Dave Smith Smith, Dave - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dave Smith 1942–

American poet, critic, and editor.

Shunning the confessional mode, Smith writes energetic, direct, experiential poems. The Virginia tidelands landscape, integral to his early poetry, is replaced by a Western setting in many of the poems of Goshawk, Antelope.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)

Michael Heffernan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dave Smith's The Fisherman's Whore is [strong] stuff, exposing a gift of the kind reviewers often think "needs to be reckoned with"—in Smith's case not only by his readers and his contemporaries but by Dave Smith himself. The driving energy in his poems is a fusion of poetry and prose—the best elements of the cadenced line poised among the subtle transformations of the variable syntax a good fictionist uses. Many of these poems are stories or parts of stories, most of them Tidewater Virginia in locale, a place Smith has begun to stake out with an eye for detail and human nuance not unlike Faulkner's or Robinson Jeffers'….

Michael Heffernan, "Books: 'The Fisherman's Whore'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CII, No. 11, August 15, 1975, p. 346.

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Cumberland Station] Smith is not self-explanatory. His opening lies, often obscure, mysteriously referential, flatten out on the page in laconic presence…. After a while, the situations clear up. Smith is not a surrealist; implicit scenarios lie behind these brusque entrances. Smith, judging by his exquisite fitting of lines together, intends his opacity, his length of breath, and his peculiar style, in which full stops scarcely imply the end of anything and sentences which continue for lines and lines nonetheless keep a firm hold on themselves. (p. 407)

Smith is at his best writing about America—marshes, oyster scows,… Chicago, cross-country driving, singing as a boy in a church choir, visiting a decaying railroad station…. Cumberland Station gets better as it goes along; it lapses into imitation (of Hopkins, Thomas, and Lowell—like Berryman's earlier echoes) are forgivable in a second book, by a thirty-four-year-old poet. Smith at his best combines a gift for narrative with a gift for the mot juste—talents which rarely go together. He does not yet entirely trust his power of description to carry his feelings, and stops sometimes to make feeling explicit: the title poem ends,

                      Grandfather, I wish I had the guts
        to tell you this is a place I hope
        I never have to go through again.

Sentimentality and plain speaking sometimes get confused in this book. But Smith's best landscapes hover over meaning in a way both tantalizing and beautiful. (p. 408)

Helen Vendler, "Recent Poetry, Eight Poets" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Yale Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 3, March, 1977, pp. 407-24.∗

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bull Island] contained a number of poems on the life of a fishing village in the Virginia tidewater; The Fisherman's Whore continued this powerful geographic and social portrait and added some family poems; Cumberland Station includes both these strains with a broader canvas. The new poetry is autobiographical, but not necessarily rooted in the family or in the locales of Smith's early life. There seems no reason, given Smith's steady advance in art, to doubt that other powerful books will follow these.

Cumberland Station contains several sorts of poems. The ones I like least are some semi-allegorical ones toward the middle of the book, with names like "The Divorce," "The Testimony of Wine," "The Delivery," "The Sex of Poetry," and "The Dome Poem."… Thoreau's allegories are moving because they have the natural force of natural fact behind them, and Smith looks for the same degree of support from materiality; but the material in these allegorical poems too often seems cooked up to support the allegory. (p. 292)

The landscape and fishing poems, on the other hand, are exquisite. The real test of such poems is whether they can touch a reader who has never lived in the out-of-doors, who has never fished, who has never lived in that masculine society they evoke. The mystique of the male initiation (in the first hunt, in camping, in fishing) can seem, in less profound poets, perilously silly, but Smith's presence in these events is purely human, not gender-bound. In "The Last Morning" he wakes up early on the last morning out camping; others are still asleep; he goes down to the river to wash his clothes and he hangs them up to dry. As he sits naked beside the river, he could be anyone, aboriginal, at the beginning of American time…. (p. 293)

