Posts Tagged ‘William Jay Smith’

William Jay Smith was the first Native American poet laureate – and we’re still waiting for the Library of Congress to acknowledge it.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019
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The late Choctaw poet William Jay Smith: why is he being disrespected?

Last July, the Book Haven questioned the announcement that Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate. But the blogpost was soon forgotten in the general acclamation on Harjo’s appointment.

The problem is the truth: William Jay Smith, a poet of note, claimed Choctaw heritage, and wrote about his Native American heritage, including long poem on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t seem right, however worthy Harjo is as a successor to the poet laureate title, for her predecessor’s eminent reputation be thrown into the dustbin so that we could falsely claim yet another “first.” (Apparently, there was a time when even the Library of Congress acknowledged and honored Smith’s heritage, as we pointed out with some screenshots in our own post. But the Library of Congress changed its mind. Why? They won’t tell us.)

Forgotten first

Poet and translator A.M. Juster took the matter farther, and he’s written about the experience this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

He briefly wondered if he had made a mistake in writing of Smith as a Choctaw poet:

… I checked two reliable sources known for their fact checking, the Poetry Foundation and The New York Times, which both identified Smith as Native American. I became even calmer when I discovered, with some help from friends at Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop and discussion group, that the Library of Congress had itself identified Smith as “of European and Choctaw ancestry.”

I felt an obligation to notify the Library promptly, which I did. The first contact person had never heard of Smith and transferred me to another person who had not heard of Smith. That person took my name and number, but did not call back.

I too read some of the social media talk and the Eratosphere posts, and was dismayed by the tendency to dismiss or downplay Smith’s heritage, posthumously. After all, he died in 2015 and can hardly defend himself.

Juster got no answers.

Juster wrote a letter to the Library of Congress, asking: 1) had it decided that Smith is not a Native American; 2) if so, what was the standard for this decision, the evidence that supported it, and who made the decision; 3) was this decision made before the Harjo announcement or afterwards? And finally, he asked: 4) is the Library of Congress aware that its website has described Smith as being “of European and Choctaw ancestry” for 15 years?

In the LARB, he writes:

Almost surely the communications department believed that it could tough its way out of the mess it created based on the fact that so many Americans believe — falsely, but in good faith — that they have Native American heritage. Such issues are often resolvable, though, and I decided to try to resolve the question of William Jay Smith’s heritage by hiring an expert in Native American genealogy, Dr. William T. Cross.

Dr. Cross’s research confirmed that everything William Jay Smith claimed about his Choctaw heritage was correct. Rebecca Moshulatubbee King was the oldest daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee and married Samuel Jake Williams. One of their seven daughters, Catherine Permilia Williams, married Samuel Roswell Campster in 1850, and then gave birth to George Washington Campster in 1863. In 1913 George Washington Campster’s daughter, Georgia Ella Campster, married William Jay Smith Sr., the father of our Poet Laureate.

Harjo (Photo: Creative Commons)

Standards for tribal nation membership vary, but the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma simply requires lineal descent for membership, so William Jay Smith would have been fully eligible for membership if he had applied. There can be no doubt about Smith’s good faith in claiming that he was part Choctaw; at that time the benefits of such a claim would not offset the prejudices that it would generate. Nonetheless, the future Poet Laureate enthusiastically embraced his Choctaw heritage at an early age; it filtered into his poetry at least as early as the 1950s, when in “A Trip Across America” he repeated these lines:

Riding the powerful polished rails
Over abandoned Indian trails…

More than four decades later, he would do much more.

In the article, Juster wisely suggests that Harjo organize a conference to honor Smith’s legacy (and, we might add, by doing so honor her own). So what have we heard from the Library of Congress? Crickets.

Kind of disgraceful if you ask me.

Joy Harjo the first Native American poet laureate? Not so fast. On the Choctaw legacy of William Jay Smith.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019
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Reading “Cried the Fox”

A few months ago, Joy Harjo was named the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, and there was universal rejoicing in the land. According to the press release: “Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position—she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.”

