John Smith, Prince Edward Island’s inaugural poet laureate, has been publishing books of poetry since 1972. In spite of his eminent position, and despite the fact that a Google search of his name turns up some 880,000 hits, he remains very little known outside the cozy confines of PEI. Moses Berger’s harsh words to his father in Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here spring to mind, by way of explanation: “Not all neglected writers are unjustifiably neglected.” Yet while I wouldn’t argue that John Smith is one of Canada’s greatest poets or that he deserves the same attention as, for example, his neighbour and near contemporary Milton Acorn, I do think his work is very good and, more importantly, perfectly unique in the often homogeneous world of contemporary verse. His obscurity can be chalked up to several factors, besides a name that sounds like it was invented for the guest registry at a no-tell motel. For one, Smith has published most of his books with very small regional presses. His 1982 collection Sucking-Stones (which incorporates two chapbooks published in the seventies by Square Deal, Reshard Gool’s press in Charlottetown, PEI) was published by Quadrant Editions, Gary Geddes’ subscription press, but Smith’s other books have all been published by Island houses: Ragweed Press (Midnight Found You Dancing and Strands the Length of the Wind) and now Acorn Press (Fireflies in the Magnolia Grove). A more cynical explanation is that unlike other Maritime poets who have transcended geographical obscurity to achieve notoriety—Acorn, Nowlan, Thompson—Smith lacks the eccentric public persona that, for better or for worse, helps put a poet’s work under the public eye. But I think the causa prima of his unpopularity is that Smith has over the course of his career followed a path that few readers are prepared to follow (references abound in Smith’s oeuvre to “The Road Not Taken,” clearly a touchstone for him).
All this is to say that Smith’s poetry is unabashedly intellectual. To give you an idea, the section headings of Fireflies in the Magnolia Grove are “Specifications,” “Contributions to a Theory of Identity,” “Histories,” “Reports of Sexual Dimorphism,” “Epistemologies” and “Disquisitions on the Question of Being.” He espouses a complicated polysyllabic vocabulary and his poems range over vast swaths of human endeavour, including, to name just a few, philosophy, theology, mathematics, physics, music and dance. His is a style that few poets try and that fewer yet manage convincingly. Most adhere earnestly to the Poundian dictum to “go in fear of abstractions.” Sensible advice in the main, for attempts at deep thought in verse usually come off as affected and irredeemably trite. But Smith’s uncommon breadth of learning (he is a professor emeritus of English, has a degree in mathematics and physics, and has studied, in his own words, “numerous things both systematically and otherwise”) and nimble, capacious mind, in concert with an elegant formal touch and keen ear for the music of a line, make his best work appeal to both emotion and intellect. Take, for example, “Mind Insists” from Fireflies:
Mind insists on rambling. The mountain, after all, is so
vast, so intimately fissured, so accommodating.
There are so many ways of getting to the top, it's hard
to stay fixed on the flower of one asketic microcleft.
Trickles can start at any point where conditions are right
for condensation. They come to meet you with disarming merriment, most of them dedicated to the deepening of
features already on record, but a few to true innovation.
When a rockface does break free, you go catatonic and cling together. Once admit there's no escape, you're gratified
to have so much time to watch the avalanche approach. A wall
of air hits you first. Death is in effect spontaneous.
Or, both saved, you're bridged over by a boulder. Climbing out reincarnate, the mountainside is a frozen surge of raw
seafloor. You don't get down to make a new start from the valley
till you've been parched and mummified by the naked dust of
the catastrophe. The other option would have you go extinct in the rubble
and so, as it were, achieve the summit by euphemism only.
But on a still summer's day, you're oblivious to such extremities.
Slopes compacted of ancient tragedies are simmering with bees.
Rocks here have been locked in place for more lives than you
I’ve quoted the poem in its entirety because Smith’s work is particularly difficult to excerpt, in spite of such brilliant phrases as “frozen surge of raw // seafloor” and “mummified by the naked dust of / the catastrophe” and the deft assonance and consonance of a line like “When a rockface does break free, you go catatonic and cling.” What I find most impressive about a poem like this is the poet’s virtuoso control of the extended metaphor, the smaller metaphorical nuggets embedded within the figurative frame, the contrapuntal interplay of abstract general statement and concrete particular detail. “[H]ard / to stay fixed on the flower of one asketic microcleft,” indeed.
It could be argued, with some validity, that Smith’s poetry suffers from a restricted range of tone, subject and form, that one John Smith poem too closely resembles any other, particularly since 1986’s Midnight Found You Dancing. It’s true that over his last three books, Smith has explored similar thematic territory and has done so primarily in a sort of meditative free-verse sonnet, whether in fourteen lines or in caudated variations (as in the example quoted above). Smith himself says of 1993’s Strands the Length of the Wind, “I tend to think of these poems as individual pieces in an open mosaic. Each piece of the mosaic is an abbreviated meditation that takes a run, often from what I think may be an unexpected angle, at one or more traditional themes.” A poet’s appraisal of his own work is always to be taken with a grain of salt, and I would hesitate to say that such an explanation necessarily justifies repetition. However, I think in this case that Smith’s statement provides the key to an appreciation of his tessellated oeuvre or, as he puts it in the opening poem of Fireflies, to “the art of perfect repetition.” On the surface, all of the pieces are similar in colour and texture, but each contains subtle yet important differences that make it integral to the picture as a whole. From above, the assembled fragments coalesce into a hologram-like image that changes depending on the angle of the observer; up close, the overall picture is lost, but one becomes aware that each individual tile is a similarly variegated whole, that “the part / also contains the whole” (“It Goes”).
Through electron microscope and Hubble telescope, John Smith probes the opposite realms of infinity and nothingness, the self becoming, as in Pascal’s Pensées, “un milieu entre rien et tout.” Reading Smith’s work, which belongs as much to the Renaissance (or for that matter to the thought of the pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus) as to our own age, I am put in mind of Newton’s supremely humble statement that he seemed to himself “to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all discovered before me.” This is another way of accounting for Smith’s lack of stature in the Canadian canon. So much of what is anthologized is poetry of the strongly individuated ego or “voice,” strong-stanced poetry of passionate conviction, evocations of specific places and times. Smith’s work in no way lacks passion or intensity, but what animates his writing is not glorification of the self and its credos, not specific landscapes, but “the need . . . // for the hook of questioning / and quest” (“The Beauty of Mystery”). His poetry thus bears marked affinities to the writing of Hopkins, Dickinson, Borges and Stevens, and is bound to be appreciated by admirers of such artists, for whom easy answers are few and far between, but who find wonder, joy and terror at every touch and turn.