William Jay Smith

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For the 19th-century Tennessee congressman, see William Jay Smith (Tennessee politician)
William Jay Smith
Born(1918-04-22)April 22, 1918
Winnfield, Louisiana
DiedAugust 18, 2015(2015-08-18) (aged 97)
Lenox, Massachusetts
NationalityUnited States
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis
Columbia University
Oxford University

William Jay Smith (April 22, 1918 – August 18, 2015) was an American poet. He was appointed the nineteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1968 to 1970.[1]


William Jay Smith was born in Winnfield, Louisiana. He was brought up at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, south of St. Louis. Smith received his A.B. and M.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and continued his studies at Columbia University, and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

In 1947 he married the poet Barbara Howes, and they lived for a time in England and Italy. They had two sons, David Smith, and Gregory. They divorced in the mid-1960s.

Smith was a poet in residence at Williams College from 1959–1967, taught at Columbia University from 1973 until 1975. He served as the Professor Emeritus of English literature at Hollins University. He was the first Native American named to the position of Poet Laureate in the United States.

As of 2008, he lived in houses located in both Cummington, Massachusetts, and Paris, France.[2]

Smith was the author of ten collections of poetry of which two were finalists for the National Book Award.

He had been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975.

His work appeared in Harper's Magazine,[3] The New York Review of Books,[4]



  • Poems. Banyan Press. 1947.
  • Celebration at Dark. Farrar, Straus. 1950.
  • The Tin Can and Other Poems. Delacorte Press. 1966.
  • His Collected Poems: 1939–1989. C. Scribner's Sons. 1990. ISBN 978-0-684-19167-6.
  • The World Below the Window: Poems, 1937–1997. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1998. ISBN 978-0-8018-6783-5. reprint 2002
  • The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems. Curbstone Press (original from the University of Michigan). 2000.

Poems for children[edit]


, Federico García Lorca (1994).



  • James S. Holmes, William Jay Smith, ed. (1984). Dutch interior. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-05746-2.
  • Dana Gioia, William Jay Smith, ed. (1985). Poems From Italy. New Rivers Press.



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, The Atlantic.[5]

The far-reaching themes and variety of styles in William Jay Smith's poetry prove that commonplace ideas and everyday activities can be reinvented by lyrical language that enlightens and entertains the reader. His magical "Collected Poems" span a half-century of his life and the life of the nation, adding up to a literary and social history of our times in verse.

— Herbert Mitgang, Books of The Times; Man, Nature and Everyday Activities in Verse[6]

The best poems in Smith's first book were unlike anything else in postwar American literature. Their quality of tone and vision was French, but not the French of any particular author. Instead Smith, a native of that international Paris of the imagination, was writing French poems in English, poems as close as anything by the Symbolists to that unattainable ideal of poésie pure. In a short poem like "A Note on the Vanity Dresser", the words themselves take over the initiative and create meanings and echoes of meaning that seem almost independent of the poet. This is a poem that shows language in the process of discovering itself.

— Dana Gioia, "The Journey of William Jay Smith"[7]


  • 1945 Young Poets prize, Poetry
  • 1964 Ford fellowship for drama
  • 1970 Henry Bellamann Major award
  • 1972 Loines award
  • 1972, 1995 National Endowment for the Arts grant
  • 1975, 1989 National Endowment for the Humanities grant
  • 1978 Gold Medal of Labor (Hungary)
  • 1980 New England Poetry Club Golden Rose Award
  • 1982 Ingram Merrill Foundation grant
  • 1990 California Children's Book and Video Awards recognition for excellence (pre-school and toddlers category), for Ho for a Hat!
  • 1991 medal (médaille de vermeil) for service to the French language, French Academy
  • 1993 Pro Cultura Hungarica medal
  • twice a nominee for the National Book Award in poetry
  • 1997 René Vásquez Díaz prize, Swedish Academy


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