William Jay Smith

b. 1918

William Jay Smith told Contemporary Authors: "I am a lyric poet, alert, I hope, as my friend Stanley Kunitz has pointed out, 'to the changing weathers of a landscape, the motions of the mind, the complications and surprises of the human comedy.' I believe that poetry should communicate: it is, by its very nature, complex, but its complexity should not prevent its making an immediate impact on the reader. Great poetry must have its own distinctive music; it must resound with the music of the human psyche."

Known for the diverse form and content of his work, Smith is the author of numerous poems for adults and children. He also has developed a reputation for his translations of French, Russian, Hungarian and Swedish poets' works. Atlantic Monthly reviewer Elizabeth Frank praised Smith for a "long and distinguished career" that included a term as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—a position known today as Poet Laureate.

In an era when most poets have chosen to craft free verse, Smith has created work, "which from its beginnings has been defined by a passionate and deeply informed commitment to traditional rhymed metrical-stanzaic forms," to quote Frank. Although he has also written free verse of his own, Smith is better known for his adherence to traditional styles. In 1973 in the Sewanee Review, Thomas H. Landess commended Smith's New and Selected Poems for the author's "considerable poetic achievement" and his "severe artistic conscience." Landess also mentioned with approval Smith's tendency to be "swayed by the shifting literary winds," seeing Smith's receptivity to his era as one of his poetic gifts. Writing in the Southern Review about the same collection, John T. Irwin pointed out what he saw as the volume's "two radically different kinds of poetry." As Irwin put it, "The poems published before his 1966 volume are in closed forms; those in the 1966 volume and after are for the most part in open forms." Although Irwin commented that he himself preferred the earlier, closed-form poetry, he acknowledged that other readers might have precisely the opposite reaction.

Partisan Review contributor John Malcolm Brinnin deemed Smith "a poet whose credentials . . . give him title to distinction." Brinnin called "The Tin Can," the title poem in Smith's collection The Tin Can, and Other Poems, "superb." He defined the substance of the poem as "a Laocoon-like involvement in the toils of creative anxiety [and] a rage for freedom and identity." Brinnin considered the poem "at once a dispersion of forces and a gathering of strength . . . and so far superior to anything else in the book that it has the impact of a window smashed open . . . Wholly convincing, without a false syllable in its hundreds of lines, it is a recreation of experience. . . . To single out 'The Tin Can' is not to slight Smith's demonstrated talents, but to recognize a poem that comes from the depths with the awesome wholeness of a thing urged into being."

At a time in his life when his contemporaries had immersed themselves in retirement activities, Smith continued to publish poetry collections. Collected Poems, 1939-1989 was received enthusiastically in 1990. The poet once again was praised for his range and variety. Writing in the New York Times, Herbert Mitgang claimed that "the far-reaching themes and variety of styles in William Jay Smith's poetry prove that commonplace ideas and everyday activities can be reinvented by lyrical language that enlightens and entertains the reader. His magical Collected Poems span a half-century of his life and the life of the nation, adding up to a literary and social history of our times in verse." A more comprehensive collection, The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997 was released in 1998. Frank felt that the volume "provides a welcome and generous retrospective of Smith's 'adult' work." The critic added: "With an artisan's care and conscience, Smith makes full use of all the aural and figurative resources of our language. His tetrameters, pentameters, and hexameters are as intricately crafted as Oriental rugs. . . . Smith is a singer rather than a prophet, and his voice tends toward the elegiac rather than the apocalyptic, the reflective rather than the incantatory. He is rooted in the concrete and the sensuous—in sight, sound, and touch."

Smith drew upon his Native American heritage—he is part Choctaw—for The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems, published in 2000. In the work, Smith recounts a tragedy of American history: the forced relocation of five Native American tribes from their homelands in the southeast to Oklahoma territory, an ordeal now known as "The Trail of Tears." "Smith accomplishes a remarkable poetry of fact and documentation . . . one whose art is artfully concealed," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. Patricia Monaghan, reviewing The Cherokee Lottery in Booklist, called it "moving, unforgettable, humane."

In tandem with his serious poetry, translation, and literary criticism, Smith has published numerous volumes of rhymes and riddles for youngsters. Some of these, including Laughing Time: Nonsense Poems, and Around My Room and Other Poems, remained in print many decades after their first publication. In the New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy called Smith "[one] of our most dependable poets for children." Reviewing Smith's Laughing Time, Kennedy wrote: "Mr. Smith reaches out to actual, laughter-prone kids." Commenting on Puptents and Pebbles: A Nonsense ABC, another of Smith's collections of verse for children, a Saturday Review critic recommended that "only sophisticated readers, like children and grownups, should be allowed such fun and wisdom." Booklist correspondent Hazel Rochman found Smith's work for children to be "generally true to the child's view of the universe, both immense and particular."

Smith's memoir, Army Brat, describes his experiences growing up on an Army base outside St. Louis in the years between the two world wars. Because Smith's father was an enlisted man, Smith was subject to the rigid discipline and hierarchy of military life at that time. Because Army Brat is a coming-of-age story, it evokes both a time gone by and a young writer's discovery of language, sexuality, and all the possibilities that the world might hold for him. In recalling his participation in a high school choral contest, Smith hints in Army Brat at his growing discovery of his own powers: "I had the odd, pleasing, and yet somehow terrifying sensation that while my voice was now only one among many, some day it would rise above the others and be heard in the vast realm represented by those stone towers and green lawns."

Washington Post reviewer Stephanie Vaughn declared Army Brat an "engaging book," adding: "The life of the military child has been so little documented that it is a pleasure to see it so fully handled in the poet William Jay Smith's memoir. . . . This is an uneven book, but it slides only occasionally into gush, and is for the most part a balanced and beguiling account of an unusual life lived in a little-known subculture." Other reviewers praised Smith's sense of detail. "Mr. Smith has written a charming portrait of this forgotten world," wrote novelist Paul Zweig in the New York Times Book Review. "He evokes the sharp clink of the training rifles and the picnics on rough brown Army blankets overlooking the equally brown and muddy Mississippi. He evokes small things, like the V-shaped heavy cardboard his father hooked around the buttons on his uniform preparatory to buffing and polishing them. And he evokes the sometimes squalid living quarters, such as a two-room shack perched over a sinkhole, where he lived when he was six. . . . Mr. Smith himself is by no means absent from Army Brat, but we learn about him less in what he tells us about himself than by seeing what he sees and evokes with such intense simplicity." Carleton Jones was even more enthusiastic; writing in the Baltimore Sun, he commented: "The book may hover on the edge of being a minor classic. . . . but whatever its critical destiny, it is certainly a fine social document and an intimate picture of the pre-World War II army world."

During his tenure as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, Smith supervised the recorded readings of many notable American and foreign poets. He also has been recorded reading his poetry and lecturing on the works of others. A Publishers Weekly contributor described Smith's career as "formidable," noting that his poetic images "reveal the inescapability of memory, testifying to its enduring capacity to affirm the power of the imagination."

Career

Washington University, St. Louis, MO, assistant in French, 1939-41; Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor in English and French, 1946-47, visiting professor of writing and acting chair of writing division, 1973, 1974-75; Williams College, Williamstown, MA, lecturer in English, 1951, poet-in-residence and lecturer in English, 1956-64, 1966-67; Arena Stage, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence, 1964-65; Hollins University, Hollins, VA, writer-in-residence, 1965-66, professor of English, 1970-80, professor emeritus, 1980—. Lecturer at Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, 1975; Fulbright lecturer, Moscow State University, 1981; poet-in-residence, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1985-88. Has lectured at colleges, clubs, writers' conferences, and book fairs, and has presented television programs on poetry for children. Vermont House of Representatives, Democratic member, 1960-62; Library of Congress, Washington, DC, consultant in poetry, 1968-70, honorary consultant, 1970-76. Staff member, University of Connecticut Writers Conference, 1951; Suffield Writer-Reader Conference, 1959-62; and University of Indiana Writers Conference, 1961. Jury member, National Book Award, 1962, 1970, 1975, Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1978, and Pegasus Prize for Literature, 1979-2000. Chairman of board of directors, Translation Center, Columbia University. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1941-45; became lieutenant; awarded commendation by French Admiralty.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Poems, Banyan Press (New York, NY), 1947.
  • Celebration at Dark, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1950.
  • Snow, Schlosser Paper, 1953.
  • The Stork: A Poem Announcing the Safe Arrival of Gregory Smith, Caliban Press, 1954.
  • Typewriter Birds, Caliban Press, 1954.
  • Poems 1947-57, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1957.
  • Two Poems, Mason Hill Press, 1959.
  • (With Richard Wilbur) Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith, Chapel Press, 1963.
  • The Tin Can, and Other Poems, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1966, title poem published as The Tin Can, Stone House Press (Roslyn, NY), 1988.
  • New and Selected Poems, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1970.
  • A Rose for Katherine Anne Porter, Albondocani Press (New York, NY), 1970.
  • At Delphi: For Allen Tate on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, 19 November 1974, Chapel Press, 1974.
  • Venice in the Fog, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1975.
  • (With Richard Wilbur) Verses on the Times, Gutenberg Press, 1978.
  • Journey to the Dead Sea, illustrated by David Newbert, Abbatoir (Omaha, NE), 1979.
  • The Tall Poets, Palaemon Press, 1979.
  • The Traveler's Tree, New and Selected Poems, illustrated by Jacques Hnizdovsky, Persea Books (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Plain Talk: Epigrams, Epitaphs, Satires, Nonsense, Occasional, Concrete, and Quotidian Poems, Center for Book Arts (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Journey to the Interior, Stone House Press, 1988.
  • Collected Poems, 1939-1989, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
  • The Cyclist, Stone House Press, 1995.
  • The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1998.
  • The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 2000.
  • The Girl in Glass: Love Poems, Bootes and Company (New York, NY), 2002.

