California Poet. Clark Ashton Smith of Auburn Reveals Unusual Talents in New Volume.

William Foster Elliot

1Ebony and Crystal, by Clark Ashton Smith: The Auburn Journal Press, Auburn, California, $2.

A volume has just been issued from the press of the Auburn Journal which makes two distinct demands upon the sympathies of western poetry lovers. First, and vastly the more important, is the quality of the verse which this book contains; but when that has been duly appraised it cannot fail to one's pleasure to know that the author is a Californian.

Clark Ashton Smith lives at present on a ranch near Auburn. He has already published one volume of verse, The Star-Treader and Other Poems, and his work is known to the discriminating. George Sterling stands godfather to the present volume with a preface in which he does not hesitate to use terms of the highest praise. There have been times when a similar combination of events would have turned many feet toward Auburn. Today one may hope that a few hearts may be inclined in that direction.

For the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith is authentic poetry, of which there is not enough in the world at any one time to permit one to regard an addition to the supply as an ordinary event. This young man (he is still under thirty) has had one love when he has worshipped and one allegiance which he has served. He has condescended neither to the theories of revolutionists nor to the sentimentalities of the mediocre. Beauty has been his goddess; he has served her singly, with unbiased heart and unremitting ardor; and the result of this service lies in Ebony and Crystal, plain to be seen of eyes which have sought her also.

* * *

All classifications are important, but for some convenience some lines must be drawn, if for nothing else , to do away with the necessity for long winded description. Poetry may be roughly classified under three principal heads. There is the poetry of the heart, of the head, and of both. None of the three kinds is ever found quite pure except the third, and here there is seldom a perfect balance; but the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith is as nearly pure as things are apt to be in this heterogenous world, and it is of the second kind.

He has, as Sterling has said in his gracious preface, "lent himself the more innocently to the whispers of his subconscious daemon." He is for the most part not of the world. He roams a strange world beneath the wan light of fleeing moons, beside dark pools where lilies gleam–a land where geography need not be more specifically cited than as lying somewhere between Saturn and the sun.

A sense of space is his, and its natural correlative, an enormous distaste for limitation. He cries out for vast prospects. He is at peace among the thunder of planets. Comets are his familiar spirits; on the far rim of space he sifts falling stardust for strange words of gold; he is intoxicated with the reel of nebulae, and in the cold fire of Sirius his mind finds a natural affinity.

It is the fate of most poetry today to revolt more or less madly against things as they are. This poetry is no exception; but the intensity of Smith's revolt has effaced all consciousness of itself and become pure creation, erecting a new cosmos with laws and beauties peculiar to itself. It is not a pose. The far-off, the fabulous, the exotic, are necessary to him; and though now and then one finds a trace of preciosity in his phrasing, the most notable fact in this poetry is its almost desperate sincerity.

* * *

Naturally enough, it has the defects of its qualities. No man may turn his back completely upon common things without loss. Earth takes her revenge. It was not in the mere fancy that the old Greeks pictured the giant with whom Hercules wrestled as gaining new vigor with each contact with the soil. Poetry is such a giant, and may also be conquered by removal from earth; but with the conquest goes an inevitable loss of sheer human vigor in the verse.

In the case of Ebony and Crystal the result of this alienation from life is a certain sterility even in the midst of its greatest beauty. The poet describes himself as having

"—placed my wealth before thy fabled eyes Pallid and pure as jaspers from the moon."

And much of his verse is like the eyes of this goddess of Lemuria–fabled, pallid, pure, beautifully wrought with an almost flawless technique, but infinitely remote, a thin high music as of crystal bells beaten far off in the night.

* * *

But there are unforgettable pictures on almost every page, and in certain poems–notably in the sonnet "Transcendence" and the lyric "Solution"–there are definite traces of a broader comprehension and a richer harmony. It seems as if in these Clark Ashton Smith had set a foot over the borderline of pure imagination and breathed for a moment an atmosphere of sympathy which could fertilize his art and give it a far wider significance.

But one must not find too much fault with such work as this, and one would find none at all if it were not that the fineness of this poet's achievement leads one inevitably to hope for him, as time goes on, a conquest finer still.

He has had courage to avoid the sentimental, the obvious, the trite. He has withstood the much more subtle seductions of the Time-Spirit, which would make poetry out of street cars, hucksters, slum harlots, and the dregs and refuse of life. His life bears no date line; it is neither modern nor ancient; it is merely beautiful.

This, it may be repeated, is no small achievement. He has a vivid imagination, a copious and personal vocabulary, an unfailing sense for literary form. With some disciplining of the seductions of his own temperament, some warmer recognition of the beauty that also lies in loves and hates, struggles, failures and successes of the world that surges about the base of his ivory tower it would be hard to match him in the fold of present-day poetry.


  1. CAS-GS, Jan. 3, 1923: "Here's the latest review of my book. It appears simultaneously in the Fresno 'Bee' and the Sacramento 'Bee,' and was written by the assistant editor of the former, William Foster Elliot, who is also a poet and has written some uncommonly good stuff." GS-CAS, Jan. 16, 1923: "I return the 'Bee' man's review, which is by much the most discerning and adequate of any you have (so far as I know) yet received. I could wish I'd written it for the preface of the book."

From: The Sacramento Bee, December 30, 1922, p. 26. Also appeared in the Fresno Bee (appearance not verified):
Source and Footnotes: Scott Connors

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