Clark Ashton Smith In Memory Of A Great Friendship

Eric Barker

It was early in 1938 that I first met Clark Ashton Smith. About a year before I had married the dancer, Madelynne Greene, and at that time neither of us had even heard of his name! This is not really as strange as it may seem, for Ashton was a phenomenon in more ways than one. In his personal life as well as in his writings he was as far removed from contemporary life as a poet could possibly be. For nearly half a century he lived in a ramshackle cabin in the Sierra foothills, and in the sixty-eight years of his life he left his native California only once, and then to go no farther than the adjoining state of Nevada! And this was the poet whose fertile imagination, even as a boy, (he had written most of the poems in The Star-Treader before he was twenty) had carried him illimitably beyond the attractions of any earthly lodestone. No wonder he was so little known! By temperament he seemed to us more suited to life in the Middle Ages whose picturesque and archaic language he employed constantly in his poems and stories. This was, of course, to his disadvantage as it was also his weakness as a contemporary poet. For it is the poets who change the language and so save it from sterility, and Ashton was certainly never born to create any drastic changes in the mainstream of English poetry. His unique and particular genius was to play upon the old harps more musically than almost any poet since François Villon, a poet whom he resembled in some respects. And to write the most imaginatively weird stories in the genre of the macabre than any writer since Edgar Allan Poe. None of which made him in the least in tune with his times! He was a rara avis, a melancholy raven, (though he could be sweet and perky as a robin at times) an outlander on shores that were not really his own, and it was this very remoteness from present day life that helped to endear him so much to us. We became very close in the twenty years of our friendship, two poets and a dancer, a triumvirate, Ashton used to say in his droll medivalway, that only death could put asunder.

I shan't easily forget our first visit to Ashton. We had gone on the suggestion of a friend who had shown us some of the poems in Ebony and Crystal and drawn us a map directing us to the poet's cabin. We were both very much in awe of meeting him. I had recently begun writing poems myself and had the reverence of a beginner for the veteran poet, and Madelynne, as a dancer, had been immediately captured by the rhythm and music of Ashton's verses. We parked near the highway and took the short walk through the woods to his cabin. It looked inexpressibly dreary at first sight, alone in a small rock-strewn meadow, looking somehow as if it didn't really belong, at least in the natural way that the rocks and digger pines belonged.

We knocked timidly at the door and waited. In the silence that followed we seemed to hear the dust settling. Then the latch was lifted, the door creaked open, and the poet appeared. He was tall and lean and bronzed; he had a magnificent head, thickly thatched; he had a small trembling mouth and he was as shy as a wren. His beautiful manners were not of this world at all; he bowed from the waist with the charm and elegance of a medieval courtier and invited us in to his dusty, overcrowded sanctum. Books were everywhere, on shelves, upturned boxes, in cobwebbed corners cheek by jowl with old copies of Weird Tales magazine. But what immediately attracted and held the eye was a row of stone figures that Ashton had carved himself from a local stone. They were nearly all of a terrifying and demoniacal aspect and represented for the most part the gods and goddesses of an evil hierarchy that he had invented himself for his weird and unearthly stories. There were also a few demons and cacodemons, vampires and succubi, and one jolly pot-bellied god that we chose later by unanimous consent for our tutelary deity.

In the middle of the room was an ancient wood-burning stove, a Moloch of insatiable appetite that Ashton served with unflagging loyalty. It was really a matter of necessity, especially in winter. There were so many crannies in the walls for the wind to enter that unless the stove glowed red-hot all the time, anyone sitting a few inches away would be comfortably warm from the navel down while everywhere above that thermal belt would be invaded by a breath from the arctic regions. Ashton had been stuffing logs into that ravenous maw for so many years that he had become an expert axeman. Like most poets he was inept with tools, but with him the axe was an exception. He split logs with a rhythm and economy of labor that I could never match. And he was justly proud of his skill.

He was a shy man, quietly spoken, and at that time he was very lonely. He made us feel that he was very grateful for our visit. As we sat close to the glowing stove on that first evening together, drinking and talking or saying nothing at all, we were all very aware of the bond that was already forming between us. We felt honored to be with Ashton, a poet of genius, albeit one out of touch with his times. Added to that he was a man of staggering knowledge and extraordinary sensitivity. He was very generous in his praise of my early poems, although I believe now that at that time I had no authentic voice of my own. Later when we exchanged poems and read aloud to each other, our differences of opinion only added zest to a friendship that was already strong and secure.

He used to come and visit us when we lived in San Rafael, where Madelynne had her first dance studio, staying sometimes for weeks at a time. Those were the days before the quiet and lovely hills above San Rafael were savaged by bulldozers in preparation for the coming real estate boom. There were sunlit glades full of giant oaks, green valleys and wooded hills where we could walk and rest all day without meeting anyone. In later years when we lived in San Francisco he would come and stay in our little apartment just below Telegraph Hill. But Ashton was never really at home in a city. We used to climb Telegraph Hill and look across the bay toward San Rafael and talk of the old solitary days together that the real estate promoters had killed forever. We had a favorite hill there that Ashton named The Hill of Dionysus. It is the name of the title poem in his last cycle of love-lyrics that he dedicated to Madelynne. On one of our last picnics there the weather was particularly lovely. Madelynne had brought along her modeling clay from which she was fashioning a figure of Pan. Swallow-tail butterflies were fluttering among the trees and one alighted on Madelynne's hand, gently fanning its wings. Ashton was enchanted. Before we left Madelynne placed her little image of the pagan god in one of the forks of an enormous live oak beneath which we had rested.

Only a few days ago Madelynne and I drove up there, the first time in years. Now a paved road leads to the top and we stopped by The Hill of Dionysus. Most of it is occupied by a spacious house and garden. Mercifully, the great oak is still there. Madelynne's pagan image must long since have succumbed to the elements. Ashton has gone too, but the hill and the tree are in his poems. And by poetry's ancient incontestable right the hill is still ours - sans house, sans garden. An ownership — no — a heritage shared by three — two poets and a dancer. For all time.

December 28,1966

From: Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald M. Grant, 1978.

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