The Pleasures of Formal Poetry
WILLIAM Jay Smith published his first book of poems in 1947, inaugurating a long and distinguished career in which he has produced more than fifty books of poetry, children's verse, translations, criticism, and memoirs. He has taught at both Williams and Hollins, has served from 1968 to 1970 as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a post now called Poet Laureate), and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His published in 1990, which included light verse, children's verse, long poems, and translations, has now been augmented by The World Below the Window, a gathering of what Smith considers his best serious poems, harvested in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Containing no translations and very few examples of either the light verse or the children's verse for which he is justly known, the book provides a welcome and generous retrospective of Smith's "adult" work, which from its beginnings has been defined by a passionate and deeply informed commitment to traditional rhymed metrical-stanzaic forms.
The volume thus offers a fine array of English verse dressed to kill: sonnets and villanelles; quatrains and couplets; epitaphs, epigrams, elegies, and many varieties of occasional verse. With an artisan's care and conscience, Smith makes full use of all the aural and figurative resources of our language. His tetrameters, pentameters, and hexameters are as intricately crafted as Oriental rugs. Here is his creed, announced in the early poem "Structure of Song":
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.
Smith balances his allegiances with his aversions. He loves harmony and measure and thus hates sloppiness in any form: not for him the orotund meanderings of Whitman, Pound & Sons. He cherishes clarity and coherence, both moral and aesthetic, and so his poems often make direct statements in the austere cadences of English "plain style" poetry. At the same time, like Wallace Stevens, he relishes verbal luxury and extravagance, and often interweaves the two modes. Smith is a singer rather than a prophet, and his voice tends toward the elegiac rather than the apocalyptic, the reflective rather than the incantatory. He is rooted in the concrete and the sensuous -- in sight, sound, and touch. Where he won't go matters just as much as where he will: despite a genuine capacity and taste for rapture, he distrusts outsize transcendental emotion, and a kind of practical American spiritual skepticism is ingrained in his voice. He is singularly unafraid to acknowledge violence and horror. His poems often end in an ominous detail: "the idiot wind that rakes the pits of hell" ("Processional") or "While, patient in the eaves, the shadows wait" ("A Room in the Villa"). One of the earliest notes in his work is his awareness of war, its waste and puffery and absurdity, and several poems from the section called "Dark Valentine: War Poems (1940-1945)" are among his most vivid and arresting. From the poem "Dark Valentine":
This daylit doll, this dim divinity,
who wipes his chin upon his
and sits beside you there and
combs his curls,
as suspect as a Romanoff;
who with the inward ease of
makes his insolence so crystalline,
fumbling the bomber-bracelet
on his wrist
to the boogie-woogie of the
Is this the Deity of your Devotions,
Lamb of all your Litanies?
Is this the Olifant of all the Oceans,
the Salamander of some Seven Seas?
SMITH was born in Louisiana in 1918. In his dense and eloquent memoir, Army Brat (1980), he re-creates his richly insulated childhood at Jefferson Barracks, an Army post just south of St. Louis, where his father was an enlisted clarinetist in the Sixth Infantry Band. As a student at Washington University, Smith (along with a friend later known to the world as Tennessee Williams) encountered T. S. Eliot and the young English poets W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, as well as the great established moderns Yeats, Frost, and Stevens. While earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in French literature, he was steeped in the French Symbolists. Other tutelary spirits included Edwin Arlington Robinson, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, and most especially Louise Bogan, with whom many years later Smith collaborated on a superb anthology of children's verse, He and Bogan shared the conviction that modernist feeling could best be developed through submission to the rigors (and pleasures) of form. A high degree of consciousness and self-interrogation could thus co-exist, as it does in Bogan's work, with feeling concentrated in the resonant Symbolist image, as in, for example, "A Note on the Vanity Dresser," from a section called "Looking-Glass World (1940-1950)."
The yes-man in the mirror now says no,
No longer will I answer you with lies.
The light descends like snow,
so when the snow-
man melts, you will know him
by his eyes.
