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A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 11 August, 2020 05:11PM
In another thread on this forum, several folks expressed interest in diving deeper into a discussion of CAS' wonderful poetry. So let's do it!

The aim is not so much to dwell on technical aspects of the poetry (meter, rhyme, and other principles of versification), but more to respond to the subjects, images, and the rich language that CAS handled with such mastery.

Let's start with "To the Nightshade":

[www.eldritchdark.com]

Surprisingly, this early poem from CAS wasn't collected until after his death, in one of Roy Squires' letterpress editions (The Palace of Jewels). But it's a great poem, and well worth reading and discussing!

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 11 August, 2020 05:30PM
I blogged about this poem a couple of years ago:

[www.desertdweller.net]

In that post, I noted the wonderful phrase "A hideous and fruitful wedlock", which seems to play on the fact that the fruit of the Atropa belladonna is toxic to humans.

I also find resonance in the very last words of the poem: "some place of sacrifice to monstrous gods". That phrase expands the scope of the poem to incorporate the powers of the divine, but in a decidedly baleful manner. It's a dark poem for sure, but CAS' ability to shift the mere description of a poisonous plant into the broader frame of the superhuman injects the poem with a powerful malevolence which is both thrilling and horrifying!

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 11 August, 2020 06:10PM
Yes, I have read it twice now. Never saw it before. I don't have time for a longer comment, ... but it is an intense poem alright. Chilling and beautiful at the same time. It feels many-layered and subtly convoluted in cycles. I am sure it can be interpreted in several ways. I feel the wind of Oblivion, the horrible shall pass, terrible deeds will be completely forgotten, evaporate like it never happened. Like wasted illusions. And in its place Beauty shall rise instead ... But there will be some subtle signs still, because the past always leaves marks, sometimes inscrutable, and Creation becomes more and more refined over time in its infinite Complexity of composition. Until Beauty and Terror cannot be easily separated anymore.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 11 August, 2020 07:33PM
Quote:
Knygatin
Until Beauty and Terror cannot be easily separated anymore.

Smith revelled in this sentiment. Many of his poems, especially this one, admire the things in nature that are inimical to our physical wellbeing. I like that amid the safe (and truly beautiful) flowers there are eerie and even dangerous mysteries to challenge our flow of thoughts, a stinging insect or a poisonous berry.

The deadly nightshade is an astounding flower, with its somber petals and its void-like berries. I can easily see the connection with sinister rituals devoted to gods beyond human worship. The flowers rise like hierophants among the other plants, without any heed for what humans want or need.

This is also one of Smith's many poems that end with the perfect climactic punch, climbing up from the plant itself to a strange and monstrous scene! Certainly this makes a good bridge from our earthly soil to the cosmic wildness of his "Hashish-Eater"!



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 11 Aug 20 | 07:39PM by Hespire.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 01:04AM
Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I can easily see the connection with sinister
> rituals devoted to gods beyond human worship. The
> flowers rise like hierophants among the other
> plants, without any heed for what humans want or
> need.

As a symbol, yes. But in reality, it can't suddenly rise up in shape as a result of a few sinister rituals, the nightshade must have developed slowly through evolution. I tend to analyze things down to matter of fact component parts, and I see beauty in that too, because natural things finally fall in pace in a majestic way. Because of this approach I don't always get poems like this immediately, because they work in archetypes and symbols, and mythology. I am a realist in thinking, in contrast to symbolist.

The poem is also potentially attractive as a pure fantasy, the nightshade filled with conscious evil spirit battening on sacrifice, but the poem is not constructed as a fantasy, it is more a serious expression of subtle mysticism.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 01:25AM
You make the assumption that I'm not also a gardener and a lover of the material sciences. Biology in particular is one of my favorite subjects, and due to my obsession with learning about something as it is now and how it developed over time, I'm quite aware of the impersonal process of evolution. But I'm not just this-or-that-minded, I'm able to look at things in different ways depending on the situation. As this isn't a university biology lab, I tried instead to follow the spirit of the poem as I interpreted it. Smith himself had a tendency to downplay materialism and science in his work and private letters, and although I don't always agree with him, I usually leave all that at the door whenever I log on here.

Your interpretations and your point of view are welcome, as there's no wrong way to interpret a poem (you can absolutely view this piece as pure fantasy if that's what makes sense to you), and a realist interpretation of a potentially symbolic poem sounds interesting to me, but if I'm going to be a thorn in anybody's side because I didn't interpret something in the way they prefer, then I'd rather stop right here and enjoy these poems privately.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12 Aug 20 | 01:27AM by Hespire.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 02:01AM
Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> but if I'm going to
> be a thorn in anybody's side because I didn't
> interpret something in the way they prefer, then
> I'd rather stop right here and enjoy these poems
> privately.

I am sorry, I don't understand how you came to this from my post. I was merely comparing my perspective with others' who are more used to reading poetry. I don't have a natural eye for poetry, because I was not raised with it. But I can still appreciate it in some ways.

I think it is probably better if I stand aside from this thread and simply read it. Because I make a complete fool of myself.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 04:33AM
Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------

> if I'm going to
> be a thorn in anybody's side ...

Not in the least. No risk of that whatsoever. Please continue the discussion.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 08:28AM
Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Until Beauty and Terror cannot be easily separated
> anymore.
>
> Smith revelled in this sentiment. Many of his
> poems, especially this one, admire the things in
> nature that are inimical to our physical
> wellbeing. I like that amid the safe (and truly
> beautiful) flowers there are eerie and even
> dangerous mysteries to challenge our flow of
> thoughts, a stinging insect or a poisonous berry.


