The Journey of William Jay Smith

The Traveler’s Tree: New and Selected Poems by William Jay Smith. New York: Persea Books. 1980.

Army Brat: A Memoir by William Jay Smith. New York: Persea Books. 1980.

The Traveler’s Tree: New and Selected Poems is William Jay Smith’s first collection of poems in ten years and his first book with a substantial number of new poems in nearly fifteen. While Smith has been active in the intervening years publishing translations, criticism, and children’s verse, until now he has chosen not to collect his new poems in a single book. Instead he has preferred to issue them separately, if at all, in small, fine press books and broadsides, done in limited editions. Perhaps Smith was following his instincts by restricting his public during the Seventies to the small, friendly circle that would have sought out these elusive and often expensive publications. The qualities that distinguish his poetry – its clarity, grace, and overt musicality – do not currently rank high among those attributes most often praised by critics. But now Smith has finally brought his latest work together in a volume of new and selected poems that allows the reader to survey for the first time the entire career of this unusually gifted poet.

In 1947 Smith published his first book, Poems (which corresponds to the section “Of Islands” in The Traveler’s Tree), in a limited edition by Banyan Press. This finely-printed collection of twenty-one short lyrics already showed Smith as an accomplished stylist. Despite the occasional echoes of Auden, whose avuncular presence dominated American poetry in the Forties, Smith had found a distinctive, personal style that could not be confused with that of any other writer. His imagination was equally unique. One never has the sense of seeing the world directly in an early poem by Smith. Instead, it is like watching an elegant production of a baroque opera in which the world is suggested by a few spectacular pieces of Venetian stage machinery, delicately painted clouds that float above the rocking wooden waves and a heraldic golden sun revolving in the corner. One knows it isn’t real, but suddenly as a great aria takes flight, one experiences a reality more intense than any available outside the theater door. Like opera, Smith’s early work may not be to everyone’s taste, but those who like formal music will find much to applaud.

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” (reprinted now for the first time in over thirty years) 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.

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.
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.

This haunting poem eludes paraphrase, and yet it has an unambiguous emotional effect on the listener. As in Valéry’s ideal of pure poetry, it acts like a piece of absolute music creating an effect on the listener that is precise but ineffable. Likewise, although the poem is highly polished and controlled, it harkens back to the primal incantatory element of verse. With its regular rhymes and rhythm, recurring lines, and obsessive repetition of certain sounds, the poem could almost be a charm pronounced to summon up a ghost.

“A Note on the Vanity Dresser” also demonstrates the particular style of lyric poetry Smith developed in his early work. The texture of the poem seems very simple at first glance, almost like a piece of light verse. The poem unfolds through a series of syntactically direct statements made up for the most part of everyday words (“double negative” is the only relatively sophisticated phrase, and even that is a term most people learn in grammar school). What happens to these simple elements in the process of their becoming a poem, however, is another matter. Smith interlocks the seemingly uncomplicated words of the poem so intricately with puns, echoes, and associations that virtually every initially straightforward statement becomes increasingly complex and ambiguous. One need only take one word, no, and follow it through the poem from the title to the end to see how pervasive Smith’s verbal orchestration is. The no sound appears literally in rhyme or assonance fourteen times in this eight line poem (note, no, know, snow, so.) Although most readers will not notice the extent of this repetition until it is pointed out, they do feel it like the continued modulation around a certain key in a sonata. The effect is almost hypnotic. Also effective on a semi-conscious level is the use of puns like the repetition of eyes, which not only subtly registers an affirmative (aye) to balance the obsessive no‘s of the poem but also suggests its two unconflicting I‘s–the speaker and his ghostly mirror image.

