Urgent

Julian Symons

  • By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept by Elizabeth Smart
    Paladin, 112 pp, £3.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 586 09039 8
  • The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals by Elizabeth Smart
    Paladin, 112 pp, £3.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 586 09040 1
  • Necessary Secrets: The Journals of Elizabeth Smart edited by Alice Van Wart
    Grafton, 305 pp, £14.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 246 13653 7

What a marvellous title, I said to friends when By Grand Central Station was published in 1945. Better not read the book, it can’t possibly live up to the title. Sure enough, On First Looking into Grand Central Station after nearly half a century’s abstention, that unserious assertion turns out to be dismayingly justified.

On publication, the Book got few reviews, but caused considerable stir in the admittedly limited circle of those attentive to the publications of Tambimuttu’s Editions Poetry London. When it was reissued in the Sixties, however, Brigid Brophy’s foreword acclaiming it as one of the world’s half-dozen masterpieces of poetic prose led a chorus of praise for a work perfectly in tune with the idealistic romantic nihilism of the decade. The freedom of language heralded by the acquittal of Lady Chatterley, the freedom of sexual action offered by the pill, and the distrust of almost any kind of organisation plus an overwhelming stress on the importance of individual fulfilment, combined to impress readers who loved the hyperbole and rhetoric, shared the narrator’s ecstasies and despairs, and happily looked for profundity in the confusion about what actually happened. Brophy, acknowledging some obscurities, said they didn’t matter, perhaps were even a virtue, making reading the book like saying ‘a tragic, pagan, exotic rosary’.

Another admirer, Francis Wyndham, stayed non-committal about the subject-matter: ‘The narrator is a young girl in love with a married man. That is the “story”.’ Wyndham proved not to be cautious enough. From the Journals now published it would seem that not one but two or even perhaps three love affairs are referred to in various passages, although the references are deliberately vague. In a sense, the shadowiness of other people is appropriate, for the book’s only character is Elizabeth Smart, a woman absorbed in her own emotions and in love with the idea of being in love. The unnamed ghosts who cause her so much agony are simply men and women who are doing her wrong.

Such blazing egotism might have generated a quickly-written masterpiece. GCS, however, is a careful literary confection designed to give the impression of spontaneity, while letting us know the writer has not only read her Bible, but is aware of many poets ancient and modern, most notably George Barker. One can’t talk sensibly about Smart’s prose without saying something about George Barker’s early poetry.

‘His prescription is – Excess: he will rage himself out,’ said Barker’s early friend and mentor Hugh Gordon Porteus. Certainly the vertiginous rhetoric of these poems produces extraordinary effects, sometimes dazzling, sometimes overblown, always surging forward resistlessly. Barker delights in the polysyllabic possibilities of language and the eccentric image, invoking ‘My nine-tiered tigress in the cage of sex’, asking:

Who at the kiss, who has not seen, over
The waterfalling hair at the shoulder of Life,
Death from his own face staring out of a glass.

He moves often between ecstasy and absurdity:

What when borne upward breaking from heaven downward
It is my bare bloodred babe, with beauty
Branching from armpit, maypole at thigh, world flying
Like fairboats around, the axle of existence.

GCS shows other influences, but Barker is the prime one. Smart’s ‘poetic prose’ is often almost a parody of Barker’s poetry, ecstatic without substance, mistaking vague generalisations for great statements. Three samples with the prose made over into lines of verse:

The great rocks rise up to insist on belief, since
they remain though Babylon is fallen, being moulded,
but never conquered, by time pouring from eternity.

On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous
sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red,
seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like
a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief?

What you think is the sirens singing to lure you
to your doom is only the voice of the inevitable
welcoming you after so long a wait. I was made only for you.

On most of the pages there are similar passages, obscure but vaguely Biblical, faintly surrealist, sexual and sentimental, There is no doubt about the writer’s intense feeling, her longing to love and be loved with a freedom disregardful of society’s rules and customs. All she lacks is talent. How can critics have taken such stuff seriously?

