As a lyric poet, William Jay Smith celebrates the things of this world with a sensuous delight. However, underlying his poems is a sadness and a helplessness in the face of ruin, decay, and death. Loving harmony and measure and hating sloppiness in any form, Smith restrains his emotional response to loss in somewhat muted and reflective statements. Distrusting emotional extravagance, he turns his attention to seasons, places, times of day, and creatures of the natural world with detailed precision. He seems obsessed with time, change, and ultimate deprivation, approaching these themes in his early poetry in conventional forms with polished, disciplined language.
Later in his career, his creative vision shifted from Romantic to the prophetic, from a concern (similar to John Keats’s) with truth and beauty to a more prophetic tone suggestive of T. S. Eliot. His free-verse mode acquired black subject matter, darker imagery, and a more pessimistic view of individuals and society facing imminent death and destruction. Surrealistic images depict Smith’s preoccupation with the darker side of experience that experimentation with open forms allows him to express.
Poems, 1947-1957, an early collection, contains a sampling of everything he had attempted to that time and demonstrates his range. Many poems echo the vivid imagery employed by Wallace Stevens, whom Smith admired, combined with Smith’s own austere verses.
“American Primitive,” one of his best-known poems, describes a man who commits suicide for some reason concerning money. Reminiscent of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory,” the poem comments on the inability of money to supply happiness: “There he is in a shower of gold;/ His pockets are stuffed with folding money,/ His lips are blue, and his hands feel cold.” The poem’s events are recounted in a singsong voice of a child who observes the chilling sight of the man hanging in the hall:
Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;Only my Daddy could look like that,And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.
The same flat declaration is seen in “Plain Talk,” a twelve-line poem that concerns the poet’s recollection of his father’s assessment of people “so dumb” that “they don’t know beans from an old bedstead.”
At a time when few collections of poetry were being published, Smith wrote Laughing Time with his son David in mind. Anxious to capture the way a four-year-old sees the world, Smith observed his son carefully, hoping to see things the way David saw them. Smith insists that children generally think in images and in rapid shifts and accordingly writes in a lively, playful manner. He maintains that, most important, children’s poetry requires the skill, virtuosity, and technical expertise of poetry for adults; it should not just adapt writing and ideas to the needs of the young but should do more toward bringing children within reach of adult perception and thought.
Smith carries children’s poems forward with nouns and verbs, not adjectives, and attempts leaps and connections similar to those characteristic of young children. Included are limericks, alphabets, and recipes, with fantastic description. A toaster is a “silver-scaled Dragon with jaws flaming red”; “Old Mrs. Caribou lives by a lake/ In the heart of darkest Make-Believe.” Directions for reaching “The Land of Ho-Ho-Hum” are, “When you want to go where you please,/ Just sit down in an old valise,/ And fly off over the apple trees.”
Smith finds children’s poetry, with its wide use of strange forms and the range of its nonsense, a liberating device. Dedicated to his two sons, Boy Blue’s Book of Beasts, illustrated by Juliet Kepes, describes animals humorously and imaginatively and plays games, as in “Tapir.”
How odd it would be if ever a Tapir,Wrapped in gold and silver paperAnd tied with a bow in the shape of a T,Sat there in the corner beside the treeWhen I tiptoed down at six in the morning—A Christmas present from you to me!
Puptents and Pebbles, for Smith’s son Gregory, and also illustrated by Kepes, contains delightful excursions into nonsense rhymes for letters of the alphabet: “M is for mask/ It changes a lot/ To add a new face/ To the face you have got;/ Then the person you are/ Is the person you’re not.”
One section of Typewriter Town, dedicated to Smith’s two sons and for “all other aficionados of the typewriter,” contains limericks about “Typewriter People,” accompanied by humorous sketches of them done by typewriter keys:
There was an Old Lady named CrockettWho went to put a plug in a socket; But her hands were so wet She flew up like a jetAnd came roaring back down like a rocket!
The Tin Can, and Other Poems
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