Friday, August 31, 2018

The Hosts of Heaven


Here's another poem unpublished during the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's dig into the text itself:


O sun and stars, to what strange far-off end
What final fate tremendous and supreme,
Is ordered thy stupendous, awful scheme?
Whereto do all the ceaseless orbits tend,
Aphelions wherein the planets wend
To distances remote?  What is His dream,
In which thy hosts to some far purpose gleam,
The use whereto He doth the systems bend?

How vast and all embracing is this plan
          That wondrous, far-flung scheme we may not see--
                    Too bright, perhaps, its glory for our eyes!
Conceived ere Time and Space for us began.
          May e'er men hope to pierce the mystery
                    And learn at last the secret of the skies?


Right away, this sonnet captures my attention with presumed references to a deity.  Among the early poems of CAS that I have read so far, spiritual sentiments are widespread, but religious sentiments have not been much in evidence.  But I think "The Hosts of Heaven" still fits into that profile, since the voice in this poem expresses the wonder inspired by celestial phenomenon that is really a universal part of the human experience. 

One could almost choose to give this poem a reading that embraces the dissection of mystery implied by the sciences, with the last two lines suggesting that goal: "May e'er men hope to pierce the mystery / And learn at last the secret of the skies?"  I won't pursue that thought too far since the appreciation of poetry can suffer from over-reading, but it's an interesting yearning coming from a writer like CAS who was comfortable with embracing and celebrating the unknown.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Freedom of the Hills

This is another poem unpublished during the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), so let's begin with the text itself:


Mine is the larger freedom of the hills
          That look afar on vale, and plain, and sea--
A living map extended wide below--
          In windswept, azure-domed supremacy.

No freedom equals mine, who gaze on all--
          Neither the freedom of the rolling main,
Of lashing, salty breeze and freshening spray, 
          Nor of the equal stretches of the plain.

So I am nearer to the sky than they:
          The friendly sun bestows a stronger light,
And closer seems the myriad blossoming stars
          That sows the illimitable fields of night.

Mine are the horizons that in distance fade,
          The longer vistas and the larger view.
Unto mine eyes are holden all the vales
          The city-studded plains that melt in blue.

I share them with the eagle and the hawk.
          So I am free as are the [          ] rills,
The drifting summer clouds and carless winds.
          Mine is the wider freedom of the hills.


According to the editors of The Complete Poetry and Translations (Hippocampus Press) the brackets in line 18 denote a space that CAS left blank, presumably with the intention to supply the missing word(s) at a later time.

"The Freedom of the Hills" has a rather straightforward message, whether you choose to focus on the literal or the metaphorical aspects.  It strikes me as a nice bit of autobiography, given both that CAS spent most of his life in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and that he spent his life creating art (in a variety of media) that was, for the most part, not widely appreciated outside a small circle of admirers.  

Perhaps in the end his artistic vision was too elevated to appeal to a broad audience.  I think the third stanza brilliantly captures his determination to stay the course and follow his  own creative path:


So I am nearer to the sky than they:
          The friendly sun bestows a stronger light,
And closer seems the myriad blossoming stars
          That sows the illimitable fields of night.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Falling Leaves

Here's another short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) not published in his lifetime and not available on The Eldritch Dark.  So here's the text itself:


The leaves are falling, gold and red,
          About the old and dying year,
Making a couch for feet and head.
          Ah, who could wish a richer bier!


Simple and straightforward, but I like the idea of a dignified exit inspired by the change of the seasons late in the year.  Many of the verses that I have read so far by CAS are strongly rooted in the cycles of the natural world.  That's not uncommon in English poetry in general, but I think CAS handles these themes extraordinarily well.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Eclipse

This is another poem unpublished in Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's start with the text itself:


A thousand stars in the heavens blaze,
While sun and moon must hide their rays;
The glowing planets twinkle and gleam
While hidden in the sun's bright beam.
Unquenched they shine with a strange wild light
But paler, paler than the sun.
What a weird, unearthly sight
Is each land they shine upon!
Let them gleam, tis but for a time,
Soon shall come the sun sublime, 
And shine out in all his light.


