of the Poet-Critic:
Interviewer's Note: William Jay Smith is the author of more than sixty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, memoirs, translations, and editor of several influential anthologies. From 1968 to 1970 he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a post now called the Poet Laureate) and two of his twelve collections of poetry were finalists for the National Book Award.
Smith was born in Louisiana in 1918 and brought up at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis. His memoir, Army Brat (1980), which recounts his unusual boyhood as the son of a professional soldier and clarinettist in the Sixth Infantry Band, was praised by Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison. His prize-winning children’s verse, collected in Laughing Time: Collected Nonsense (1990) has been in print for fifty years, and his translations have won awards from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the Hungarian government. His books include The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism (1972), The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997 (1998), and The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems (2000), a volume exploring his family background and Choctaw heritage, a book that Harold Bloom has called “his master work: taut, harrowing, eloquent, and profoundly memorable.”
When did you begin writing criticism?
I began writing criticism in college in the 1930s in connection
with my work in French, in which I majored and took a Master’s degree. I
studied during the summer of 1938 at the Institut de Touraine in Tours,
France, and during World War II I served as a liaison officer on a French
war vessel, the aviso colonial La Grandière, in the Atlantic and Pacific
theatres. I began the translation of French poetry as an undergraduate after
I discovered the poetry of Jules Laforgue. I read Laforgue and T.S. Eliot,
whom the French poet had influenced, at the same time, and I published in
1957 Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue, the first English version of
his work which included my essays on all of his work, poetry, literary, and
art criticism. The volume was one of the choices of the Readers Subscription
Book Club, the judges of which were W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques
Barzun. I had already published two volumes of my own poetry, Poems (1947) and Celebration
at Dark (1950), but this volume launched me as a translator and critic.
Later in the 1950s I became a regular poetry reviewer for The New Republic and from 1961 to 1965 the annual poetry reviewer
for Harper’s Magazine.
Did you see criticism as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your
Yes, indeed. It was, of course, first part of my work as a translator but
more importantly it became an inevitable obligation of my own work which
owed much to the poets I was translating and who were a major influence on
my own poetry.
What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be?
I took Laforgue as a model of what an ideal poet-critic should be. He was
first of all a poet, a very original one, who did not hesitate to take new,
but to him, natural directions. He was among the first to make use of vers
libre, free verse, and was one of the first translators of Walt Whitman. He
read and wrote incisively about the poets like Baudelaire, who had preceded
and influenced him. He was able to look with a fresh eye not just at the
contemporary poetic scene but also at the entire literary and artistic
scene. He wrote an essay on Impressionism in which he defined and discussed
brilliantly for the first time what the contemporary painters were
attempting to do. He made me realize that because poetry is the distillation
of language and therefore its highest form of expression, it is the poet’s
obligation to survey the entire literary and artistic scene and to throw
light on new important developments and directions.
What modern critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this
Those whom I first read as both outstanding poets and critics,
T. S. Eliot,
Ezra Pound, and Paul Valéry. Learning that Paul Valéry had been given a
state funeral by France made a great impression on me. Jules Laforgue, whom
I translated, was my immediate model. And then came W. H. Auden, Robert Penn
Warren, Malcolm Cowley, and Allen Tate. I dedicated my book of selected
criticism, The Streaks of the Tulip
to “Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate, mentors and friends.” I first got to
know Malcolm during World War II when I contributed to his collection of the
translations of French resistant poets and when he accepted poems of mine
for publication in The New Republic,
of which he was the major reviewer. Louise Bogan, poetry-reviewer for
thirty-five years for The New Yorker,
became another mentor and friend, and through her, I became acquainted with
Edmund Wilson, a major critic. I met Jacques Barzun and through him got to
know Auden, another exemplary poet-critic. All the poet-critics I have
mentioned wrote beautiful prose and took as much pains with it as they did
with their poems. Among the poets of the next generation who wrote criticism
as well as poetry I particularly admired Randall Jarrell, although as a
prose stylist he did not compare with Auden or Bogan. Pre-eminent among
British critics was V. S. Pritchett, who was a delight to read on any subject
he attacked. One of the British poet-critics in whom I take particular
interest is James Fenton.
English critics in general write better prose than their American
colleagues. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a few essays but they were much inferior
stylistically to her poems. It was clear that she had devoted less time and
attention to them than she had to her poems.
