[From Series Two Poets Between the Wars]
A. J. M. Smith was born in Montreal in 1902 and entered McGill in 1921, where he received a B.SC. in 1925 and an M.A. in 1926. He then attended Edinburgh University from 1926 to 1928 and completed his work for a PH.D. 1931.
As a graduate student his special academic interests seem to have been Yeats and seventeen-century religious poetry (he published an essay on Vaughan in 1933). At McGill he contributed over forty poems to a magazine which he helped to found. The McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-1927). But his poetry also appeared elsewhere during the twenties and thirties, in American magazines like The Dial and The Nation, in the London Adelphi and New Verse, and in The Canadian Forum. His criticism includes a vigorous essay called “Canadian Poetry – A Minority Report” in the University of Toronto Quarterly (January, 1939). But no volume of his poetry appeared before the war, although a dozen poems were included in the important anthology New Provinces (Macmillan, 1936).
It was in 1943 that Smith’s talents as poet and critic (already well known to a few) achieved a more general recognition with the publication by Ryerson of his News of the Phoenix (which won a Governor General’s Award for poetry) and the publication by Gage of his discriminating and influential anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry. The latter has been reprinted a number of times (and brought up to date in 1958); the first volume of its prose companion has recently been published (Gage, 1965), and its bilingual successor, The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, came out in 1960. Smith has also published two more collections of his own poetry, A Sort of Ecstasy (Michigan State College Press, and Ryerson, 1954) and Collected Poems (Oxford, 1962).
Since 1936 Smith has been a member of the English Department of Michigan State University, although he returns to Canada regularly and has spent the occasional summer or even year teaching at Canadian Universities such as Queen’s and Dalhousie. Throughout his career Smith’s conscious standards of excellence have remained remarkably consistent. Desmond Pacey quotes from a letter which Smith wrote to him in 1957: “Metaphysical poetry and pure poetry are what I stood and stand for.”
Books in the NCL: