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.”
Garrick Davis: 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 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.
GD: Did you see criticism as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry?
WJS: 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.
GD: What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be?
WJS: 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.
GD: What modern critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard?
WJS: 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.
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.
GD: 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?
WJS: 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 poetry.
In 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.
I 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.
GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?
WJS: 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:
“I am bored with those Tall Poets,
those first and second-generation baby Bunyans,
sick of their creatively written writing,
their admired ash-buried academic anorexia . . .
I’m weary of having to dive into their driven dreck that hits the fan
weekly in every puffed and pompous periodical . . .
I long for the pure poem,
the passionate statement,
the simple declarative sentence . . . .
We live in a bad time . . . and I cannot write.”
I 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.
Contemporary 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.
GD: 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?
WJS: 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:
Within 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 . . . .
These 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 Vagina Monologues.
I 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.
GD: 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 aesthetic ideas.
WJS: 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.
GD: What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, which is such a fixture of recent American poetry?
WJS: Whatever 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 successful.
It 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.
GD: 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 for?
WJS: 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:
Poets 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.
GD: Which contemporary poets do you read with pleasure?
WJS: 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 Gavin Ewart.
I 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 [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 Italy.
GD: Which contemporary critics do you read?
WJS: 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:
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?
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.
GD: 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.