Having myself experienced a solar eclipse just about a year ago (August 21, 2017), CAS' description rings true to me, so I am assuming he also experienced an eclipse before writing this poem.  His observations are not particularly unique, but the phrase "a strange wild light" sticks with me - that is a wonderful description of the unusual quality of light that occurred at the height of the eclipse that I experienced.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Autumn Dew

Here is another poem not published in Clark Ashton Smith's lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's start with the text itself:


Amid the autumn grasses sere and dead 
        The lucent dewdrops glow and shine.
Are they the tears by elves and fairies shed
          In sorrow for the year's decline?


Just four lines, and a fairly simple idea, but I'm writing this blog post in August in Seattle, during the dry days of summer when the grass has all turned brown.  I like the little bit of magic that CAS has associated with dewdrops on "grasses sere and dead" as he imagines their connection to creatures of myth and fable.  A modest poem, but evidence that CAS is an artist of broader scope than his "fantastic" reputation suggests.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Pageant of Music

Read "The Pageant of Music" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/418/the-pageant-of-music

This poem presents an early use of the sonnet from by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  In traditional Italian sonnet form, the first eight lines (or the "octave") present a problem, and the following six lines (the "sestet") provide a resolution to that problem.

Here in "The Pageant of Music", CAS sets up a dream scenario in the octave, and his description of the music he encounters therein is powerful:


          Loud as the ocean's thunder tempest-bred,
          Yet fair and delicate as flowers that shed
Their scent on meadows coloured like the sea.


CAS skillfully weaves a visual experience of music into this poem, an idea that is strengthened by the dream setting:


I heard and saw the music of all things —
          Their sound-soul visible, that as a dawn,
                    For one age-moment bared the spirit's night.


The theme of the impermanence of something beautiful has been addressed before in the early poems by CAS that I have read so far, and of course it's a common theme throughout poetry in general.  I think CAS handles it well in "The Pageant of Music", and the expanded sensory perception of the dream scenario is used effectively as well.

One final note: although the version of this poem presented at The Eldritch Dark does not include it, the version in Hippocampus Press' The Complete Poetry and Translations renders this poem with multi-level indented lines (which I have tried to capture in the quotations above).  I have to admit not quite following CAS' strategy in his use of line arrangement in this particular poem, but it's an interesting detail that I'll be paying attention to it future poems.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A diversion: Eric Barker on the poetry



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 Fran├žois 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 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.

What nonsense.

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.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Ode to Poetry


This is another poem unpublished during the lifetime of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), nor was it collected in his lifetime.  The text is not to be found at The Eldritch Dark, so let's start with that:


Handmaid of Beauty, yet a queen
In thine own sacred right, 
Thou playest subtler chords unseen
The strains of an elusive quick delight
That Music's touch may not command
Albeit she possess 
Eyes that behold the lightless land
Of ages yet unsped, and lend our sense
Some fleetingness
And magic of her vision's permanence.

Lo! in thy speech
The power and majesty that swing the sun
E'en as the worlds, and each
Dim atom of the system manifest,
Become articulate, although unguessed
The fulness of thy meaning, and unwon
The door of those dimensions enterless
That yet thou holdest, e'en as hues
That light hath wrapped in folds of clarity.
O star we may not lose
Though others pale and flee,
Thou art a Key unto the gate of Awe;
A herald of the runes I saw
In their unworded utterness;
A peak whose summit is invisible,
A plummet in the Abrupt red heart of Hell.


The ode as a poetic form has a long history, and has gone in-and-out of fashion over the centuries.  Modern readers might encounter the form in something like John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", which has acquired some cultural staying power despite being over two hundred years old.

