Never Mind the Streets of Paris: An Introduction to John Smith

“Poems,” John Smith tells us in this issue of CNQ, “can be complicated critters.”

Try to get them in line as you like, it’s true, the words always have a way of slipping out from under your watch. Undisciplined in the art of conformity, good poems stay out late, sending their best lines back to us at all hours.

They’re rebellious, yes – they challenge us. And just when we think we’ve put them in their place, they swagger off in another direction. Un-aging teenagers in the great mall of time, they are, in a word, complicated. And so they always should be.

There’s a longstanding misconception in Canadian poetry that the plain-spoken voice, the supposedly “genuine” record of lived experience, distances itself from esoteric concerns. I’ve never found this particularly convincing. It seems to me that an ideal poetry – a poetry of both conscience and complexity – should embrace all facets of being, especially those elements of ourselves that are as intellectually robust and as aesthetically complex as they are generous in nature.

Which brings me to the present issue of CNQ, one that I like to think actually had its start a little over 63 years ago. The war in the Pacific has just ended, armistice celebrations were filling the streets of Toronto, and a polite argument was just then breaking out at the corner of Queen and Bay. A group of young people had joined in the festivities, and another, a stranger – picture him: tall, wiry, with a full life set out before him – had stopped to ask them precisely what it was they were celebrating.

Not exactly the kind of question that makes you popular at a party, but one that matters as much now as it did then: just what do we celebrate, and why? It’s a kind of curiosity we should all foster, regardless of whether our concerns be political or aesthetic, or some varied hybrid of the two. And how fortunate for us that we have in John Smith – poet, performer, teacher, and public intellectual – someone who has been willing to ask such questions, and to process what the century has had to offer in the broadest of lyrical terms.

By ways of introduction to Smith’s poetry, part of me wants to say this: just as E. J. Pratt was  responding to the influence of Darwinian thought on pre-WWI social and economic policies – a period that saw the dangers of survival-of-the-fittest, excessive individualism, monopoly capitalism, and rampant nationalism made painfully clear – Smith’s open outlook overexposes these concerns into a postmodern alternative, one that pushes back against the excessive consumerism, self-obsession, and solipsism that largely defines our uncertain drift into the millennium.

Such academic mouthfuls, however, not only feel too reductive and limiting to me, they are, in fact, the very sort of confident conclusions that Smith’s poetry denies. Fellow fussy readers, take note: those of you who share my dissatisfaction with easy prescriptions will find much pleasure here. As Zach Wells writes in his essay, “Peeing Unrepentantly into Infinity,” Smith’s poetry finds its admirers among those “who value inquiry over easy answers and who find wonder and joy and terror at every touch and turn.” In this spirit of sublime inquiry, this special issue of CNQ strolls forth. Brent MacLaine, for example, tackles the issue of difficult poetry head on, reading Smith’s poetry in relation to what George Steiner calls the “rich undecidability” of poetic language. Ross Leckie for his part interrogates the slippery concept of the minor masterpiece, considering in the process how Smith’s fifth book, Strands the Length of the Wind, lends new meaning to the phrase.

At my request, Alan Wilson drops in on the ghostly world of particle physics to see what poetry lives there. In the wake of the atomic bomb, John Smith once told me, the study of physics was understood as a way of coming to grips with the violent truth of the century. To write poetry was to pursue this knowledge as well, but to do so outside the framework of power that made such violence possible. Prompted by these observations, I asked Wilson to revisit the relationship between science and poetry, and to consider how these “two solitudes” actually “inhabit one skull.”

Elsewhere in this issue, Matthew Tierney goes out on a phantom limb; Richard Lemm revisits a hatha yoga ashram in Putnam, Connecticut; Steve McOrmond celebrates the universe as perceived from one small island; and John Smith wonders, as perhaps only he can, precisely what you had in mind the last time you called the plumber. All this and a full slate of reviews, articles, and regular features make this issue of CNQ worthy of every cent of the soon-to-be revoked public funding that went into it. Our compliments, as always, to the incalculable imaginative powers of the Federal Conservative government.