The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, published in 1978 but apparently written in the last years of the war and the first of the peace, is the more temperate work of a woman ‘knocked out on the battlefield (of love? or passion? – never mind now)’. Barkerian ecstasies and excesses have gone, but Smart remains on the side of the rogues and rascals who cadge and cheat and doublecross, but still ‘raise their stolen hats and buy me a bitter with borrowed cash’ and hence ‘are received into heaven’. The rhetoric is more or less under control, although the lachrymose sentimentality never far beneath the surface of the writing is not. At just about the same time, or a little later, Barker was writing the remarkable True Confession of George Barker, which marked the end of a period in his writing, and I suppose in his life. He had as Porteus suggested raged himself out, although that is not to say his later work was tranquil. Elizabeth Smart was not among the 20 contributors to Homage to George Barker that appeared in 1973. Perhaps she said no to an invitation, but it is surprising she remains unmentioned. She bore and brought up four of his children.

The voluminous journals and notebooks she kept from early adolescence up to 1941, which her editor has cut by two-thirds, show Smart’s development. She was a conventionally-educated Canadian girl, second daughter of a patent lawyer and ‘an accomplished Ottawa hostess’ with a house in Ottawa and a summer home next to that of Premier Mackenzie King. She graduated to the company of the rogues and rascals from a life typified by lunch with Mrs Barrington Ward, wife of the Times editor (Mrs Ward ‘in a dark reddish dress with fully pleated collar, looking what the word charming means’), a world tour as companion to Mrs Watt, organiser of Women’s Institutes and Country Women’s Organisations, and a decorous affair with John Pentland, grandson of Lord Aberdeen: ‘I can’t give him all with abandon and urgent desire.’ A hundred and fifty pages of schoolgirlish sentiments and solemnities (‘work is the only only only remedy for life’) is more than enough, and it is a relief when emancipation comes with the appearance of the painter Jean Varda, who whispers: ‘On the thirteenth you will be mine.’

Not for long, however. An affair with Alice Paalen, wife of a Surrealist artist, follows. ‘She leans over me as into a pool, tender, her hair falling, her eyes eternally smiling ... My eyes are wild animals – they have never seen any of the race of men. They dare not see love.’ Sexual imagery abounds, penetration by the moon is imagined, and on earth Smart goes to bed with Alice, who is ‘all woman – womanhood’. There are triangular complications in the Paalen affair which Smart laments, but perhaps enjoys. And in the background another figure becomes visible. ‘If George Barker should appear now I would eat him up with eagerness.’

Smart was bowled over by the early poems that followed the Wildean maxim of nothing succeeding like excess. She then, comically, wrote asking if Barker would sell her a manuscript. Comically, because one story about Barker runs that when short of cash he would produce different manuscript versions of poems, devised for sale to American institutions. As counterpoint to this I mention an instance of Barkerian generosity, when he let me have a long poem gratis for the verse magazine I ran, only saying a touch reproachfully that he had hoped to get a week’s bed and board by selling it. He assumed Smart to be a rich American woman said to be looking for him, and within a month of their meeting, her editor Alice Van Wart says, they were lovers. This affair also had three sides. Baker was married, but found no difficulty in loving both women. The Barker-Smart relationship is traced in the latter part of GCS. They were arrested at the California/Arizona border on suspicion of being spies, so Van Wart tells us, not, as Brophy speculated, because they had ‘sexual purposes in mind’. Later Barker was denied entry into Canada, where Smart had just produced her first child, on a charge of moral turpitude laid by Smart’s mother. In 1943 he joined her in London, ‘their relationship resumed,’ as Van Wart puts it, and there were three more children. The True Confession, by turns grand and grandiose, self-accusing and self-regarding, serious and punning, was essentially a poetical goodbye letter.

What can one say of Elizabeth Smart more than that she loved a poet who by the conventional standards they both rejected treated her badly? She was tough, raising the children on her own, at first with the help of family and friends, later by work in advertising. The journals show a vivid personality, and there is something exhilarating in her exuberant rejection of the world in which she had been brought up. The exuberance extended to minor matters. James MacGibbon, founder of Mac-Gibbon and Kee, tells me of a time when she went sailing with him and her old friend Michael Wickham. They got stuck in muddy saltings and had to walk across them. When they came to a broad stretch of water she went in fully clothed, and swam across. Astonished, bewitched, MacGibbon and Wickham followed suit. No doubt her life was full of such gestures. They are agreeable to read about but suggest what the journals confirm: that her true involvement was with life, not art. During the affair with Varda she told her journal that for her love could never be enough. ‘I am an artist first. Pan, not man, my lover.’ With the evidence in, one can only say she was mistaken.