Smith dwells on strenuousness and on obliteration—the strenuousness of building, fishing, giving birth; the obliteration of shipwreck, disease, drunkenness, unemployment, death. In these receptivities he most resembles Hopkins…. The senseless events of life (floods, rot, disuse) move Smith as much as virtue (hard work, salvaging, giving birth). His brilliant sense of reality lights up even his densest work; in spite of a frequent murk—a deliberate murk, the confusingness of perception—one feels a promise of touching ground, beaching on some shore of the understood. But Smith did not always have the wisdom to keep conceptual bedrock a promise and a finding. In Bull Island … he was unable to refrain from giving the show away. One poem actually ends, "Ain't that life?" Others are simply heavy-handed in their offering of a "message."… And yet, Bull Island does not perform its descriptions in order to frame its messages: on the contrary, the poetical energy is in the descriptions, and the commentaries seem afterthoughts.

The Fisherman's Whore, uneven though it is, knows its own path, goes ahead surefootedly, correcting weaknesses in the poems it reprints from Bull Island…. There are moments of pure flawlessness in The Fisherman's Whore: one is the close of a poem describing a fire in the night. Smith is a child, still; [one who] wakes up to see that the man across the street has been lucky, losing neither of his two houses to the fire…. The candor and simplicity of the lines are suitable to the child, but nobody writes verse so expertly as this without a great deal of practice. The wonderful personification of the "slate grey...

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Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cumberland Station is Dave Smith's fourth volume in six years—a puffing record. Yet running on passionately in an innocence of imprecision it stumbles with a beginner's mistakes. Take the lineation: the lines either lay out a clause matter-of-factly or enjamb with a dull thick halt, like chalk on a wet blackboard…. The line-breaks may even work against the sense, to no evident purpose, as in "But that's not prayer. Maybe it is / not even hope…." The poems churn on almost like prose, without lingering delicacies of ear. Their movement at best is but loosely interpretive, conveying a pell-mell pained objection to our "lost and wondering" lives.

Still, the writing lacks the precision of good prose. A certain imaginative tentativeness may be essential to poetry, but often Smith gives us muddle instead. His picture-making faculty is too little self-critical. "One stunningly / soft face in my brain's room stands up" is visually preposterous; and do brains seem to have rooms, let alone a single one? The similes wander in woozily. "Like purple dreams / graven on cold cell walls," Smith writes in a poem on fishing…. And so on … from muzziness up to looseness, that is Smith's usual range.

Astonishing all the same that a potentiality for greatness booms like a waterfall at the back of these poems. Smith's sensibility, Whitmanian in its ardor, has a fact-gathering, fact-hurtling force. It is excited and chiefly what excites it is the painful evidence of life's wreckage. Smith is one of those—like James Agee and Philip Levine—who recognize (in Agee's words) "the...

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Dana Wier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Cumberland Station the] reader is given sufficient example to learn Smith's way with poetry; to participate, accompanied and conducted by many clearly evoked characters, in the long journeys through time and space which are at the heart of this book. Time is quickly made flesh in the lives and deaths of the book's inhabitants. Space is delineated and transformed into place…. It is testimony to Smith's authority that the gathering of the multitudes of events, characters, details, and systems of diction do not become a confusing interplay of nostalgia and sentimentality. Smith selects his images, stories, and voices with an eye unclouded, and renders them in phrases, lines, and language certain of their strength. In the midst of so much, so many, Smith's sticking to roadways, railways, waterways, and forest paths is necessary. He leads us to his vision of America, often reminiscent of Whitman's, on roads, all of them at one time or another taken, which have on them the shadows of those who have walked toward the sun. It is most important that these shadows have changed the light by which we see…. Smith has taken what the passages of time and the displacements of space have made distant, and placed into the suspending context of good poetry what threatens to dissolve; drawing everything nearer, more personal, clearer. Light, pale, glowing, soft, shining, shifting, sinking, growing—in this poetry, light is imagination's and love's medium. In "Where We Are Today, You Will Notice Is," Smith writes that "light moves through like a monk," and it seems it does, shedding its grace on an exact and urgent foreground; its own power to arrange and change whatever it is in our fields of vision, the shimmering background….

