Respite" a little the better of the two. If it isn't ungrateful of me to say it, I think that you would better be writing poems of your own than reading and criticizing my out-put. You are writing altogether too little (This is putting it mildly!)

Your friend Ross was after me to write Socialistic verse, too; but I can't see it. The chief trouble is that it wouldn't be anything but verse-and to make it at all effect{ive?} one would have to write down to the straitest capacity of that economically-brained animal, the Mob. Edwin Markham is an example of what it leads to-and there are others. I have a poet-friend on a San Francisco newspaper who is going the downward path. Besides, what's the use, anyway? Even if one could advance the cause of socialism, (which I theoretically believe in), the tides of things are so regulated that everything would swing back afterwhile, and be all the worse for the added momentum. The thing called civilization, as the history of the past shows conclusively enough, is only a dog chasing its own tail. As Bernard Shaw points out: There is an accumulation of inventions and mechanical knowledge (the work of exceptional men, but not requiring exceptional men for their appliance) and this gives the illusion of progress-this, and the wave-like integrations of material wealth-, which by their own excess, tend to become disintegration. The history of nations is the same as that of worlds and individuals-birth, youth, maturity, age, and Death-or, more scientifically, integration and disintegration.

To get back to the starting-point, I don't see that I owe anything to the mob anyway. Bierce says that the present state of things is all the crowd's own fault; but I suppose one might go further back and lay the blame on the law of gravitation, which is as good a place to let it rest as any. In either case, I don't see that I'm "obligated" to attempt the amelioration of the muddle by the composing of Socialist rhymes. It won't matter so very much, anyway, whether I did or didn't, in the days when the world begins to bleach and shrivel, and the sun is blotched with death. Socialist and Individualist, they'll all be a little dirt lodged deep in the granite wrinkles of the globe's countenance. (There's nothing like a cosmic perspective for cheering one up!)

I am doing a certain amount of work, but it doesn't seem to me that I am putting much inspiration into it. Most of my best work has been done in the months between May and September. I have finished a narrative poem entitled "Saturn", dealing with the fall of the Titans, which runs to about 250 lines. It's rather an experiment, and I don't feel very sanguine about it. I have also written a dramatic monologue, "Nero", which is even more of an experiment. It's the emperor's soliloquy after he has watched the burning of Rome. I suppose one has to do a lot of inferior work to pay for the privilege of writing something really good on occasion. I am trying another poem, "The Shadow of the Unattained", but it doesn't seem to take shape at all easily. Sometimes I get clear lines like these-

"Fainter than winds that breathe
The folds of twilight's drapery."

and, again-

"Beauty, whose lyric laughters hold
A sadder music learned of old,
An echo from the halls of Death"-

but, on the whole, what I have done so far is rather unsatisfactory.

I entered the Kennerly contest, and got paid for my temerity. The editor told me that if I'd re-write the poem I sent in, according to his notions (he was so kind as to send me a version of his own to work on!) he might use it. I spent the most of one perfectly good Sunday trying to re-write the poem without undue violence to my own conception of it, but I take it from what the editor said that I'll have to be one of the goats omitted from the Kennerly fold. Why is an editor? Perhaps like red motor-cars, church-bells, mosquitoes, and the saltatory flea, they are sent upon us as a judgement for our sins.

Most sincerely, your friend,
Clark Ashton Smith.

Originally published in Mirage, 10 (1971), pp. 63-70.

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