Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870
Dave Smith’s parents, Ralph Gerald Smith and Catherine Mary Cornwell, were both from working-class families, their ancestors the farmers and coal miners of Virginia and Maryland. The work ethic by which Ralph Smith was able to lift his family into the suburban middle class undoubtedly left its impression on the son, but there was no precedent for the boy’s future in poetry. Dave Smith read widely as a teenager, but he cites Hot Rod magazine and rock and roll, especially rhythm and blues, as influences on his sense of language that were no less significant than the classics of English and American literature. The fishermen and laborers of the tidewater region around Chesapeake Bay, near his home in Portsmouth, Virginia, also imbued his imagination with scenes and characters that would begin to appear in the poems he wrote in early adulthood.
In 1960 his father was killed in a car accident at the age of thirty-nine. Shortly afterward, at the University of Virginia, Smith made his first serious commitment to literature. After graduating with a B.A. in 1965, he took up teaching and coaching football at Poquoson (Virginia) High School, and he married Dolores Weaver (they would eventually have three children—Jeddie, Lael, and Mary Catherine). At Poquoson, a fishing village known to the natives as Bull Island, Smith began to hone his skill as a poet, finding in the local watermen the heroic subjects that would often inspire his most characteristic verse. In 1967 he entered a master’s program at Southern Illinois University, where he wrote a thesis on the poetry of James Dickey and edited Sou’wester, the student literary magazine. He received his M.A. in 1969, the year he was drafted into the Air Force. He served most of his tour of duty in Langley, Virginia, just a few miles from his sources of inspiration in Poquoson, and was able to continue to write and teach in the evenings. With his wife, he edited and published Back Door, a small magazine, and operated a chapbook press. After his discharge, Smith entered a doctoral program in creative writing at Ohio University, though he interrupted his studies to teach in Michigan and Missouri. By 1973 he was publishing regularly in literary journals and was seeing Mean Rufus Throw Down into print, the first in a steady stream of books. He quickly established a reputation with his second book, The Fisherman’s Whore, published by Ohio University Press, and with the first of his poems to appear in The New Yorker.
The year 1976 proved to be a turning point in Smith’s career: He completed his Ph.D., attracted national attention with the publication of Cumberland Station, and was appointed director of creative writing at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Smith thrived in the unfamiliar but invigorating landscape of the West, and during the following five years, while in his late thirties, his output was extraordinary—in quality as well as volume. The poems of Goshawk, Antelope (a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award) and Blue Spruce reflect the interplay of landscape, imagination, and memory that his new situation made possible, and they aroused considerable excitement among reviewers who found their complex images and energetic Anglo-Saxon cadences, together with their stubborn search for the truth of experience, both challenging and refreshing.
In 1980, wanting to bring his family back east, Smith took a position at the State University of New York in Binghamton. In nearby Montrose, Pennsylvania, he and Dee found a Victorian home that had formerly belonged to Judge Edward Little; here he wrote the poems for In the House of the Judge. Although frequently linked to the Southern gothic tradition, Smith’s work could no longer be identified with one or even two regions. He had become a regionalist in the best sense, a poet who discovers the universal in the local and particular. With his itinerant career, it is hardly surprising that “home”—ancestral or suburban, lost or tentatively found—became a central theme in his poems, and that narrative structures became thickly layered with memory and reflection. A year later, he returned to the South, first to the University of Florida, Gainesville, then back to his roots, taking a position at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
The 1985 publication of The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems met with a favorable reception, though some critics wondered if Smith was publishing too much too quickly. Nevertheless, it encouraged retrospective assessments of Smith’s substantial body of work at this point of early maturity, and these reviews widely recognized him as one of America’s most accomplished and influential poets. Subsequently, Smith’s output has been smaller, with the dark, unsettling Cuba Night appearing in 1990, after a relatively long silence, to critical acclaim. In that year he began teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and coediting the influential literary journal Southern Review with James Olney. His anthology The Wick of Memory was praised for its well-rounded representation of Smith’s work. Despite living and working in academic settings, he resists the abstract and systematic, exploring instead the intricate dramas that spring from common objects and common lives.