Odes often focus on praise and glorification, and have become associated with exalted emotions and a grand manner removed from common speech.  So for CAS to write an ode to poetry seems a worthwhile goal, and yet for me the results fall flat.  While the ideas expressed are fine, lines like "Thou art a Key unto the gate of Awe" just seem uninspired.  The very dramatic last line "A plummet in the Abrupt red heart of Hell" almost seems like it was pinched from another poem, since it has a tone out-of-character with the preceding lines.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Ode to Matter

Read "Ode to Matter" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/397/ode-to-matter

Among the early poems by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that I have read so far, this item seems like the strongest evidence of the cosmic outlook that CAS is famous for, and would develop to a greater extent in later poems.

The very idea of writing an ode to matter seems quite audacious, and CAS does include some truly grand passages:


Thine atoms pour
Through moulds of many worlds and suns,
As they have passed
In years beyond all memory and lore;
As they shall flee while Time his orbit runs,
Along abysmal aeons cast.


In the last stanza, CAS brings his sweeping cosmic vision down to earth, as he contemplates the position of our home and ourselves in the order of things:


Ah! dare we dream
That thou shalt dream no fairer thing than man,
No higher world than this?


For me as a reader, the poem loses some of its magic in these final lines, as the immense scope of this ode to cosmic matter is suddenly made humble by local and mundane concerns.  

One of the reasons that I am fascinated by CAS the poet (as opposed to his better known identify as a writer of short fiction) is his ability to address themes of huge scope, without the need to articulate an anthropocentric point-of-view.  "Ode to Matter" feels like an early attempt to address a cosmic theme that didn't quite hit the mark that CAS would develop in his later, more mature poems on similar subjects.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Garden of Dreams

Read "The Garden of Dreams" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/209/the-garden-of-dreams

This poem was unpublished and uncollected during Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime.  It expresses a theme that CAS has previously addressed, that of the impermanence of beauty and the fleeting character of natural phenomenon.  

The poem is interesting in that it does have a clear narrative, but other than that, I can't find much to particularly recommend this poem.  Of the thirty-odd early poems by CAS that I have read so far in my more-or-less chronological journey, "The Garden of Dreams" is one of the least interesting, since CAS simply re-visits a theme that he handled with more skill in "The Butterfly".

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

To the Nightshade



Read "To the Nightshade" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/601/to-the-nightshade

This is another poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) unpublished in his lifetime, and I'm a bit surprised, since this early example of CAS' penchant for "weird poetry" is quite effective.  

Atropa belladonna (or "deadly nightshade") has been referenced many times in western literature, and is even believed to be the instrument used to poison the Roman emperor Augustus.  CAS taps into this rich cultural and historical vein, and it's notable that this is his first use of blank verse among the early poems that I have read so far.

The ending of the poem is particularly strong:


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.


As an aside, I can't help but note that CAS was quite fond of the word "monstrous".  It appears six times in his famous long poem "The Hashish-Eater", and his ending of this present poem on the phrase "monstrous gods" is the sort of detail that really puts his recognizable stamp on the work.

"To the Nightshade" does seem to me to anticipate both "The Hashish-Eater" and other verses from CAS that have been categorized as "fantastic" or "weird" poetry.  The device of "A hideous and fruitful wedlock" is wonderful and memorable, and the choice of the word "fruitful" imparts some additional meaning, given that the attractive dark fruit of the deadly nightshade plant is toxic to humans.

As mentioned earlier in this post, I'm surprised CAS chose not to include this poem in any of the collections published during his lifetime.  It's a strong poem that plays to his strengths as a writer, and is thematically compatible with the fantastic verses from later in his career that are his best-known poetic works. 


Monday, August 20, 2018

The Meaning


Read "The Meaning" at The Eldritch Dark:


As with "The Butterfly", which I discussed in my previous post, Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) included this poem in both The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912) and Selected Poems (1971).  