But wait! Isn’t the Library of Congress overlooking someone rather important? From 1968-70, the position was held by William Jay Smith, a poet who was well known, but he died in his 90s, perhaps outliving his renown (insofar as poets every, really, have renown). On the other hand, his death is not ancient history – he died fairly recently, in 2015 (we wrote about it here; conscientious Book Haven readers will also remember an earlier post here.) He was in the news; his obituary was even in the New York Times, not a given for poets. He was so well known that Princess Grace of Monaco invited him to represent the United States at a Monaco poetry celebration.

His Choctaw heritage was hardly a secret – he was proud of it, and mentioned it at readings. He also wrote about it in perhaps his best-known book, The Cherokee Lotterywhich recounts the 1828 “Trail of Tears,” which forcibly relocated his ancestors, along with a total of 18,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks as well, to Oklahoma from their native northern Georgia, where gold had been discovered and greed unleashed.

I remember him reading from this sequence of poems at the West Chester poetry conference, some years ago. That was the same conference where I met Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee. The conjunction was not a coincidence, in fact the two poets were close friends, and lived near each other in Cummington, Massachusetts. So near that they picked up their Sunday New York Times editions from the same village shop. In fact, they had a tradition – whoever picked up their newspaper first would write scurrilous doggerel on the other’s. It was a tradition that continued for years.

He also wrote the matchless poem “Note on the Vanity Dresser” above. It’s been called the most perfect symbolist poem in the English language. Only eight lines, and it’s endless.

So given this history, why the omission? Is it because, as some have suggested when I floated the subject on Twitter, they hoped to make a politically correct splash, and make it sound like poetry has crashed some sort of intersectional sound barrier? Or what? He is included in the Library of Congress’ own record of the laureate history, Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. Weirdly, the book, which should be a public record, is not searchable on Google Books. We include the relevant pages below.

All congratulations to Joy Harjo – but let’s set the record straight.

Postscript:  Since posting, I’ve learned that others have noticed this omission as well – Kay Day wrote about it here. Also, A.M. Juster raised the issue almost immediately on Twitter and directly with the Library of Congress. He is working on an article about it, forthcoming later this summer with Los Angeles Review of Books.

Post-postscript from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and former California Poet Laureate: “It does Joy Harjo no dishonor to acknowledge that one of her predecessors, William Jay Smith, had some Choctaw ancestry. Smith was proud of his background at a time – the 1930s – when the association gained him no advantage, especially in the racist milieu of his childhood. He did considerable genealogical research to establish a ancestry many generations back. It was a remote connection, though Smith plausibly felt it had manifested itself in his physical appearance, but it hardly seems unlikely. Many Americans have mixed and complicated ancestry, which should rightly be a source of pride.” See combox below. Incidentally, Dana describes himself as “100% non-Anglo” – Sicilian on his father’s side, and mixed Mexican and Native American ancestry on his mother’s side. So he knows a thing or two about “complicated ancestry.”

Poet William Jay Smith, 1918-2015: “the truest and purest poems an American has written”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
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williamsmith

A most gentle warrior.

A few days ago, I wrote about poems as memorable speech, and the kind of poem that lodges in your brain and won’t leave. William Jay Smith wrote a dark and magical one, and it’s carved in my memory. It’s his enduring gift to me now.

Smith died on Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 97. From the New York Times obituary yesterday:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults were praised for diction that was at once unfussy and lyrical; for thematic variety (they ranged over the natural world, erotic love, the experience of war, his Choctaw ancestry and many other subjects); for their ability to see minutely into everyday experience; and for a deceptive simplicity that belied the rigorous formal architecture beneath.

He embraced poetic devices, like rhyme and carefully calibrated meter, that many 20th-century colleagues considered passé — a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished.