Do you see your own criticism as that of a
poet’s, partial and dogmatic, or an ideal reader’s? Is there a vital
link between your own poetry and prose?
I detest theory in criticism. Theory killed poetic criticism in France and
Derrida’s deconstruction theory has had a disastrous effect on criticism
in this country and has completed the ruination of English departments by
continuing what had started as a misreading and misunderstanding of the
“New Critics.” Robert Graves said once that a poet writes poems for his
friends, and I agree. And he also writes criticism for those same friends.
The friend for whom I write is my ideal reader, intelligent, informed,
sensitive, objective and possessing above all sound and tasteful judgment. I
was astonished to find how many talented critics had made terrible mistakes
and how often they seemed to display a lack of plain common sense. (I think
of Edmund Wilson’s unfortunate attack on William Faulkner and of André
Gide’s rejection of Proust. I think also of Samuel Johnson who provided
the odd title of my volume of selected criticism, The
Streaks of the Tulip. Dr. Johnson wrote that “the business of the poet
. . . is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general
properties and large appearances; he does not number the streaks of the
tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest.” I
used this quotation as one of the epigraphs of my book, the other epigraph
that followed being from Louis MacNiece: “Dr. Johnson has said that the
poet is not concerned with minute particulars, with ‘the streaks of the
tulip.’ This, I thought, was just where he was wrong . . .” And I
agreed: even so great a critic as Dr. Johnson could sometimes be wrong about
the early 1950s I heard Witter Bynner give his account of the poetic hoax
that he had perpetrated with Arthur Davison Ficke in 1916 with the
publication of Spectra, the
supposed work of two Pittsburgh poets, Emmanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. Some
of the best-known poet-critics, including William Carlos Williams, had been
taken in by their nonsense. I thought that it would be valuable to retell
the story in some detail and reprint the original book, as I did in The Spectra Hoax (1961), which was welcomed by reviewers but whose
lesson apparently few of its poet-readers learned, at least to judge by the
poetry that they continue to produce. It would be impossible today to
perpetrate such a hoax because it is impossible to parody poetry that has
already parodied itself.
find a very close link between my poetry and my prose. I have been pleased
that more than one critic has said that I write far better prose than most
contemporary poets. I know what hours of work went into the brief essays of
Louise Bogan in her reviewing poetry for The
New Yorker. I followed her example when I wrote annual critical reviews
for Harper’s from 1961 to 1965.
My memoir and play have benefited from the poet’s eye for careful and
appropriate detail that others have found in my criticism.
What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health
as an art?
I am not the first person to say that we are living in a very bad time for
poetry. In my poem, “The Tall Poets: A Bicentennial Meditation, July 4,
1976,” I have presented an acid view of the current situation. I compare
the “tall poets,” those self-promoting, pompous poets whose works fill
the pages of current little magazines to the “tall ships” that were then
making their way up the “lordly Hudson” in celebration of the founding
of the country. I wrote:
am bored with those Tall Poets,
first and second-generation baby Bunyans,
of their creatively written writing,
admired ash-buried academic anorexia . . .
weary of having to dive into their driven dreck that hits the fan
in every puffed and pompous periodical . . .
long for the pure poem,
simple declarative sentence . . . .
live in a bad time . . . and I cannot write.”
have paid a considerable price for writing this poem. I first got a hint of
this possibility when the poem was turned down by John Frederick Nims, the
editor of Poetry (Chicago), who
said that the magazine dare not print something that made fun of John
Ashbery, one of its great benefactors. The poem was subsequently published
by the Southern Review and it has
been translated into several languages and discussed by poet-critics in any
number of countries, but not by anyone in the United States, a fact that not
only calls attention to the current situation of poetry but I trust also to
the poem’s merit.
poets all sound alike because they are all products of our creative writing
programs. Every poem reads as if it had been written by a committee. Early
in our school system, as I found to my astonishment when I went around under
the auspices of the Poets-in-the-Schools national program, students no
longer sit separately in classrooms but are gathered into groups around
tables and all work together and write together. No poem is singled out as
being better than any other—that would be undemocratic—and all are
praised. The view of the poet working in solitude to explore the depths of
his or her psyche is forgotten or disparaged.
What do you think of the present institution of poetry criticism? If one
compares the poetry criticism written in the first half of the twentieth
century to that written in the second half, there has been a marked
deterioration. What caused this decline?
