William Jay Smith Biography (1918-)
William Jay Smith
William Jay Smith contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
When I was a small boy and woke up in the morning, I would gaze towards the window where my mother had drawn the shade the night before. We were very poor and the shade was an old faded dark green one that we had had for some time. Through it came pricks and points and lines of light scattered unevenly up and down, making, together with the rips and tears in the canvas fabric, a series of odd designs. As I lay there, I tried to shape these points and lines of light into patterns resembling animals and plants. It was like looking up at the sky, but this sky belonged only to me, and in it I could create my own world.
While I was designing these visual patterns, I was also making patterns of sound like those I had heard in nursery rhymes that had such a pleasing effect on the ear when I said them over and over to myself:
Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
I would make up my own patterns, my own rhymes from words I had heard or thought I had heard or words that I had never heard but thought I should have heard, words that I was inventing and that made sense only to me. I loved to listen to what grown-ups were saying, especially if they were telling stories, but often what they said made no sense at all. They were always talking about "taking things for granted," which I understood as taking them for granite—a strange thing to do, I thought, with so much of the world—to turn it into hard stone instead of allowing it to sing and dance as it should and as it certainly did in those patterns of sound I was repeating to myself and which were, of course, the beginnings of poetry.
I was a great listener: I loved to listen to my parents. They were both Southerners and never stopped talking. I have sometimes said that I had to become a writer in order to get a word in. Both my mother and father were accomplished storytellers in the Southern tradition, and I loved to listen to the lilt of their language as it flowed out in their stories. I listened when my father told of his father, who had run off from the farm in Louisiana at the age of fourteen to join the Confederate Army as a fife player, how he had come back after the Civil War and been made Postmaster of the town but never spoke of the war. I listened when my mother told of her father, a big ruddy blue-eyed six-footer, who went off from time to time to Oklahoma to buy up cattle and drive them back to Arkansas. Once when he returned with a herd, a steer took out after him and the children watched from the porch of his store as men rushed out to rope the steer and save his life. I listened when she told of her grandmother, a tall woman with high cheekbones, a long face, and straight black hair combed back into a knot, who used to drive about in her own buggy. At Sunday School and church I also listened to passages of the King James version of the Bible, the rhythm of which held me fascinated.
In grade school I was fortunate to have teachers who gave us poetry to memorize, and in high school I had one teacher in particular, enamored of poetry, who began each morning by reading a poem. She didn't tell us the name of the poet she was reading but I discovered later that it was Robert Herrick, one of the great lyric poets of the English language. As soon as I heard poetry of this quality—simple, direct, and rhythmical—I began to write poems myself. When I was fourteen one of my teachers who wrote verse urged me to send some poems to a little magazine to which she contributed, Versecraft, published in Atlanta. "Observatory," which was printed there, contrasted the vast serene heavens with the tight, restricted human world below, and concluded:
Let them squeeze my soul with walls
And tear my heart with iron bars;
But do not let them take the hole,
Oh God, through which I see the stars.
I continued to submit poems to national magazines, and at seventeen, when I was a freshman in college, I had a poem accepted by the American Mercury. I have been writing and publishing poetry ever since. I had published two collections of poetry by the early 1950s before I thought of writing for children. My decision to do so came about when I listened one day to my son David.
Poetry, especially children's poetry, always begins with the particular; and, like that of most poets who have written for children, my interest began with a particular child on a special day. When David was four years old, I was sitting in the living room of our New York Greenwich Village apartment. We had rented the apartment furnished (with massive, dark Spanish furniture) from a man who, in the course of his long years in Spain, had collected, along with the furniture, objects that looked like instruments of torture; most of these we had stored away in closets, but the room was still rather somber (with something of a fairy-tale atmosphere about it) save for the light that poured in from a bay window overlooking a garden in back.
I was working with a pad on my lap when David, as four-year-olds will, came parading up and down the room reciting to the rhythm of his step:
Fell in the coffee
And hurt himself.
At first I paid no attention and went on with my work, but he also went on, coming down hard on every syllable again and again. I can't remember whether or not I actually wrote the phrase down, but it certainly stayed with me. It stayed until that night when I lay awake—in a huge, dark, brocaded four-poster bed that made me feel a child again myself. I made up the poem:
On the pantry shelf
Fell in the coffee
And hurt himself.
To see what had happened:
There by the steaming
Hot urn he lay;
So they picked him up
With the silverware,
And carried him off
On the breakfast tray.
The next morning I said the poem to David, and he was delighted with it—it was his. And indeed it was; all I had done was to complete what he had begun. What happens in the poem is what happens in the world of the four-year-old—for no reason and with no result—just as it happens at the circus, which is the child's dream of action realized. He asked me to repeat it to him several times, and then he turned to other things that interested him, and I went back to working on what seemed more serious poems. A night or two later, when we were entertaining friends, someone told a story and everyone burst out laughing. David, who had come out of his room, poked his head from behind one of the large armchairs and said, "It's laughing time!" and everybody naturally laughed all the harder. The next day I thought again about the jack-in-the-box and about laughing time. When one is four, there is a time for everything: a time for eating, a time for playing, a time for sleeping; why shouldn't there be a time for laughing as well? And so I began at once, in a kind of frenzy, to write the poems which have subsequently appeared in Laughing Time. It seemed rather as if the poems wrote themselves—they flowed out as I listened and watched. When I held David up to the mirror, I said:
I look in the mirror, and what do I see?
A little of you, and a lot of me!
And again he took these to be his lines, and they were. For the next few weeks I listened to my son and watched his every movement. I had, of course, watched and listened before, but now I was like a painter with his model: there was no line, no bone structure, no shadow that I did not wish to explore. I wanted to get inside him, to see things as he was seeing them—and as I could remember having seen them once myself; I wanted to give back to him the delight that he had given me, and in such a way that he would not even realize he was being given anything. And so I worked on as if all my life and training as a writer had been meant only for this moment.
When I finished the manuscript a few weeks later I took it to my agent who handled the prose that I had been writing but who did not ordinarily deal with poetry. I thought that he might in this case make an exception, but he returned the manuscript with a note saying that he could remember nothing of his early childhood and hence had no way of knowing whether this was good or bad; he suggested that I get in touch with an agent who dealt with children's literature. This I did, and her response was very discouraging indeed. She herself thought that the book was delightful, but she said that even if it were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, or A. A. Milne, she would still be unable to place it for there was just no market whatever for children's verse. (Fortunately the situation today has improved somewhat but at the time very little poetry for children was being published.) I decided to try the poems with magazine editors, and here I began to have some success. Ladies' Home Journal took one and the editor expressed regret that there was not space for more; Harper's Bazaar accepted another. I sent the entire collection to the Atlantic Monthly and heard nothing for months. Finally Seymour Lawrence, then the assistant editor, wrote and asked me to be patient: the Atlantic Monthly Press was considering it for book publication. There it was at last accepted and appeared in 1955. I was told later that although the poems had been tried out in several schools and had met with considerable success, the editors were still reluctant to risk publication. Then apparently the treasurer of Little, Brown, which controlled the Atlantic Monthly Press, an old bachelor who was never concerned with children's books, read it with great enthusiasm and gave the go-ahead signal.
I am happy to say that now after forty years, the book, combined with several other subsequent publications under the title Laughing Time: Collected Non-sense, is still in print. One of the most popular poems in the books has been
A silver-scaled Dragon with jaws flaming red
Sits at my elbow and toasts my bread.
I hand him fat slices, and then, one by one,
He hands them back when he sees they are done.
This poem over the years has had a great variety of fascinating illustrations when it has appeared in anthologies and textbooks, but my favorite of them all is one sent to me by a young boy who copied out the poem and beside it drew a fierce yellow dragon standing with flame pouring from his jaws while he holds in one claw a real piece of toast, which the young boy had carefully pasted in place. I framed his illustration and it hangs above my desk.
I was born in Winnfield, a town in north central Louisiana, which my father's family helped to found. At the age of three, I left it to accompany my father and mother to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis. It was there on the edge of the Mississippi, as the son of a corporal in the Sixth Infantry, that I grew up. Because my father was a clarinetist in the band, he was not transferred regularly, and so, unlike other children who grew up in the army, I do not have a patchwork of memories of various posts scattered across the country and around the world, but a single vision of the twenty years spent in and around a particular one. Jefferson Barracks, on bluffs overlooking the river, was then a post of major importance. Founded in 1826, it became the Army's first permanent base west of the Mississippi. The woods on the reservation were a child's paradise; we knew every inch of these acres: here we followed the fern-lined muddy streams to our swimming holes, fished for crawfish with strips of bacon fat, and on the banks built our tree houses and lean-tos of sassafras in air blue with bluebells and heavy with the perfume of sweet William. On the edge of sinkholes and limestone caverns we gathered bittersweet, hazel-nuts, and persimmons in the fall and made our way to the Old Rock Spring (later called Sylvan Springs) to spend hours lying and drinking the clear water, watching the waterbugs dart across the surface of the sandy pool. No one had told us that this was where Jefferson Barracks had actually begun when Captain Stephen Watts Kearny had set up his camp and built the first log houses in 1826. It was the discovery of this spring that assured him that there would be an adequate water supply for a military post. No doubt even before Captain Kearny the Indians had found this a treasured, and even a sacred, place. In finding our way to it, we were turning instinctively to the most ancient part of the reservation.