I met him at a West Chester Poetry Conference a dozen or so years ago. Too briefly to make much of an impression, except that he was courteous, gentle, and humble. He didn’t make much of his Native American ancestry, though it was patterned on his face. As I recall, he read from his poems on the Trail of Tears during the conference, and I bought one of his books as a result. Luckily, I was able to find it on my shelf this morning. As I thumbed through, I found this one, “The Eagle Warrior: An Invocation” from his 1997 collection The Cherokee Lottery, about a life-size ceramic man costumed as an eagle, thrown into a lake by the conquistadors and for that reason, and only that reason, it survived. This is how the invocation concludes:

O Eagle-warrior, surrogate of the sun,
.     fly off in my mind now
to circle the sun, that “ascending eagle,”
and with your penetrating eye
and your calligraphic wing-span
.     printed high upon the air,
follow the westward movement
.     of every vanquished tribe.
O Eagle-warrior, quick-eyed, fierce-beaked,
.     tense-taloned,
be their emblem, be their witness, be their scribe.

smithbookRichard Wilbur called him “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote that his best poems “are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.” And X.J. Kennedy said that he “has given us many of the truest and purest poems an American has written: the most resonantly musical, the most magical.” 

Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.

As noted over at poets.org, Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.

Ah yes, the poem that lodged in my brain:

vanity

William Jay Smith on “the cinders of your city,” Richard Wilbur on the power of yielding

Saturday, October 15th, 2011
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Native American poet Smith

Thursday’s post on Joseph Brodsky reminded me of the hundreds of lines of poetry the Nobel poet made us memorize at university – an exercise some students defied and ridiculed, but my earlier training in Shakespearean theater taught me to appreciate.

If you want to own a poet, memorize his or her lines.  In this sense, as once said Brodsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam was more deeply married to poet Osip Mandelstam in her widowhood than her marriage, as she preserved his poems against the Soviet regime that would erase them:

“…repeating day and night the words of her dead husband was undoubtedly conneced not only with comprehending them more and more but also with resurrecting his very voice, the intonations peculiar only to him, with a however fleeting sensation of his presence … And gradually those things grew on her.  If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy. Gradually, the lines of those poets became her mentality, became her identity. They supplied her not only with the plane of regard or angle of vision; more importantly, they became her linguistic norm.”

But what do to do in an era when reading a 300-page book seems like an insurmountable task, and memorizing a poem seems – oh, such a leisurely activity in an increasingly hectic world?  OK, here’s two 8-line poems for you. See if you can get these out of your head – then memorize them, so you can’t.  No excuses.

The first, by William Jay Smith, is dark, cryptic, compact, and layered.  I think it’s one of the finest short poems of the 20th century. The second encapsulates one of Richard Wilbur‘s moments of incandescent euphoria.  (As he once said, “Giving up doesn’t always mean you are weak; sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.”)  Jay Parini writes that, in this poem, one of two in “Two Voices in a Meadow”: “Wilbur aspires to a Blakean intensity, with his casual lyricism achieving a kind of perfection rarely found among his contemporaries.”

Elizabeth Frank wrote nearly two decades ago in The Atlantic: “When the whole history of twentieth-century American poetry is eventually written, it will surely be revealed that despite the apparently larger and often noisier triumphs of ‘open’ forms, astonishingly good verse that we can call ‘metrical’ or ‘formal’ has continued to be written by some of the country’s best poets – Smith himself along with his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. That Smith has written poems replete with rhythm, rhyme, wit, and melody – what Louise Bogan called ‘the pleasures of formal poetry,’ in an essay by the same name – is cause for celebration, homage, and gratitude.”

I’ve had the privilege of meeting both nonagenarian poets – but that’s another story, for another time.  Both live in Cummington, Massachusetts.  Must be a delightful place for a visit, for that reason alone!

 

“Note on a Vanity Dresser”

The yes-man in the mirror now says no,
No longer will I answer you with lies.
The light descends like snow, so when the snow-
man melts, you will know him by his eyes.

The yes-man in the mirror now says no.
Says no. No double negative of pity
Will save you now from what I know you know:
These are your eyes, the cinders of your city.

 

“A Milkweed”

Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.