Sunday, February 28, 2021

Tryst At Lobos

Read "Tryst At Lobos" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) re-visits the setting of "Pool At Lobos", which I looked at in an earlier blog post.  

What captures my attention is the unusual noun "balsams" in the last line.  The word most often refers to sap that is exuded by some plant species, such as the cypress trees that are mentioned in the poem.  However, it can also describe something that has healing or soothing properties, as in the Oxford English Dictionary's illustrative quote from Tennyson's "Becket":

     Was not the people's blessing as we past
     Heart-comfort and a balsam to thy blood?

That usage gives "Tryst At Lobos" a wonderful sense of fond remembrance, even while prompting the unnamed partner to contemplate a future meeting somewhere in the spectacular landscape of Point Lobos.  Who could resist such an invitation?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Night of Miletus

Read "Night of Miletus" at The Eldritch Dark:

The title of this haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) refers to one of the great cities of the Classical Greek period, which is now part of Turkey.  By extension, it likely also refers to Aristides of Miletus, who set his tales in that same city "which had a reputation for a luxurious, easy-going lifestyle" (according to Wikipedia).

Compared to many of his other works in the haiku form, "Night of Miletus" feels rather slight, with no significant poetic techniques at work and with a rather straightforward visual component that doesn't really inspire a "haiku moment".

Friday, February 26, 2021

Love in Dreams

Read "Love in Dreams" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is one of five poems that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) arranged together under the group title "Pulse-Beats of Eros", although that heading was not maintained when these verses were included in the omnibus Selected Poems (1971).

"Love in Dreams" makes wonderful use of consonance (built around the letter "n") in combination with end rhyme, concluding with the supremely beautiful phrase "The night-found rose."  Even while working in the short form of haiku, CAS was capable of the verbal magic that distinguishes his very best poetry.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Old Limestone Kiln

Read "Old Limestone Kiln" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is another example of the poet taking liberties with his chosen form, given that haiku in English are usually rendered as three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

In "Old Limestone Kiln", CAS has instead used three lines of seven, five, and four syllables, with the last two lines sharing an end rhyme.  This structure works very well for what the author is describing, since the poem ends with a phrase built on a strong verb ("Oaks drop their fruit") which is not typical of English haiku.  

The direct, single-syllable words in that last line end the poem with a hard stop, providing a sense of animation, indicating that the abandoned kiln may be idle, but has acquired new life from the plants that have colonized it. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Indian Acorn-Mortar

Read "Indian Acorn-Mortar" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) includes the non-standard word "asterick", which some dictionaries identify as a case of metathesis, where the recognized word "asterisk" can be rendered in spoken English to sound like "asterick" or "asterix".  

Given that CAS had an extensive vocabulary, and was very careful with his diction, the choice of the transposed form of the verb was almost certainly intentional.  So why did CAS make this particular choice?

I suspect it is simply a case of the poet seeking to maintain the flow of language in "Indian Acorn-Mortar".  Even for a native English speaker, "asterisk" is a bit of a tongue-twister, and enunciating that word tends to result in an awkward hard stop at the end of the last syllable.  

CAS needed a verb to activate the phrase "Lichens <something> the pestle", and his choice of a transposed form of "asterisk" retains the lucid specificity of that word while helping to maintain a more natural reading that avoids an unwanted pause in the middle of the last line of "Indian Acorn-Mortar".

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Basin in Boulder

Read "Basin in Boulder" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a slow rhythm that matches the natural phenomenon he is describing, as a "time-hollowed basin" is slowly extended by the forces of erosion.  It's a minor poem from CAS' pen, but quite effective at the same time.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Gopher-Hole in Orchard

Read "Gopher-Hole in Orchard" at The Eldritch Dark:

This short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has a subtle circularity which lends it a humorous aspect.  Each of the three lines has a key word incorporating consonance built on the letter "g"; those words in order are:

  • Again
  • plugged
  • Bubbling
The speaker has attempted to plug a gopher hole "with straw and stones", from which "the water runs."  Those final words at the end of the poem link back to the first word "Again", and link so strongly that any of three lines could introduce the poem.  

That is to say, you can begin reading on any line of this poem, and as long as you follow the sequence of lines that CAS has established, the meaning of the work is clear and intact.

Once again, I am impressed with how intentional so much of CAS' writing in verse is: nothing is accidental, every line is crafted with care, and his word choices are never a matter of mere convenience.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Fallen Grape-Leaf

Read "Fallen Grape-Leaf" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is a rather sad little poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), associating the fading colors of autumn with the speaker's "deciduous heart".  The suggestion is that the speaker himself is inconstant in his romantic affections, but that thought is alleviated by the eternal renewal of the seasonal cycle: love may yet bloom again, even as the spring does.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Poet in A Barroom

Read "Poet in A Barroom" at The Eldritch Dark:

I can't help suspecting that this haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was inspired by a personal experience, given that CAS was known to sometimes frequent bars in his hometown of Auburn, California.  