Also author of privately printed poems, including The Bead Curtain: Calligrams, 1957; The Old Man on the Isthmus, 1957; A Minor Ode to the Morgan Horse, 1963; Morels, 1964; Quail in Autumn, 1965; A Clutch of Clerihews, 1966; Winter Morning, 1967; Imaginary Dialogue, 1968; Hull Boy, St. Thomas, 1970; Song for a Country Wedding, 1976; and Oxford Doggerel, 1983. Author, with Barbara Howes, of privately printed Christmas card poems, including Lachrymae Christi and In the Old Country, 1948; Poems: The Homecoming and The Piazza, 1949; and Two French Poems: The Roses of Saadi and Five-Minute Watercolor, 1950. Poetry is represented in numerous anthologies and textbooks, including The War Poets, Day, 1945; The New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1957; Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950, Macmillan, 1958; Poems for Seasons and Celebrations, World Publishing, 1961; Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940, Meridian, 1969; and Talking like the Rain, Little, Brown, 1992.

POETRY FOR CHILDREN

  • Laughing Time (also see below), illustrated by Juliet Kepes, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1955, revised and enlarged edition published as Laughing Time: Nonsense Poems, illustrated by Fernando Krahn, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.
  • Boy Blue's Book of Beasts, illustrated by Juliet Kepes, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1957.
  • Puptents and Pebbles: A Nonsense ABC, illustrated by Juliet Kepes, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1959.
  • (And illustrator) Typewriter Town, Dutton (New York, NY), 1960.
  • What Did I See?, illustrated by Don Almquist, Crowell-Collier (New York, NY), 1962.
  • My Little Book of Big and Little (Little Dimity, Big Gumbo, Big and Little), three volumes, illustrated by Don Bolognese, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Ho for a Hat!, illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1964, revised edition published with illustrations by Lynn Munsinger, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1989.
  • (Compiler, with Louise Bogan) The Golden Journey (anthology), Reilly & Lee, 1965, published with woodcuts by Fritz Kredel, Contemporary Books (Chicago, IL), 1990.
  • If I Had a Boat, illustrated by Don Bolognese, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1966.
  • (Compiler) Poems from France, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin, Crowell (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Mr. Smith, and Other Nonsense, illustrated by Don Bolognese, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1968.
  • Around My Room and Other Poems, illustrated by Don Madden, Lancelot (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Grandmother Ostrich and Other Poems, illustrated by Don Madden, Lancelot (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Laughing Time and Other Poems, illustrated by Don Madden, Lancelot (New York, NY), 1969.
  • (Compiler) Poems from Italy, illustrated by Elaine Raphael, Crowell (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Key, Children's Book Council, 1982.
  • Birds and Beasts, illustrated by Jacques Hnizdovsky, Godine (Boston, MA), 1990.
  • Big and Little, illustrated by Don Bolognese, Wordsong (Honesdale, PA), 1991.
  • (Editor, with Carol Ra) Behind the King's Kitchen, illustrated by Jacques Hnizdovsky, Boyds Mills Press, 1992.
  • (Editor, with Carol Ra) The Sun Is Up: A Child's Year of Poems, Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1996.
  • Here Is My Heart: Love Poems, illustrated by Jane Dyer, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.
  • Around My Room, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Hey Diddle, a Riddle, Winslow Press (Delray Beach, FL), 2002.

