Sunday, January 29, 2012

Elizabeth Smart

Google Elizabeth Smart today and you get the teenage kidnap victim. But there was another Elizabeth Smart whose story is at least as interesting and quite divergently different.


By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life
by Rosemary Sullivan
Penguin, 1992

[This review first appeared in Imprint, University of Waterloo, May 29, 1992]

Once upon a time there was a woman who was just like all women. And she married a man who was just like all men. And they had some children who were just like all children. And it rained all day. ... In the end the died. Do you insist on vulgar details? Mere gossip? Loathsome gluttony? Chapter one: they were born. Chapter two: they were bewildered. Chapter three: they loved. Chapter four: they suffered. Chapter five: they were pacified. Chapter six: they died. -- Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart wrote the poetic-prose masterpiece, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and may just be Canada's greatest and most misunderstood writer. I mean, The Globe's Jay Scott somehow found it fit to describe her in last March's Chatelaine magazine as "the bisexual bohemian product of a wealthy Ottawa family against whom she rebelled."

Smart, says Scott, "carried on a passionately masochistic relationship with married poet George Barker for 19 years; she even bore him four children." Even, says Scott. It makes you wonder if he even bothered to read By Heart, "the awkwardly written but superbly researched biography" he was supposedly reviewing. What an idiot. What a country.

Elizabeth Smart once described Canada as a majestic country without any people in it, by which she meant there weren't any decent Canadian poets. For Smart, there weren't any people but poets, which was why she had four kids by T.S. Eliot's protoge, George Barker, though they hardly ever lived together and her four children were only four of his fifteen.

Smart wrote By Grand Central Station about the initial stages of her relationship with Barker, when he was drifting between Smart and his wife, manipulating them both and putting down his carelessness to the cause of Art. First published during World War II, the book was well received but quickly vanished. Its powerful poetry only resurfaced to prominence later with the rise of interest in women writers and a democratic reshuffling of the literary canon. Smart's work now stands as one of the pinnacles of poetic-prose of the 20th century.

In her own way, Smart, then, is a transitional figure. Hugely passionate and yet fiercely independent, she embodies both the traditional female mother-archetype and the contemporary feminist-ideal. She had four children because she wanted children. She was obsessed with them all her life. When she read George Barker's poetry in a book store one day, she decided he would be the father of her children -- damn the powers that be -- and he was. In that way, she was what her generation of told her a woman should be.

But she was also a New Woman, a female writer, a romantic, who wanted to live a life like Byron's. She wanted to live her life with kinetic energy, fight against the forces that would try to hold her back, struggle against the suffering, and win. Of James Bond she once wrote that he could have his mistresses as long as she could have her lovers. Society was hypocritical: it praised adventurous men but damned adventurous women.


Reading at Seagram's Museum on May 6, Sullivan expounded on her thesis that Smart had two primary themes in her writing, love and silence. Smart first pursued George Barker with an obsessiveness that was total and blinding, believing as she did that heroic love would save her from her bland, bourgeois, Canadian up-bringing.

But finding her vision far less than realistic, Smart then turned later in life, like many creative women of her generation (Sylivia Plath comes easily to mind), to trying to find a voice for all the women who are silenced by a culture that dominates and subjugates them.

Smart came from a wealthy family, but she spent the prime of her life as a single mother struggling to make ends meet, dying all the time only to write. She knew only too well what she came to call "woman's lot." Smart's second book, The Assumptions of Rogues and Rascals, illuminates her second theme. She "rebelled" (said Scott)? Good God, I hope so.

At one point in By Heart, Sullivan poses the rhetorical question, How then do you survive life's script? "By a rage of will," she says and quotes Smart:

Like this: pray; bang your head; be beautiful; wait; love; rage; rail; look, and possibly, if lucky, see; love again; try to stop loving; go on loving; bustle about; rush to and fro. Whatever you say will be far less than the truth.

"Refuse dismay and battle on regardless," says Sullivan, "which is what Elizabeth did. Indeed, Elizabeth believed the only response to life was 'ecstatic surrender' since life has a will stronger than yours. 'It is not for you to know.' She would always ask herself, 'Can't I possibly be a little braver?'"

Elizabeth Smart, says Sullivan, "lived on a vertical plane, where ecstasy or pain could deliver themselves like shafts shattering the moment." And -- oh! -- she is so sad! Her language has such strength and yet she was so subsumed by her need to love and be loved. She couldn't believe she was a good writer until a man told her she was. But not just any man, a poet. Barker, thankfully, gave her that praise, and Smart gave us her prose.

So full of contradictions, it is difficult to know what to make of Smart's life in our contemporary context. Her absolute devotion to her children might be seen as an attack on women's progress in the workplace, and yet Smart broke through many -- if not all -- of the social taboos of her day (and these days, too). That she is a great writer is gospel. Her life will only grow in significance. Rosemary Sullivan has done her well.

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