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William Smith

1918 - 2015 Obituary Condolences
William Smith Obituary
William Jay Smith

1918 - 2015 William Jay Smith, a former United States poet laureate whose work was known both for its acuteness of observation and acuteness of craftsmanship, died on Tuesday in Pittsfield, MA. He was 97. His son, Gregory Jay Smith, confirmed the death. Mr. Smith served from 1968 to 1970 as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, as the poet laureate's post was then known. He was the author of many volumes of poems, as well as criticism, memoirs, translations of poetry from a spate of European languages and children's verse. At his death he was an emeritus professor of English at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. 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 passe - a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished. Mr. Smith was so intensely attuned to the aural nature of verse that some of his poems were about the act of poem-making itself. Among them is "Structure of a Song," published in his 1998 collection, "The World Below the Window: Poems, 1937-1997": Its syllables should come As natural and thorough As sunlight over plum Or melon in the furrow, Rise smoother than the hawk Or gray gull ever could; As proud and freely walk As deer in any wood. So lightly should it flow From stone so deep in earth That none could ever know What torment gave it birth. William Jay Smith was born on April 22, 1918, in Winnfield, LA. His father was a clarinetist with the Sixth Army Band, and the young Mr. Smith was reared on the Jefferson Barracks Military Post, near St. Louis, a spartan experience that he described in a 1980 memoir, "Army Brat": "Everything here on the street that dead-ended in the sinkhole and a lane known as Tin Can Alley seemed reduced to black and white," Mr. Smith wrote. "It was winter and cold; snow drifted over the high front steps and swept down into the sinkhole. The beds in the front room were covered with white crocheted bedspreads: the whole white world inside, poised against the outer white, was broken by the black of the coal in the scuttle that fed the little stove that kept us warm. The smokestack on top of the house was not high enough, and the wind forced the smoke down into the room. The other black, somber note in this white world was my father's pistol, which he brought forth from its holster sometimes after he had been drinking." Mr. Smith earned bachelor's and master's degrees in French literature from Washington University in St. Louis and did graduate work at Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. During World War II he served with the Navy in the Pacific. He taught at Williams College and Columbia and in the 1980s was poet in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. In the 1960s, when he was living in Pownal, VT, Mr. Smith, a Democrat, served a term in the Vermont state legislature. He lived most recently in Lenox, MA, and also had a home in Paris. Mr. Smith's first marriage, to the poet Barbara Howes, ended in divorce. Besides his son, Gregory, from his marriage to Ms. Howes, his survivors include his second wife, the former Sonja Haussmann; a stepson, Marc Hoechstetter; two step-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren. Another son from his first marriage, David Emerson Smith, died in 2008. His other books include the collections "The Tin Can, and Other Poems" (1966), "Plain Talk: Epigrams, Epitaphs, Satires, Nonsense, Occasional, Concrete & Quotidian Poems" (1988) and "The Cherokee Lottery" (2000); translations of the Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue and the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky; and the volumes of children's poems "Boy Blue's Book of Beasts" (1957), illustrated by Juliet Kepes, and "Ho for a Hat!" (1964), illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff. At bottom, Mr. Smith was an empiricist, with much of his work describing that which can be touched, heard, tasted and, especially, seen. This abiding preoccupation, with all the hopeful melancholy that observing ephemera entails, is keenly evident in the title poem from "The World Below the Window": The geraniums I left last night on the windowsill, To the best of my knowl edge now, are out there still, And will be there as long as I think they will. And will be there as long as I think that I Can throw the window open on the sky, A touch of geranium pink in the tail of my eye; As long as I think I see, past leaves green- growing, Barges moving down a river, water flowing, Fulfillment in the thought of thought outgoing, Fulfillment in the sight of sight replying, Of sound in the sound of small birds southward flying, In life life-giving, and in death undying. PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Del Vecchio
Published in Bennington Banner on Sept. 15, 2015
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