In many ways, this poem makes me think of John Keats' concept of Negative Capability, originally articulated in a letter to this brothers*:

I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.

It seems to me that Keats was describing the ability to be open to an experience or a sensation without a constant need to identify and quantify the source of every such occurrence.  This would seem to be an essential trait of any artist, and key to the ability to render experience via poetry.

One could argue that CAS' "The Meaning" seeks after the very sort of the complete knowledge that Keats ascribes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the quote above, given lines such as these:

(Second stanza):
If we might only understand
The brooklet's cryptic murmuring!



(Last stanza):
And yet (who knows?) one little word
Learned from the language of the bird
Might make us lords of Fate and Change.


However, my own reading of "The Meaning" comes back to Keats' Negative Capability.  CAS opens the poem with these lines:


Alas, that we are deaf and blind
To meanings all about us hid!
What secrets lurk the woods amid?
What prophecies are on the wind?


I believe the "meanings" after which the poet seeks are really artistic interpretations, informed by the openness and the sensitivity needed to render experiences and sensations without needing to catalogue and dissect them.  


*Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277. ISBN 978-1-146-96754-9.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Butterfly

Read "The Butterfly" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/70/the-butterfly

I now reach a significant milestone in my more-or-less chronological journey through the poetic works of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  "The Butterfly" is the first of the poems I have read so far that CAS chose to include in his Selected Poems (1971).  

It was also included in his first collection, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912).  But the inclusion in Selected Poems seems of greater interest to me, since CAS spent several years preparing that volume for publication, and it's not unreasonable to assume that he viewed that selection of verses as the one on which his legacy as a poet would be built.

Also of interest is the fact that CAS included "The Butterfly" among a batch of early poems that he sent to George Sterling right at the beginning of their mail correspondence.  Sterling's comment on "The Butterfly" was that it "qualifies as performance"*, and that seems an astute observation to me.  I think this stanza from the second section of the poem really captures that notion:


Thy Beauty opes, O butterfly,
The doors of being, with subtle sense
Of Beauty's frail impermanence,
And grief of knowing it must die.



In those few lines CAS distills the essence of the larger poem, which
 is an effective meditation on the inherent transitory nature of beauty.  There is a back-and-forth contest between expressions of exultation ("Enraptured, marvelling I gaze") and despair ("Mine was the grief of change and death"), but in the end the poet's voice achieves a note of triumph born of the very act of seeking after beauty:


What though I fail, my duller sense
Baffled as by a wall of stone?
The high desire, the search alone
Are their own prize and recompense.

 

*The relevant letter is included as the very first item in The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Besieging Billows

Once again, we have a poem unpublished in Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's jump right in to the work itself:


When the high, rock-battlemented shore
          Unyielding, grim and pitiless
The foaming, raging seawaves evermore
          Like fortress-storming legions press.

Though ever flung defeated, shattered, back
          Impotent, futile all their might
New billows form and rush to the attack
          Renewing the disastrous fight.

The ancient war continues night and day.
          Ne'er doth the sea its siege abate
And slow it wears the haughty shore away
          Relentlessly and sure as fate.


In a mere twelve lines of verse CAS delivers a stirring tale of a never-ending conflict, although he suggests that the sea will manage to win in the end ("And slow it wears the haughty shore away / Relentlessly and sure as fate.")

The only weak point of this poem is that very last line, where the phrase "sure as fate" seems quite awkward to me.  It satisfies the rhyme scheme, but otherwise concludes a poem full of strong dramatic flourishes with a rather underwhelming outro.

Friday, August 17, 2018

At Nadir

This is another poem unpublished in Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so let's start with the text itself:


I mark yon ruddy star go down
       O'er hills mysterious with night,
And far-off peaks that darkly frown
          In towering and impassive might.

At last it trembles on the crest
          Of some vague, mist-enshrouded height,
A moment seeming to arrest
          Its downward and unswerving flight.