There's a sense of isolation in the final line "One peers from a time-lost star."  The life of a poet working in a small rural town must have had many challenges, and CAS' letters often speak of his frustration with his circumstances, as an artist living in a community that did not seem to place great value on creative endeavors. 

Despite that, the sense of isolation in "Poet in A Barroom" is not complete; the speaker appears to be including himself amongst those who "Throng the bar".  If indeed this poem is autobiographical, I think that sentiment reflects the fact that CAS was not aloof, although perhaps something of a reserved personality.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Pool At Lobos

Read "Pool At Lobos" at The Eldritch Dark:

Point Lobos was a part of the California landscape beloved to George Sterling, who would pass on that love to both Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) and Robinson Jeffers, younger poets to whom Sterling served as something of a mentor. 

Sterling spent part of his life in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Point Lobos found its way into his verse, as in the somewhat overwrought "An Alter of the West", which has moments of beauty scattered amongst the verbosity:

Past Carmel lies a headland that the deep—
A Titan at his toil—
Has graven with the measured surge and sweep
Of waves that broke ten thousand years ago.

CAS wrote a beautiful essay called "George Sterling: Poet and Friend" which contains this evocative passage:

Robinson Jeffers has written of Sterling's Indian-like familiarity with the coast about Carmel. Truly, he was the genius of that scene and nothing escaped his observation and knowledge. I remember the hidden sea-cavern that he showed me below Point Lobos; the places where wild strawberries grew the thickest; the abalone-reefs; and the furtive incursions of a strange lurid red fungus that he pointed out to me on the Lobos cypresses.

The inspirational quality of the spectacular setting of Point Lobos is evident in that passage, and even more so in Jeffers' long poem "Point Pinos and Point Lobos", as in this short excerpt:

Gray granite ridges over swinging pits of sea, pink stone-crop spangles 
Stick in the stone, the stiff plates of the cypress boughs divide the sea's breath, 
Hard green cutting soft gray...

In "Pool At Lobos", CAS presents a humbler experience, but one that has considerable charm, achieved by capturing the almost imperceptible movement of water in the slow gyrations of sea anemones and shells.

Sterling, Jeffers, and Smith are certainly not the only artists that have ever found inspiration at Point Lobos, but their unique responses to those surroundings are wonderfully individual and reflective of the variety of expression that is possible via the medium of poetry.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Storm's End

Read "Storm's End" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) beautifully captures the return of calm after a powerful natural disturbance.  Quite striking is the closing phrase "bolt-cloven pine" which captures so much in so few words: the tree that is home to the vulture's nest has been struck by lightning, and it seems likely that the nest itself may be damaged or destroyed.  CAS' careful choice of words really delivers an impactful "haiku moment" in "Storm's End".

Monday, February 15, 2021

High Mountain Juniper

Read "High Mountain Juniper" at The Eldritch Dark:

The hardy conifers of the genus Juniperus are commonly found at the very edge of tree lines at high elevations, and this haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) celebrates these remarkable plants.  

It's worth noting that some of the oldest living junipers are found in the Sierra Nevadas, not too far from CAS' hometown of Auburn, California.  A couple of these (the Scofield Juniper and the Bennett Juniper) are both estimated to be well over two thousand years old.  So when CAS describes his "High Mountain Juniper" as being "Mortised in granite aeons", it's no exaggeration!

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Crows in Spring

Read "Crows in Spring" at The Eldritch Dark:

I'm reading this poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) in the middle of a February snowstorm in Seattle.  Normally there are a lot of crows around where I live, but the inclement weather is keeping many of them out-of-sight.  

So reading "Crows in Spring" gives me something to look forward to, when the sun breaking through the cloud layer animates the lives that are dormant for the moment.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Improbable Dream

Read "Improbable Dream" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is the last in a series of three haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that take as their subject the residents of a Catholic covent near his home in Auburn, California. 

This one moves beyond the landscape of the physical world into the strange realms of dreamland, and (as with the earlier poems in the series) takes inspiration from the cloistered lives of the religious sisters, and imagines one of them breaking free of her vows and reveling in her sensual humanity.

I can't help but suspect that CAS saw this "Improbable Dream" as something positive, with its implication of a willing embrace of the full possibilities of the human experience.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Nuns Walking in the Orchard

Read "Nuns Walking in the Orchard" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is the second in a series of three haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) dealing with the Auburn (California) Foundation of The Religious Sisters of Mercy.  

