- A Tribute to William Jay Smith
The distinguished poet William Jay Smith, Eudora Welty’s good friend, died on August 18, 2015, at the age of ninety-seven. In addition to writing many volumes of poetry, Smith penned books of children’s verse, translations of poems by Jules Laforgue and Andrei Voznesensky, memoirs, and a collection of his own astute literary criticism. He took bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French literature at Washington University; served in the US Navy during World War II; was a Rhodes Scholar; taught at Hollins College, Columbia University, and Williams College; and from 1968 to 1970, served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (a post we now call Poet Laureate).
The intersections of Smith’s life with Welty’s were numerous and important to them both. They met in 1950 in Italy, amid the glories of Florence, introduced to each other by John Robinson. They saw each other frequently in New York City. Welty spoke three consecutive years at the Suffield Writer–Reader Conference where Smith was on staff; Smith and his wife Sonja came to Jackson for Eudora Welty Day in 1973; Smith organized a celebration of Welty’s work at Hollins College in 1974; Welty invited Smith and his wife to join her at the White House in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and Welty delivered a reading from Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine when Smith was poet-in-residence there. Smith’s 1980 memoir Army Brat, a book about growing up within the confines of Jefferson Barracks Military Post near St. Louis, helped to convince Welty to deliver the Harvard lectures that became One Writer’s Beginnings. Yet even this impressive (and partial) list of their meetings in person and on the page does not do justice to the closeness of their friendship. A single fact does: Smith was one of the few friends with whom Welty discussed the two great loves of her life, John Robinson and Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald. The exchange of such confidences marks the true depth of their relationship.
I count myself supremely fortunate to have called Bill Smith my friend. He and I met at Eudora Welty’s funeral in 2001 and felt an immediate affinity as we shared our grief. Later we discovered that relatives of his were neighbors of my parents in Norman, Oklahoma. And our Oklahoma [End Page 9] ties were intensified when he gave me a copy of his magnificent book The Cherokee Lottery, a series of poems about the Trail of Tears, which ended in the territory that would become my native state. When I spoke of my work on a Welty biography, Bill was quick to offer assistance; I spent a productive and delightful week near his home in Cummington, Massachusetts, talking with him daily about the confluence of his life with Eudora’s. Subsequently Bill twice agreed to give poetry readings at Millsaps College, where I taught. Both students and faculty found these readings engraved in their memories. Then in 2011, I was honored when Bill asked me to write the foreword to his book My Friend Tom, an account of his almost fifty-year friendship with Tennessee Williams, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2012. In this memoir, Smith wrote that Eudora Welty “became for me during my entire literary life the kind of mentor that Tom Williams had been at the beginning” (101).
Like Welty, William Jay Smith possessed a genius for friendship in addition to genius as a writer. Blessed with a ready sense of humor, he was gracious and unassuming, brilliant and generous, a champion of social justice, traditional poetic forms, and love for family and friends. The world is a lesser place without him.