Posts Tagged ‘William Jay Smith’

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

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
Share
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
Share

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.

Frequent euphoria: Richard Wilbur

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.