William Jay Smith was born in Winnfield, Louisiana, on April 22, 1918. Smith’s prolific literary career began early, with the national publication of one of his poems when he was just fourteen years old. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French literature at Washington University, where he befriended Tennessee Williams and encountered the works of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and many others. Heavily influenced by modernism, Smith became an advocate of the movement, and when he published his first poetry collection, Poems (Banyan Press, 1947), it was applauded by fellow modernist poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Following naval service in World War II, Smith went on to study at Columbia University and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He then enrolled at the University of Florence in Italy, where he studied for two years.
Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. His poetry collections include The Girl in Glass: Love Poems (Helen Marx Books, 2002), The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems (Curbstone Books, 2000), and The World Below the Window: Poems 1937–1997 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), among many others.
Richard Wilbur has praised Smith as “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote, “[Smith’s] best poems are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.”
Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.
Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.
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. Smith split his time between Massachusetts and France. He passed away on August 18, 2015, in Lenox, Massachusetts.