Kay Smith

Kay SmithPhoto: Eunice Willar
Kay Smith
Photo: Eunice Willar

Clara Kathleen “Kay” Smith was born in Saint John on 30 April 1911 to Charles Weber Smith, a fish merchant at the City Market, and Margaret (Mirey) Smith. She grew up as the Smiths’ only child for a tragic reason, her nine-year-old brother having died just before her birth. She recalls in her poem “Autobiography” that this unknown older brother influenced both her relationship with her parents and her understanding of who she was, built upon her childish certainty that “my life was spun / from the body of his death” (When a Girl Looks Down 55). Much of her poetry reveals an intense celebration of life and the senses in the shadow of mortality.

At age 14, Smith published her first poem, “Twilight Garden,” as the result of having won a contest sponsored by the Buffalo Sunday Times. She graduated from Saint John High School in 1928, and then attended Mount Allison Ladies’ College (later Mount Allison University), where she studied speech and drama until 1933. She had hoped to enroll in the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and to have an acting career after university, but finances prevented her from doing so during the Depression. Instead, she returned to Saint John, where she set up a nursery school with her friend, Marjorie Cowan. In 1934–5, she became a member of the Saint John Theatre Guild and participated in a variety of amateur theatricals until the end of the decade.

In 1934, she managed to get to New York for a summer to study drama at Columbia University, and did so well that she was encouraged by her instructor to stay in New York and pursue acting. By that time, however, she had become committed to teaching, which would become her lifelong profession. In 1940, following her passion for teaching, she moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, where she taught English and drama and directed theatrical productions at Alma College, a private girls’ school. She returned to Saint John in 1942, where she took up a teaching position at Saint John Vocational School. She remained there for almost thirty years, and became a well-known figure throughout New Brunswick as director of the school’s annual Shakespeare play.

In the meantime, she had been steadily writing poetry with the encouragement and support of her many talented friends. A vibrant artistic community had developed in Saint John in the 1930s because, like Smith, a number of local artists, including Ted Campbell, Miller Brittain, and Jack Humphrey, had been prevented from pursuing their careers in larger centres because of the Depression. (A striking portrait of Smith by Miller Brittain is held by the New Brunswick Museum.) Smith became part of that group, along with potters Kjeld and Erica Deichmann and aspiring poet Patricia (P.K.) Page. Smith, Page, and another young writer, Jean Sweet, met regularly in the late 1930s to read their writing to each other. They eventually joined the Canadian Authors Association, and at one of the annual meetings encountered poet Anne Marriott, who recommended them to Alan Crawley, editor of Contemporary Verse. Many years later, Marriott recalled this meeting with pleasure: “I found I could talk to them, about contemporary work and thoughts and feelings and topics” (qtd. in Irvine 105). During her years in Ontario, Smith met poets A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, Earle Birney, and E.J. Pratt, editor of the Canadian Poetry Magazine, who was especially encouraging. Smith’s verse soon began to appear in both Contemporary Verse and the Canadian Poetry Magazine. She was also a frequent contributor to John Sutherland’s Montreal magazine, First Statement, during its initial year of publication (1942–3) and ultimately, her first volume of poetry, Footnote to the Lord’s Prayer and Other Poems (1951), was published by First Statement Press.

Smith’s work began to appear in Canadian poetry anthologies in the 1940s and she continued throughout the following decades to publish in poetry magazines, most frequently in The Fiddlehead, which was edited by Fred Cogswell. In 1962, a substantial number of her newer poems were collected in Fiddlehead’s Five New Brunswick Poets, but it was not until 1971 that her second volume of poetry, At the Bottom of the Dark, was published by Fiddlehead. It was followed in 1978 by Fiddlehead’s When a Girl Looks Down, a large (but incomplete) collection. In 1980, the League of Canadian Poets published Again with Music: Seven Poems. A few years later, she was approached by Charlottetown’s Ragweed Press: in 1987, The Bright Particulars appeared, a collection of earlier and new poems, selected and edited by University of Prince Edward Island scholar and poet Richard Lemm. The chapbook White Paper Face in the Window was published in the same year by William Prouty’s Purple Wednesday Society at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John (UNBSJ). Smith continued to publish new poems regularly in UNBSJ’s literary magazine, The Cormorant, well into the 1990s, and served on its editorial board from 1987 until 1998. Although she had retired from teaching at Saint John Vocational School in 1970, her teaching continued through workshops in the Saint John schools and the Maritime Writers’ Workshop in Fredericton (1979, 1980, and 1982), and later at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, where she taught courses in creative writing in 1986 and 1990.

Smith was a modernist poet, experimenting with free verse forms or adapting traditional metres, building her poems around precise and sometimes startling images, and seeking connection–with nature, with other humans, or with God–from a stance of self-conscious alienation. Much of her earliest poetry displays the metaphysical impulse common to the early modernists, as she attempts, with obscure and disconnected images and syntactical inversions, to convey her perceptions about human existence. Typical of this early verse is “The Eye of Humility,” in Footnote to the Lord’s Prayer and Other Poems, which opens:

In the dream, in the charmed dream we are flying,
not as a kite held at the other end by hand of flesh,
rich in the smell of grass and colts munching
in the sunned field and air smooth as milk,
but with the limbs and torso webbed with a metal boldness,
scorning the matters of earth, the mole, the blind mole’s wisdom,
bodies under the tree and a sweetness clouding the tongue. (6)

Yet in the same early volume appears the frequently reprinted “When a Girl Looks Down,” which reveals a similar inventiveness and intensity of imagery, but also the concreteness and narrative clarity that would become typical of her later poetry:

When a girl looks down out of her cloud of hair
And gives her breast to the child she has borne,
All the suns and the stars that the heavens have worn
Since the first magical morning
Rain through her milk in each fibre and cell of her darling. (9)

When asked about her writing style in 1983, Smith emphasized the importance of images to her poetry: “My style is dependent upon imagery and figurative language. This is a natural way for me to write . . . . I have always written in the same style, although some things I am writing now are a little more restrained” (“Cormorant Interview: Kay Smith” 12). Her chief influences, she went on to say, included W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and E.J. Pratt (13), although her poetry also reveals images and rhythms, as well as subject matter, inspired by Christian liturgy and by poets William Blake and W.B. Yeats.

As time went on, the subjects of Smith’s poetry developed in two directions. She was one of the first women poets in Canada to speak candidly and evocatively about female sexuality, a subject that is prefigured in the poem “When a Girl Looks Down,” but becomes prominent in At the Bottom of the Dark, where she traces a relationship that left her, as she records in “Postscript”: “brimful with that wordlessness, / All that our bodies said and heard” (34). Smith would take up the subject of sexuality again in The Bright Particulars, in “The Old in One Another’s Arms” and in “Old Women in Love,” where she writes that “the blood of old women continues to cry out / to sing even to dance wildly in their veins” (68), and which ends:

At night an old woman on her narrow bed
probing the dark with a stubborn mind
demanding answers she knows she will not find
tends with a fierce joy the unextinguished embers
of a not so temperate love. (68)

The second direction, and one that ultimately came to dominate Smith’s poetry, is a spiritual preoccupation with the elements of the natural world and her attempts not merely to celebrate them, but to be still with them and to penetrate them: to examine them from the inside out and glean from them some understanding of both herself and the divine. “That something may be found I make a poem,” she writes. “That the secret may be found I become a hunter / in a poem, seeking the lost child who followed / the moonlight into the wood” (When a Girl Looks Down 84). She attempts to go to the heart of this “secret” in “The One Stem” (The Bright Particulars), which introduces the phrase that became the title of her final book, and which encapsulates her lifelong fascination with visual imagery, particularly with light:

In the green and silver chorus of the grass
they lose themselves, the bright particulars.
Discovery begins
in the single that is singular,
the one stem your eyes are suddenly unsealed to see,
jointed with the latest, fragile, golden light. (13)

Smith was an urban dweller her entire life, yet much of her poetry was written during her annual sojourns to the remote and sparsely populated Grand Manan Island, which sits in the Bay of Fundy off the southern coast of New Brunswick. Her lifelong friend Margaret Hall, whom she met at Mount Allison in 1931, recalled often seeing Smith, “notebook as usual, sitting on a white rock, writing as ever” (37). Smith provides a sense of the elements and their effect on her in “Morning, Grand Manan”:

And there by the tide on a rock pampered
in toasted gold brown weed a heron culls
the silver cord of silence with his bill

Then on slow sensuous wings rises
shakes the sea-sky pearl to a blue blur
sinks in distance the eye prizes

Ringed with here and now it cannot bear
but I am filled to wordless overflowing
purged to the clarity of a single tear. (When a Girl Looks Down 37)

A similar experience is chronicled in the much later poem, “Shells”, in which she describes the broken shells on a beach, concluding:

The spiral within that turns on itself
with all but hair-thin and fragile precision
yet is strong to withstand the wind and the tides
of this sea
has a meaning for one
who always seems poised on the verge
of breaking breath held
between wonder and weeping. (77)

Smith’s poetry has been held in high regard by many editors and poets since her earliest publications, but her modesty and disinclination to promote her work prevented it from becoming as well-known as it ought to be. Fred Cogswell was responsible for pressing her to publish her second book (Joyce 12); Richard Lemm recalls her self-effacing response to an initial inquiry from the Ragweed Press about publishing what would be her final collection (27). Like other female poets in the 1940s, she suffered from what Brian Trehearne has called the “fists” of John Sutherland (21), who published her poetry in both periodical and book form while undermining it with severe criticism. A few years later, although he, too, found flaws in her work, Northrop Frye admired “the varieties of her metrical organization,” “her intelligence,” and the “poignant concreteness” of her poetry (97).

Reviews of Smith’s books have been few in number, and tend to reveal the reviewers’ own preferences and prejudices rather than an understanding of her poetry. Nonetheless, she has been well-represented in most anthologies of Canadian or Atlantic poetry since the 1940s, and a variety of her poems have been set to music by Saint John composer Richard Kidd and Toronto composer Aimee Velle. The publication of The Bright Particulars led both to a wider appreciation of her work (signaled by an interview with Peter Gzowski for CBC in 1988) and to a variety of honours. In 1986, she was made a Life Member of the League of Canadian Poets. In 1988, she received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, and in 1990, received the Moncton 100 Award for having published the best book in English by a New Brunswick writer in the preceding five years. In 1991, she received the prestigious Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in English-Language Literary Arts, sponsored by the New Brunswick Arts Board, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to New Brunswick literature, and in 1992, The Cormorant devoted a special issue to her life and work.

On 18 September 2004, after a long illness, Smith died at the Dr. V.A. Snow Centre in Hampton, New Brunswick. Richard Lemm eloquently sums up her life’s work: Kay Smith was “one of the major woman poets in Canada and one of Atlantic Canada’s major artists: pioneer, mentor, guiding spirit, and one of a select group of writers who set the standard for Canadian poetry decades ago and continue to show the way” (28).

A. Elizabeth McKim, Summer 2009
St. Thomas University

For more information on Kay Smith, please visit her entry at the New Brunswick Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Kidd, Richard, comp. Changing Illusions. CD. [Includes seven poems by Kay Smith.] 1996.

Smith, Kay. Again With Music: Seven Poems. Toronto, ON: League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

---. At the Bottom of the Dark. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1971.

---. The Bright Particulars. Sel. & ed. Richard Lemm. Charlottetown, PE: Ragweed, 1987.

---. Footnote to the Lord's Prayer and Other Poems. Montreal, PQ: First Statement, 1951.

---. When a Girl Looks Down. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 240. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978.

---. White Paper Face in the Window. Seven Times Five 6. St. John, NB: Purple Wednesday Society, 1987.

“Smith, Kay.” Five New Brunswick Poets. Ed. Fred Cogswell. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1962.

Smith, Kay, Alfred G. Bailey, Elizabeth W. Brewster, Fred Cigswell, and Dorothy Roberts. Modern Canadian Poets. Vol. 1-5. Audiocasette. Recorded Archives Taping Series. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1982.

Velle, Aimee, comp. “Again With Music,” by Kay Smith. Score and sound recording. Spring 2006.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cogswell, Fred. “The Heart's Magnanimity.” The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 15-16

Cooper-Clark, Diana. “Thin Poems.” Rev. of When a Girl Looks Down, by Kay Smith. Canadian Literature 86 (1980): 108-10.

Cormorant Interview: Kay Smith.” The Cormorant 1.2 (1983): 10-14.

Enright, Robert. Modern Canadian Poets. Interview with Kay Smith. Audiocassette. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1982.

Frye, Northrop. Rev. of Footnote to the Lord's Prayer and Other Poems, by Kay Smith. 1952. On Canada. Ed. David Staines and Jean O'Grady. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003. 96-7.

Good, Jackie. “An Unlikely Time, An Unlikely Place.” Interview with Kay Smith. CBC. 17 Aug. 1980. Transcript rep. in The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 39- 54.

Gzowski, Peter. Morningside. Interview with Kay Smith. CBC, Toronto. 10 May 1988.

Hall, M. Margaret. “Far from the Noise.” The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 37.

Harry, Margaret. “Missing So Much and So Much?” Rev. of The Bright Particulars, by Kay Smith. The Fiddlehead 157 (1988): 97-100.

Hersey, Linda. “Her Poetry Has Created a Unique Legacy.” The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 4 Sept. 1993: 2.

Irvine, Dean. Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916–56. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008.

Joyce, Mary Lou. “Kay Smith: A Chronology.” The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 9-14.

Lawlor, Allison. “Grand Manan's Poet of the Heart.” The Globe and Mail [Toronto, ON] 14 Oct. 2004: R5.

Lemm, Richard. “She Who Makes Us Jubilate.” The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 27-8.

Lynes, Jeanette. “Close-Ups.” Rev. of The Bright Particulars, by Kay Smith. Canadian Literature 122-3 (1989): 212-15.

Marriott, Ann. Rev. of Footnote to the Lord's Prayer and Other Poems, by Kay Smith. The Canadian Forum 31.366 (1951): 94.

Oliver, Michael Brian. “Tantramar- and Saint John and Fredericton- Revisited.” Rev. of When a Girl Looks Down, by Kay Smith. The Fiddlehead 122 (1979): 115-24.

Page, P.K. “Poetry and Mars Bars.” The Cormorant 9.2 (1992): 64-5.

Sutherland, Fraser. “Conservatives From the East.” Rev. of The Bright Particulars, by Kay Smith. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, ON] 27 Feb. 1988: C16.

Sutherland, John. “A Criticism of 'In League with Stones.'” First Statement 1.4 (1942): 2.

Trehearne. Brian. The Montreal Forties: Modernist Poetry in Transition. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999.

Tunney, Mark. “Saint John Poet Kay Smith: A Look Behind the Eyes.” The Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 19 Dec. 1987: 39.

Welch, Liliane. “Kay Smith's Gift of Light.” Rev. of The Bright Particulars, by Kay Smith. The Cormorant 6.1 (1988): 57-8.

Wright, Vivian, and William Prouty, eds. Kay Smith. Spec. issue of The Cormorant 9.2 (1992).