We were quartered beside the woods in old cantonment buildings that had served as barracks during World War I. They had once been neat and symmetrical, but now appeared worn away as if their white paint had been attacked by blight; along the buildings was a strange assortment of screened-in porches, all somewhat askew, many enclosed in morning-glory vines in the summer. In their asymmetry and with the thick growth of summer vegetation, they resembled barges blown there in a hurricane, abandoned and overgrown. I never thought of these quarters as being ugly and dilapidated, as they certainly were, because as children we spent so much of our time in the woods. And then we had canvas-covered World War I Liberty trucks that took us to and from school in South St. Louis. It seemed in every way a perfect life, and it would have been but for the problems that my father created for himself and for his family.
In the 1920s and 1930s gambling was a way of life on Army posts and my father was a compulsive gambler. Every monthly payday he would join his fellow soldiers in poker games; sometimes he would bring home hundreds of dollars but more often he would return home without a cent. To make ends meet my mother began sewing for the officers' wives. The two sounds that haunted my boyhood were those of my father's clarinet as he practiced and the hum of my mother's sewing machine as she fashioned beautiful dresses. In spite of the monthly anxiety, all went well until shortly before I entered high school, when we were notified that the old buildings we occupied were to be torn down and that we would have to move off the post. When we moved to a building right next to the north gate, my father proposed that we enter what he called the "Bootleg Business." His idea was to make some home brew and invite his fellow Bandsmen to share it with him and thus make a small profit that would take care of our increased rent and give us an easy and comfortable place to live in. My mother was not exactly enchanted by the plan, especially since she did not drink herself, but she was quite aware that during Prohibition there were bootleg joints all over St. Louis County and that most of them were frequented by my father, who was a heavy drinker as well as a gambler. So my father began making home brew and my brother and I were given the job of bottling it. For the big gatherings that took place on paydays and weekends my mother cooked huge meals—baked ham, fried chicken, and turkey, with cornbread and her own hot rolls. It became clear very soon that home brew and food were not bringing in much money, especially since my father extended credit to most of his customers. My father then decided to deal in hard liquor. He poured a five gallon can of pure alcohol into an oak barrel that rested in a frame on the shelf of the closet in the middle room upstairs, which was the bedroom that my brother and I shared. My father would cut the alcohol in half, adding five gallons of water to five gallons of alcohol. The charcoal-lined interior of the oak barrel would color the alcohol in due time and then the whiskey, put into pint and half-pint bottles, would be ready for sale.
I began to think of the entire business as not only extremely distasteful but also dangerously unlawful. Now that we sold hard liquor as well as home brew, a steady stream of men would dart in and out, especially on payday, just to pick up a bottle—right under the nose of the guard at the gate. Our house was so close to the gate that from the windows of the front bedroom I could gaze down through the branches of the oak tree in our front yard right onto the gate. Whenever a car drew up and parked in front of the house or across the street for any length of time, I would hold my breath: this was surely a private detective who was waiting for the police to arrive to arrest us.
My anxiety about the "Bootleg Business" was made all the greater by a tragic experience I had had not long before we moved off the post. On a hot July afternoon when I was ten, I stole off with two of my playmates, Evelyn and Nancy Langley, aged eight and nine, to smoke cigarettes in a cornfield on the edge of the woods. On a warm day no place was more inviting than a cornfield, its cool rows unfolding like the pleats of a fan and leading to secret passages and rooms. The edges of the corn had already begun to turn brown in the heat, and I was aware, after some experience with campfires in the woods, that it was not the safest place to be lighting a match. When we had found an open area around the corn, I cleared away a circle as if for a fire, and around it we sat like Indians for a council meeting. I explained to my companions that we should put out our matches and cigarettes in the cleared patch and not toss them near the cornstalks. And so we solemnly lit a cigarette and passed it around, the smoke making us dizzy and sick with the first puff, but no one daring to admit it. When the cigarette came to Evelyn Langley, she put it to her lips, let some ash fall on her dress, and the material, as light and flimsy as cornsilk, immediately caught fire. She screamed, leapt to her feet and ran as fast as she could, the flame flying behind her like a cape. We were right at her heels. When she emerged from the field, our next-door neighbor Mrs. O'Hara, who had heard her scream, rushed forward, an Army blanket flying behind her, like a grotesque attendant at the birth of some corn goddess. She swept the screaming girl up in her blanket, a crowd gathered within minutes in the wail of the ambulance, and I was sobbing by the roadside.
Over the next few months while Evelyn was in the hospital undergoing skin grafts, I noticed a complete change in the attitude of everyone on the post toward me. While previously I had been popular and welcome wherever I went, I was now shunned and avoided. What had happened, I discovered later, was that a few days after the accident an article had appeared on the front page of the St. Louis Star-Times which was totally false; the only thing that the reporter had managed to get right was my name. He said that I had found a match and struck it behind Evelyn's back with the intention of scaring her. My parents had hidden the article from me and I had discovered it much later when looking for something in one of my mother's dresser drawers. Evelyn recovered completely, but the lie had been prominently printed and believed, and nothing could be done about it. I had learned something about the power of the written word.
My anxiety at the time was soon alleviated by the appearance in my life of Mrs. Nettie Bradbury, the widow of a doctor at the local Veterans Hospital, who had studied at the University of Chicago, and who came to enroll students at Jefferson Barracks in classes in expression and dramatics. I became Mrs. Bradbury's star pupil and she set out with determination to train my voice and prepare me for a career in the theatre. For dramatic exercises she introduced me to great poetry, to which I took an immediate liking. Soon, in the upstairs room where whiskey was being readied in the oak barrel in my closet, I stood for hours reciting passages from Shakespeare which she had carefully marked to indicate the inflections of the voice, the pauses, and the stresses:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor!
(Twelfth Night, I.i.1)
I was soon drunk not on the alcoholic vapors that I was breathing in but on poetry. I had fallen in love totally, blissfully, and eternally with language. And before long I was writing poems of my own that I recited with equal fervor. At Mrs. Bradbury's request, I memorized a tract on the evils of alcohol and delivered it so forcefully in a citywide contest that it won for me the Women's Christian Temperance Union's silver medal for oratory. My victory, of which my father was totally unaware, did nothing to curtail his heavy drinking, which continued unabated and kept him a corporal right up to his retirement after twenty-seven years of Army service. The last three years he spent at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where he was when the Japanese attacked and where I joined him when I reported for active duty at Pearl Harbor in June 1942 as an ensign in the Naval Reserve.
The end of Prohibition brought an end to our bootlegging about the time that I completed high school and entered Washington University in St. Louis on a scholarship established by Gerard Swope, President of General Electric. General Walter Short, the commanding officer at Jefferson Barracks who was later in charge in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked, had written a letter of recommendation that had impressed the selection committee.
Jefferson Barracks was deactivated not long after World War II and the northern section of it is now a park administered by St. Louis County, which has established a museum in one of the old ordnance depots overlooking the river. On a visit there recently, I found the house, the center of our "Bootleg Business," still inhabited but covered with huge panels of fire-engine-red aluminum siding. The trees around it had been cut down and the back yard leveled; the grape arbor, the shrubs, the flowers had all disappeared. The white limestone gates to Jefferson Barracks with their black cannon balls, without the guardhouse or any buildings beside them, looked like the abandoned section of a stage set, especially now that Broadway is no longer a thoroughfare and little traffic comes this way. I stood for a while next to the gates gazing at the house and marveled how it was that within its bleak walls, under the most un-promising circumstances, I had discovered poetry and the power of language and how it was that here, more than sixty years ago, my career as a writer had really begun.