This is a fairly straightforward poem, and yet there are some strong images in these brief lines: "far-off peaks that darkly frown", "it trembles on the crest", "downward and unswerving flight".  Proof that even in a minor item from the corpus, CAS can invoke a response from a reader who makes the effort to engage with the author's rich language.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Before Sunrise


Read "Before Sunrise" at The Eldritch Dark:


This is another of the early poems unpublished during Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime.  

It strikes me as a fairly straightforward nature study, but infused with CAS' unique ability to add drama and wonder to events that less imaginative folks might consider to be mundane.

The first stanza is particularly powerful, with an easy flowing musical language:



I rose in that hushed hour before the dawn

          Unveils its wonder old yet ever-new,

When still the night lies languidly upon
          The earth, though stars are growing faint and few.


The poem ends with an image of the author turning from west to east, as he first experiences the end of night, and then encounters the new day rising as he switches his perspective.  Granted that this is minor item in the overall body of poetic work from CAS, it nonetheless demonstrates his ability to add a sense of narrative even to a short poem.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The West Wind

Once again we have an early poem by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was published in the Overland Monthly while he was still in his teens.  The full text is available at the Hathitrust:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=iau.31858036877268;view=1up;seq=585

(Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the poem by "C. Ashton Smith").

Right off the bat I notice that we have an interesting structure of rhymed endings only on alternate lines, with the first and third lines of each stanza left unrhymed.  This has the effect of making two lines read more like one long line, and making each stanza into one natural sentence.

Also quite interesting is the establishment of a question in the first stanza:


Say, what are the things whereof you speak
          As you fly o'er the hills inland?


Each of the following four stanzas provides a possible answer to that question, with each stanza beginning on the word "Methinks" as the narrator imagines what wonderful stories the wind is bringing to him from far away.

In the end, I read this poem almost as a bit of autobiography for the young CAS.  Born and raised in rural California, he would never travel far, and yet as this poem demonstrates, he had the sensitivity and imagination to pluck exotic images and ideas from the very wind itself.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Weavings

Read "Weavings" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/640/weavings

There's a lot of poetic magic at work in this early item from the young Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  What draws me in right away is the heavy use of repeated line endings, where the "a" words in the ababab rhyme scheme are essentially the same: in the first stanza, we have "forever", "ever", and "ever", and in the second stanza "risen" is repeated three times.

It's worth noting that the word "woven" is also repeated, once in each stanza, echoing the poem's title and reinforcing the strongest visual image in the poem: "Endless gossamers of rain".

It seems to me that CAS is describing a gentle rainfall in the first stanza, where the variations of the word "ever" suggest the feeling that the rainfall seems as though it will never end.

Things turn around in the second stanza, where it appears that the rain shower has ended, and the "sunset-beam" is dominant once again.  But the repeated use of the word "risen" at alternate line endings brings us to the wonderful final line: "From world and sky to the heart of a dream."  

For me as a reader, this is where the poetic magic comes in, as CAS builds a cadence on the word "risen".  Up until the final two lines of the poem, we've been reading a nature study, but those last two lines suddenly bring the author himself into the picture:


And, lo! my unquiet soul has risen
          From world and sky to the heart of a dream.


That's a transcendent image, as the poet allows the "weavings" of the natural world around him to lift his spirit up to another place.  


Monday, August 13, 2018

The Voice of Silence

Read "The Voice of Silence" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/632/the-voice-of-silence

This poem has an interesting pedigree, since it was among a batch of poems that the young Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) sent to George Sterling, an older poet who would come to serve as his mentor for many years.

Correspondence between CAS and George Sterling has been collected in a volume from Hippocampus Press, and one of the letters from Sterling to CAS includes some notes on this poem.  Sterling comments on the very last line of "The Voice of Silence" (I include the preceding line for context):


          Some few words from the Perfect Poem float
To us. Ah, would that we the whole might learn!


