Letter to George Sterling

From Clark Ashton Smith

Auburn, Calif.
May 26th, 1912.

My dear Friend:

I've just received your letter, and the clipping from the Transcript. Your ode seems to me by all odds the best of the lot; the first two stanzas of it are particularly great, and all of it, indeed, is good. Markham's sonnet is good, too, but I don't care much for the others. I don't like to say that you have overinformed your subject; I like Browning, and think he is a great poet. But to me (perhaps I don't understand him well enough) it seems that he is not a poet of the very first rank, like Poe, Milton, and Keats. I measure a poet largely by his imaginative powers; and to me, "human interest" is not in the least essential. Most people who see my work complain that it lacks the human note; but that is something I have not tried to put in it. Perhaps imaginative insight into human life (like Browning's) is just as valuable as the more sidereal kind; but I don't see it that way. For that reason, there are stanzas in your "Testimony" that seem to me to outweigh in poetic value any whole poem that I have ever read of Browning's. However, my reading of him is rather limited, so I won't pass absolute judgement.

I am almost afraid to send you "Nero". About four-fifths of it is prose, and not particularly good prose at that. However, I'm sending it. I hope you're not expecting too much of it. It has psychological value, I suppose; pathological might be a better word. The human interest (if it has any of what is usually meant by that term) is sinister and abnormal. It has a few great lines (according to my taste) such as "The vampire Silence of the breast of worlds", but I am not at all hopeful about it.

I have been trying other poems; but the "Uncontrollable" (as someone has called it) does not seem to be on the job. Consequently, it's been slow and painful work for me to piece any thing together at all. It's unpleasant, to say the least, to want to write some thing with all your might, but not to be able to do it. The state is not unfamiliar to me, though; I don't think I've ever had more than three or four straight, clean attacks of inspiration. One of them was when I wrote the "Abyss Ode;" I did practically all of it at a sitting . . . My nerves, too, are giving me hell as usual; it's a sort of musical toothache.

I, also, have heard nothing from Mr. Robertson. I understood, a month or so ago, that he was to send me a contract soon; but nary a word. I suppose he'll dump the proofs on me without warning some day when the mercury is trying to climb out of sight.

You mention Neihardt. I have seen some of his work, and it's certainly fine stuff. I hope he'll do some yet that's even better; I think he has the power.

I saw something of Shauffler's in Current Literature awhile ago. I think it was a plea for the European immigrants-the "scum of the Earth", which is about what most of them are. I don't think he has a very good case. It's the low European, the anarchist and King-ridden, who is going to bring about America's downfall, and that at no very distant day, either. The criminally insane and viciously imbecile thing called American civilization can't stand many more of the breed. They're like rats gnawing at the foundations of a rotten barn. Well, let it go with the rest,-with these "tribes of slaves and Kings" that have kept the world's dust astir for awhile. It won't affect the "cost of living" in the worlds around Antares and Canopus, I suppose-this collapse of a pseudo-republic, built mostly of paper, and mortared with ink. They won't even know about it in the other planets of this system, unless they have rather better telescopes than ours. It seems of importance here, though; I suppose that the social upheavals of the ant-hill are of importance to the ants, too. But all colors will look alike in the night of Death. In the meanwhile, the race goes merrily on. I think the motor-car should be the symbol of American civilization, with the motto, "speed, dust, noise, and stink." Joy-riding, if it's kept up long enough, and fast enough, generally has but one end. I wish I could meet Bierce when he comes out; but I don't suppose it will be possible. Possibly he wouldn't care so much about meeting me.

Well, I must close. May the muse attend you!

Ever your friend,
Clark Ashton Smith

Originally published in Mirage, 10 (1971), pp. 63-70.

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Printed on: November 22, 2017