I appreciate the honor of reading Ward Just’s words for his friend and I will begin with the first two parts of William Jay Smith’s poem “Northern Lights.”
I stepped out here on the mountainside, and saw the northern lights, cold-clear, clear-white, blue-green, long quivering gold knives of light shooting up, cutting the sky the horizon round.
Up from the valley mist rose in waves, shot up steady puffs, clear-cold in the light,
And in places all the sky seemed made of moving skeins of white hair rising water-clear, stars tangled in the flowing strands.
The brook ran below (it was August, but cold); and I could hear its chill, pebbled water bubbling down, close in upon my ear.
Crickety night sounds: black trees came spangled forth, while behind a moving green gold turned them into shaggy hulks heaving in waves of light.
Trees stood, but moved, bearded and blowing, but no wind blew, and the dark itself moved, kept moving with light.
Mist, held deep in the valley in layers chalk-white, sheet-white, hung billowing between rock walls;
And still it rose, shade becoming light, light, shade, and as I stepped into the field, grass also moved, brightened by all these waves of hairy light.
The mountain pool caught, and tried to hold, patches of moving light, and the water, coming down from the mountain, rang swinging clear
Over evergreens overgrown; ribbons of willow, beside or behind or above the pool, leaned, moved, kept clear-turning until the whole sky moved; and I stepped into an ever-deepening river of grass, green-moving and slow, glowworm-light expanding and wavering.
Thin blades of green cut through blue-green, or green upon white, white upon gray, green upon mist-yellow, green and primrose yellow.
And primroses beside the rockpool, chill yellow in the moving mist; and light kept coming by while I moved with light moving, stood (leapt), reached (held) earth-air (whole-part), clear-cold and all white.
Bill Smith was well traveled and widely acquainted. He grew up by Jefferson barracks near Saint Louis, his father a clarinetist in the Army band and a world-class drinker. He liked to brandish a pistol when drunk. His mother was half Choctaw, apparently a gentler soul than her husband. Bill himself was a Navy man, an ensign in the Pacific theater during World War II. Later on at Washington University he met Thomas Lanier Williams, not yet called “Tennessee.” They became life-long friends and in 2012 Bill wrote a memoir, My Friend Tom. And here it must be said that Bill was kinder to Tennessee than Tennessee was to Bill. What is it with literary friendships? They’re always unequal. Is the same imbalance true with professional athletes or chief executive officers? Physicists, maybe. The difference is the craft itself, a career assembled from words alone. Words soothe but also cut. Williams’ was of the cutting variety and Bill wasn’t, for the most part. Bill Smith simply admired the man and his work. In fact, My Friend Tom is remarkable for the cast of characters who move in and out of the poet’s life. Eudora Welty, Yukio Mishima, Harold Bloom, Truman Capote, Zelda Fitzgerald, Witter Bynner.
Bill Smith had many gifts and not the least of them was the gift of friendship. Southern hospitality, and acuity. Bill on Tennessee: “His pedantry and obscenity—the rock and loam of his Eden—but make us more certain that one who is but a man like us has seen God.” Tom was sorely in need of that kind of vision on that dark night.
A decade ago in Paris we had a gang of six that met now and again for dinner, always a different restaurant. My wife and I, Bill and Sonja, Diane Johnson and her husband Dr. John Murray. We talked politics along with writing at these dinners, whose running time was never less than two hours. There was often someone in town whom Bill wanted us to meet, a young poet or an old critic, and sometimes one would show up and sometimes not. I remember we six leaning over the table, listening to Bill and his soft southern voice telling some story or other, often one from years back. The ’30s were a favorite decade. One night he had a word for the virtues of the Choctaw Nation, another a memory of Oxford when he was a Rhodes Scholar seventy years before. Remarkable memory, I remember thinking. One punch line after another. Stories are, after all, stories; an embellishment here and there. Without the embellishment where’s the story? So it was all very jolly.
Our last rendezvous was scheduled to follow a reading by Bill. The venue was in a room of one of many, many gathering places for writers in Paris. Bill’s interlocutor was a young American very well versed in Bill’s work. But the interview went on and on until called to a halt by Bill. He had a recent poem he wanted to read and then we would call it a night. He began slowly in his soft voice that had us all leaning forward to hear. And almost at once we noticed that Bill was off his feed. He was then ninety-four or thereabouts. His voice began to falter and it was evident that he could not see the words on the page—not his fault, the light was bad. He read perhaps half the poem, then began it again. After a while he simply stopped and shrugged. The applause was loud but Bill seemed not to acknowledge it. I thought he was back in his memory somewhere and perhaps he was. The hour was late. We had not eaten. Bill was surrounded by admirers, some wanting their book autographed, others wanting to chat. The fine points of verse. Except for the glissando at the end, all had gone very well. Bill motioned in the direction of the restaurant; we were to go on, he would join us later. We ate quickly and looked again inside the reading room. It was empty. William Jay Smith had gone home.