To account for my own part in this issue, I have just this much to tell: at the age of nineteen I received, great gift from the gods, a small grant to work on some poems. Cheque in hand I felt as though the warm months ahead had all landed on my doorstep at once, gift wrapped in their own decadent promises. That winter I had read John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse, the story of two young Montréalers who quit their jobs at the Sun Life Insurance Company in 1921 to live and write among the expatriates of Paris, and now, free from the weight of my winter clothes, and with the rent paid in full through August, I imagined myself (naively, I know) undertaking my own season of blissful hedonism.

Never mind the streets of Paris – it was summer in Charlottetown and the city was blanketed by its own air of expectancy, tourists coming and going, crowds moving about like excited schools of fish, the whole day’s traffic hinged on the twin questions of where-to-go-now and what-to-do-next. Surely I would weave among them by day, watching picture after picture be taken, and at night, sink comfortably off to sleep on the other side of their souvenir imaginings.

The notion that writing involved heavy doses of work had not yet occurred to me. The idea that I had responsibilities that extended beyond my own care was as foreign as the parlours of Montparnasse. As Glassco says of his first weeks free of Montréal, “I was so happy that writing did not interest me at all.” And why would it? When the world’s the small place you’re imagining for yourself, and the summer’s narrative promising to unfold in ways pleasantly unpredictable, there’s really very little left to do but sign on as its lucky protagonist.

This was the summer I met Mr. Smith. Long before academic silos grew tall, John had studied extensively across a broad range of fields at the University of Toronto. Students of the respective colleges at this time still read physics, mathematics, botany, and Latin in the morning, argued about politics and the economy in the afternoon, and then devoured literature in their private time at night. Or at least that’s how I imagine it. I’m certain some of the same trepidation intellectuals now feel as they venture outside their respective fields was already taking root then, just as the disciplines themselves were staking out their eventual intellectual territory.

Even so, such open-mindedness was still very much alive, and in his twenty-five years at UPEI, John Smith embodied its spirit brilliantly. Dividing his time equally between teaching literature, writing poetry, and his ongoing study of theoretical physics, Smith became an interdisciplinary intellectual in the truest sense. Even well into his retirement, he continued his research on a daily basis, not only pursuing both physics and poetry as a matter of daily course, but also inviting young writers to his home for an afternoon of conversation and tea – which was how I found myself one afternoon in July seated at his kitchen table, absorbed in a conversation that moved freely back and forth between the immensity of the universe and the profound depth of the characters in Hamlet. That first conversation lasted four hours, the second just as long, and so unfolded my summer.

Only recently have I returned to these conversations with the understanding that each one was an impromptu lesson in the difficult art of seeing beyond myself, of appreciating the bigger picture. “A large mind examines a small mind,” writes David W. McFadden in one his finest sonnets, and “mounts it like a butterfly.” What better image to describe the presence Smith has had in the lives of young writers – touching down elegantly, memorably, and yet with a nearly imperceptible weight.

With this issue, then, we have the opportunity to celebrate not only an excellent poet, but also a public intellectual who has taken his responsibilities seriously, and whose work is the result of a lifetime of careful deliberation. Alex Colville once said that it takes him between five and ten years to complete a painting, and these poems feel as though they emerged through the surface of similar canvases: patiently guided by the meticulous hand, and just as well-hewn over time.

Speaking of time, there is a distinct quality to many of the poems presented here that sets them apart from what we often encounter in Canadian poetry. These sonnets take a pass on the Wordsworthian prescription, opting instead for the drama of the present over emotion recollected in tranquility. They’re rigorously active, lively in the arguments they have with themselves while running circles around any easy conclusions. Like the unexpected discoveries in an ongoing experiment, these poems’ findings are willing to conflict with their hypotheses, and so the observer must relinquish ground in order to move in a new direction. In the poet’s dialogue with the world, this must be the essential task, and to bear it out well, and with words of encouragement, is the mark of a tremendous presence: “Bend, address the moment,” Smith reminds us, “this is an old see-saw – drop – get it right – heave, breathe, groan, hear, swing up, again, again.”

It’s this old see-saw that we celebrate here: the work of a poet who has taken us beyond ourselves, and who has provided, with the intellectual steam of some masterful poems, ample fuel for the infinite return.

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