Other literary forms

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Dave Smith’s productivity as a poet does not exhaust his pen. He has produced scores of reviews and essays on poetry and poetics, many of them as a columnist for American Poetry Review. Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry (1985) collects many of these pieces. His views on southern poetry and poetry in general, as well as brief memoirs, are contained in Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (2006). Smith’s map of the modern poetic scene is revealed in The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985), which he edited with David Bottoms. Smith also edited and wrote the introduction for The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright (1982). In these activities, Smith has helped to define the critical context for his own work, for the poets of his generation, and for the canon of major influences on that generation. An enthusiastic reviewer, Smith has been faulted by some for excessive generosity. Nevertheless, his stature as a critic is rising to match his standing as a major poet of his era. He has also edited The Essential Poe (1991).

Smith’s novel, Onliness (1981), won critical acclaim. As Alan Bold wrote for the Times Literary Supplement (November 27, 1981), “Onliness is no tentative beginning, but an ambitious attempt to write the Great American Novel by bringing myth, archetype, allegory and abstraction to a fluent narrative.” The usually sober-minded poet became an adept prose stylist who unveiled a comic wit not often realized in his poetry. At once erudite, folksy, and bizarre, Onliness fashions a version of the American South that owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to William Faulkner, yet Smith has made it a region of his own. Southern Delights: Poems and Stories (1984), a collection mixing stories and poems, is a less satisfying display of Smith’s narrative skill.


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Dave Smith is a poet of full commitment to all that poetry can be. His long reach risks many things, including excess, but he does not choose to hold back. His special gifts and his special ambition are profoundly mated. His craft is in knowing when, and how, to go on. Norman Dubie’s claim that Smith is the greatest poet of the American South is hard to dispute. Indeed, Smith may take his place among the foremost writers of any kind that the South has produced.

Recognitions of Smith’s achievement have included fellowships from the Lyndhurst Foundation (three years), the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (twice), and the Bellagio (Italy)/Rockefeller Foundation for Artistic Studies. He received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters (1979). He has twice been a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize (1980 and 1982) as well as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (1979) and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1981).


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Christensen, Paul. “Malignant Innocence.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12 (Fall/Winter, 1984): 154-182. Christensen’s article is one of the most comprehensive examinations of Smith’s work, discovering in the poet’s voice a version of an American and southern archetype mediating between youth and age, initiate and elder. Christensen provides a rich understanding of the mythic taproots of Smith’s career and of his major themes.

DeMott, Robert J. Dave Smith: A Literary Archive. Athens: Ohio University Libraries, 2000. Important for biographical and bibliographical research. The introduction, which traces DeMott’s relationship to Smith, sheds a highly personal light on Smith’s life and art. DeMott also describes the Dave Smith Collection at Ohio University’s Alden Library.

Millichap, Joseph K. “Dave Smith.” In Contemporary Southern Writers . Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. This brief overview...

(This entire section contains 510 words.)

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of Smith’s career stresses the “trend toward variety and diversity” in style and subject. Comments on each major volume throughFate’s Kite.

Smith, Dave. “Heroes of the Spirit.” Interview by Peter Balakian. Graham House Review 6 (Spring, 1982): 48-72. Smith responds to questions about the large number of downtrodden characters in his work, his affinity with romantic tradition, his narrative impulse, and the complex issue of Smith’s identity as a regional writer. Particularly useful are observations on the strong-stress rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poets and of Gerard Manley Hopkins as they influence Smith’s own work.

_______. Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Smith discusses the poetry of the South and examines a number of famous poets. Includes much information on his views of poetry and interviews, including a 1996 interview by Ernest Suarez in which the poet describes influences, writing habits, and the creative process.

Swiss, Thomas. “’Unfold the Fullness’: Dave Smith’s Poetry and Fiction.” Sewanee Review 91 (Summer, 1983): 483-490. Swiss examines the architecture of Dream Flights, Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, and In the House of the Judge, collections that mark Smith’s imaginative homecoming.

Vendler, Helen. “Dave Smith.” In The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Vendler here modifies her original view that Smith is a regional southern writer. She now argues, on the basis of Goshawk, Antelope, that he is “a distinguished allegorist of human experience.”

_______. “’Oh I Admire and Sorrow.’” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. The first extended statement by a major critic on Smith’s work. Vendler enjoys the momentous energy in Smith’s style, the range of his subjects, and his ambition. Praises especially his poems about the Civil War and fishing.

Weigl, Bruce. “Forms of History and Self in Dave Smith’s Cuba Night.” Poet Lore 85 (Winter, 1990/1991): 37-48. In examining the long poem “To Isle of Wight,” Weigl stresses Smith’s mythmaking ability and his ongoing struggle with his southern heritage.

_______, ed. The Giver of Morning: On the Poetry of Dave Smith. Birmingham, Ala.: Thunder City Press, 1982. This first slender collection of comment on Smith’s work fittingly assesses the amazing first dozen years of his career.


Critical Essays