William Jay Smith has been one of the most respected figures on the literary scene for more than half a century. Two of his thirteen poetry collections were finalists for the National Book Award, and the present volume is clearly the work of a true American master.
The volume opens with a poetic sequence, "The Atoll," concerning the tiny coral island of Palmyra during World War II. Finding himself on the narrow rim of an extinct volcano at almost the exact center of the Pacific, water on all sides, breakers pounding the reef, the poet evokes the distinct sensation that he had of being at the heart of Herman Melville's "oceans vast." In lines resonant and memorable, he recalls the "terrifying beauty" of standing at night on what seemed then the very edge of the earth.
The poet next addresses our current daily terror-war and destruction. In "Invitation to Ground Zero" he presents a moving tribute to a victim of the September 11 disaster, while in "Willow Wood" a soldier, having recently lost both his legs in a roadside blast, utters without a trace of self-pity strong words on future wars. Tragedy marks many of these pages, but Smith does not forget his lifelong commitment to witty and satiric verse. To introduce several hilarious pieces, he reprints the celebrated poem "Dachshunds." Simplicity and musicality have given his wedding songs a wide audience. Several of them are here, including an extraordinary new one, "The Bouquet."
Variety has always characterized Smith's work. Words by the Water is particularly varied and unusually youthful and fresh.
William Jay Smith served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a position now called Poet Laureate) from 1968 to 1970. His memoir, Army Brat, was widely acclaimed. A new memoir, Dancing in the Garden: A Bittersweet Love Affair with France, is forthcoming. It deals with his summer as a student in Tours in 1938, on the eve of World War II.