TRANSLATOR

  • Romualdo Romano, Scirocco, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1951.
  • Valery Larbaud, Poems of a Multimillionaire, Bonacio & Saul/Grove (New York, NY), 1955.
  • (And editor) Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue, Grove (New York, NY), 1956.
  • Elsa Beskow, The Children of the Forest (for children), illustrated by Beskow, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Two Plays by Charles Bertin: Christopher Columbus and Don Juan, Minnesota University Press, 1970.
  • Lennart Hellsing, The Pirate Book (for children), illustrated by Poul Ströyer, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1972.
  • (With Max Hayward) Kornei Chukovsky, The Telephone (for children), illustrated by Blair Lent, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1977.
  • (With Leif Sjoeberg) Artur Lundkvist, Agadir, International Poetry Forum (Pittsburgh, PA), 1979, Ohio State University Press (Athens, OH), 1980.
  • (With Ingvar Schousboe) Thorkild Bjoernvig, The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1983.
  • (And editor, with James S. Holmes) Dutch Interior: Postwar Poetry of the Netherlands and Flanders, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Jules Laforgue, Moral Tales, New Directions (New York, NY), 1985.
  • (With Leif Sjoeberg) Henry Martinson, Wild Bouquet: Nature Poems, Bookmark Press, 1985.
  • Collected Translations: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese (poetry), New Rivers Press (St. Paul, MN), 1985.
  • (With Edwin Morgan and others) Sandor Weoeres, Eternal Moment: Selected Poems, New Rivers Press (St. Paul, MN), 1988.
  • (With wife, Sonja Haussmann Smith) Tchicaya U Tam'Si, The Madman and the Medusa, edited by A. James Arnold and Kandioura Drame, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1989.
  • Jules Laforgue, Berlin: The City and the Court, Turtle Point Books, 1996.
  • (And editor and author of introduction) Gyula Illyés, What You Have Almost Forgotten: Selected Poems, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1999.

Translations by Smith from the Russian, Hungarian, Swedish, and French—particularly of the poems of Jules Laforgue and Andrei Voznesensky—have appeared in periodicals and books.

OTHER

  • The Spectra Hoax (criticism), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1961, reprinted, Story Line Press (Ashland, OR), 2000.
  • Herrick, Dell (New York, NY), 1962.
  • The Straw Market (comedy), produced at Hollins University, 1965.
  • (With Virginia Haviland) Children and Poetry: A Selective, Annotated Bibliography, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1969, revised edition, 1979.
  • The Streaks of the Tulip, Selected Criticism, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1972.
  • (Editor and author of introduction) Light Verse and Satires of Witter Bynner, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.
  • (Author of preface) Miklós Vajda, editor, Modern Hungarian Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1977.
  • Army Brat: A Memoir (also see below), Persea Books (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Army Brat: A Dramatic Narrative for Three Voices (play based upon Smith's memoir), produced in New York City, 1980.
  • (Compiler) A Green Place: Modern Poems, illustrated by Hnizdovsky, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1982.
  • (Editor, with Emanuel Brasil) Brazilian Poetry, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
  • (Editor and author of introduction) Nina Cassian, Life Sentence: Selected Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.

Contributor of poetry, reviews, translations, essays, and articles to major literary periodicals and national magazines, including Harper's, Poetry, Nation, Harper's Bazaar, New Criterion, New Republic, Horn Book, Evergreen Review, Yale Review, New Yorker, Southern Review, and Sewanee Review. Poetry reviewer, Harper's, 1961-64; editorial consultant, Grove Press, 1968-70; editor, Translation, 1973-90. A major collection of Smith's manuscripts is housed at Washington University; smaller collections are at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, and at the University of Delaware; a collection of Smith's children's books are housed at Hollins University.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
  • Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Smith, William Jay, Army Brat: A Memoir, Persea Books (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Untermeyer, Louis, editor, Modern American Poetry, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1962.

PERIODICALS

  • Atlantic Monthly, September, 1998, Elizabeth Frank, "The Pleasures of Formal Poetry."
  • Booklist, May 1, 1998, Ray Olson, review of The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997, p. 1495; February 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Around My Room, p. 1026; May 15, 2000, Patricia Monaghan, review of The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems.
  • Library Journal, April 15, 1964; April 15, 1998, Thomas F. Merrill, review of The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997, p. 84; July, 2000, Louis McKee, review of The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems, p. 99.
  • New Letters, summer, 1999, "William Jay Smith at Eighty" (interview), pp. 90-119.
  • New York Times, October 27, 1990.
  • New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1964; November 9, 1980, p. 51; November 16, 1980.
  • Partisan Review, winter, 1967.
  • Poetry, December, 1966; May, 1981.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 27, 1996, review of Berlin: The City and the Court, p. 73; April 27, 1998, review of The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997, p. 63; February 14, 2000, review of Around My Room, p. 196; April 24, 2000, review of The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems.
  • Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, April, 1970.
  • Saturday Review, November 7, 1959.
  • Sewanee Review, winter, 1973, pp. 144-145.
  • Southern Review, summer, 1973, pp. 729-731.
  • Sun (Baltimore), October 19, 1980, p. D5.
  • Voyages, winter, 1970.
  • Washington Post, December 1, 1990, p. D6.

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LIFE SPAN 1918–

Biography

William Jay Smith told Contemporary Authors: "I am a lyric poet, alert, I hope, as my friend Stanley Kunitz has pointed out, 'to the changing weathers of a landscape, the motions of the mind, the complications and surprises of the human comedy.' I believe that poetry should communicate: it is, by its very nature, complex, but its complexity should not prevent its making an immediate impact on the reader. Great poetry must have . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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