At the time of my anxiety about our bootlegging, I began to have a special concern, exaggerated no doubt by Mrs. Bradbury's thrusting me constantly before the public, about my appearance. I realized that I had only the faintest of eyebrows and that my eyelids folded up rather than back over my eyeballs as they did for everyone else. My eyes, I became convinced, gave me the Oriental look that prompted some of the toughs on the school playground to call me "Chink" or "China-boy." The normal pimply face of the adolescent is hard enough to cope with, but I found that I not only had pimples but virtually no beard. Bits of fuzz grew only on my chin and my upper lip, with no sign that my beard would ever grow on the sides of my face. There was no one to turn to for help because I was not even sure what kind of help I needed: I became more and more withdrawn and found true friends only in books. It was in books also that I found what I felt was the answer to my problem. I read that American Indians of all tribes had very light beards and hairless bodies. What hair grew on their faces they extracted with clam shells. I thought of the only real Indians that I had seen—Big Ike and Little Ike, both of whom served with my father in the Barracks Band and came frequently to our house. They both had light beards, and although their complexions were darker than mine, still I looked more like them than like the other people around me. I decided that I was an Indian.
Throughout my boyhood I had identified with the Indians, not the Plains Indians of the films, who very early on seemed to me absolutely phony, but the Indians of the woods and of the settled villages who greeted the early explorers; not the Indians of the wild war whoops and the tomahawks, but the Indians of the stealthy movement through the forest. I had discovered their arrowheads in the caves on the post, and I identified with them on my walks through the woods when I constructed my lean-tos of sassafras beside the muddy creeks, or when I moved on the balls of my feet over the underbrush, listening carefully for the slightest sound, the darting movement of a snake or the sudden thundering of a covey of quail:
Like brightness buried by one's sullen mood
The quail lie hidden in the threadbare wood.
A voice, a step, a swift sun-thrust of feather
And earth and air once more come properly together.
Early on, Jefferson Barracks had become the focal point for forays against the Indians. Lt. Jefferson Davis had escorted Black Hawk, the famous Sac (Sauk) and Fox Chief, together with his son Naopope (the Prophet), to Jefferson Barracks after his defeat and capture in 1832 near Bad Axe River. Black Hawk praised the courtesy shown them by Davis, whom he described as "a good and young chief in whose conduct I am much pleased." When George Catlin came to the Barracks to paint portraits of Black Hawk and his son, Naopope raised his ball and chains above his head and exclaimed, "Paint me thus and show 'the Great Father.'" When Catlin painted Black Hawk, he was dressed, in Catlin's words, "in a plain suit of buckskin, with strings of wampum in his ears and on his neck." In his hand he held his medicine bag "which was the skin of a black hawk, from which he had taken his name, and the tail of which made him a fan, which he was almost constantly using." The limestone ordnance depot where Black Hawk had been imprisoned was near our house at the Barracks north gate and I visited it often.
About this time my cousin Clara Louise came to live with us for a year. She looked exactly like my Aunt Lucinda; although not quite so plump, she had the same high cheekbones, black eyes, and straight black hair. I became convinced that it was in them, and in my mother's brother who had similar features, as it was in me, that the traits of our Indian ancestors, whoever they may have been, showed themselves.
It was not until much later that I discovered that we did indeed have Choctaw blood. My cousin William Carroll Tabor, a member of the House of Representatives in the First Oklahoma legislature of 1903, put in a claim to the Dawes Commission stating that his great-grandmother Rebecca Tubbs Williams was the daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee, the head of the Choctaw nation at the time of the removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma. That claim was denied but it was always understood in my mother's family that her grandmother Catherine Williams, about whom she had often spoken to me, was definitely a Mississippi Choctaw.
I have been asked what influence, if any, this modest measure of Choctaw blood may have had on my work. I like to think that the still center from which I believe my poetry springs has much in common with the reverential attitude of the Native American towards the elements, the sensory and spiritual connection between earth and sky that makes for that magical instinctive balance that permits the Mohawk to walk with perfect equilibrium on the edges of skyscrapers at great heights. And I would like to think that the visual element in my work may owe something to my Choctaw heritage. When I started to do my typewriter poems—concrete poems composed on the typewriter—someone pointed out that these typewritten patterns and inscriptions resembled the petroglyphs that Native Americans left on the stone walls of caverns throughout the country as a record of the world with which they were in close touch and to which they paid constant tribute.
Whatever heritage it may have brought me, the discovery at the time gave me new strength to face the limited—and limiting—aspects of military life: I found it reassuring that while I had been brought up on an Army garrison founded as an outpost in the Indian Wars, I had forebears on the outside and in the enemy's camp.
Washington University opened up a whole new world to which I responded with great enthusiasm. Because my work in French was quite advanced, I was immediately placed in an upper class taught in French by Professor Albert Salvan. As an assignment early in the semester we were given a list of topics suggested by Alain-Fournier's novel Le Grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer), which we were reading and which I thoroughly enjoyed. The topic I chose to write about was "Silence." I thought about it for a while without putting a word down on paper, and then just as I was about to start writing, some friends came by and lured me off to the picture show at Jefferson Barracks. We walked to and from the Post Theater over the road from the North Gate where the streetcar track once ran. I can't remember which film we saw, but all its bright images behind us, we plunged on our return into the woods and were soon surrounded by the mysterious night sounds to which over the years I had become accustomed. The darkness around us seemed unending and the stars above us appeared as close as they must have to those early explorers who made their way down the Mississippi. I thought of the words of Pascal that I had read somewhere: "The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me."
It was late when we got home, but still under the spell of the vast silence of the night through which I had walked, I quickly put down my thoughts on "Silence." When the papers were returned a few days later, I noticed that mine was not among those that Professor Salvan distributed. The next moment I realized that he was holding it in his hand and reading it to the class. At the end of his reading he pronounced my composition of great merit and worthy of a talented French writer, all the more extraordinary to have come from a young American student. His reception took my breath away: I had always dreamt of being a writer, but to have my writing in another language meet with such approval was unexpected and overwhelming. He took my essay to Professor Harcourt Brown, who had just come to Washington University as head of the French department and Professor Brown soon called me to his office. He gave me permission to take other advanced courses and persuaded me then and there to major in French, a decision that I never regretted because doing so gave me a background that I would never have had if I had majored in English.
In one of the advanced courses in which I enrolled I made the acquaintance of Clark Mills McBurney, a graduate student in French who had published poems in national magazines. At the same time I met Thomas Lanier Williams, who, after some years at the University of Missouri and a job at the International Shoe Company in St. Louis where his father was a sales manager, had come to Washington University as a special student. Tom Williams, who later became the playwright Tennessee Williams, was writing poetry as well as plays and had won several local prizes. He and Clark and I organized a chapter of the College Poetry Society and began to publish poems in College Verse, the national magazine published by the Society. The three of us met regularly at Tom's house near the university to discuss our poems and we learned a great deal from these discussions, during which we were extremely severe with one another. Tom was the shyest, quietest person I had ever met. His stony-faced silence often put people off: he appeared disdainful of what was going on around him, never joining in the quick give-and-take of a conversation but rather listening carefully and taking it all in. He would sit quietly in a gathering for long periods of time until suddenly, like a volcano erupting, he would burst out with a high cackle and then with resounding and uncontrollable laughter. Those who knew him well found this trait delightful but to others it seemed rude and disconcerting. He was certainly quick and ready with words when we discussed our poetry.
For both Tom and me, Clark, who had already published widely as Clark Mills and was familiar with the work of Eliot, Auden, Spender and other modern poets, was an inspiring mentor. When I was away on a job in Michigan the following summer, Clark and Tom organized what they called the Literary Factory in Clark's basement and they both worked regularly there on poetry and plays. The Mummers, a St. Louis theatrical group, produced one of Tom's plays, Candles to the Sun, in 1937, but he continued to write poetry. The following year when Clark was in Paris on a fellowship, he and I formed what we called the St. Louis Poets Workshop, and continued to send our poems out to national magazines, undisturbed by the frequent rejection slips that we received.
Tom went off to complete his degree at the University of Iowa and during the summer of my junior year, with money saved from odd jobs, I went off to France to study for three months at the Institut de Touraine in Tours. This brief exposure to the best French as well as to the company of students from all over Europe had a profound effect on me. I found my intellectual background sadly inferior to that of my European colleagues and I returned with a determination to make up for it. I continued advanced courses in French and took as well courses in English, Italian, and Spanish literature. I stayed on at the university, teaching courses in first and second year French while working for my master's. Just after receiving it, I enlisted in the Naval Reserve. In January 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I spent four months at Northwestern University in Chicago in the V-7 Naval Officers Training program. In June when I received my commission as an ensign, I had two poems accepted by Poetry magazine, the office of which was around the corner from Abbot Hall, where I had undergone my naval training. I was invited by George Dillon, the editor, to read my poems at a gathering at the magazine office and I kept in touch with the magazine, which continued to publish my work during my four years of active duty.
