RICHMOND, Maine — The common thread among C. Fox Smith’s more than 600 poems was her ability to capture the rough-and-tumble essence of a life spent at sea.
Wait a minute. Her?
That’s the reaction many of her early 20th century contemporaries had when and if they ever learned that the C stood for Cicely. It was well into her career before she began identifying herself as “Miss C. Fox Smith” or “Cicely Fox Smith.”
Even today, nautical history buffs such as Charles Ipcar of Richmond, who co-edited a tome of Smith’s poetry that was published earlier this year, see her poems as an unlikely portal to vivid and adventurous times long past.
“They are just absolutely riveting and full of life,” said Ipcar recently from a home office that doubles as a recording studio where he and his banjo have put numerous Smith poems to music. “They sucked me right in.”
That was 12 years ago. Ipcar went to a sea music concert at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, where some British musicians performing some of Smith’s shanties triggered something in Ipcar that led to a decade-long exploration of her relatively unknown life.
“I found the songs compelling, full of fascinating nautical characters and their intriguing stories,” wrote Ipcar in the foreword to the book he edited with James Saville of England, “ The Complete Poetry of Cicely Fox Smith.” “I felt as if I were listening to sailors talking among themselves in the foc’sle of a ship or at a table in some sailortown dive over 100 years ago, and maybe I was.”
But the majority of Smith’s poems were long out of print and even in authoritative anthologies about the sea, she was often a footnote at best. Never had anyone compiled her work so the world could see the breadth and breathtaking depth of her muse. Ipcar and Saville’s quest led them to more than 640 poems that span more than 700 pages, and they’re working on a second edition with a few dozen more which they plan to publish next year.
Smith was born into a middle-class family in England in 1882. In an era when many young English women received an abbreviated education before settling down as homemaker, she was an exception. In 1911 she traveled to Canada with her family, eventually making her way to the seashores of Victoria, British Columbia.
“Her spare time was spent roaming nearby wharves and alleys, talking to residents and sailors alike,” reads the biography of Smith in the beginning of Ipcar and Saville’s book. “She listened to and learned from the sailors’ tales until she too was able to speak with that authoritative nautical air that pervades her written work.”
After her return to England, Smith’s poetry poured out, mostly in newspapers and magazines. She also published three romantic novels, numerous short stories and articles and several books about what she described as “sailortown.” There is at least one poem, “The Flying-Fish Sailor,” with a mention of Maine in the first stanza:
“‘The Western Ocean rolls and roars
From Sandy Hook to Europe’s Shores,
From Fastnet Light to Portland, Maine,
And Newport News and back again,
With Boston, Salem, Montreal,
And plenty ‘o ports both large and small,
And them that like may may keep ‘em all,
Not Me,’ says the flying-fish sailor.”
It took a core of volunteer history buffs from around the world to help compile the poetry. Ipcar, who is the son of famed Maine writer and artist Dahlov Ipcar, traveled to England and British Columbia, where he tried to retrace some of Smith’s long-faded steps. Though he hopes his book reintroduces Smith’s literary contributions to a niche dominated by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield, he was frustrated over the gaps in Fox’s life story that he had been unable to fill. There were few published interviews with Smith before her death in 1954 and Ipcar hasn’t found any direct descendants.
But he was able to cull some hints about the kind of woman she was. She was a fierce critic of art in many forms, particularly sea shanties, which are typically poems set to music. Ipcar often wonders what she would think of the attention he has given her, or whether she would enjoy hearing him sing her poetry and pluck it out on the banjo.
He hopes she would recognize that he’s honoring her, which is what he would tell her if she were here today.
“I’d ask her more details of her life. I’d ask her ‘where did you go?’” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’d like her to know that her poems live on.”