The yes-man in the mirror now
Says no. No double negative of pity
Will save you now from what I
know you know:
These are your eyes, the cinders
of your city.
The natural world occupies a large place in Smith's imagination, and he dwells on its details with voluptuous attention. Like Moore and Bishop, he adores particulars and exact observation. We read of creatures, times of day, seasons, weathers, and places, of "Two swans, their floating, fluted necks / Down under feathers' whiteness" ("Evening at Grandpont"), "black pools on the blond sand" ("Slave Bracelets"), and "A twig that snaps flintlike against the mind" ("Quail in Autumn"). Like many English poets, he is obsessed by time and change. "Autumn" concludes,
Time, old hunchback, worn and yellow,
Whets his scythe on weathered stone;
While azure mists invade the hollow,
And turkey-red the leaves come down.
Smith has not one voice but many. He can be contemporary and edgy. He can describe peacocks and chrysanthemums as if enameling a Persian miniature. One of his best-known poems, "American Primitive," turns on perfectly nuanced (and tragic) American vernacular.
Look at him there in his
His high-top shoes, and his
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he
loves his Dollar.
The screen door bangs, and it
sounds so funny --
There he is in a shower of gold;
His pockets are stuffed with
His lips are blue, and his hands
He hangs in the hall by his
The ladies faint, and the
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he
loves his Dollar.
In The Streaks of the Tulip, a fine, instructive anthology of his criticism, published in 1972, Smith observed that "the artist should find out what he can do and then do something else," and that "poetry for me should be continually expanding within its frame." This is precisely what happened to his work in the mid-sixties, when Smith began publishing extended autobiographical poems in a free verse based on an exceptionally long, supple line.
One of the best of these is "The Tin Can," which appeared in a volume of the same name. "The Tin Can" is Smith's "Song of Myself," though it is by no means a Whitmanesque effusion of self-delight but rather a searching meditation on the poet's vocation. A passage by Herbert Passin, serving as the poem's epigraph, explains that "the tin can" is the translation of the Japanese word kanzume -- "which means about what we would mean by the 'lock-up.' When someone gets off by himself to concentrate, they say, 'He has gone into the tin can.'"
The poem begins,
I have gone into the tin can;
not in late spring, fleeing a stewing,
meat-and-fish smelling city of
Not when wisteria hangs, a purple
cloud, robbing the pines of their
color, have I sought out the gray
plain, the indeterminate outer edge
of a determined world,
Not to an inn nestling astride a
water-fall where two mountains
meet and the misty indecisiveness
of Japanese ink-drawn pines
frames the afternoon, providing
from a sheer bluff an adequate
view of infinity.
But here to the tin can in midwinter:
to a sagging New England farm-
house in the rock-rooted moun-
tains, where wind rifles the
In this poem Smith jumps into the free fall of his long verse line and finds himself buoyed by invisible currents of doubt, desire, fear, and love. We feel his surprise and pleasure in discovering the line's power to sustain itself and carry him further and deeper into himself. In "Venice in the Fog" he ventures into gentle, courtly praise of late love and sexual comfort: "You step from your warm bath and lie down beside me; my hand moves over the nipples of your breast." And in "The Cyclist" he ponders the ways of fate and early death. This work in free verse thus supplements but in no way supplants Smith's achievements in shorter, traditional forms.
When the whole history of twentieth-century American poetry is eventually written, it will surely be revealed that despite the apparently larger and often noisier triumphs of "open" forms, astonishingly good verse that we can call "metrical" or "formal" has continued to be written by some of the country's best poets -- Smith himself along with his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. That Smith has written poems replete with rhythm, rhyme, wit, and melody -- what Louise Bogan called "the pleasures of formal poetry," in an essay by the same name -- is cause for celebration, homage, and gratitude.
Elizabeth Frank is the Joseph E. Harry Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Bard College, in New York. She won a Pulitzer Prize in biography for her book (1985).
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; The Pleasures of Formal Poetry; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 134-137.