The suggestion from Sterling is that CAS should "avoid lines made up entirely of monosyllables", advice that Sterling apparently derived from his own mentor Ambrose Bierce.  

Sterling's suggestion does seem rather misplaced to me, since one of the strengths of this poem is the use of a less exotic vocabulary than CAS is often wont to use, which gives a smooth flow to the reading experience.  It seems to me that those last two lines are really quite powerful, yearning for the experience of the "Perfect Poem", and lamenting our inability to have that experience.

The good news is that CAS apparently ignored Sterling's advice.  A fine testament to the younger poet's confidence in his own art.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

To George Sterling

Read "To George Sterling" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/590/to-george-sterling-%28high%29

This brings us to an interesting phase of Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) career, as the poet George Sterling proved to be a huge influence on his own writing.  So much so that this is just one of several poems that CAS wrote with the exact same title.  

This specific poem was written prior to CAS coming into contact with Sterling himself, although that would change soon, initially via mail correspondence and later via face-to-face meetings.  

I believe that CAS discovered Sterling through the latter's "A Wine of Wizardry", which is quite something in itself and well worth reading:

http://alangullette.com/lit/sterling/awow.htm

However, my focus is on "To George Sterling", and it's interesting how CAS pays tribute to the older poet here (right off the bat he's described as a "High priest") while identifying himself as a humble but worthy acolyte:


Mayhap the note that I have sung,
          Obedient to the Muse's call,
          Is not in vain; the coronal

Of fragile flowers not voidly flung.


CAS may have been as young as seventeen when he wrote "To George Sterling", and it's had to ignore his confidence.  He's not exactly equating his poetic powers to those of Sterling, but certainly indicating that he's trying to make his music in the same register.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Altars of Sunset

This is another poem unpublished during Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, so let's start with the text itself:


With crimson fires you mountains flame--

          Huge, lofty altars of the West--
As sunset, hesitating, stays
          To dip in light each slope and crest. 
         
Each summit holds the vivid blaze
          Till all are burning in array,
As if some priesthood there had lit
          A sacrifice to passing Day.


A pretty straightforward poem, but I like the way the simple image of a sunset is transformed into a priestly ritual involving a sacrificial pyre.  CAS' modern reputation casts him as a fantastic poet, and this poem seems like an early sign of such affinities.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Moonlight

"Moonlight" was apparently Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) very first poem to be published, in a 1910 issue of the Overland Monthly, a digital copy of which can be viewed at Hathitrust:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=iau.31858036877268;view=1up;seq=239

(The poem by "C. Ashton Smith" is at the bottom of that page).

Right away, I notice that this poem has an odd number of lines, which is a first among the early poems by CAS that I have read so far.  That suggests to me that CAS is doing something interesting with the poem's structure.

After having read it several times, it seems to me that there are three distinct sections in this poem, as shown below.  My arrangement violates the rhyming pattern, but nonetheless I believe I'm on the right track.



Section 1 has a a nice abba rhyme scheme, and a paints a pleasant picture of the moon rising amongst the stars.  Everything is delivered in a single sentence with simple line turnings at either a comma or period, so that the reader is encouraged to pause at the end of the line.

But Section 2 is something different.  There are two sentences here, but the author has used line turnings quite differently, and has interrupted the smooth rhythm we encountered in Section 1.  The first sentence ends at the beginning of line 7 ("And subtle glamour."), while the second sentence quickly encounters an odd line turning immediately followed by a pause on line 8 ("It seems--").  In encountering these pauses in unexpected places, the reader likely waits just a bit longer before moving on.  

Moreover, the pleasant image from Section 1 is suddenly disrupted with some words and phrases that suggest all is not quite as placidly earthbound as it seems: "mystery", "realms unknown", "worlds that lie beyond our ken", "glimpsed in dreams alone".  Coupled with the longer pauses I describe in the previous paragraph, I think that CAS really wants the reader to linger on these otherworldly images, and he's architected his lines to encourage us to do just that.

