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Remembering William Jay Smith, Former Consultant in Poetry

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William Jay Smith, Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1969-70
William Jay Smith, Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1968-70

We were saddened to learn last week of the death of William Jay Smith, who served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1968-70. He was 97. The Washington Post notes:

In a writing career that spanned more than 70 years, Mr. Smith published dozens of volumes of poetry, as well as children’s verse, memoirs, translations and essays. He taught at several colleges and, from 1968 to 1970, was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. . . .

Although he was born in Louisiana and taught for more than a decade at Virginia’s Hollins College, Mr. Smith was often identified as a poet of New England, where he had lived off and on since the 1950s. He was once elected to the state legislature in Vermont.

Meanwhile, The New York Times writes that Smith’s work “was known both for its acuteness of observation and acuteness of craftsmanship,” and offers the following summary of his poetry for adults:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults 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 was busy throughout his two years as Consultant in Poetry. Among his many activities and accomplishments as Consultant, which are documented in William McGuire’s history of the Consultantship, Poetry’s Catbird Seat:

  • Smith moderated, participated in, and oversaw numerous literary programs at the Library, including a Children’s Poetry Festival, an International Poetry Festival, and a May 5, 1969, reading in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Academy of American Poets that included Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, and John Hall Wheelock.
  • Through the Department of State’s American Specialists Program, he participated in two extended overseas reading and lecture tours. In May and June of 1968 he lectured and read in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia. And in May 1969, he began a two-and-a-half-month trip to the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey.
  • He worked, along with colleague Roy Basler, on the production a WETA program, Middle Passage and Beyond, featuring poets Robert Hayden and Derek Walcott.
  • With Virginia Haviland, head of the Library’s Children’s Book Section, he helped compile an annotated bibliography of children’s poetry, Children & Poetry: A Selective, Annotated Bibliography, published in November 1969.
  • He recorded dozens of his children’s poems, many from his book Mr. Smith and Other Nonsense, for the Archive of Recoded Poetry and Literature. A separate WETA program featuring many of these same poems launched on Christmas, 1969, and won a National Educational Television Award.

The Library’s recently launched online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature includes the following recording of Smith reading his poems in the Library’s Mumford Room on March 16, 2000:


Additional biographical information and poems by Smith can be found on the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation.

Comments (2)

  1. All Respects to a brother. Being in relation to my tribe, the Choctaw tribe, myself, I see nothing but praises for William.

  2. Mr Smith would be very pleased with the comment by Jemel Williams. He so dearly loved his mother, the late Georgia Campster Smith, from whom his Choctaw ancestry descends. His work “The Cherokee Lottery” that describes and decries this horrific part of the American obliteration of her native peoples in “The Trail of Tears”, was deeply personal and very emotional for him. His wrote for over 80 years, and as a professional for more than 70, and Mr Smith was writing even up until his last days. May he Rest in Peace.

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