Introduction to
The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith

(New York: Hippocampus Press, 2002)
[Copyright © 2002 by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Reprinted by permission.]

That Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is one of the premier American poets of the twentieth century is an assertion that would evoke reactions ranging from bemusement to scorn in the general literary and academic community, but this has more to do with the tendencies-some might say vagaries-of twentieth-century poetry than with any putative deficiencies on Smith's part. That the verbally complex and metrically strict poetry of Smith is out of place amidst the deliberate obscurity of T. S. Eliot, the deliberate prosaicism of William Carlos Williams, and the deliberate looseness of the confessional poets is a truism; but it is equally a triusm that Smith draws upon, and thereby extends, the heritage of English and American poetry-from Milton to Swinburne, from Shelley to George Sterling-thus linking himself with poetic history in a way that makes his Modernist contemporaries and successors seem hollow and rootless.

This is not the place for a full-scale analysis of Smith's poetry-an analysis that, in any event, cannot be written until the entire corpus of his verse, published and unpublished, is made available. It will suffice here to trace the broadest outlines of Smith's work as a poet, so that readers can appreciate his lifelong fascination with a literary mode that brought him only fleeting celebrity and only the most minimal monetary benefit. Smith may be better known to enthusiasts of horror and fantasy literature for his exotic tales of weirdness and wonder, but the great majority of those tales were written in a mere half-decade (1930-35), and for most of his literary career he had no thought of being a fiction writer; but his devotion to poetry remained constant from earliest childhood to his final days.

When A. M. Robertson published Smith's The Star-Treader and Other Poems in the summer of 1912, readers and critics alike hailed the nineteen-year-old from central California as a poetic prodigy on the order of Keats and Shelley. Few, however, were aware of how much a prodigy Smith really was, for some of the poems in that volume dated to his fourteenth year. The volume would not have been published had Smith not initiated, the year previous, an intense and fruitful correspondence with George Sterling, then the reigning literary figure of San Francisco. Sterling's own "star-poem," The Testimony of the Suns (1903), perhaps influenced Smith's own ventures into the poetry of the heavens, but Sterling himself acknowledged that the pupil was well on his way to eclipsing his master. The reaction to The Star-Treader had all the makings of a nine-days' wonder-similar to that inspired by Ambrose Bierce's lauding of Sterling's horror poem, "A Wine of Wizardry," in 1907-but Smith was no poetic flash in the pan. Although six years passed before his next volume, Odes and Sonnets, appeared, he devoted himself unremittingly to poetry; and it is fitting that that volume of 1918 was published by the prestigious Book Club of California.

But just as Sterling himself never fully achieved nationwide recognition, content with being a West Coast literary phenomenon, Smith had difficulty translating his early celebrity into general recognition. Both Ebony and Crystal (1922) and Sandalwood (1925) were "privately published," and were largely funded by Sterling and Donald Wandrei, respectively. They received relatively little attention even in California, and Smith would not publish another volume of poetry until 1937.

The publication of Ebony and Crystal approximately coincided with Smith's initial contact with H. P. Lovecraft; and it is scarcely to be doubted that his attempts at writing fantastic fiction, begun a few years later, were inspired by Lovecraft's example, if not by any of Lovecraft's actual stories. No doubt Smith found the income generated by his tales-which found ready acceptance in the pulp magazines-of great benefit as he tended to his increasingly ailing parents; but it is also not to be doubted that the death of his mother and father, in 1935 and 1937 respectively, freed Smith from the need to be a pulpsmith and allowed him to return to the unremunerative career of poet.

August Derleth's establishment of Arkham House in 1939 proved quickly beneficial to Smith, as several volumes of his tales appeared in rapid succession; but Smith never saw the publication of what surely must be regarded as the capstone of his literary career, Selected Poems (1971), a volume whose assemblage he had completed in 1949. Instead, Derleth mollified Smith by issuing slim collections of his later verse-The Dark Chateau (1951) and Spells and Philtres (1958). These volumes prove that the spectacular imagination of his fiery youth had been harnessed and broadened, leavened by an awareness of the complexity of human emotion face to face with the boundless cosmos. After his death, Smith's literary executor Roy A. Squires published a considerable portion of his unpublished poetry, most notably the cycle The Hill of Dionysus (1962), but much remains uncollected or unpublished.

To segregate the "fantastic" poetry from Smith's overall poetic corpus may seem a highly artificial undertaking, for the element of the bizarre pervades his entire oeuvre in numerous and complex ways. Nevertheless, a certain segment of his verse can legitimately be said to contain a more concentrated dose of the weird than others, and this volume presents a sheaf of Smith's fantastic poetry arranged in broad thematic categories. The fashioning of these categories is itself a problematic undertaking, and should be regarded merely as suggestive rather than definitive. At the head of the volume, fittingly, is Smith's masterpiece of fantasy, The Hashish-Eater (1920), perhaps the most sustained expression of cosmicism in all literature. Following this epic, the first section presents Smith's other ventures into poetic cosmicism-the keynote of The Star-Treader, from which many of the poems are drawn. Section II contains Smith's poems about fantastic creatures, ranging from the sociopathic horror of the Emperor Nero or the mythic terrors of Medusa and the Titans. In Section III we find poems on exotic landscapes-a topos particularly close to Smith's heart, and one that perhaps most closely links his verse to his fantastic tales; it is no surprise to see poems on Atlantis, Zothique, and Averoigne here. Section IV exhibits the dream-element that is central to so many of Smith's poems and stories. In Section V, poems that mingle weirdness and love are to be found. Much of Smith's purely amatory verse is of high merit, but in these poems the union of fantasy and the erotic presents a distinctive flavor found only in the very best of Sterling's verse. In Section VI, Smith's broodingly pessimistic or misanthropic poetry is displayed, while the final brief section contains his poems to his celebrated predecessors and contemporaries. Here we come upon two inexpressibly poignant elegies, "To George Sterling: A Valediction" (1926) and "To Howard Phillips Lovecraft" (1937).

Because Smith's verse is so verbally rich, full of recondite and récherché vocabulary, we have supplied a glossary of the more unusual words found in the poems.

The likelihood that Smith will ever attain widespread recognition for his poetry is, to be sure, not great. Most members of the general literary community have become so unaccustomed to the lushness and complexity of this kind of poetry that they are likely to pass it off unthinkingly as either esoteric or passé (as if literary merit were somehow equivalent to contemporaneousness); while devotees of Smith's fiction appear to be unfamiliar with the rhetoric of poetry and are therefore unused to fantasy in verse form. But to the judicious reader, the compressed brilliance, the imaginative range, and the verbal and metrical panache of Smith's odes, sonnets, and lyrics will be immediately evident. The Roman axiom pulchrum est paucorum hominum ("Beauty is for the few") never had a more relevant object than the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith.