In reading through Scott Connors' spectacular volume In the Realms of Mystery and Wonder, I came across a remembrance of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) by his friend and fellow poet Eric Barker. This essay is entitled "In Memory Of A Great Friendship" and in general, it's a very sweet portrait of CAS, but contains these troubling lines of criticism (the "us" refers to Barker and his wife, the dancer Madelynne Greene):
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.
I am particularly bothered by the statement that "it is the poets who change the language and so save it from sterility." By itself, that statement may be true, but the surrounding comments addressing CAS' "weakness as a contemporary poet" imply that as a writer, CAS failed to do his share of saving the English language from sterility.
Barker offers CAS up as a sort of breathing fossil, who can be faulted for using "picturesque and archaic language." The argument seems to be that because the form and structure of CAS' poetry was not much in sympathy with literary trends predominant during his lifetime, that he was not a "contemporary poet". By extension, this suggests that unless an artist adheres to what is appreciated by some sort of arbitrary mainstream taste, the work can be discounted at the time of creation.
I don't doubt that Barker's criticism is well-intentioned, but the suggestion that works of art need to be created in line with current trends and practices is ridiculous, and even tends towards a misguided justification for self-censorship. CAS' works in poetry are worth reading because the author followed his own muse, and adopted a technique that allowed him to express himself creatively. His approach was anything but anachronistic, and was (in my opinion) closer to being timeless, specifically because he chose not to let contemporary fashion dictate the shape and the sound of his art.
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