Monday, March 18, 2013

Um, Poetry . . .

I've been a fan of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories since I was in elementary school, but only recently stumbled across this collection of his poems.

To be honest, I wouldn't bother. These poems are flat-out unreadable. And I'm not a poetry snob, or an anti-poetry zealot. I read quite a bit of poetry in any range of style. It's just that Clark Ashton Smith is no poet. Oh, he rhymes nice and all, and has got a good sense of rhythm. He falls victim to the poet's disease of having to pick big, complicated words when more ordinary words will do, muddling meaning and leaving readers alosh in a swirl of words that might just as well have been picked randomly from the dictionary. I read the specific Star-Treader poem a number of times and just can't hack through the obtuse language -- and I really tried because I really wanted to like this, given its author. I plow through a lot of books in a lot of genres, and only rarely find a book as unreadable as this. It's good for the Clark Ashton Smith fan's library, but as a curiosity, not as a good read.

Maybe I'm wrong. Here's the title poem from the book. Part of the awkwardness here comes from an underprepared reader, but a lot of it is just present in the awkwardness of the original writing.

So "The Soul of the Sea," one of the poems in this collection, is all right. It's almost like the subject caught Smith off-guard so he didn't have a ready supply of Thees and Thous and Thines ready to pile on like bricks. . . but still. Read on:

The Soul of the Sea

A wind comes in from the sea,
And rolls through the hollow dark
Like loud, tempestuous waters.
As the swift recurrent tide,
It pours adown the sky,
And rears at the cliffs of night
Upplied against the vast.
Like the soul of the sea--
Hungry, unsatisfied
With ravin of shores and of ships --
Come forth on the land to seek
New prey of tideless coasts,
It raves, made hoarse with desire,
And the sounds of the night are dumb
With the sound of its passing.

It's a good lesson in which a writer lets the form -- poetry, and I mean old, crusty poetry meant to sound old-fashioned and hoary and as if it were being read from an ancient scroll or something -- take over completely. Maybe the author thinks that's his or her voice, when it really isn't; it's just old conventions taking over while being handled by inexpert hands. I catch myself doing that oncie in a while and just have to back away, swiftly, to hit the delete button because no matter how much pounding or editing you might do on dreck like that, it's still going to be dreck. There's a reason old-fashioned things sound old-fashioned -- it's because they're old-fashioned. It takes genius to recreate that sound without making it sound terrible. Smith just doesn't have that genius.

Not that he's a bad poet -- because there are gems in this collection. Consider "A Sunset":

As blood from some enormous hurt
The sanguine sunset leapt;
Across it, like a dabbled skirt,
The hurrying tempest swept.

There, he nails it, because he wrote as himself, not as some mooning philosopher-poet trying to ape styles long since passed. You'd think someone who can write short stories as he does, with a unique voice that harks back to the old storytelling-around-the-campfire tradition, could see that he's failing to do so in his poetry. But we writers all have our blind spots, we all have our little tics and jigs that we can't see, no matter how far we've gone in the craft.

1 comment:

Stephen Brooke said...

Keep in mind that these are teenage poems by Smith---the book was published when he was only 19! Okay, maybe Rimbaud could pull off good teenage poetry but not most of us. :)

He did get somewhat better.