Section 3 initially continues in that same vein by using the word "witchery", but importantly the complete phrase is "tender witchery".  Following phrases seem to return us to the gentle sensations of Section 1: "softly doth erase", "a pallid beauty", "a white, enchanted pall."  Section 3 also returns us to the simpler rhythm of Section 1, with almost all lines ending with either a comma or period, so that the reader is once again encouraged to pause at the end of the line. 

Color me impressed.  CAS is using the poem's structure and his word choices very carefully to heighten the interest in the middle of the poem (Section 2), and to present the reader with a slightly off-kilter experience in that section, before returning us (in Section 3) to the gentler territory in which he began the poem (Section 1).

Although this poem saw magazine publication, I'm surprised that CAS never included it in any of the book collections published in his lifetime.  Of his early poems that I've read so far, this one strikes me as having the greatest evidence of the artist's skills, but used in a way that is not flashy or overwrought.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Wind and the Moon

Read "The Wind and the Moon" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/647/the-wind-and-the-moon

With this poem, we are again in the realm of work published during Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime.  Earlier, I read "The Sierras" which saw magazine publication in Munsey's.  This present poem is perhaps even more momentous, since it was included in CAS' very first published collection, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (published in 1912).

On one hand, I enjoy the almost narrative sensibility of this poem, as it tracks a violent night wind that practically terrorizes some pine trees: "How they moan and they sob like living things / That cry in the darkness for light and day!"

On the other hand, I feel like CAS begins this poem with some very muscular verse, but then seems to lose his focus in the second stanza.  The first few lines are somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe with a strong rhythm built up with repeated words:


Oh, list to the wind of the night, oh, hark,
How it shrieks as it goes on its hurrying quest!
Forever its voice is a voice of the dark,
Forever its voice is a voice of unrest.


That's a very effective opening that immediately establishes the dramatic setting and lures the reader in with a strong musical voice.  But then the poem ends with these lines (describing some "broken clouds"):


And around the face of the moon they cling,
Its fugitive face to veil they aspire;
But ever and ever it peereth out,
Rending the cloud-ranks that hem it about;
And it seemeth a lost and phantom thing,
Like a phantom of dead desire.


The repeated word "phantom" in the last two lines has none of the rhythmic and musical quality of the opening lines, and feels rather like CAS simply couldn't figure out how to end the poem.  Even the phrase "it seemeth a lost and phantom thing" has a tentative quality rather out-of-step with the urgent drama of earlier lines.

Given that the first stanza has the form of a sonnet, I can't help wondering if that stanza might have started life as a stand-alone poem, with the second stanza appended at a later time.  This feeling is reinforced by the ending of the first stanza, which exits on lines that preserve the kinetic and supernatural character of the poem's opening: "Now to a sad, tense whisper it fails, / Then wildly and madly it raves and it wails."

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Sierras

This poem is the first among those that I have read so far that saw publication during Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime. That publication occurred in Munsey's magazine in 1910.  So the ideal place to read the work is a digital copy of that appearance at the Hathitrust:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015024196829;view=1up;seq=795

(Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the poem by "C. Ashton Smith").

This is a fairly straight-forward lyric poem, but I like the celebration of the Golden State of California right at the end:


Vast guarders of the golden land
          That watch and wait forevermore.


As with the poem "A Sierran Sunrise" which I discussed in an earlier blog post, "The Sierras" represents CAS as a regional poet, which provides an interesting contrast to his more common reputation as a fantastic poet.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Sierran Sunrise


Read "A Sierran Sunrise" at The Eldritch Dark:


Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) dealt with this same theme in his poem "The Sunrise" which I discussed in an earlier blog post.  However, I think this current poem "A Sierran Sunrise" has a much more interesting take on the subject, since here we are presented with the idea of Nature as an artist:


The painting of the masterpiece behold
That every morn, before our careless eye,
Nature portrays, in crimson and in gold,
Upon the canvas of the earth and sky.