As with "Spring Nunnery" (see my previous blog post), "Nuns Walking in the Orchard" draws a strong contrast, in this case between the "Sable-robed" nuns and the "red cherries / Ripening with June."  It's a rich visual image, but it also emboldens my theory that CAS is suggesting a divergence between the cloistered lives of the Sisters and the fecund phenomenon of early summer, as nature pours forth the fleshy bounty of a very physical world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Spring Nunnery

Read "Spring Nunnery" at The Eldritch Dark:

This is the first of three haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that refer to the Auburn Foundation of The Religious Sisters of Mercy, an international order of Catholic women.  According to their website:

In the early 1940’s the community moved to its present Motherhouse in Auburn. It was at that time that the community became known as the Sisters of Mercy of Auburn.

In a couple different reminiscences of CAS, writers have noted that he would jokingly refer to "The Nunnery of Averoigne" in describing his neighbors devoted to the consecrated life.  For an example of such a memoir, see Rah Hoffman's "Letter on Clark Ashton Smith":

It's interesting that in "Spring Nunnery", CAS describes "the nunnery's cold / Walls" in contrast to the warmer phrases that end the poem: "the poplar-leaves unfold, / Plums are flowering."  There's always a danger of over-reading, especially with a very short poem, but then again nothing is accidental in CAS' poetry, and one can detect some of his dislike of organized religion in speaking of the "cold Walls" that surround the contemplative Sisters.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021


Read "Mushroom-Gatherers" at The Eldritch Dark: 

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) presents something of an inversion of the usual "rules" of the haiku form in English, which typically uses a pattern of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

In "Mushroom-Gatherers", CAS instead uses five, five, and seven syllables.  This works very well rhythmically, since the pace of reading resembles that of a limerick, where pairs of short lines lead into a longer closing line that provides the humorous "payoff" (see for example the many limericks authored by Edward Lear).

This is one of the reasons that I find a close study of CAS' poetry to be so rewarding: he was an artist that respected established poetic forms, but freely adapted those structures to suit his own needs, often with quite remarkable results.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Last Apricot

Read "The Last Apricot" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) includes an interesting example of consonance, where each line concludes on a syllable ending on the letter "t" (it, rot, cot).  

Those hard consonant sounds embellish the central image of the apricot "splashed in rot", an interesting twist on the "haiku moment" where the insight is disappointing rather then elevating.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Sparrow's Nest

Read "The Sparrow's Nest" at The Eldritch Dark:

This simple poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) celebrates a seemingly accidental discovery, as the speaker braves unwelcoming "thorned blackberries" and "unpruned peach" boughs to experience the simple delight of viewing a bird's nest in amongst all the overgrown vegetation.  It's a wonderful celebration of the small rewards available to a careful and patient observer of the natural world.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Reigning Empress

Read "Reigning Empress" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) might describe Helen of Troy, the mythological queen of Sparta whose abduction led to the Trojan War.  The cultural legacy of those events is immense, and CAS is certainly correct that they provide a rich source from which "Time shall make his metaphors."

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Foggy Night

Read "Foggy Night" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) introduces a modern touch, moving beyond the experiences of idyllic nature that are so often associated with this particular poetic form.  The presence of a prostrate inebriate prompts the action of "Hastening" on the part of the speaker, giving the poem a tone of action and movement rather than reflection and contemplation.  

I'm quite impressed with the complexity that CAS is able to convey in these three short lines, as the reader can easily interpret the speaker's feelings about the drunkard without the poet actually articulating that information.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Geese in the Spring Night

Read "Geese in the Spring Night" at The Eldritch Dark:

This haiku from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) calls to mind a beautiful woodblock print from Katsushika Hokusai (as shown above).  The English title of the print has been rendered variously in English as "Full Moon", "Descending Geese and Full Moon" or "Geese, Reeds and Full Moon".

I have no evidence that CAS was familiar with Japanese prints in the ukiyo-e style with which Hokusai is strongly associated, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was, given that these works had become well-known in Europe and North America by the late nineteenth century.  There is a definite aesthetic sympathy between the haiku poetry form and contemplative images rendered in the ukiyo-e style, a combination which would seem to have a strong appeal to someone of CAS' artistic temperament.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Stormy Afterglow

Read "Stormy Afterglow" at The Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) goes beyond the placid experiences he typically describes in his verse in the haiku form.  The last two lines of "Stormy Afterglow" invoke a violent moment as "Lightning tore the clouds' tall / Rose and violet scarps."  It's interesting to see CAS write about such a dramatic event in the (often) subtle structure of the haiku, demonstrating the vast possibilities of even such a short poetic form.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Phallus Impudica

Read "Phallus Impudica" at the Eldritch Dark:

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is named for the undeniably phallic Common Stinkhorn, ubiquitous throughout the United States and generally appearing late in the growing season.  It's a simple nature study, and the haiku form is ideal for delivering this sort of small but vivid impression.