Reviews of Nero and Other Poems


From Voices no. 91 (Autumn 1937): 44-46]


HOUNDS ON THE MOUNTAIN, by James Still. Vikiug Press, New York. $2.00.
AMERICAN FRONTIER, by Elisabeth Peck. Doubleday Doran, New York. $2.00.
NERO AND OTHER P0EMS, by Clark Ashton Smiih. Futile Press, Lakeport, Cal. $.25.

Spiritual frontiers are always stable subjects for the poet, and physical frontiers retain a strong position among the subjects of many first poets, whether their poetry is definitely frontier verse, as is Elisabeth Peck's, or whether it is the singing of a pass-ing country and a passing time in relation rather to individual memory than to history, as is James Still's. Of these two books dealing specifically with physical frontiers, James Still's Hounds on the Mountain is far and away the more important.

It is hackneyed to say "here is a new talent worth watching: fresh lines: power and beauty," though all these things might be said truthfully enough about James Still and his poetry. A slim volume, Hounds on the Mountain was published in an edition limited to 750 copies, tastefully and attractively designed and printed. It has only thirty-five titles, but few collections contain so many fine poems. It is Kentucky of his adoption, rather than the Alabama of his birth, that James Still sings. He writes about many things, as some of his titles indicate: Fox Hunt, Farm, Mountain Dulcimer, Graveyard, etc., but whatever his subject, there is always something far more than loving description; these poems communicate experience and life in the reader's own terms without once departing from their setting. Felicity of phrase, strength of line, authenticity of emotion—all distinguish these fine poems. There is no question about the lyrical ability of a poet who can write of a graveyard:

Nothing has moved in this town.
Nothing at all. Only the soundless dark
And the wonder of night that came like wind
Unseen have wandered down these final streets.
Only the silent have come upon this mark.

who says with dignified finality of himself

Being of these hills, being one with the fox
Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,
The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,
One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,
And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go.
Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.

Elisabeth Peck's frontier chronicle is different in character: a series of poems based upon pioneer experience in the United States between 1780 and 1875, rich in color and detail, but not always so fortunate in phrase and line, which are too often prose, even if rhythmic prose. Her subjects are the pioneers moving westward, Indians, Mormons, the figures of the old west of legend and of history, and the book is replete with poetic portrayals of such typical pioneer customs as camp meetings, court-ings, wedding dances, rope-spinning. Despite some awkward lines, despite some scenes that do not come off, despite the fact that Miss Peck's canvas is too large for her to convey within the covers of this book anything but a shell of what she set out to do, there is nevertheless in the book as a whole a pleasant and color-ful unity, there are many skilfully recreated incidents and ctis-toms, the atmosphere and feeling of the past are here; and in addition to Elisabeth Peck's many fine lines, the book is deco-rated with unsigned illustrations in keeping with the frontier na-ture of her subject. Some of her portraits are clearly, sharply drawn:

Black Hoof stared at the dull-red dogwood tree.
He listened to the wind as it whined in the linn.
He sniffed the air strong with autumn leaf-smoke.

Black Hoof was thinking of the White Man.
"Weak as a nursing dog-puppy,
He smells about for food, day, night;
Always for food he is seeking."

If she has not been entirely successful in her design, still she has succeeded to this extent: she has written a selective, richly fla-vored account in a form which seems best suited to her subject upon an aspect of American history and life far from exhausted for poetic exploration.

Clark Ashton Smith's frontiers are, as always, the abysses of time, space, and the human mind—that small glimmering in the cosmos. A long time ago George Sterling wrote of Smith: "Because he has lent himself the more innocently to the whispers of his subconscious daemon, and because he has set those mur-murs to purer and harder crystal than we others, by so much the longer will the poems of Clark Ashton Smith endure. Smith is undoubtedly in the great tradition. . . and yet, to our ever-lasting shame, he is entirely neglected and almost unknown." Sterling's words are no less true today. Author of The Star Treader, Odes and Sonnets, Ebony and Crystal, etc., Clark Ash-ton Smith writes today as always for a small but choice audience. There is, however, no reason why his audience should not be of the widest possible. Certainly it is unquestionably true that his poetry is classic in form, to which the ten poems in this slim little book bear ample testimony. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of his A Dream of Beauty:

I dreamed that each most lovely, perfect thing
That nature hath, of sound, and form, and hue—
The winds, the grass, the light-concentering dew,
The gleam and swiftness of the sea-bird's wing;
Blueness of sea and sky, and gold of storm
Transmuted by the sunset, and the flame
Of autumn-colored leaves, before me came,
And, meeting, merged to one diviner form.

Smith has sung his spiritual frontiers for many years; James Still and Elisabeth Peck have just passed their physical frontiers in poetry. After the pasture bars are down, the frontiers widen; let us hope it may be so, too, with their audiences. Each of these three poets deserves more than mere reading. No one can say how time will measure our contemporary poets, but I do not hesitate to say that of Clark Ashton Smith and James Still, the future will know their lines. —AUGUST DERLETH

[From Wings (Summer 1938): 27-28.]

NERO AND OTHER POEMS. By Clark Ashton Smith. The Futile Press, Lakeport, Calif.

Issued in a small Far Western town by an organization whose very name seems to bear ironic implications, this 24-page booklet has a significance beyond that of most full-length volumes. For it re-introduces a poet who deserves a far wider audience than he enjoys. Originally issued by A. M. Robertson of San Francisco in 1912, these poems won merited praise from George Sterling and other critics, but have never made much headway with the public. The reason, perhaps, is not difficult to see, for the author has a macabre and perverse pessimism of thought which could hardly be expected to have a universal appeal; and he is most at home in remotely cosmic themes which may stimulate the imagination but cannot warm the emotions. Yet his work is shot through with a majesty that entitles him to the recognition of the discerning. There is a Byronic grandeur about some of the lines from "Nero":

Destruction crouching at the back of Time,
The tongueless dooms which dog the travelling suns;
The vampire Silence at the breast of worlds,
Fire without light that gnaws the base of things,
And Lethe*s mounting tide, that rots the stone
Of fundamental spheres.

Simpler and possibly more appealing, but equally illuminated with Mr. Smith*s own peculiar personality, is the lyric, "The Winds":

To me the winds that die and start,
And strive in wars that never cease,
Are dearer than the level peace
That lies unstirred at summer s heart.

The naked splendor of the author*s imagination, however, best stands forth in such a sheerly original piece as "The Song of a Comet":

Pale plummet of the stark immensities,
From perished heavens cast, I fall and flare
'Through gulfs by stellar orbits girdled round;
And spaces bare
Of sparkless night between the galaxies-
By path of sun nor circling planet bound.

Slender though the present sheaf of verses, it will have served its purpose if it fans interest in one who, while still living, is undeservedly to be ranked among the "neglected poets". [-STANTON A. COBLENTZ]

This collection was also reviewed in a newspaper, The Californian (not the amateur journal published by Hyman Bradofsky), on December 1, 1937 (page 6); however, this review is largely a paraphrase of David Waren Ryder's "The Price of Poetry," along with a reprinting of Smith's "Retrospect and Forecast."

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