The present state of criticism is just as bad as that of poetry since, of
course, the two go together, linked inextricably. Neal Bowers, when he
decided to resign from his position as “Distinguished Professor of English
at Iowa State University,” had this to say on the subject in the July 2002
issue of Poetry; he describes the
current situation brilliantly and is well worth listening to at some length:
the corporate university, poetry as a noble calling is as quaint as the
muse. Both have been displaced by a calculating careerism, and the
whimsical-gruelling-joyous-painful work of poetry has been transformed into
a routine job. In the place of inspiration, poets undertake classroom
assignments. For teachers and students alike, the writing process has become
an academic exercise designed more for the intellect than for the heart,
resulting in poems of remarkable sameness....
days, English departments everywhere have deconstructed themselves to the
level of nonsense. Literary theory has become the new literature, and no
scholar worthy of his French influences believes in the objective reality of
any text. The traditional canon no longer exists, nor do traditional
standards. Everything is suitable for study because no one is privileged to
judge one work to be better than another. Good and bad are regarded as
relative terms, which makes it difficult for anyone to protest when Long
Day’s Journey Into Night is bumped from the curriculum by The
remember very well when the term “creative writing” came into use. I had
taught for years at Williams College a course called simply
“Composition.” But when I was way on leave one year in the 1950s, the
title was changed to “Creative Writing.” I objected and said so in an
essay (that appeared in my volume of selected criticism The
Streaks of the Tulip). At about the same time a new critic named
Professor Helen Vendler appeared on the scene and has ruled it ever since.
Professor Vendler’s début, a hatchet-job on the Collected
Essays of Allen Tate, was featured by John Leonard in the New York Times Book Review. One could see where we were headed; all
established standards went out of the window. “Helen Vendler is
intelligent,” Donald Hall reminded us, “but she has no taste.” A
brilliant biology major in college, she now took it upon herself to tell
poets past and present how they had felt and how they feel. When as poetry
reviewer of The New Yorker she assumed the place of Louise Bogan and wrote at
length on John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, quoting endlessly from both as
prime examples of the new triumph of the lyric, we knew that we had entered
a new critical era.
Is there some way to account for the fact that the majority of American
poet-critics have been and continue to be, politically conservative? From
the New Critics to the New Formalists many of the important poet-critics
have been denounced for their political allegiances as much as for their
I dislike broad generalizations of this sort because they lead to false
pictures. Of the New Critics, Allen Tate was certainly politically
conservative but another of the group, Robert Penn Warren, was an
outstanding liberal voice, a strong supporter of Martin Luther King.
Although Auden allied himself, as Eliot had, with the position of the
English Church, he was politically liberal on most issues (and like Stephen
Spender had begun as a Communist). For thirty-five years Louise Bogan,
although a supporter of Ezra Pound, was attacked, along with Karl Shapiro,
for her liberal views. She considered Wallace Stevens a major poet but
deplored his political beliefs.
What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, which is such a
fixture of recent American poetry?
Whatever else it is, poetry is not propaganda and to link it to politics is
to diminish its true nature.
war in Iraq has brought forth volumes of anti-war poetry—most of it bad.
Most poets are strongly against war but few of them have been able to
produce anything that did not sound platitudinous. James Fenton’s elegy on
the death of a TV camera man is a rare exception. Almost every poet has felt
obligated to write a poem on the subject of the 9/11 attack on the World
Trade Center, but few have been successful.
was a great mistake for Congress to change the title of “Consultant in
Poetry to the Library of Congress” to “Poet Laureate,” and to provide
the Laureate’s salary, which had originally come from private funds. The
result is that much more stress has been put on the holder of that position
to be a “promoter” of poetry, whatever that may mean, which Elizabeth
Bishop and Léonie Adams were certainly not.
Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing
programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a
beneficial or baleful effect on poetry? What do you think of the vast
subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete
About the baleful effect of the proliferation of creative writing programs
and the subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards, I turn again to
Neal Bower who has summed up the situation better than I could have:
have themselves to blame for the casino mentality that dominates much of the
world of poetry publication. The proliferation of graduate programs in
creative writing led inevitably to a vast population of young poets
desperate for publication and willing to play almost any game of chance.
Along with his students, good and bad, the teaching poet has no choice but
to drop his money onto the pile and ride the wheel. Randomness has replaced
careful evaluation and considered judgment. As the poet’s English
department colleagues insist, any work can be good or bad in the absence of
broadly accepted standards of quality, so it makes little difference which
manuscript is selected. What matters is the income generated by the contest,
which keeps the contest going year after year, with a little off the top for
the university press sponsors.