I reported first at Pearl Harbor and then a few months later was transferred to Palmyra Island, a thousand miles southwest of Honolulu. There I spent ten months as personnel officer of the airbase and could have stayed even longer had I not been reminded by a yeoman who worked with me that Naval officers were requested to report their language ability each year to Washington. This I did and some months later received orders transferring me to Casablanca in North Africa, where I arrived shortly after the American landings in 1943. In January 1944 I replaced a British liaison officer on board the aviso colonial La Grandière. The ship had been built as a patrol vessel or gunboat for use in the French colonies. Three hundred fifty feet in length, it had five-inch guns and was quite elegantly fitted out. The French Admiralty requested that this ship be sent to join the American fleet in the South Pacific, and so, with a liaison party, a radioman and two signal-men, who were French-speaking New Englanders, to help me to decode messages, I was the first American naval officer to be placed on a French ship, and it became my home for the next year and a half.
When I first went on board, the officers who had fought against us Americans at Casablanca and were admirers of Admiral Darlan and General Pétain were not very pleased to have me join them. They treated me very coldly—properly, but coldly. This, of course, was easy enough to do because when they resorted to using French Navy slang, I couldn't understand a word they said. I was fluent in French but the slang was incomprehensible, as it would have been to any ordinary Frenchman. As time went by I was not only accepted but was warmly received by officers and crew, as were the men in my liaison party.
We crossed the north Atlantic in January in terrible weather at a very dangerous time. It took us twenty-one days. We were one of the transports of a convoy of some thirty ships, and because we had little speed we were towards the back. When we were several days out and I had just crawled into my bunk at dawn, one of the French sailors rushed into my cabin to tell me with great urgency that the captain wanted me at once on the bridge. I pulled on my pants as I struggled as quickly as possible up through the dark. Once on the bridge, I was handed by the captain a message that had just been flashed from one of the cargo vessels in the convoy. It read: MATE, ARE YOU A NEW KIND OF SHIP OR WHAT? The captain wanted to know what he should reply and was unhappy when I told him to ignore this silly inquiry, which was in dangerous violation of the rules of the convoy, especially coming as it did at dawn. The captain could simply not understand how any message could go unanswered and called me a total incompetent in no uncertain terms. But when later that morning the signalmaster of the ship sent an apology, the captain decided that I wasn't quite as stupid as I had seemed.
After being refitted in Norfolk, we made our way through the Panama Canal and stopped first at the Marquesas Islands, where no French ship had been for a very long time. I was able to spend one day on the island of Nuku Hiva and to travel by horseback up the mountain over the ruins of ancient Polynesian temples and to gaze out on the valley that Herman Melville describes in Typee. Another day on the island of Hiva Oa, where Gauguin spent his last years, I visited his grave and met several of his Polynesian descendants. The La Grandière then sailed on to Tahiti, to Nouméa in New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). For some months we were the station ship at Espiritu Santo and made a tour of the other islands in the group, then on to Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Manus, and Funafuti, usually escorting cargo ships along the way.
Duty on La Grandière was far from perilous: on a number of occasions we pursued what proved to be nonexistent Japanese submarines but we never saw any real action. All the same, I had two very narrow escapes: the difference, in one instance, of a few hours, in the other, of a few seconds, and I would not be here to tell my story. We had been tied up for several days next to an ammunition ship at Guadalcanal when suddenly and unexpectedly we received orders in the middle of the night to depart to escort a cargo ship. We sailed at dawn and a few hours later the ammunition ship blew up, and with it, the entire dock. Another time, in Espiritu Santo, the officers of an American training submarine, whom I had met ashore, invited me to accompany them on one of their regular runs. I was standing with the captain in the conning tower of the submarine when he spotted a plane from an incoming American carrier headed down on us. Within seconds he had the submarine, which the pilot had mistaken for a Japanese one, deep underwater. Although it shook like a battered cocktail shaker from the impact of the bombs, it managed to struggle back to port. This was my first, and only, venture on a submarine.
My shipboard duty left me much free time, which I devoted to writing and translating. I sent out poems from various ports of call, and a number were accepted by the New Republic, Poetry, and by Oscar Williams for his anthology The War Poets; I also translated some of the poems of Louis Aragon. I left the ship in Panama in 1945 when it returned to France, and I decided to take advantage of my experience with the French as opening up the possibility for further language study. I volunteered for duty at the Navy Language School in Boulder, Colorado, where I ended my Naval career with intensive study of Russian, which was to serve me much later as a translator of Russian poetry on my many visits to Russia.
In the year 1947 everything that I had been working toward for some time seemed to come together. I had spent a year at Columbia University as a graduate student in English and comparative literature while at the same time teaching classes in beginning and intermediate English and French. I had applied for a Rhodes scholarship from Missouri. The age limit for applicants for the scholarships had been extended so that veterans might apply. In the spring I went out for interviews in St. Louis and in Iowa and I was one of those chosen to enter Oxford in the fall. At the same time my friends Claude Fredericks and Milton Saul, who had founded the Banyan Press in New York, came to ask if I had a book of poems ready for publication. I quickly put together what I thought were my best twenty-one poems and just as they were completing the printing of the book, which I had called simply Poems, a letter was forwarded to me by the editors of the little magazine Furioso, which had printed a poem of mine entitled "Cupidon." The letter from poet Marianne Moore stated that she considered this poem "a permanence, a rare felicity." Marianne Moore gave us permission to quote her and although the book had no dust jacket a special band with her statement was made to wrap around each copy. The result was that she really launched my poetic career: her recommendation meant that the book was reviewed by the New York Times and other important newspapers and magazines, which was very unusual for a first book by an unknown poet published by a new and unknown press. Then just three days before leaving for Oxford I married the poet Barbara Howes. We had met in New York when she accepted a poem of mine for Chimera, the literary quarterly that she edited. The rules for Rhodes scholars had been changed, and for the first time, because of the dislocation of the war years, members of our class were allowed to be married. I arrived in Oxford as a married man and a published poet. Stephen Spender, whom I had met on his first trip to New York, had accepted a poem of mine for publication in Horizon, which he edited in London with Cyril Connolly. We had introductions to some of the leading poets, among them the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who was then living near Oxford. We used to see him and his wife Caitlin regularly along with other Oxford friends such as Enid Starkie, a lecturer in French, the historian A. L. Rowse, and Lord David Cecil. Living in Oxford at the time was not easy; food was still rationed and heating was difficult. But I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet such talented writers and scholars.
I went on writing poetry, but rather than stay on at Oxford to complete my doctorate, we left at the end of the year to take up residence in Florence, where we had gone to visit friends. Florence at the time was like Paris after World War I: it attracted a great number of American artists and writers. Living was inexpensive and we were able to rent a villa on the outskirts of the city while I studied Italian language and literature at the university. We stayed for two years and our elder son David was born there. We returned to America to settle in Pownal, Vermont, in a farmhouse that Barbara, who had attended Bennington College nearby, had purchased before our marriage. I then began teaching part-time at Williams College, just over the border in Massachusetts. But Italy drew us back again and we spent a second two-year period in Florence from 1955 to 1957. On this second visit I accompanied my son David to the zoo in Rome, and it was there that I started to write the poems that eventually made up Boy Blue's Book of Beasts. In Florence we got to know the art critic Bernard Berenson and went often to see him at the villa I Tatti; we also visited the writer Harold Acton, at La Pietra. Among the well-known American writers who came through Florence while we were there was Eudora Welty, who became a lifelong friend.
Pownal, Vermont, is a town of some 1,500 people, and the farmhouse we occupied looked out on one of Vermont's most beautiful valleys. I grew to love the countryside and the quiet was ideal for my writing and translating. In the late 1950s several of the townspeople came to ask me if I would agree to run for the office of selectman since I taught only one or two days at Williams and had much free time. I was flattered that the people thought well enough of me to ask me to help manage the town. I agreed to run, and since I felt that I needed to know the townspeople better I got in our four-wheel-drive jeep and made the rounds of the houses on the backcountry roads. I lost the election by forty votes, and right afterwards the same townspeople came to me to say that the result had been unusually good for someone who was little known in town and now they asked if I would be willing to run for town representative. That position would require only a few days residence in Montpelier, and the legislative session lasted usually only a few months. I agreed to run and was nominated by both the Democratic and Republican parties. But a complication arose when I was asked my views on pari-mutuel betting. A referendum on this issue had been placed on the ballot and if the vote carried, Pownal was due to have the first racetrack in the state. Once I examined the issue, I had to come out and say that I thought a racetrack, while it might bring temporary tax relief, would in the end be a disaster for our beautiful valley. When I made my views public, the nature of the election changed completely. I discovered that the backers of the track who came from cities like Providence, Rhode Island, were incensed by my opposition. They telephoned—often in the middle of the night—threatening to burn our house down. My wife and I decided to fight back and I again made the rounds of the back roads, calling on people and explaining my views. As a result, although pari-mutuel betting was voted in and Pownal did indeed have the first and only racetrack in Vermont (which after losing money over the years was turned into a dog track and then finally completely abandoned), I was elected town representative by some forty votes.