Smith’s second volume, Celebrations at Dark (1950), perfected the method of Poems. While the new poems in this volume are also mostly tightly-written, rhymed lyrics, they seem more fluent and expansive than his earlier work. One has a sense of Smith now consciously broadening his tones and subjects. Although the poems seem less brittle and rarefied, on close examination the best of them still have the same artificial quality of those in his first volume. Yet what artifice. These, too, are poems in which the medium of language ultimately becomes the subject matter. In this passage from “Galileo Galilei”, the words are used as objects in themselves and not as symbols to represent any exterior reality. Connotation here has replaced denotation as the function of poetic language:

Apple trees are bent and breaking.
And the heat is not the sun’s;
And the Minotaur is waking.
And the streets are cattle runs.
Galileo Galilei,
In a flowing, scarlet robe,
While the stars go down the river
With the turning, turning globe,
Kneels before a black Madonna
And the angels cluster round
With grave, uplifted faces
Which reflect the shaken ground
And the orchard which is burning,
And the hills which take the light,
And the candles which have melted
On the altars of the night.

This is clearly not a poem about Galileo Galilei. Perhaps it is not a poem about anything at all except Galileo’s name and the dark associations it summons in the poet’s mind. Galileo becomes a sort of anti-Christ presiding over an apocalyptic nocturnal landscape. Once again Smith achieves his effects through a mastery of syntax coupled with his gift for striking, memorable images. The poem is made up of a series of simple phrases piled on top of one another, usually linked by and or with, words that give the illusion of a logical progression. But the relationship between the lines is mostly syntactical, not logical, and the listener’s head spins trying to put the lines together into a sensible whole. The illusion of relationship between the images is reinforced by the rhymes, which give an aural semblance of order. The confusion is further heightened by the poem’s extraordinary meter (trochaic tetrameter with so many weak initial stresses that it can also be scanned as anapests). Smith’s rhythmic sleight of hand both speeds up and softens the trochaic meter without losing its hypnotic pulse. “Galileo Galilei” moves so quickly that the listener has no time to reflect on what has already been said, but must keep up with it line by line.

With the publication of his third volume, Poems: 1947-1957 (retitled “The Descent of Orpheus” in The Traveler’s Tree). Smith’s position in contemporary American letters seemed set. He was the master of the short formal lyric, a poet, as Daniel Hoffman phrased it, “of exquisite music and high patina.” Here once again was a collection of elegant short poems by an author who still loved to dazzle an audience with verbal effects. The subjects were more varied now, the voice deeper, but the style unmistakably the same.

Smith was now writing at the height of his powers, and this volume included many of his finest poems, like “American Primitive,” “The Dressmaker’s Workroom,” and “At the Tombs of the House of Savoy.” There was, however, already a sign of the changes to come. The last new poem in the volume, “The Descent of Orpheus,” begins predictably enough with six lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, but suddenly something happens. The line lengths grow irregular, and the sense of an underlying pentameter pattern gradually disappears. The form becomes a set of rhythmic variations done in a loose, iambic beat. The rhymes start to drop away and then reappear at unpredictable intervals. The poem, which begins in a tight, formal stanza, loses confidence in its own procedures:

A cockatoo with nervous, quick cockade
Consumes the cones upon a tree of fire
Whose branches cast a giant, trembling shade
Upon the earth, and on the gilded lyre
Of Orpheus, who wanders underground,
And is consumed, and is consumed by fire.

(lines 1-6)

Knowledge which is powerful will take
Man down those worn rock ways
Below the ground, into the dark god’s
Kingdom, fire-dominion:
He must learn,
Like Orpheus, he cannot turn
But turning find
His sweet love vanished, and descend
Where days are nothing, and dreams end …

(lines 16 -24)

The method of the poem recall T.S. Eliot’s 1917 “Reflections on Vers Libre” in which he comments on the metrical experimentation that eventually fostered Modernism, “the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one.” “The Descent of Orpheus” has a documentary value beyond its artistic merits because it shows the reluctance with which a formalist poet abandons the imaginative procedures which have worked in the past. Even as Smith opens up the rhythms of his lines, there still lurks Eliot’s “ghost of some simple metre”; even as the poet smashes his initial stanza pattern, rhymes reappear. Not quite formal and yet not entirely free, Smith’s experiment in vers libre not only recapitulates some of the central stylistic struggles of Anglo-American Modernism; the poem exemplifies the struggles of poets in Smith’s generation to escape the limits of fixed form.

“The Descent of Orpheus” proved to be a dead end, but Smith’s next volume, The Tin Can and Other Poems (1966), showed that he had found a way to expand his vision beyond the short lyric. In this volume, side by side with poems done in rhymed stanzas, are long sequences written in free verse. There is no transition out of his early work, just fully accomplished poems in a new style. In a period when many American poets were making radical changes in their style, Smith’s sudden decision to write in free verse may seem only slightly less remarkable than hearing Cantonese in a Chinese restaurant, but there is an important difference in his case. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made the transition to open forms without giving up his early formal manner. Both styles peacefully coexist in his subsequent volumes.

“Morels,” the first poem in The Tin Can, dramatically announces the new voice Smith had found. Written in one long rhapsodic sentence that stretches over two pages, the poem describes a rainy day when the speaker walks through the woods to pick morels. Just seeing the poem on the page, the reader knows that Smith has done something entirely different from his previous work. Gone are the tight, carefully crafted stanzas. In their place are long couplets that reach across the page. The formal meters are replaced by cadenced speech, and the sharp rhymes, which were a signature of Smith’s earlier work, are entirely gone.

A wet grey day—rain falling slowly, mist over the
valley, mountains dark circumflex smudges in the distance—
Apple blossoms just gone by, the branches feathery still
as if fluttering with half-visible antennae—
A day in May like so many in these green mountains, and
I went out just as I had last year
At the same time, and found them there under the big maples—
by the bend in the road …

The stylistic change reflects a thematic one. “Morels” was an uncharacteristically personal poem for Smith. The poet himself was now the acknowledged narrator, and he describes the physical situation of the poem with sensuous exactness. This new manner of writing allowed Smith for the first time to deal with autobiographical material in a direct way. He no longer creates an “objective correlative” for personal experience, but simply needed to focus it into effective scenes. The long lines developed in The Tin Can proved to be a liberating force in Smith’s development. Whereas his early style, based on polish, symmetry, and closure, had limited his range to short poems, the new open style allowed – indeed forced – him to write extended pieces. It was almost as if the poems had decided to stretch themselves out to be as long as the lines that constituted them.

Just as his early poems had been patterned in many ways on the work of the Symbolists, Smith’s later poems also had a French model. Although some critics have declared that his long, expansive lines were borrowed from Whitman, Smith’s brand of free verse is unlike anything in American literature. The real model is the Guadeloupe-born French poet, St. John Perse (with echoes perhaps of Paul Claudel). Borrowing the technique of verset from French – one long, powerfully rhythmic line corresponding roughly to the capacity of breath from full lungs, Smith adapted the form to his own end, softening it to avoid the pseudo-Biblical sound of so much Whitmanesque verse in English (though the tradition of the French verset goes back to the Bible as well). By getting as far away as possible from his rhymed stanzaic verse, Smith was able to craft these long lines without ever falling into the crytpometrical verse so many formal poets use when trying to write free verse. Often reaching twenty-five syllables or more, Smith’s long lines are subtly shaped, carefully controlled, and yet rhythmically unpredictable.

The first half of The Traveler’s Tree consists of poems written since the publication of The Tin Can. This section is dominated by a group of sequences in free verse, most notably “What Train Will Come?” and the title poem. In these recent poems Smith has developed a direct, personal style. Whereas in his early work he rarely set himself in the center of a poem, he now seldom does otherwise. As in his memoir, Army Brat, Smith’s life and experiences have now become the subject of his poems. This new direction raises a new set of challenges for the poet. One recalls Louis Simpson’s observation on giving up formal poetry and trying to write more personal poems: “I must work not at techniques, but at improving my character.” Smith’s personal work now succeeds or fails on the quality and depth of the experience he describes.

At their best, these poems both recreate and universalize his experiences as in this description of walking through St. Louis as a child after a tornado has swept through the city:

Glass glints; shoes creak … A small child, I walk after
a tornado in the city, holding my mother’s hand,
The sky again above us like a wound drained of blood, the
pale edges folded in upon a pink center;
I strolled beside her, and she seemed to spin off from me in
her dress of voile, her cartwheel hat;
and I gazed out on tilted and shattered telephone poles, their
wires trailing over the sidewalks like black spaghetti;

An acrid taste of burning bread hovered in the air, the most
intimate parts of buildings had been ripped off, and here a bed dangled down.
And there was the smell of buried flesh, and I was sick and

wanted to hide my face and run to some green spot, gaze up at a proper sun-lit dome …

(“What Train Will Come”)

Many of the new poems describe journeys – to Delphi, Venice, St. Thomas, and the Dead Sea, among other places. These actual journeys are reflected in the title poem, “The Traveler’s Tree,” in which Smith invites the reader on a symbolic journey over a succession of strange, beautiful landscapes which, consciously or not on Smith’s part, recapitulate the landscapes of his earlier poetry, though this time seen from a great height. This invitation au voyage ends in a subtle and surprising moment of self-discovery when one suddenly realizes that the “you” and “I” of the poem are aspects of one person now merging together. The poet and his dark mirror image finally become one.

Simultaneously with the publication of The Traveler’s Tree, Persea Books has also issued Smith’s remarkable memoir, Army Brat, which recounts one of the oddest childhoods ever lived by an American poet. Smith writes about a segment of society rarely dealt with by writers of real talent – the Army between wars. This is not the hectic military of civilian draftees brought temporarily together to fight a common war. It is the routine world of professional soldiers, who have no real function in society except to keep ready and wait. This book is important not only because it describes the formative years of a young poet (and Army Brat may reveal more about the roots of Smith’s imagination than the author realizes), but also because it explores an interesting corner of American society hitherto lost to literature.

Born in Winnfield, Louisiana in 1918, Smith moved at the age of three with his family to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis, where his father was stationed as a corporal in the Regular Army. Smith spent most of the next twenty years on the huge military installation since his father, who played clarinet in the Army Band, was never transferred or promoted. While most “army brats” have a blur of childhood memories made up of the many posts they have moved to and from, Smith has one undivided memory of the curious, parochial world where he spent his entire youth. Jefferson Barracks encompassed only 1700 mostly wooded acres, and Smith’s memoir is filled with lyric recollections of days spent wandering through the lush, green countryside enclosed by the base. These beautifully written passages are counterpointed at the end of the book, however, when Smith returns to the Barracks in 1977 to find it largely leveled and rebuilt. Most of the woods had been taken over by a military cemetery, where thousands of graves were marked by identical white crosses, and bulldozers were ripping out the remaining trees to make room for more veterans.

Smith’s father, who dominates much of the book, was a powerful but troubled man. Unsuccessful in the military, he was unable to withstand the pressures of civilian life. His central passion was gambling. Each payday he disappeared and often not returning until the next morning – either broke or with pockets full of money. One night after searching every local speakeasy for her husband, Mrs. Smith and her two small sons returned home to find their front porch riddled with bullets and Mr. Smith sprawled semi-conscious, pistol at his side, on the living room floor in a huge pile of money and vomit. As the children screamed, Mrs. Smith revived her husband, who had been poisoned by the losers with doctored bootleg, and counted out about $5,000 in cash.

Smith does not belabor the connections between his life and work, but his frightening childhood memories bear an important relationship to his poetry. The episode with his father’s dangerous run-in with St. Louis gamblers, for example, is reflected (through a protective, distorting mirror) in his superb “American Primitive”:

Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,
His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;
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 folding money,
His lips are blue, and his hands feel cold.
He hangs in the hall by his black cravat,
The ladies faint, and the children holler:
Only my Daddy could look like that.
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.

