William Jay Smith Essay - Smith, William Jay

Smith, William Jay

Smith, William Jay 1918–

An American poet, playwright, translator, editor, and essayist, Smith also teaches, writes for children, lectures, and presents television programs. He has been a consultant to Grove Press and to the Boy Scouts of America, a member of the Vermont House of Representatives, and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. The diversity of his activities suggests the diversity of form and content in his poetry; he is both praised for versatility and accused of inconsistency. The Tin Can and Other Poems is his best known book. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

If sensuous delight and intellectual pleasure are among the important values conferred by poetry, we stand to gain more from Smith than from all but a handful of his contemporaries. He is a kind of dispossessed court poet among the ruins; in the leisured walk of his verse one feels a friendly, warm mind, a thorough and heart-quickening reliance on the things of this world, especially of the old, sumptuous South-European world. This is not to say that Smith is in any way superficial, though the extreme ease and fluency of the verse, and the great good humor and playful satire of some of it may occasionally suggest this as a possibility. Yet Smith never descends to the merely decorative. There is a strong sadness underlying these poems: the helpless acquiescence in decay and death, the falling-to-ruin of the old, man-made beauties, the dark hopelessness of departure. Through the deepening range of the later poems the voice richens, losing none of the clean, garnished grace that moves each line with intimate, musical authority. These poems show, again, how much of the dramatic the lyric attitude can hold, if managed by a very talented poet…. (p. 74)

James Dickey, "William Jay Smith" (1958), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 74-5.

A poem about itself. ["The Tin Can"] begins with delicately quiet annotations, muted feelings, builds in a controlled extravagance of whirlings and whorlings and agonized self-recognitions, and arrives at a kind of epiphany. Wholly convincing, without a false syllable in its hundreds of lines, it is a recreation of experience that seems to make its statement not by its calculations but by its processes. 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.

Smith's range of subject and tone is notable—from pidgin English wit to Vergilian benisons—and while [The Tin Can, and Other Poems] is continually engaging it is bewilderingly uneven…. In his recently adopted long lines and loose stanzas, Smith takes chances that only now and then are lucky. Too often the center won't hold, description gets windy, self-generating, and we are left with expert maneuvers in a vacuum. In less ambitious pieces, where his old apprenticeship to watchwork accuracy obtains, he seldom goes wrong. But diversities and broad discrepancies merely spark the liveliness of an immensely readable book. These days, when a hopped-up syntax, hi-fi mechanics and the outlook of a Playboy intellectual are basic equipment, it is not difficult to spot and dismiss a poet on the make. A poet in the making, by contrast—especially a poet whose credentials, like Smith's, already give him title to distinction—has a power to rejuvenate his readers and to humble his critics. (pp. 159-60)

John Malcolm Brinnin, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1967 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1967.

William Jay Smith's … New and Selected Poems, brings into focus the evolving career of an excellent contemporary poet whose sensibilities seem to have been swayed by the shifting literary winds. Thus he is interesting to read not only because of his considerable poetic achievement, but also because we can trace in the development of his verse the larger climatic changes of an age. The fifty-six poems collected here span thirty years of careful productivity; and while the volume is occasionally uneven in its level of performance, every selection is clearly the work of a conscious and diligent craftsman.

Even in the first selections, chosen from Poems (1947), we find a talent almost completely submissive to the disciplines of rhetoric and prosody; and when in his four new poems he discards rhyme and strictly measured lines, we still feel that his language is held back from perfect and disastrous freedom by the exercise of a severe artistic conscience. (pp. 144-45)

Thomas H. Landess, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973.

William Jay Smith's New and Selected Poems contains two radically different kinds of poetry. 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. It is no startling insight that one of the major movements in contemporary American poetry has been from closed to open forms. And since Smith is of the generation of poets that made that move, it is not surprising to find both kinds of poetry in this selection from his works. What is surprising in this volume where the poems are arranged chronologically is how clear and abrupt the dividing line appears. That clear division makes it easier to analyze different reactions to the two modes.

Let me take as a starting point a feature that has been much discussed recently as being absent from poetry in open forms—linguistic memorability. I find that the language of Smith's earlier poems in closed forms sticks in my mind and that the language of his later poems in open forms doesn't. I can only explain this difference in memorability as a function of two different philosophies of composition. One can consider a poem either as an end in itself or as a means to some other end, as a product or as a process. Those who consider it as a product stress aesthetic criteria in judging; those who consider it as a process use standards like realism, relevance, sincerity, and social responsibility. In a poem considered as an end in itself, it is only natural to find a high degree of attention to the very words themselves and, as a result, to find the language memorable. And in a poem considered as a means to some other end, it is just as natural to find that this high degree of attention to the words themselves has been excluded as being at odds with the philosophy of composition.

I am suggesting that linguistic memorability is incompatible with the poetry of process—that the poem-as-product view creates closed forms and memorable language and that the poem-as-process view creates open forms in which memorable language—i.e., language as an end—is at odds with the poem as means. Thus linguistic memorability is not a feature of all poetry but just one kind of poetry, and when I say that I prefer Smith's earlier work in closed forms to his later work in open forms I am aware that someone who views poetry as a process has valid grounds for an exactly opposite reaction. That person would define Smith's movements from tight, highly polished work like "Galileo Galilei," "American Primitive," and "A Green Place" to freer, long-lined efforts like "The Tin Can" and "Fishing for Albacore" as an improvement, whereas I do not. (pp. 729-31)

John T. Irwin, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973.