I think this is a powerful theme, since it articulates a deep appreciation for the ongoing cycles of the natural world while not attributing those phenomenon to a theistic agency.  My interpretation could be countered by a reading of the very last line:


Whence springs this dawn miraculous and grand.


One definition of the adjective "miraculous" does indeed imply divine intervention, but alternate definitions support a non-supernatural phenomenon, and I think it's clear that was CAS' intent with "A Sierran Sunrise". 

Monday, August 6, 2018

To a Yellow Pine

Mature Jeffrey Pine.JPG



This is another poem not published in Clark Ashton Smith's (CAS) lifetime, and not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the text to begin with:


A giant tall, and arrow-straight
Alone upon a hilltop sate
O'erlooking from thy dizzy hold
A canyon deep, where far below
A mountain stream doth dashing flow
Thou art.  For years and years untold
Thou there hast stood, in e'er green mail,
Defiant of the tempest's rage
Unbowed, unharmed, from age to age,
Through rain and sun a monarch hale.

How far, magnificent thy view
For higher than they tufted head,
The eagle's flight alone is sped.
Up in the vast, unmeasured blue.
How far, how far the wooded hills
In wild and jumbled disarray,
Towards gentler lowlands stretch away,
With all their leaping streams and rills.
To east the blue Sierras lie
With heads half-hid by clouds that go
Across the sky like drifting snow
Before the southland's balmy sigh.
This is thy realm, O giant pine
Who doth watch calm the hurried years
Flee past with freight of hopes and fears
Though not for thee their fevered sign.
Thou standeth here, apart, alone,
A lord of splendid solitudes,
Where man his presence rare intrudes
And to his spoiling hand unknown.


Of the poems by CAS that I have read so far, this is probably the first one for which I'd be interested in seeing the author's original manuscript, since there are some anomalies in this text that make me wonder if it's been captured exactly as the author intended.

For starters, the poems that I have read so far have all featured very simple and regular rhyme schemes.  This poem does as well, but only if you ignore the first two lines, which don't fit the otherwise consistent abba pattern.

There is also the odd enjambment at the beginning of line six, where the words "Thou art" end a sentence with a very hard stop, and do so immediately after the end of the abba rhyme scheme in the previous lines, positioned within the sentence but outside the rhyme.  That's a curious manipulation of the poem's rhythm and atmosphere that feels out-of-place and jarring in the reading.

Outside of those curiosities, it is interesting that this is the first poem in which CAS mentions his home region ("the blue Sierras") specifically, and takes for a subject the yellow (aka Jeffrey or Ponderosa) pine which is so common to the Sierra Nevada foothills. 

Although the poem describes a tree that is on a remote hilltop, it's interesting to note that in George Haas' memoir "As I Remember Klarkash-Ton", Haas mentions that on CAS' family property near Auburn, California a single "tall Western Yellow pine" stood alone among a grove of blue oak trees.  On reading "To a Yellow Pine", I can't help but think that lone pine near his home might have inspired these lines of verse.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Night


Read "Night" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem is a logical counterpart to "The Sunrise", which I discussed in my last blog post. The personification of Night is quite powerful in these lines:


And Night, the sable queen, comes sombrely,
In dusky robes, with stars upon her breast.


The editor Scott Connors has quoted the Greek poet Simonides in discussing Clark Ashton Smith (CAS)*:

Painting is mute poetry, and poetry a speaking picture.

Simonides' observation seems highly relevant to the poem "Night", which presents strong imagery coupled with well-chosen verbs connoting a clear series of actions: "comes", "brings", "drops".  Thus the abstract character of Night becomes something living and breathing, in a mere eight lines of verse.


*See Connors' excellent essay "No Ordinary Person: The Drawings, Paintings, and Carvings of Clark Ashton Smith" in his recent volume In the Realms of Mystery and Wonder from Centipede Press.