I think these comments from Knygatin and Hespire do a great job of placing "To the Nightshade" into the broader context of CAS' work as a whole, including his work in forms beyond poetry. To some degree, this touches on issues that Steve Behrends has raised in his essay "Clark Ashton Smith: Cosmicist or Misanthrope?", which can be read here on The Eldritch Dark:

[www.eldritchdark.com]

I've never completely agreed with Behrends' conclusions in that essay, summarized in his closing statement:

Quote:
Steve Behrends
In short, for the true cosmicist Lovecraft, there was the immensity of the physical universe, while for Clark Ashton Smith, only the sense of distance and isolation from his fellow men.

That conclusion does seem to make a connection to Hespire's point that "Many of his (CAS') poems, especially this one, admire the things in nature that are inimical to our physical wellbeing."

It's interesting to speculate as to exactly why CAS had such admiration, but I still feel that labelling him a misanthrope is missing the target a bit, and feels like an over-simplification.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 10:42AM
Maybe going line-by-line, to elicit various responses to what the words mean to our readers. It's two sentences and perhaps explaining each sentence separately, with a conclusion at the end, might work.

First, an image to work from:

Blossom:
[en.wikipedia.org]

Fruit:
[en.wikipedia.org]

Let's see...


Sullen and sinister, darkly dull of leaf,
Thou rearest amid the brighter flowers,
Like a presage of evil in dreams of joyance—
Evil of beauty thy blossoms,
And purple like the agony of Death,
And their fruit as its livid consummation.


A direct poetic address to the actual flower, itself, as it might be seen by a by-passer as s/he walks thru a garden of otherwise innocuous flowers.

The observer then links his/her knowledge about the toxic nature of the flower to a general observation of ironic comparison to a foreshadowing of jarring evil in an otherwise benevolent existence.

CAS expands this initial observation and association with evil amidst the ordinary--even beautiful--to the shade of the blossom, which he portrays as "funereal", and further links the appearance of the fruit to an implied physical description of being very much like postmortem lividity, or even advanced corruption.

With this developed image he now extends the metaphor...

Such a flower art thou
As might spring from the rotting of ancient sin,
Its unavoidable latter confession,
Or from the corroded altar-stone,
Now merged with the blood of its victims—
A hideous and fruitful wedlock—
In some place of sacrifice to monstrous gods.


He now compares it to the idea of primal, perhaps universal, sin, by creating the image that the flower is rooted in the very idea of sin, and hence evil. He further observes that the visual manifestation of the flower is like a stain or stigmata that is apparent to all, and hence "unavoidable" or undeniable. Like evident sin, it's out there to see, and one can "see" it for what it is.

It's worthy of note that this particular comparison to sin is intangible--comparing the flower to a concept, and not to another tangible object. This is because he goes on to form a final, concrete comparison.

He now focuses on the concept of human or animal sacrifice--although I think we can safely assume human, this being CAS, after all!--as a concrete example of sin. Here. too, CAS implies that flower is rooted in a physical manifestation of evil--this time in a sort of imagined humus of years of blood-letting onto an altar stone. And to top it off, this is no Abrahamic deity, seeking its--AHEM!--just worship, but is more along the lines of Thasaidon and his ilk.


WHEW!

OK, to me the poem is in the form of a standard poetic observation, comparison, rumination, and development of a metaphoric analogy where the the poet receives an initial impression from a fairly commonplace object and extends it for philosophic resonance.

What say ye?

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 09:32PM
Sawfish Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> OK, to me the poem is in the form of a standard
> poetic observation, comparison, rumination, and
> development of a metaphoric analogy where the the
> poet receives an initial impression from a fairly
> commonplace object and extends it for philosophic
> resonance.

Your detailed reading of "To the Nightshade" is very illuminating Sawfish, and your analysis highlights some points I had not really considered before.

It seems to me that CAS' utilization of the commonplace to draw a larger picture incorporating philosophic elements was a technique that he used quite frequently throughout his body of poetry. I think this particular poem is notable for how elegantly he achieves that in a mere thirteen lines.

This is a great discussion - it's fascinating to see how different readers hone in on different aspects of a work. It's one of the reasons that I think both poetry and instrumental music can be so rewarding, since there is generally no absolutely correct interpretation of an individual work, and each experience of such a work can reveal new insights.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 10:46PM
I promise not to hammer the next poems so heavily, OldJoe! I seldom read poetry, do not feel comfortable with it, and I used that particular technique to get my mind into a poetic appreciation mode.

Could I ask to as Tolometh to the poems we might discuss at some point?

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Noivilbo (IP Logged)
Date: 12 August, 2020 11:44PM
I think “To the Nightshade” is aesthetically aligned to the Symbolists and Decadents, and that its subject is a dark and exceedingly beautiful prostitute in a brothel. Le violet est très sexy, très fleurs du mal.

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 13 August, 2020 11:00AM
Noivilbo Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I think “To the Nightshade” is aesthetically
> aligned to the Symbolists and Decadents, and that
> its subject is a dark and exceedingly beautiful
> prostitute in a brothel. Le violet est très sexy,
> très fleurs du mal.


Oui, mais est-ce qu'elle vous tue, aussi?

;^)

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: A closer look at the poems of Clark Ashton Smith
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 13 August, 2020 11:34AM
It's very difficult for me to get my head into a more receptive/appreciative mood for poetry. It is much more demanding, and looking at a very long poem is daunting, like coming upon the Great Basin in a wagon train. You are tempted to panic and go back to Kentucky, or wherever.

Do others here have this difficulty?

When I looked at OldJoe's recommended poem, I had to approach it as if I was approaching a piece of Java or C++ code that had been written by someone else, and I had inherited the maintenance/enhancement of it. I had to examine it minutely, and in small pieces to try to understand what was going on, basically.

Turned out to be kinda fun, though.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

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