Liquor was another of Corporal Smith’s passions, and this vice, too, he eventually turned to profit. In 1931 he entered the “Bootleg Business.” Making homebrew in the cellar, and remodeling the front rooms, he converted the family house into a speakeasy. Soon the house became the nightly hangout for the enlisted men at the Barracks and a few of their wives. Smith stayed in his room upstairs, which often stank from the brewing in the kitchen downstairs, listening to the voices of the men drinking and gambling. Terrified that his family would be arrested or that his friends at school in South St. Louis would discover the disreputable facts his homelife, Smith, whose talent and sensibility already isolated him from much of Barracks life, spent most of his early adolescence estranged even in his own home.

Into this lonely world came Mrs. Emma Nettie Bradbury, an “expression” teacher and one of those provincial cultural matrons who so often and so decisively appear in the biographies of American artists. Under Mrs. Bradbury’s training, Smith grew intoxicated with poetry and drama (a passion he shared with his college friend Thomas Lanier Williams, later to achieve fame as Tennessee Williams). Mrs. Bradbury’s classes and theatrical productions gave Smith a focal point for his talent and formed his decision to be a poet. Mrs. Bradbury also helped Smith into the most ironic triumph of his life – winning first prize in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s oratory contest. A memorable occasion for a bootlegger’s son.

A peacetime army usually stands at an odd angle to the rest of society, but the decades between the two World Wars provided an especially dramatic contrast. Jefferson Barracks maintained its monotonously plain but secure standard of living while the rest of the country soared during the prosperous Twenties and then crashed into the Great Depression. Raised in this bastion of rank and routine, Smith grew up in a world of order while the world outside fell into chaos.

Although Army Brat continues up to the death of Smith’s father in 1974, the real narrative of the book ends in 1942 when Smith, now a Navy ensign, is transferred to Oahu where his father is also stationed. Just as the son is about to go off to war in the Pacific Theatre, the father is leaving the Army, not about to go “down there in the jungle with those guys.” Twenty-odd years in the peacetime Army had tempered any patriotism Corporal Smith had ever felt. Having been stationed at Pearl Harbor during the bombing, he had already seen enough of World War II. Ending here, Army Brat deals with the rest of Smith’s life only by an occasional allusion to subsequent events. There is no mention, for example, of his eighteen-year marriage to the poet Barbara Howes, or of his early literary career as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Army Brat is a memoir of childhood and family, not a full literary autobiography.

There are at least two kinds of memoir. One is a book like Speak, Memory or A Moveable Feast which is not merely an autobiography, but a work of art in itself. It shapes and compresses an author’s reminiscences into a narrative as finely crafted as a novel. Memoirs like Louis Simpson’s North of Jamaica or The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams have a different goal. Here the author is less concerned with the aesthetic unity than with getting down as much as possible of what happened, with telling the readers exactly how events seemed as they occurred. Army Brat has something of both kinds of memoirs in it. Smith wants to tell as much as possible about his family and the world he grew up in. He often digresses to fit in some interesting fact or anecdote and includes more historical data on Jefferson Barracks than absolutely necessary to tell his story. He has, however, an almost novelistic sense of himself as the protagonist of the book, and each section is subtly organized to develop the book’s “plot” a little further. At the important moments of the story, his style suddenly tightens into a kind of heightened lyric prose. Although one could excerpt these set pieces and print them independently as prose poems, yet they work perfectly in context, giving certain moments in the book just the right depth. Army Brat is an unusual achievement, a book that deals satisfyingly with the development of a poet’s mind while presenting the social world around him with equal precision. It is a vivid recollection of a world now gone forever.

Original version first published in Cumberland Poetry Review (Spring 1983).