The 1961 session of the Vermont legislature turned out to be the longest in the state's history because the question of its reapportionment had come before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Vermont House of Representatives was cited as one instance where eleven percent of the population could control the vote—a far cry from the democratic ideal of one man, one vote. When the Supreme Court ruled against Vermont, our legislature was called back into session to begin reapportioning itself.
My experience in the Vermont House of Representatives was time-consuming but fascinating and I ended up writing an account of it that appeared in Harper's. As a Democratic member, I joined a group of eleven Young Turks, as we were called, of both parties who set out to work for what we considered sound legislation, particularly to protect the environment. We also set out to change the Republican status quo and to help elect my seatmate Philip Hoff of Burlington as the first Democratic governor in 109 years. During our long session, we had many important matters to consider but on one bill we were all united: this was to make the Morgan horse the official state animal. Various other animals had first been proposed—the porcupine, the goat, the catamount, the cow. (The cow was always prominent in Vermont and milk is recognized as the official state beverage; for many years there were more cows than people.) Since I had been elected Official Poet and represented the town that was to have the first racetrack, I was asked to comment on the bill and on this occasion I read:
A Minor Ode to the Morgan Horse
I may not incline
To the porcupine,
And I nay be averse
To what is much worse:
That is rare,
The sheep, from which year after year
you must remove the coat,
That does not amount to that amount,
We, as a human minority, cannot allow;
And although, as one of the Democratic minority, I should, alas,
Far prefer the jackass.
I must—until a state animal can choose its own state—
To vote, of course
For the Morgan horse.
My Ode was taken up by the press and reprinted in newspapers around the country, but somewhere along the line the final two lines got dropped off. I had a note from friends in Colorado inquiring whether or not Vermont politics had begun to affect me mentally since it did seem strange to write an ode to an animal without even an indirect reference to it.
I had much wonderful support during my heated campaign for office but none that pleased me more than that of one of Vermont's most revered citizens, Robert Frost. Although at the time he came regularly to Amherst College, Frost had not been to Williams College in thirty-five years. The Williams lecture committee asked me to invite him, and when I did, to everyone's astonishment, he agreed to come. I told him the morning after his reading that he had drawn the largest audience in the history of the college.
"More than for Mrs. Roosevelt?" he asked.
"More than for Mrs. Roosevelt,"I replied.
At the start of his reading, he led me out on the platform and said, "Vote for this man, he is a good poet."
I didn't tell him that this endorsement, which, of course, I valued highly, would have little effect because few Pownal residents had crossed the border to hear it.
The morning after the reading, he kindly came out to Pownal to visit Barbara Howes and me. When he discovered that Barbara was also a published poet, he frowned and commented that it was dangerous to have two poets under the same roof. I didn't pay attention to his comment at the time since Barbara and I had always admired each other's work, as we still do; but in the end problems did indeed arise and our marriage ended in divorce. One of the unfortunate results of the breakup was that I had to abandon Vermont. But I have returned for frequent reunions with my fellow legislators.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of the events of my life without referring also to the poems that have accompanied, or overshadowed, them. The writing of poetry, as Walter de la Mare pointed out, is the most curious of human activities, and the poet must always be ready for the poem to arrive, whether it wells up from the deepest layers of sense or bubbles out from the upper levels of nonsense.
I used to go hunting mushrooms in Vermont, and gradually I came to know one particular place where morels, those rarest and most delicious of mushrooms, were to be found. It was not far from the house at a bend of the road under large maple trees. They would spring up overnight each year at the same time, at the end of May after a night of rain. I had gathered them for several years when finally one day, having brought them back to the house, I sat down, when they had been cooked and eaten as they had been so many times before, and wrote off in about twenty minutes a poem, "Morels," that I had not consciously planned to write. I knew after it was written, however, that it was one I had lived with for a long time, although it spoke only of the events of that one afternoon and had seemed to spring up as quickly as the morels themselves.
Other poems, sometimes much shorter, have not sprung up so quickly but have taken many years to write; one such is
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.
A poet friend remarked to me once that this was one of my poems that he most admired and that it must have been a delight to write it right off, as I so clearly had done. It was indeed a delight to write it right off—as it now stands—after working on it at odd moments for a period of five years. I cannot recall how many versions I put down during this period, most of them discarded. I knew exactly where I wanted to get to; the problem was getting there, and getting there with directness and élan—and without fuss. I had in mind a Mississippi River guitar tune—absolutely mechanical in its rhythm—an out-and-out child's innocent unadorned view of horror—horror with the resonant twang of strings to it. In its original version, the poem was very much longer. There were a good many little ballad bits, of which this is an example:
I fear the feel of frozen steel,
I fear the scarlet dagger;
But more than these I fear the eel,
I fear the carpetbagger.
I had indeed the vision of the carpetbagger who had gone into the South after the Civil War and made his money in some suspect manner; and with the sunlight and the screen door I wished to suggest the large, open, airy Southern house that I remembered from childhood. The most difficult line for me to get in the poem was the one that now seems the simplest, and it is the turning point:
He hangs in the hall by his black cravat.
Poetry is all in verbs, in verbs and nouns, and it seems to me it is all here in the verb "hangs." I have frequently been asked to discuss this poem with grade-school children, and, although it may appear a macabre choice on the part of the teacher, I have discovered that children respond to it without hesitation. They understand that a child is speaking and that the father has hanged himself for some reason involving money. College students, on the other hand, have often found this piece bewildering; they have lost the down-to-earth metaphorical approach of childhood and cannot follow the simple words to their unexpected conclusion. I think that I scarcely need add that although "American Primitive" is a bitter poem in the tradition of Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory," it is certainly not intended as my sole view of the American scene.
Poems do not always come quickly to mind, nor do they always spring up in the same place or in the same form. I took my younger son Gregory, then ten years old, deep-sea fishing off Long Beach, California. I am a poor fisherman, although I love "messing about in boats." I certainly did not in this particular instance relish the thought of this trip with some sixty-odd tourists on board a ship "eighty-five feet long, twenty-three foot beam, twin diesels, twin stacks painted red, white, and blue." But I knew from the moment we went
Through gray streets, at 10:00 P.M., down
to Pierpont Landing, Long Beach,
where, in the window of a shop offering
every type of fishing gear,
Are displayed fish carved from driftwood by
the natives of Bali, each representing in
true colors and exact dimensions a fish
found on their reefs,
Colors derived from bark and root (each fish,
when completed, is bartered for rice;
no money is involved) …
that somewhere on this trip a poem lay waiting to be written. Perhaps for this reason I began at once, while my son looked around the shop on the pier, to write down in detail the description of the fish in the window. It was not until we got back that I realized that the poem I thought might grow out of this display was really the journey itself and all that had happened on it, all that we had seen and done, from beginning to end. It was not a story really; there was no story to tell: sixty-five people on a regular fishing trip 135 miles off the coast of southern California had caught 125 albacore. My son and I were among them; he had caught one, and I, none. It had all been a bloody business, the albacore coming up half-eaten by sharks, and then, on the way back, we had come close to a pod of whales. But in sorting it all out afterwards I knew that it was a narrative that I had to put down just as I saw it, one whose whole meaning would gradually become clear to me—and I hope to my reader—during the three years that it took me to record "Fishing for Albacore."
Poetry for me should be continually expanding within its frame. Humor is itself a form of expansion; laughter, as Max Beerbohm said, is "but a joyous surrender." I have been drawn to light verse because of a firm belief that humor is one of America's greatest and most enduring characteristics. Children's poetry, with its wide use of stanza forms and the range of its nonsense, has been for me a liberating influence, giving me a chance to explore in a light vein themes that I have developed and expanded in adult work.
There is, I am told, a Poets' Competition in Barcelona. After the poems have been read aloud, the judges award the prizes in a most unusual fashion. The author of the third best poem receives a rose made of silver, the author of the second best, a rose made of gold, and the author of the best—the most enduring and most original—a real rose. One might think of these awards as a metaphor for the making of poems. What is given the poet—that phrase, that image, that scrap that circles around for months in his head, that God-given inspiration—is of silver. The second stage, that of composition and revision, when the poet must work constantly over every syllable, never at the same time losing sight of the whole, and when anything earned seems more precious than anything received—that stage is of gold. The third and final stage when the poem is released and belongs to the reader and to the world, if the poet has succeeded and has been true to his vision, that final stage is the natural one, when the finished work may take its place; organically whole, beside the great work of Life itself.
