The Traveler's Tree

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

William Jay Smith’s poems are notably different from any others written in our time. As Richard Wilbur notes on the dustjacket, he is “one of the very few contemporary poets who cannot be confused with anybody else and who stands alone in a laudable way.” This selection of his poems, arranged with great care and intelligence, provides not only great pleasure, but also ways of speculating on the development of his distinctive voice.

The book is divided into two parts, each broken down into titled subsections. The first part contains poems more recent than The Tin Can (1966), including ten translations of recent vintage; the second part contains judicious selections from Poems (1947), Celebration at Dark (1950), Poems 1947-1957, and The Tin Can. In a discussion of this kind, it makes sense to start with the second part, tracing what one can toward an apprehension of those qualities which make Smith’s poetry what it is.

The eleven poems from Smith’s first book are all short—the longest is twenty lines—and characterized by certain neoclassical qualities: deftly mastered traditional forms, avoidance of overt intrusion of “personality,” precision, and grace. If that were the end of the description, it would suffice for the poems of several people whose work began to appear shortly after World War II. Smith’s widely praised “lightness of touch,” however, is deceptive, even in a few of these early poems. Beneath the bright surfaces there is a strong undercurrent of darkness, sometimes expressed in images which partake simultaneously of “dream” and “reality,” so that what is presented has a new and startling dreamlike quality, although it does not surrender its ability to persuade the reader that this is the way things are.

“The Barber,” for example, consists of eight lines which seem to begin in a real enough world of haircuts; but even here there are certain oddities:

The barber who arrives to cut my hairLooks at his implements, and then at me.The world is a looking glass in which I seeA toadstool in the shape of a barber chair.

The use of the word “arrives” in the first line raises questions which cannot be answered with complete confidence; but it undercuts some usual expectations. There is something hesitant in the whole scene, as if both the speaker and the barber were mildly surprised at the situation. The end of the poem fulfills these expectations:

The years are asleep. A fly crawls on the edgeOf a broken cup, a fan in the corner whines.The barber’s hands move over me like vinesIn a dream as long as hair can ever grow.

As the speaker’s world slows down toward stasis and the dream takes over, the poem itself abandons the pattern it had set for itself, letting go of the rhyme between the first and fourth lines of each quatrain. The result is that the poem does not “snap shut like a box,” but opens onward, propelling the reader into reverie. It is all done with unobtrusive deftness; but it is nevertheless accomplished.

In Celebration at Dark and Poems 1947-1957, there becomes apparent in Smith’s poetry a new tone, achieved by a delicate combination of light-verse rhythms with images which are often dark, surreal, or frightening, as in these two stanzas, the third and the seventh, from “Galileo Galilei”:

Apple trees are bent and breaking,And the heat is not the sun’s;And the Minotaur is waking,And the streets are cattle runs.* * *Galileo GalileiComes to knock and knock againAt a small secluded doorwayIn the ordinary brain.

This is so far from the flatness of much contemporary poetry that less competent poets will think it too old-fashioned; but by combining images of devastation with the rhythms of someone like Edward Lear, Smith found a haunting and memorable voice in which to speak to his own time. Some of his most famous poems—“Mr. Smith,” “The Ten,” “American Primitive”—operate according to this principle, which is by no means to say that the principle can be mastered by any and every poet, for, although it is composed partly of recognizable techniques, one of the essential ingredients is the vision that can make, as in “The Ten,” a nightmare out of a casual newspaper statement that Madame Henri Bonnet is one of...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)