Which contemporary poets do you read with pleasure?
Of the poets of my generation I continue to read Richard Wilbur with great
pleasure. He is a neighbor and my oldest friend. I have therefore been able
to read the first drafts of his recent poems, as I have over the years. I
also read everything that Daniel Hoffman writes. I see him only once or
twice a year but keep in constant touch with him by telephone. I am also in
touch with David Slavitt and George Garrett, who have both been very
productive with a wide range of form and subject matter. I also read the
work of James Fenton, one of my best friends among the British poets. And I
return frequently to the work of my deceased friends Charles Causley and
find it difficult to read the younger poets because there are many who at
the start show real talent but then are soon vitiated by the system. They
publish a wide selection of poems at the age of thirty and a hugely uneven
and unreadable collected poems at the age of thirty-five. They rush ahead
while the older poets took their time. Wallace Stevens did not publish a
first book until he was in his forties. I do all the same find some younger
poets who give pleasure. I particularly relish the work of Henry Taylor, who
was one of my students. He is one of the few poets who can write excellent
light verse. His Brief
Candles, a collection of clerihews, is a little masterpiece. Henry
is also an excellent translator from the French and a superb critic. He
formerly reviewed regularly for the Washington
Times but has ceased to do so since moving to the west coast. Among the
most powerful of the contemporary poets is C. K. Williams [born 1936], whom I saw
frequently during his long residence in Paris. Another poet whose work I
have only recently discovered is A. E. Stallings [born 1968], who resides in
Greece. Like Williams, she is an excellent translator, and like Taylor, a
genuinely witty and original poet. I also continue to have faith in the work
of Dana Gioia [born 1950]. As Consultant in Poetry to the Library of
Congress, I introduced him to Washington and collaborated with him as a
translator on a volume Poems from
Which contemporary critics do you read?
I find the criticism of William Pritchard, Bruce Bawer, and John Simon very
rewarding, as is that of Daniel Hoffman and Daniel Mark Epstein. Among the
poet-critics that I most admire are James Fenton and John Updike. Both are
fine poets, superb art critics, skilled writers of light verse, and both
have a polished prose style. Anthony Hecht’s essays on the work of poets
past and present are of great value. Richard Wilbur has written little
criticism but it is all first-rate. Donald Hall has written a great deal but
little that is memorable. The poet who has written more criticism than any
other poet of his generation and who has laid claim to being its leading
critic as well as its finest translator is Richard Howard. I find
regrettably that his judgments are erratic, that his pronouncements are
pompous and inflated, and that his pseudo-Jamesian prose style makes all
that he writes virtually unreadable. Among younger critics that I read with
pleasure are Christian Wiman, Robert Phillips, and R. S. Gwynn. Among the
poets in the generation after mine who have given most time and thought to
writing criticism is William Logan. He explains his position very clearly in
a recent essay:
critic, if he is to be a critic, must risk being wrong, must say what seems
right to him, though it makes him a laughing-stock for generations
afterward. A critic who does his job must be a good hater if he is to be a
good lover—and the critic lives for the moment when he discovers a book so
rare his first instinct is to cast such a pearl before readers (some of whom
will be swine who ignore it, others, the real readers, simply people with a
taste for pearls). The daily job of the critic, what he does in the
meanwhile, is to explain the difficulty of poetry, not to other readers, but
to himself, because who is the critic critical for, if not himself?
Logan does his job reasonably well. He is a far better hater than
lover (his piece on John Ashbery is truly memorable) and one misses the
balance that Randall Jarrell achieved. But in a bad time it may well be that
there is little to love and Logan may be giving us as good as it gets for
himself and for us.
Are there any books of poetry published in the last few years that you would
particularly recommend to readers?
The most memorable collection that I have come across recently is Daniel Hoffman’s collection of sonnets, Makes You Stop and Think (George Braziller, 2006). The book opens with a poem about the sonnet form. It describes a visit of the poet Louise Bogan to a university on which she speaks of the avant-garde movement of the time (the 1960s) against form in poetry. “When poets,” she says, “have breached the fortress of a form, then send their shock troops yet again to breach the form, there’s no form.” And they should bear in mind that it took a civilization to develop a form such as the sonnet. Hoffman’s sonnets, written over a period of fifty years, are a brilliant tribute to that enduring civilized form.