The CPR Interview: William Jay Smith
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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 that Harold Bloom has called “his master work: taut, harrowing, eloquent, and profoundly memorable.”
CPR: When did
you begin writing criticism?
William Jay Smith: 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 Two 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
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
What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be?
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
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 Two when I contributed to his collection
of the translations of French Resistance 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 W.H. 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 W.H.
Auden or Louise 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. The 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
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
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?
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
What do you think of the present institution of poetry criticism? If one
compares the poetry criticism written in the first half of the 20th
century to that written in the second half, there has been a marked
deterioration. What caused this decline?
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-grueling-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 away 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
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 W.H. Auden allied himself, as T. S. 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?
else it is, poetry is not propaganda and to link it to politics is to
diminish its true nature. The 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
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
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.
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?
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 Gavin
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 younger poets is C.K. Williams, whom I saw
frequently during his long residence in Paris. Another poet whose work I
have only recently discovered is A.E. Stallings, 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. 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 Italy.
Which contemporary critics?
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: “The 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?”
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?
WJS: 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.”