On September 3, 1966, in Paris I married Sonja Haussmann, whom I had met the previous Christmas when she had come to Wesleyan University to visit friends of hers and mine. Of an old Strasbourg family, she is an experienced translator from German and English and has translated into French a selection of my poems in a volume titled L'Arbre du voyageur. We later collaborated on a translation of the novel The Madman and the Medusa by the Congolese novelist Tchicaya U Tam'Si. We spent a year at Williams College, where I was Poet in Residence, and then the following year went to Hollins College, Virginia, where I had previously been Writer in Residence and where I accepted a permanent post as Professor of English. But no sooner had we arrived in Virginia than I was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in Washington, a post now called Poet Laureate, and which I occupied from 1968 to 1970. I returned after that time to Hollins College, where I remained until my retirement from teaching in 1980—with two years away in the mid-1970s when I served as Chairman of the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University in New York.
Because of my interest in poetry for children, Virginia Haviland, head of the Children's Book Section of the Library of Congress, and I collaborated on a bibliography of poetry for children. In the fall of 1969 I organized a Children's Poetry Festival to which I invited the Irish poet Padraic Colum, William Cole, the anthologist, and Louise Bogan, the poetry critic of the New Yorker, with whom I had compiled the anthology The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People. "We had a packed audience," Louise Bogan wrote later to a friend, "with P. Colum pulling long poems out of his eighty-nine-year-old memory. Fantastic!" Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts I made a program of my children's poetry with television station WETA in Washington, which took its title from one of my recently published children's books, Mr. Smith and Other Nonsense. The film, illustrated with drawings especially executed, had its first showing on Christmas Day, 1969, and a few months later won a National Educational Television Award.
During my two years in Washington, I traveled more widely than any of the previous Consultants. In May 1969 I left with Sonja for a six-week lecture-and-reading tour of Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia under the American Specialists Program. I met more poets on this trip it seemed at times than there are images of the Lord Buddha, and each one of them presented me with a volume of his works. In turn, I handed out mimeographed copies of the poems I read, some of my own, some by representative poets who had come into prominence since 1945, poets such as Roethke, Wilbur, and Bishop, poems in which I felt the language would not be too difficult to follow. One of the high points of the tour was meeting in Tokyo Yukio Mishima, who invited us to a performance of his play Madame de Sade and to dinner afterwards. Another memorable occasion, when we had a few days off the tour, was a visit to the famous temple of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, which is surely one of the world's great monuments.
A year later I went alone on a much longer trip, the first of many to Eastern Europe. I was the first American writer in three years to be sent to the Soviet Union and the first one ever to visit the Academic City in Novosibirsk, Siberia, where I read and lectured at the Institute of Nuclear Physics and at an American educational exhibit that had been mounted there. I had already met the poet Andrei Voznesensky in the United States and had begun translating his poetry. I was happy to see him again on his home ground at Peredelkino on the outskirts of Moscow, where I also met the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. On this first visit to Moscow I also met the well-known children's poet Boris Zakhoder, the translator of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh. Zakhoder is a witty roly-poly character like one right out of Alice and I spent many hours with him and his charming wife in their dacha in Kamarovka, near Moscow. He immediately began to translate my children's poems, which he had handsomely illustrated and published in editions of hundreds of thousands of copies. He also arranged for me to read my poems with him on the radio and television so that I found when I returned to the Soviet Union years later that my work was widely known. My name looks strange in Cyrillic script: CMUT, but Zakhoder arranged for it to appear far and wide.
My wife and I returned several times to the Soviet Union as guests of the Writers Union, which arranged for us to travel to Kiev and Georgia. I went as a Fulbright lecturer at Moscow State University for four months in January 1981. There was so little color in the world around us during this Russian winter that, gazing from the windows of our university rooms high in the Lenin Hills toward the distant gray outlines of the city, I sometimes wondered if I had become color-blind or was seeing the world suddenly as dogs apparently see it: in black and white. Black iron railings everywhere stood out sharply against the mounds of snow; the fir trees in the park around the university rose like so many dark-coated sentinels along the way, their branches snow-tipped arms extended to block the path. There were only two or three heavy snowfalls and it was often warm enough for the snow to start to melt. The resultant slush would then freeze into brownish-gray fringes along the snow drifts lining the black streets. The water from the snow that had melted on the walks before the subway became treacherous glare ice, its black surface resembling an old mirror that sparkled but gave back no image. The paths across vacant lots were so many strands of black thread winding crookedly through a dirty white tufted fabric.
In spite of the bleak landscape, this was an incredibly rewarding and fascinating visit. We were there at the height of the Afghan War and all cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States had ceased. But since I was already known to many writers in the Writers Union, regular readings were arranged for me and thousands of people of all ages came to hear me. To understand the reception I had at this time, one must realize the important position that a poet occupies in Russian society. He or she is revered in a way that is extraordinary. Poetry is popular with vast segments of the population and was especially so during the Communist regime, when poets were able to say things couched metaphorically that prose writers would never have been able to get away with. I was treated everywhere like a rock star. If I told a taxi driver that I was a poet from America, he would take me all over Moscow free of charge. I gave a lecture every Wednesday at the School of Journalism in downtown Moscow not far from Red Square. At first my students were a select few from the advanced students of English at the university, but gradually word of my lectures made the rounds of other institutes and some of the most interesting students appeared from their faculties. I spoke each week about an American poet who had come into prominence since World War II. At the American Embassy I copied out poems which were avidly read, studied, and passed around.
Each week after my lecture Sonja and I would leave to visit another part of the Soviet Union. One of the most interesting trips was to Siberia. In Irkutsk I spoke at a television station to a large gathering of students and there was a long question period afterwards. We visited Lake Baikal, the deepest lake on earth and one of the wonders of the world, and then went on to Novosibirsk, where I was welcomed back by students and professors familiar with my work and also that of other American poets. Apparently my poems are still popular in Novosibirsk because just last year Kathryn Crosby (Mrs. Bing Crosby), who had been there playing in Chekhov's The Sea Gull, told me, on her return, that a musical based on my children's poems was playing to packed houses at the Red Torch Theatre there. She kindly brought me a cassette of some of the songs. It was wonderful to feel that I had given pleasure to people so far away and in a most inhospitable place. On our return to Moscow, I gave other readings with poets Voznesensky, Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, Ionna Morits, all of whom translated poems of mine that were collected in a volume edited by Andrei Voznesensky and entitled What Train Will Come? My last visit to Moscow was in 1990 when I joined some seventy-five other writers from all over the world whom Voznesensky had arranged to invite to celebrate the centenary of his mentor Boris Pasternak.
In 1970 when I left the Soviet Union I continued on to visit Poland, Romania, and finally Hungary. In the latter I made connections with some Hungarian poets that would last for many years. In Budapest Dr. Lászlo Kery, Secretary of the Hungarian PEN Club, and Miklós Vajda, editor of The New Hungarian Quarterly, asked me if I would be willing to return with my wife, all expenses paid, to assist in the translation of Hungarian poetry. I protested that I knew no Hungarian and that I was too busy to study it. They said that that didn't matter. For far too long, they said, Hungarian poetry, which is the country's major literary genre, had been translated into English by people who knew both languages but who were not poets. Now they wanted to enlist the help of British and American poets, even though they knew no Hungarian, so that the resulting translations would be poetry. I knew instinctively that they were right. The translation of poetry is fundamentally impossible. Poetry must be translated by poets; they have a way of understanding one another whatever the difficulties of language.
Translation by more than one person is fraught with difficulty. If, as has been said, a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the joint translation can often also produce strange results. Writing is a lonely art, and in the end the poet-translator must work in isolation to recreate the translated poem with the same undivided attention that he gives to the creation of his own poetry. But the isolated end process is preceded by consultation with the informant, and here joint translation efforts so often flounder. The informant must not only know both languages perfectly but he must have a special grasp of poetry in both languages and a strong feeling for poetry in general. Ideally he should, like the translator, know a third or even a fourth language so that the equivalents of the words of the poem in question may be weighed precisely and measured from more than one angle. The Hungarian informants with whom I have worked have all met these requirements superbly, and in my collaboration with them over a period of years I have been rewarded with insights into Hungarian poetry and into the nature and poetic qualities of the Hungarian language.
