Exactly one hundred years ago today, poet William Jay Smith was born in Winnfield, Louisiana. The son of a clarinetist in the Sixth Army Band, Smith grew up on a military base in Jefferson Barracks just outside of St. Louis, an experience he describes in his memoir, Army Brat. Smith obtained both a Bachelors and a Master’s degree in French Literature from Washington University in St Louis before serving in the Navy during World War II.
A man of many literary talents, Smith returned from the war and made a career of writing and teaching, publishing several collections of poetry, six children’s books, several nonfiction books and essays, and a play. He also edited several collections of poetry and translated the work of a number of foreign poets.
The William Jay Smith Papers, part of Washington University Libraries’ Modern Literature Collection, holds an extensive archive of Smith’s correspondence, manuscripts and editorial matter towards his published work, and miscellaneous material relating to specific writing projects, academic work, literary awards panels, and Smith’s travel and family.
A Talented and Prolific Poet
During his years at Washington University, Smith was friends with Tennessee Williams, with whom he formed a small poetry group. Smith chronicled his time with Williams in the 2012 book, My Friend Tom. One of Smith’s early poems with annotations by Williams is shown to the left.
Smith published his first book of poetry, simply titled Poems, in 1947 only shortly after returning from WWII. Two of his collections Poems: 1947-1957 (1958) and The Tin Can and Other Poems (1967) were nominated for the National Book Award, and Smith was appointed as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (the former title of the position now known as U.S. Poet Laureate) from 1968 until 1970.
For his obituary, the New York Times lauded Smith’s verse, saying:
“Mr. Smith’s poems… 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.”
Smith is also well known for his books of poems for children. His first, Laughing Time, was published when his son was four years old. He writes in its introduction, “In Laughing Time I have set out to record some of the joyous aspects of early childhood in rhythms as natural to a child as breathing.” Below is a manuscript of a poem from Laughing Time and an original sketch for the book’s accompanying artwork by Juliet Kepes.
“The Straw Market”
William Jay Smith has experimented with many genres in his long career, including non-fiction essays, criticism, memoir, and play writing. His comedic play “The Straw Market” about a Fulbright art scholar in post-war Florence, was produced at Hollins College in 1966 and the original cast featured Tom Lingon and Eleanor Wilson, pictured below. You can read more about this play in a previous Modern Literature Collection blog post.
The Art of Translating Poetry
In spite of the success of his poetry and other works, Smith is perhaps best known for his translations. Many of his early translations were of French works, but he also translated works from almost all the major romance languages and Russian.
One of Smith’s best-known translations was of Antiworlds by Andrei Voznesensky, which he worked on with five other poets. In his essay, “Finding the Proper Equivalent: On Translating the Poetry of Andrei Voznesensky” Smith admits that “None of us really knew Russian,” and that his own knowledge of the language stemmed from a three month course he had taken nearly twenty years prior. In spite of this apparent obstacle, the completed translation was widely acclaimed. Smith explains the success in his essay by asserting,
“Poets must translate poets; even if they know little of the other’s language, something of the fine frenzy of the original will somehow work its way through.”
Smith and Washington University
Smith was a poet in residence at Williams College from 1959 to 1964 and again from 1966 to 1977, chairman of the Writing Division of the School of Arts at Columbia University from 1973 to 1975, and was a professor emeritus of English at Hollins College. Through the years he maintained a relationship with his alma mater by contributing to the Modern Literature Collection and participating in readings and events in Olin Library. He passed away in Massachusetts at the age of 98, in 2015. This year we hope to acquire the remainder of his archive, which would be a major addition to the William Jay Smith Papers, already one of our largest and deepest collections.