He earned his BA and MA from Washington University in St. Louis.
The son of an army officer, Smith spent much of his early life on a U.S. Army post, a period he recalled in Army Brat: A Memoir (1980; reissued 1991).
Educated at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri (B.A., 1939; M.A., 1941), he served in the U.S. Navy from 1941 to 1945, then attended Columbia University and the Universities of Oxford and Florence.
Born on April 22nd, 1918, he was brought up at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, south of St. Louis.
He served in the US Naval Reserves during World War II, and afterward met and married the poet Barbara Howes and completed graduate study at Columbia University, at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and at University of Florence; he would teach and lecture at many universities, and taught for over a decade at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
He served in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1960 to 1962. In 1973 in the Sewanee Review, Thomas H. Landess commended Smith’s New and Selected Poems for the author’s “considerable poetic achievement” and his “severe artistic conscience.”
Landess also mentioned with approval Smith’s tendency to be “swayed by the shifting literary winds,” seeing Smith’s receptivity to his era as one of his poetic gifts.
Writing in the Southern Review about the same collection, John T. Irwin pointed out what he saw as the volume’s “two radically different kinds of poetry.”
As Irwin put it, “The poems published before his 1966 volume are in closed forms; those in the 1966 volume and after are for the most part in open forms.”
At a time in his life when his contemporaries had immersed themselves in retirement activities, Smith continued to publish poetry collections.
Collected Poems, 1939-1989 was received enthusiastically in 1990. The poet once again was praised for his range and variety.
Writing in the New York Times, Herbert Mitgang claimed that “the far-reaching themes and variety of styles in William Jay Smith’s poetry prove that commonplace ideas and everyday activities can be reinvented by lyrical language that enlightens and entertains the reader.
His magical Collected Poems span a half-century of his life and the life of the nation, adding up to a literary and social history of our times in verse.”
A more comprehensive collection, The World below the Window: Poems 1937-1997 was released in 1998.
Frank felt that the volume “provides a welcome and generous retrospective of Smith’s ‘adult’ work.” The critic added: “With an artisan’s care and conscience, Smith makes full use of all the aural and figurative resources of our language.
As of 2008, he has residencies both in Cummington, Massachusetts and Paris, France. Smith is the author of ten collections of poetry of which two were finalists for the National Book Award.
Smith has been member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975.