Coffee With WILLIAM JAY SMITH
A Conversation About the Young Tennessee Williams
with Thomas Keith
We create once-in-a-lifetime opportunities each year for our Festival-goers. This year, our Williams Pass holders will get to have coffee with a man who knew Tennessee Williams in his youth – back when they still called him Tom in the college poetry club. William Jay Smith sipped tea in Williams’ St. Louis living room, and met his indomitable mother – the woman who inspired the famous character Amanda Wingfield. Audiences were held in rapt attention at last year’s Williams celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as he told a story about Tennessee’s sister Rose. This year, sip coffee with William Jay Smith and hear first-hand stories, in a conversation with moderator Thomas Keith, about the man who became Tennessee Williams.
William Jay Smith was born in 1918 in Winnfield, Louisiana. He studied at Washington University (with Tennessee Williams), then Columbia University, and at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Smith served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. Poet Laureate) from 1968 until 1970, and has been a member of The Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice-president for literature. Smith, noted for his translations, has won awards from both the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the Hungarian government. He has produced more than fifty books of poetry, children's verse, translations, criticism, and memoirs. He is currently working on a new book about his memories of
From Elizabeth Frank's review of Smith's "The World Below the Window: Poems 1937-1997" in the Atlantic Monthly, September 1998:
"Smith is a singer rather than a prophet, and his voice tends toward the elegiac rather than the apocalyptic, the reflective rather than the incantatory. He is rooted in the concrete and the sensuous -- in sight, sound, and touch. Where he won't go matters just as much as where he will: despite a genuine capacity and taste for rapture, he distrusts outsize transcendental emotion, and a kind of practical American spiritual skepticism is ingrained in his voice. He is singularly unafraid to acknowledge violence and horror. His poems often end in an ominous detail: "the idiot wind that rakes the pits of hell" ("Processional") or "While, patient in the eaves, the shadows wait" ("A Room in the Villa"). One of the earliest notes in his work is his awareness of war, its waste and puffery and absurdity, and several poems from the section called "Dark Valentine: War Poems (1940-1945)" are among his most vivid and arresting.
From the poem "Dark Valentine":
This daylit doll, this dim divinity,
who wipes his chin upon his
and sits beside you there and
combs his curls,
as suspect as a Romanoff;
who with the inward ease of
makes his insolence so crystalline,
fumbling the bomber-bracelet
on his wrist
to the boogie-woogie of the
Is this the Deity of your Devotions,
Lamb of all your Litanies?
Is this the Olifant of all the Oceans,
the Salamander of some Seven Seas?
-- William Jay Smith