The Poet Laureate of Crushed Dreams: Midlife and the Artistry of Matthew Buckley Smith

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by Matthew Buckley Smith
(Measure Press, 2024, 86 pp., $25)

In his Institutio Oratoria, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian remarked of the Greek poet Simonides:

“Simonides has a simple style, but he can be commended for the aptness of his language and for a certain charm; his chief merit, however, lies in the power to excite pity, so much so that some prefer him in this respect to all other writers of the genre.”

If we take Quintilian’s word at face value, we might say that Matthew Buckley Smith is the Simonides of our time: a master of the simple, clear, yet devastating poem. His great muses are disillusionment, disappointment, and longing— a fact one might glean from skimming the table of contents of his most recent book, Midlife, which includes titles like “Regret,” “Elegy Without Consolation,” “Nostalgia,” “Poem Without Metaphors,” and “Doubt;” or perhaps merely from reading the first line of the first poem in the collection, “The Year Of,” which serves double duty as a thesis statement and philosophical declaration: “It was not beautiful. It did not rhyme.”

The irony is that Smith’s poems are beautiful and do rhyme. In effect, Smith picks up the very existential gauntlet he has himself thrown down, assuming the Apollonian yoke of the artist to make order out of a disordered world, converting the serpent’s venom into an antidote. The poem about life not rhyming rhymes; the poem which advertises its lack of consolation consoles us with its sonorous music and tender compassion. Nearly all of Smith’s poetry is self-refutingly salvific in this way, undercutting clear-eyed pessimism with a dignified, affirmational form of irony that one detects in the otherwise morbid Baudelaire, Leopardi, and Larkin, but which I have seen nowhere so realized as in Smith. This is the great tension and glory of his work, and it is to his immense credit as an artist and as a human being that he is able to provide such aesthetic splendor and humane comfort to his audience while never compromising his own gloomy convictions.

On numerous occasions, Smith has said that his artistic goal is to “break the reader’s heart,” and that he is attracted to the poetry of others which is able to accomplish this. He expresses praise for poems by saying that they “have bite,” “cut to the bone,” or “draw blood.” For Smith, then, the pleasure of poetry is conceived in intriguingly masochistic terms. A good poem, or at least the kind of good poem he most prizes, is one which vividly and convincingly evokes the emotional pain of living, and thereby causes a sympathetic yet hedonically inverse response in the reader. I hope you will forgive me if I digress on this phenomenon for a few moments, as I believe it is crucial to recognizing the true value of Smith’s work.

An evocation of pain may be pleasurable for several reasons. First, it may be pleasurable because it points to a universal truth of the human condition, and the impartial mind (rendered impartial by artistic distance) always delights in the presence of universal truth. Secondly, it may be pleasurable because, as Aristotle has noted, human beings simply relish a well-wrought imitation of nature— the way Pluto’s fingertips seem to press Persephone’s marble thighs as if they were flesh is enough to make us swoon over a Bernini, despite the rapine subject. These are the more general reasons, applicable to well-executed, ambitious art on any theme. Why some of us specifically seek out depictions or evocations of sorrow requires further explanation.

For this, we would do well to return to Aristotle. According to the Stagirite, a tragic drama is designed to evoke pity and fear (or, as Walter Kaufmann insists, “ruth and terror”), for the purpose of producing a catharsis in its audience. Classicists have long debated whether by “catharsis” Aristotle meant something closer to “purging” or “purification,” but the beauty is that there is psychological truth to both interpretations. By evoking pity and fear in a safe space, sans real-life consequences or responsibility, a tragedy invites its audience to take time to contemplate these existential emotions which would otherwise roil caustic and untended on the outskirts of everyday consciousness. Once these emotions have been experienced and processed, they can then be (at least for a while) discarded, leading to a sense of lightness, serenity, and acceptance. In a way, we can think of tragedy’s purgative function as a kind of tantric shortcut through the stages of grief— a way to concentrate the mind’s coping mechanism into a night’s entertainment, set on a stage of grief.

Going through this sort of emotional, empathetic, imaginative exercise also purifies in the sense that it allows us to understand more fully the minds of ourselves and others, our own emotional responses, and the relationships between these factors, all of which in turn may prompt us to let go of petty and illusory thinking and form more knowing, healthful, compassionate responses in the future. In this respect, such art is, in a legitimate sense, a form of therapy. “Like a computer program which improves itself by running simulations, we, by running fictional scenarios through our heads which exact moral and emotional strain, can train ourselves to better respond to comparable situations in the real world. At the risk of sounding frivolous, it may be that the “good” pain we feel reading a poignant poem is somewhat akin to the good, clean burn of curling a dumbbell. We rejoice in our ability to handle the weight, and within such an isolated, controlled context, we can savor the pain as mere sensuous intensity.

As a side note, many people, including Smith himself, have expressed skepticism about art’s ability to make us better human beings. If “better” means “reliably better behaved,” then I completely agree. An elephant may be more altruistic than the most erudite academic. As Dante suggests, the intellect and the will are separate domains, each requiring their own work. But if “better” simply means more aware of, sensitive to, and appreciative of the workings of self and the world, and therefore more conscious of the subtleties of right and wrong when the time comes to act, then I would say art can absolutely improve us. Of course, the more we allow it to improve us, the more it will.

Finally, returning to and concluding my original digression, there is what I believe is the highest pleasure of sorrowful art— what one might call “aesthetic reconciliation.” To be confronted with the sadness of life in a context that is not only detached from the stress of reality, but which is itself ordered and beautiful, is to be faced with the tantalizing possibility that in the last analysis, sadness is not only a feature of human life but is also an essential quality of the order and beauty of the universe. For many, this impression is itself so moving, and thus so convincing, that it provides a fiercer pleasure than any purely joyful art could. Moreover, as far as human flourishing is concerned, to feel an emotional victory over tragic circumstance and hard-won harmonization with the Grand Design is arguably the supreme existential accomplishment. Art which is able to place us into this exalted state is therefore of the highest value.

His atheistic nihilist outlook notwithstanding, I believe that Matthew Buckley Smith is dead set on making art of this kind, and the fact that he is so adept at fulfilling this lofty task is one reason I have no qualms calling him not only one of the best but one of the most important poets writing today. Like the Greek tragedians, he is interested in evoking both pity and fear for cathartic purposes. However, while he himself once attempted to do this through playwriting, he has in recent years split up the task, focusing largely on pity in his poetry and fear in his horror stories. That being said, Smith’s recent and unforgettable dramatic monologues, which tower over the landscape of Midlife like skyscrapers, mark a delicious exception to this thematic specialization. In these poems one finds the signature Smithian pathos, but also notes of tragedy and sheer terror.

As a case in point, consider the unsettling poem “Ankou,” a monologue delivered from the perspective of a medieval Englishwoman, who, a hypochondriac, secretly and shamefully makes offerings to a pagan spirit to protect her children from plague. Speaking of the eponymous Cornish ghoul she worships, she relates:

My mother’s mother saw him as a girl.
One day in spring, when she was yet so young
Nobody feared that she should go astray,
She took herself alone into the woods,
And, toeing her way along a downed tree, faltered
And fell atop a body in a cart.
A beggar or a holy man, she thought,
And surely some days dead. But then he stirred.
His cowl, it slid a little from his face,
And well she marked the holes that were his eyes,
The lipless teeth that ranged his rotting smile,
The rising bony rustle of his laugh.
With not a word she hied herself back home.

A few days hence her mouser turned up sick.
Within a fortnight half the town was dead.

I cannot say what frightens me the more,
That I devote my every second thought
To the propitiation of a Thing
Hateful to Christ and all of Christendom,
Or that I am the solitary soul
Who dreams all is not well. All is not well.
Beneath the shouts of vendors in the street,
He that has ears may hear a different call,
A reedy tuneless keening on the wind,
That swells and fades and never disappears.
It is the call of Ankou’s wooden cart,
The ancient axle stubborn with disuse,
The handles clacking at his skinless touch,
The wide bed which has always room for more.
Of late I hear it even in my sleep,
Empty for now, and nearer every day.

Smith’s work is so stylistically and thematically consistent that one can already get a good sense of his artistry from this passage alone. The writing is lucid, yet timeless—one could imagine a voice like this emanating from any period of history, and this is a quality shared by nearly all of Smith’s poems, whether personal lyrics, dramatic monologues, or imitations of Latin originals. Reading him, one gets the sense that here are poems written for all people and all times, unified by a plain, smooth style which is nevertheless infinitely versatile. Smith’s language is like a high-quality, well-tailored, white button-down—not flashy, but sharp, and suitable for all seasons and occasions.

The fluency of the pentameter and the near-total avoidance of enjambment here are also typical of Smith, who unabashedly strives for immaculate formal polish despite living in a slovenly age that couldn’t care less about such things. This implicit devotion to music and order is largely what creates the positive irony of which I spoke, and it also contributes to the transcendent effect of aesthetic reconciliation, subsuming the darkness of the subject matter.

Speaking of which, we can see in this passage Smith’s facility for conjuring a narrative situation and immediately thrusting us into a grisly nightmare. Other than the slightly clumsy phrasing of “His cowl, it slid a little from his face” and the distractingly Shakespearean “holes that were his eyes,” the first paragraph cited is an elegant masterclass in verse horror, and I have no doubt that if he so chose, Smith could devote himself entirely to this largely untapped subgenre and excel.

Smith’s range, however, is larger than this. In the second paragraph, he re-combines dread with his signature pathos, concluding the poem with something akin to the tragic note. We feel for the speaker, whose descent into paranoia and superstition, religious guilt and social isolation, is brought about not by vice or stupidity, but by a fatal combination of historical circumstance and the strongest and most wholesome of loves, that of a mother for her children. The speaker is moral and blameless, and yet she suffers. However, as is the case with a tragic figure, her suffering grants her a dignity and insight inaccessible to her peers, the former suggested by the stateliness of Smith’s pentameter, the latter demonstrated through the speaker’s highly developed death-consciousness. Her repetition of “all is not well” echoes Smith’s earlier claim about life: “It was not beautiful. It did not rhyme.” Indeed, those who know him are likely to hear much of Smith himself in the speaker’s perpetual awareness of the “reedy, tuneless keening” of death which “never disappears.”

As is typical of Smith’s poems, this poem ends with a sense of impending doom:  Ankou’s cart “empty for now, and nearer every day.” A survey of last lines in Midlife will reveal an astonishingly consistent taste for ominous conclusions. The poem which follows this one, “The Dark Woods,” ends: “Still the woods, the woods you’ve dreamed about, they wait.” The poem after that, “An Organ of Extreme Perfection,” ends (beautifully): “of sights you’ll learn to love, and then to leave.” Many more examples abound. I do not bring this up in order to level a charge of thematic redundancy— variety for its own sake is trivial and tiresome. I rather admire a poet who is willing to focus purely on what matters most in life and to explore those few issues inventively yet relentlessly, as many of our Greek and Roman forebears did. That is an artist who is about his business, getting to the heart of things. Smith tolls the bells of mortality, ephemerality, and loss over and over again, in new forms, new voices, new scenarios, all to get us to see the pity and horror of our lot with fresh eyes. As Smith realizes, and as we realize when we read him, we must continually re-awaken to the bleakness of our reality if we are to appreciate fully life’s fundamental preciousness and strangeness. To this end, Midlife’s unity of vision is its strength, and is what makes it a more existentially valuable collection to read and re-visit than nearly any other contemporary volume.

Repetition itself becomes a theme in what I believe is a strong candidate for Smith’s greatest poem to date, a dramatic monologue entitled “Egg and Dart.” Here, Smith speaks in the voice of an aging Renaissance-era stone carver who specializes exclusively in producing the often overlooked “egg and dart” pattern of trim in Classical architecture. Toiling in obscurity, “the nobody who gives this nothing shape,” he is “at home within the shadow” of his famous master and mocked by the young apprentices, yet nevertheless takes pride in his quiet, quotidian excellence, “content to turn out faultlessly his craft,” at peace with his fate. Like the meticulously wrought eggs and darts he sculpts, each day is more of the same, but the diligence with which he applies himself to his monotonous, modest vocation gives his life as a whole an aesthetic if melancholic grandeur.

The poem is not perfect in all respects. For one thing, I think it would be (and end) stronger without the final two paragraphs, which strike me as digressive. I have praised Smith’s versatile plain style, adaptable to most situations, but it comes at a slight cost. In his speakers’ consistent deployment of well-turned, discrete statements addressed to (often) a vague, generalized audience, there inheres a somewhat colorless, stilted quality which gives the impression that his characters are more presentational than representational, singers planting their feet and performing arias rather than people with whom one might have a flesh-and-blood encounter. In a positive light, this poised artificiality only increases the neoclassical, marmoreal quality of Smith’s verse. Smith however does not rely on the idiosyncratic energies of his speakers’ personalities to move us, but rather on the narratives they tell, which in turn reveal their depth of character.

As affecting as the stonecutter’s stoic nobility is, how touching (and humbling to the poet-reader!) his embrace of small, unrecognized perfection, the heart of “Egg and Dart” actually lies in the beautiful if only lightly sketched relationship between the speaker and the master artist whom he serves. The two were childhood companions during their apprenticeship, yet when the latter achieved early fame with a precocious masterwork, a sculpture of the Annunciation, the former contented himself to serve his erstwhile peer for the rest of his life, not with bitterness but fierce loyalty and admiration, possibly even love. Nevertheless, both men are ultimately artistic “failures”: the speaker, due to the limited scope of his talent and ambition, and the master, due to his inability to equal the great masterpiece of his youth. Smith thus presents us with a man of “slight failure” and a man of “justly grand” failure and invites us both to contrast their fates and imaginatively to prepare ourselves for either fate. We suspect that while the speaker has come to grips with his smallness, the master is inwardly tortured by his own inability to rise to the expectations of himself and others. Like the mother in “Ankou,” he too is a semi-tragic figure, a man emotionally punished for a positive trait— in this case, his talent. There is no overt horror here, but Smith knows that crushed dreams are, to many, the greatest horror of all.

Given this “grand failure,” the speaker’s continued admiration for his master is all the more poignant. In the exquisite passage which I believe should end the poem, he says, speaking of his own, not-yet-crushed dreams:

My own, of late, touch on the blessed Virgin,
Mantled in pink, just as our master made her
The day he drew the rubble from her face
And found her flushed with motherly despair,
Compelled to carry what she might not keep.
I pray that she will guide the master’s hand
One final time, for one last worthy form,
A miracle to warm his dying fame,
A garment of which I might take the hem.

Given the consonantal rhyme between “fame” and “hem,” I suspect that Smith perhaps did end the poem here in an earlier draft, but later concluded that such an ending was too hopeful for his taste. What is achingly beautiful about this passage though, other than its incredible language, is that while it does radiate hope and nobility of spirit, this only turns the screw further into our suspicions that such hope is probably vain. Nevertheless, the nobility of spirit implies that regardless of whether the hope is vain, what is most meaningful, the speaker’s love for and humility toward his friend, is ineradicable.

As discussed, Midlife has a great deal of thematic unity, but it also has one subject in particular which manages to haunt nearly every poem in it: the anxiety of parenthood (a second subject, marital anxiety, haunts nearly all the rest). This is as true in the dramatic monologues as in the lyrics: “Ankou” concerns a mother worried about her children catching plague; “Egg and Dart” features a speaker referred to as “mother” by his students, and the Madonna who is “compelled to carry what she might not keep” (a Smithism if I’ve ever heard one); “The Fell Swoop” concerns a monstrous, murderous release from the shackles of parenthood; “The Light of the Body,” a questionable substitution for it; “Another Achilles,” the way one’s upbringing determines one’s life.

Among the lyrics, several of the best and most representative form a set unto themselves: poems addressed to Smith’s daughters, which muse on the prospect of approaching death given the occasions of birth and early childhood development. These include “Object Permanence,” “Lullaby Before Birth,” “The Octonauts,” and “An Organ of Extreme Perfection” (“Posterity” should also be included here, though it is technically addressed to Smith’s wife). All of these poems have some killer lines (there’s that masochistic metaphor again), but perhaps my favorite is “Object Permanence.” In this poem, Smith empathizes with his baby daughter’s inability to recognize “that what you see at nightfall will return,” and speculates that it is from this object impermanence that she first learns of the permanence of death. Left alone in her room at night:

“No one can hear, but you cry anyway
For more time in the world you hardly knew,
Here in the body one momentous day
We loved as you.”

It would be difficult to find a more heart-wrenching stanza of poetry, contemporary or otherwise. In it lies the essence of Smith’s pathos: “Despite everything—the failures, the crushed dreams, the hardships, the longings— the world is full of love and wonder, and that is precisely why it is so horrible that we must leave it.” As Lispector said, “To like being alive hurts.” When conveyed with aesthetic power, this truth itself only makes life seem all the more lovely and wondrous. Herein lies, over and beyond the perennial note of realist doom, the humanist, consoling, and even spiritual value of Smith’s poetry. With eloquence and compassion, his work offers us a miracle which dazzles no matter how many times we experience it: All is not well, nor beautiful, nor rhymed—  yet in the beauteous saying so, we make it so, at least for a while.