Cumberland Station is a celebration, the public proclamations of the orders of our human professions. It is a densely populated book, a rich presentation of America's people, culture and landscape; but it is more because its poetry extends itself in metaphorical obeisance to the immense scale of our universe.

Dana Wier, "'Cumberland Station'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 4, October, 1977, p. 18.

Marvin Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dave Smith's Cumberland Station is full up, pent-up, over-flowing with poetry. He has a world to report, sometimes a world of miners, fishermen and other hard workers, much of it remembered from Virginia and nearby. He has the language—itself brimming with particulars and good, pushy verbs. He can sing and tell stories, and he can do both at once. He has energy and power. He may even have vision. He takes risks in every direction, and dares to be outrageous, as in the ending of "Driving Home in the Breaking Season."…

  Damn death. Today I do not believe
  a single sparrow will die but I will croak back his life.
                                                (pp. 53-4)

It seems to me a brave aesthetic, which only a poet of Smith's astonishing energy, lush language, and vivid recall could hope to work beyond breathlessness and memory into vision and some ideas. But he is not foremost a poet of ideas, but of feelings. The momentum of his longer poems calls to mind the earlier poems of James Dickey; his responses to towns, the poems of Richard Hugo; his attitude toward hard-bitten memory, those of James Wright; and his language, when it barrels, even something of Dylan Thomas. He is high-spirited, even in anger, and he indulges serious hi-jinks in lingo. He is passionate and sometimes thumping. When he fails, he goes down in flames, a victim of overkill and volume. (p. 54)

Marvin Bell, "Five Books: 'Cumberland Station'," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. LXXXIII, No. 1, October, 1978, pp. 53-5.

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With respect to pure verbal energy, the basic ability and desire to write, Dave Smith has to be among the most talented poets we have. It isn't just the amount of poetry he has produced … but the range evident everywhere in that body of work. He began as a precocious expert in the plain style, and has evolved into something almost as different from that as it is possible to be—master of the flowing, meditative, complicated, descriptive narrative of the ongoing flux. Along with its rewards, richness has its dangers; Smith is such a natural writer, and produces so much, that we may be in danger of losing our sense of who and where he is. The problem is exacerbated by this new collection. Till now, Smith has written...

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Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Smith emerges in his new volume, "Goshawk, Antelope",… as a distinguished allegorist of human experience. The rich local color of the Virginia and Maryland sketches [in his earlier "Fisherman's Whore" and "Cumberland Station"] has been joined by local details from Utah … and a desolate Wyoming. The family (Smith's wife and three children, and shadowy parents and grandparents) continues to play a large part in the story. But these particularities are now subdued to looming shapes of universal fate and emotion.

Smith is torrential, impatient, exasperated. His language is theatrical, even melodramatic. His earlier masters are Hopkins, Whitman, Crane, and Thomas—poets whose temperatures, rarely...

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Emily Grosholz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dave Smith, in Goshawk, Antelope, uses the elements of tribal unification, but ironically, admitting that they have been disenchanted. In particular, he takes over the totem, that figure which compounds the subhuman, the human, and the divine. In the title poem, he maintains a delicate balance between a playful and serious use of totemic imagery by emphasizing the tension between the polar terms of his metaphors, and the work of imagination in devising them. The goshawk and antelope, male and female principles, both are Smith's father and mother and are not: for how could such alien creatures be kin? The goshawk, for instance, is first presented as entirely Other, in a setting which is at once actual and a...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a hyperbolic temper about Dave Smith and his work which could do more lasting harm than good for him. Surely, no one begrudges a hard-working, prolific, relatively young poet his glory; but the proverbial road of Excess can lead to the bypass of Wisdom, rapidly receding in the rearview mirror. Much of the enthusiasm over Smith's earlier books reflected the poet's own voice: tough, hardy, virile, strenuous, defiant. It's difficult not to like a poet of full-blooded verbs and assertive nouns, one intensely sympathetic to the "good hard poverty" of experience—to watermen, drunks and whores, the losers and the laborers.

But those who come to Goshawk, Antelope simply expecting more of...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)