The term “sui generis” is used so often that its impact has been diminished. But some artworks truly are in a class of their own, towering over other examples of the same form even as they seem to have been created in a vacuum, without regard for past precedents.
One that truly deserves this designation is “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept,” Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 prose poem account of her 18-year-long—but doomed—love affair with fellow poet George Barker. In little more than 100 pages, through deeply poetic language, Ms. Smart describes her ecstatic feelings with the religious fervor of one having been reborn. Images of hearts “eaten by doves,” birds who “rebuild their continually violated nests” and redwoods as playground for clandestine trysts abound in the narrative, their metaphorical nature ringing true because Ms. Smart set these phrases down in the midst of passion’s heights, not the cool calm of one looking back. Her words tremble with true, timeless longing and the humdrum details of contemporary life, a tone established in the opening sentence, which describes her anticipation at meeting Mr. Barker for the first time—”I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire”—and carried through to the poem’s final line.
Ms. Smart first fell in love not with her beloved’s corporeal form, but with his work, which she first stumbled across in a London bookshop. For years Ms. Smart declared to any willing listener that she meant to marry Mr. Barker, a once-renowned, now largely forgotten T.S. Eliot protégé. In 1941 she made good on her vow, flying Mr. Barker and his wife to California from Japan on her own dime so she could meet him and begin the affair. She had posed as a manuscript collector, struck up a correspondence, and Mr. Barker, working as an English teacher and worried he might be conscripted if he returned to Britain, saw the possibility of adventure.
Their affair began immediately, neither of them caring about his marital status. To call their union, which produced four illegitimate children, tempestuous, is an understatement. But as Ms. Smart’s second son, Christopher, wrote in 2006, “through all [Mr. Barker’s] other affairs, his outrageous behaviour, their spectacular rows, he remained a Christ-like figure to her.” Ms. Smart had molded her romantic life according to literary obsession and was prepared to live by it.
“Grand Central” stands between the heyday of prose poetry in late 19th-century France and the form’s resurgence in the 1980s. Thanks in part to descriptions such as “Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain” and declamations such as “My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you also are earth whom nothing but love can sow,” its title and imagery evoke biblical texts such as the 137th Psalm and the Song of Songs.
Amid Ms. Smart’s otherworldly, religiously tinged inhabitation of newfound romantic love, “Grand Central” stays rooted in the real. (“But what can the woodsorrel and the mourning-dove, who deal only with eternals, know of the thorny sociabilities of human living?”) This attitude comes across with considerable dark humor when Ms. Smart juxtaposes her consuming thoughts of Mr. Barker against the clinical questions asked of them by customs agents: “When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)”
Ms. Smart (1913-1986) is an unlikely author of one of the 20th century’s greatest examinations of love in all its impossible, unconditional glory. She was born to a privileged family in Ottawa, spent her twenties traveling the world on behalf of a women’s group, and in middle age worked as an editor and an advertising copywriter.
Despite social status and parental connections, Ms. Smart never came to terms with her advantages, alternately conforming to authority and disdaining it. She raised her four children by Mr. Barker as a single mother, never settling into a long-term monogamous relationship. (Mr. Barker, who remained married throughout the affair, eventually fathered a total of 15 children with several women.)
Like her life, Ms. Smart’s literary output was prone to fits and starts. More than three decades passed before she produced her next work, “The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals,” a 1977 novel. It spurred a late-in-life burst of published work, from poetry (“A Bonus,” also 1977) to essays (“In the Meantime,” 1984) to journals (“Necessary Secrets” in 1986 and “On the Side of the Angels” in 1994).
Perhaps it was the early fate of “Grand Central” that accounted for Ms. Smart’s fractured career. Its first edition numbered just 2,000 copies, many of them bought up and burned by Ms. Smart’s mother, who pulled strings to have the book banned in Canada. As a result, it and its author remained obscure. Ms. Smart would not receive proper recognition until 1966, when the British publisher Panther Books reissued it. In the introduction, novelist Brigid Brophy states her conviction that “Grand Central” stands as one of the no “more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.”
Its reputation as a paragon of poetic prose is a delicious irony. T.S. Eliot, her lover’s patron, decried the form in a 1917 essay “Reflections on Vers Libre,” citing its “absence of pattern, absence of rhyme, absence of metre.” Without rhyme, Mr. Eliot argued, “the poet is held up to the standards of prose.”
“Grand Central,” however, reveals how wrong Mr. Eliot was. The book’s fusion of images done proper justice only through poetry, the suspenseful narrative of an illicit affair, and the musicality and rhythm harkening to ancient religious texts remains as startling and marvelous now as it must have been to those lucky enough to have read the book at its genesis.
Ms. Weinman writes “Dark Passages,” a monthly mystery and suspense column for the Los Angeles Times.
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