In April 1970, on my return to Washington, I was host to eight foreign poets for an International Poetry Festival. The participants and their translators were: Jorge Carrera Andrade, from Ecuador (translator John Malcolm Brinnin); Nicanor Parra, from Chile (translator, Miller Williams), Yehuda Amichai, from Israel; Francis Ponge, from France (translators, Donald Finkel and Serge Gavronsky); Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, from Haiti; Vasko Popa, from Yugoslavia; Zulfikar Ghose, from Pakistan, reading in English; and Shuntaro Tanikawa, from Japan (translator, Harold P. Wright). Two venerable former Consultants also participated. Allen Tate delivered a lecture on the influence of permissiveness on creativity and the poet's need for rules and boundaries. "We are now in an age of great translations," he said. "I think this is indisputable but … good translations are never obsolete. George Chapman's rhymed decasyllable translation of the Odyssey is as good as it was in 1615, and I submit that Robert Fitzgerald's free blank verse translation is as good as Chapman's. Do we need both? I think we do …"
On Wednesday morning, Louis Untermeyer led a panel discussion on the difficulties of transmitting the magic of poetry in translation. The audience included poets, teachers, and editors from all over the country. On Wednesday afternoon, a tour of the White House and tea with Mrs. Nixon were the feature; and the First Lady's staff had consulted the Poetry Office about a suitable gift for the visitors. I suggested copies of a facsimile edition of Leaves of Grass that had been published by the New York Public Library, at thirty dollars each. The White House considered this outlay excessive, and decided to present copies of Elizabeth Bishop's collected poems, newly published and prominently reviewed. The publishers contributed eight copies, which Mrs. Nixon autographed and handed to the visitors as she greeted them, lined up alphabetically in a receiving line. Some of the poets weren't aware they were meeting Mrs. Nixon and supposed she was Elizabeth Bishop. Fortunately, there were no gaffes. The press in attendance suggested that someone come up with a poem. Untermeyer, ever resourceful, offered an impromptu "Ode to the Miniskirt":
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a knee.
To which I added:
And if the miniskirt should fall
I may not see a knee at all.
It was a successful festival, in spite of a bit of political embarrassment for one participant when a photograph of him shaking hands with Mrs. Nixon was published in his country.
I now live in the small town of Cummington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. Our house, the Bryant Cottage, on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful valley, was once part of the William Cullen Bryant homestead, the birthplace of the poet. It served as the medical office of the poet's father and it is said that in a drawer of this office the poet at the age of seventeen placed a copy of his famous poem "Thanatopsis." The house was detached from the homestead in the middle of the last century and moved to another part of the mountain. Mrs. William Vaughn Moody, the wife of the Chicago poet, bought it in 1910 and moved it yet again. She restored it and organized a writers colony here in the twenties and thirties. Many well-known poets—Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Padraic Colum, and Rabindrinath Tagore—came here to read their poems in a log cabin in the woods nearby which is today in ruins. When I view it on my walks, it calls up a rich poetic past, about which I knew nothing when I bought the house in 1966. My stepson Marc has designed our addition to the house and Sonja, with her exquisite taste, has decorated it. Many poets have come to visit and enjoy Sonja's inimitable French cooking, among them Andrei Voznesensky and Bella Akhmadulina from Russia, and Thorkild Bjørnvig from Denmark. Marc, who is Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds at the YMCA camp in Becket, Massachusetts, lives just down the hill from us with his wife Deborah and their two children Marissa and Alexandre, for whom several of my recent books have been written. My son Gregory, a talented sculptor who works in welded steel, lives nearby in Vermont. I am always fascinated to see his work as it develops in a medium so different from mine. I see my son David, for whom I wrote Laughing Time, in New York whenever I go there.
I'd like to conclude with a poem that might better have served as an introduction. It is a self-portrait based on the famous self-portrait of Edward Lear, the laureate of nonsense, which begins:
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
T. S. Eliot wrote his version, which begins:
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut.
My poem is humorous but it has a tragic edge to it, as does Edward Lear's, and I have incorporated in it a line of Lear's:
He weeps by the side of the ocean.
It may indeed have been that one line that started me off for I was staying at the time at Le Lavandou in the south of France in a house looking out on the Mediterranean. Returning one afternoon from a walk on the beach below, I sat down at my desk, and, as rarely happens, the poem came pouring out almost exactly as it is. It came so readily I think because I had always wanted to write something that made a playful use of my name. Smith is the most common proper name in English and one that is easily recognized abroad. Perhaps because the name lends itself to humor, the poem has been translated into several languages. I read it often to school children and when I do, I ask them to try writing their own self-portraits. Although the task is not as easy as it looks, they sometimes come up with quite amazing results. Roussette is the French name for a flying fox or fox-bat found in the South Pacific. Because roussettes feed only on fruit their flesh is tasty, as I discovered when I ate them in the New Hebrides during World War II, thinking that I was eating rabbit or chicken and horrified to discover that I had been feeding on bats.
How rewarding to know Mr. Smith,
Whose writings at random appear!
Some think him a joy to be with
While others do not, it is clear.
His eyes are somewhat Oriental,
His fingers are notably long;
His disposition is gentle,
He will jump at the sound of a gong.
His chin is quite smooth and uncleft,
His face is clean-shaven and bright,
His right arm looks much like his left,
His left leg it goes with his right.
He has friends in the arts and the sciences;
He knows only one talent scout;
He can cope with most kitchen appliances,
But in general prefers dining out.
When young he collected matchboxes,
He now collects notebooks and hats;
He has eaten roussettes (flying foxes),
Which are really the next thing to bats!
He has never set foot on Majorca,
He has been to Tahiti twice,
But will seldom, no veteran walker,
Take two steps when one will suffice.
He abhors motorbikes and boiled cabbage;
Zippers he just tolerates;
He is wholly indifferent to cribbage,
And cuts a poor figure on skates.
He weeps by the side of the ocean,
And goes back the way that he came;
He calls out his name with emotion—
It returns to him always the same.
It returns on the wind and he hears it
While the waves make a rustle around;
The dark settles down, and he fears it,
He fears its thin, crickety sound.
He thinks more and more as time passes,
Rarely opens a volume on myth.
Until mourned by the tall prairie grasses,
How rewarding to know Mr. Smith!
William Jay Smith contributed the following update to SATA in 2004:
One of the great pleasures of old age is having the ability to review one's past, to revisit beloved places, to renew old acquaintances, to rekindle old love affairs, and to relive important scenes. Memory enriches all that it touches and gives one the sense of gazing into the freshest and clearest water existing anywhere. I have gone back many times to the scenes of my boyhood, have stood where once I stood on the bluffs in Missouri overlooking the Mississippi that I had known so well. I have revisited the campuses of my student days in St. Louis, New York, Oxford, and Florence. I have examined again the towns and landscapes of Touraine which I discovered on my first visit to France in 1938. Indeed I have spent many months now setting down my recollections of that pre-World War II period in a continuation of my memoir Army Brat. I have met regularly with my colleagues from the 1961 session of the Vermont House of Representatives. I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg again in April 2002, seeing some of the friends I had made there years earlier.
Scenes of my youth in Louisiana came flooding back to me when in April, 2002, the State Library there declared me the winner of the Louisiana Writer Award for my "powerful and enduring contribution to the literary heritage of Louisiana." In April, 2004, Winnfield, where I was born, invited me back, gave me the key to the city, and organized a special day in my honor. I presented to the library of Winnfield a copy of the ledger that my grandfather kept when he returned from the Civil War as Postmaster and operated a general store. (I had already given the original to Washington University in St. Louis. Holding it in my hands when I wrote my memoir Army Brat made me feel unusually close to the great terrifying events of one hundred fifty years before.)
Much of my time during the past ten years has been devoted to the writing of The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems. The critic David Slavitt has said, "One has the sense—and it seems the poet has it as well—that Smith's whole life has been a preparation for The Cherokee Lottery." That is indeed true, as the acknowledgments and notes at the end of the volume indicate:
The removal of the Southern Indian Tribes—the great American tragedy of the "Trail of Tears"—has been something of an obsession with me since I first discovered seventy years ago that members of my mother's family in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, by reason of their Choctaw blood, claimed to have played a part in it.
Over the years I read everything that I could find relating to the tragedy. The historical accounts, however accurate, failed, I found, to communicate the terrible suffering of the exiled tribes. I began to attempt to put this down in poetry. My colleague, the poet James Merrill, admired one of the first poems of the sequence that I published and urged me to write others. He also asked me to apply to the Merrill Foundation which he had established for a grant to continue my work. This grant enabled me to visit many of the Southern scenes of the exodus, among them the Choctaw reservation in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where I went several times and received important help with my research.
One of the opening poems describes the forced departure of the Cherokees in 1838 after gold had been discovered on their lands:
White-haired Going Snake,
the eighty-year-old chief,
on his pony led the way,
followed by young men on horseback.
Then the women and children,
with the rustling sound
wind makes in tall dry grass,
came on, and no one spoke,
no one cried: only the dogs
howled as if they alone
could voice the nation's grief
while the procession slowly wound its way
off through the tall pines
over the red clay.
At the moment they began to move,
a low rumble of distant thunder
broke directly westward
and a dark spiral cloud rose
above the horizon,
but the sun was unclouded,
the thunder rolled away,
and no rain fell.
In the words of an Army Lieutenant who has guarded them on their passage to the west, a later poem describes the Cherokees in a pumpkin field in Arkansas. The farmer has invited the starving travelers to take "whatever his poor field could offer:"
Flies swarming to their target,
they darted up and down the rows,
black hair flying,
protruding, they ripped apart
the pumpkin flesh
until their brown and vacant
faces merged with jagged pulp,
seeds foaming from
their hungry mouths, and all I could see,
as on some battlefield, was
everywhere a wasted mass of orange flesh.
A light rain then began to fall
as if the shredded pumpkin fiber
drifted down around us.…
Later that evening the Lieutenant, ill with cholera, recalls the scene as he rests in a corner of the farmer's cabin:
"What have we done to these people?"
I cried out … And then a silence fell; across the dark I saw row after row of pumpkins carved and slit,
their crooked eyes
and pointed teeth all candle-lit within,
not pumpkins but death's-heads they were
with features of the vacant
hungry faces I had seen,
stretching to infinity
and glowing in the dark—
and glowing still when I awoke—
as they do now, and as they always will.
The warm reception that the book has had has made me feel that my years of work on it were not wasted. I have been invited to many high schools to speak to classes that have studied the book in detail. A radio program in Buenos Aires devoted two full hours to translations of it. The drama department of the University of the South is preparing a dramatization of the sequence in April of next year. The composer Donna Kelly Eastman did a beautiful soprano musical setting of "Old Cherokee Woman's Song," which has been a favorite with my readers:
They have taken my land,
they have taken my home;
they have driven me here
to the edge of the water.
Cold is the ground
and cold the red water.
At night the men come
to circle the campground;
they carry tall reeds,
each topped with a feather,
a bright eagle feather
to draw our eyes upward
and bring us all hope
for the bitter long journey.
But for me the reed's broken
and the sky it has fallen
where black storm clouds gather.
Cold is the ground
and cold the red water.
My blood it will mix
with the flowing red water:
they have taken my land,
they have taken my home;
I go now to die
beyond the red water.
I am one of the few people alive who knew the playwright Tennessee Williams before he had chosen that name and was still Thomas Lanier Williams. We were classmates at Washington University in St. Louis when in 1937 a local theatrical group, the Mummers, presented his first full-length play, Candles to the Sun. Because I attended the opening performance, New Directions asked me to write a forward to its first publication. I knew at the time, of course, that Tom had written plays, any number of short ones, each of which he usually referred to as a "fantasy." But for me he was first and foremost a poet, and it was as a poet that I expected him to make a national name for himself. And indeed he did just that, but not for his poems as such but rather for the poetry of his plays, which was powerfully revealed to me in Candles to the Sun, a play about Alabama coal miners.
Tom explained that "the candles in the title of the play represent the individual lives of the people. The sun represents group consciousness. The play ends as a tragedy for the individuals, for in the end they realize they cannot achieve success and happiness apart from the group but must sacrifice for the common good." I think at the same time that for Tom, this had not only a social but also a personal reference. John Donne, a poet whom Tom particularly appreciated, had written, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," and these lines might be an epigraph for Candles to the Sun. Tom, speaking personally, referred at the time to the "Island of Myself," and it was, he later declared, to ward off the dread of loneliness that he wrote. If he was an island, he knew that, in his life as in his work, he had to create a bridge to humanity, to a greater world beyond the self.
I have been pleased to be a witness to the emergence of the playwright's genius. In April 2004, I served on two panels at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, and wrote a short introduction to his play, Me, Vanya, which Washington University published for the first time. The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, has invited me for a week in spring 2005, to lecture on his early work as I knew it in St. Louis.
The year 2005 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Laughing Time, and I am happy to say that poems from it continue to be reprinted regularly throughout the English-speaking world. In a recent collection, Around My Room, I included several of them. The title poem of this volume was one of the first to appear anywhere. It expresses, I think, the spirit of the small child who puts on his parents' shoes that are far too big and emulates their behavior with a total playful abandon:
I put on a pair of overshoes
And walk around my room,
With my Father's bamboo walking stick,
And my Mother's feather broom.
I walk and walk and walk and walk,
I walk and walk around.
I love my Father's tap-tap-tap,
My Mother's feathery sound.
Around My Room also includes "The Toaster," which Erik Blegvad, the distinguished Danish illustrator, has depicted in his inimitable fashion. Blegvad had illustrated a poem of mine, "The Key," for Children's Book Week many years earlier. I had always admired his work and took the liberty of getting in touch with him directly to see if he would be willing to illustrate this collection. When the publishers sent him the type-script, he responded enthusiastically at once and it was a great pleasure to work with him. Since he knew how much I care about the visual accompaniment of my poems, he allowed me to go over his preliminary sketches and to make suggestions. When he had completed work on the entire text, he found that he was at a loss of what to do for the dust jacket. I suggested that he use the superb depiction of "The Toaster" with the little boy seated at his breakfast table with the dragon's tail looped around under it, flames darting from the dragon's throat as it prepares the boy's toast. This proved to be one of the most striking dust jackets that I have ever had.
I have been very fortunate to have had so many fine artists illustrate my work. Among the most prominent of these, in addition to Erik Blegvad, have been the Ukrainian-born master of the woodcut, Jacques Hnizdovsky, with his woodcuts and drawings; the American master John De Pol, with his superb wood engravings; the American painters Jane Dyer, Lynn Munsinger, and Gary Bukovnik; the Chilean painter Fernando Krahn, the French painters Albert DuPont, Bertrand Dorny, and Julius Baltazar; and the American designer, Ivan Chermayoff. In October, 2004, I had an exhibition in New York of my artists' books, which displayed in detail my collaboration with these artists over a period of fifty years. This exhibition included a number of my own paintings and watercolors as well as typewriter drawings and concrete poems. Marvin and Ruth Sackner in their archive of concrete and visual poetry have many examples of my work since they consider me an American pioneer in concrete poetry.
As a lyric poet I have been pleased also to find that my poems have for many years attracted the attention of composers, jazz musicians, and folk singers. Recent concerts in Rome at the American Academy and in Paris at the Atelier de la Main d'Or by Ned Rorem, Liz Peterson, Donna Kelly Eastman, and Stephen Berg have presented prominent singers in settings of my poetry for both adults and children. This development has given me particular pleasure since I like to think of myself as part of the Southern oral tradition. One of the poems that has been a favorite with composers and is frequently sung at weddings is the following:
Now Touch the Air Softly
Now touch the air softly,
Step gently. One, two …
I'll love you till roses
Are robin's-egg blue;
I'll love you till gravel
Is eaten for bread,
And lemons are orange, And lavender's red.
Now touch the air softly,
Swing gently the broom.
I'll love you till windows
Are all of a room;
And the table is laid,
And the table is bare,
And the ceiling reposes
On bottomless air.
I'll love you till Heaven
Rips the stars from his coat,
And the Moon rows away in
A glass-bottomed boat;
And Orion steps down
Like a diver below,
And Earth is ablaze,
And Ocean aglow.
So touch the air softly,
And swing the broom high.
We will dust the gray mountains,
And sweep the blue sky;
And I'll love you as long
As the furrow the plow,
As However is Ever,
And Ever is Now.
"Jack-in-the-Box," "The Mirror," "The Toaster," and "Mr. Smith" are from Laughing Time: Collected Nonsense by William Jay Smith, copyright (c) 1955, 1980, 1990 by William Jay Smith. New York, Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1990. "A Minor Ode to the Morgan Horse" is from Plain Talk: Epigrams, Epitaphs, Satires, Nonsense, Occasional, Concrete and Quotidian Poems by William Jay Smith, copyright (c) 1961, 1988 by William Jay Smith. New York, Center for Book Arts, 1988. Lines from "Quail in Autumn," and lines from "Fishing for Albacore," and "American Primitive" are from Collected Poems 1939-1989 by William Jay Smith, copyright (c) 1990 by William Jay Smith. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990. The limericks are from Typewriter Town by William Jay Smith, copyright (c) 1960 by William Jay Smith. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1960.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyWilliam Jay Smith (1918-) - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature