William Jay Smith, who wrote poetry with classical precision and childlike whimsy and who was a globe-trotting poetry consultant to the Library of Congress for two years, died Aug. 18 at a hospital in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 97.
He had pneumonia, said his son, Gregory Jay Smith.
In a writing career that spanned more than 70 years, Mr. Smith published dozens of volumes of poetry, as well as children’s verse, memoirs, translations and essays. He taught at several colleges and, from 1968 to 1970, was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The position is now called poet laureate of the United States — a title Mr. Smith disliked.
Although he was born in Louisiana and taught for more than a decade at Virginia’s Hollins College, Mr. Smith was often identified as a poet of New England, where he had lived off and on since the 1950s. He was once elected to the state legislature in Vermont.
His poetry often touched on traditional themes of nature, love and family tragedy, but he also wrote humorous, sometimes nonsensical verse for children. His 1955 collection, “Laughing Time,” has been praised as a children’s classic and has gone through more than a dozen printings.
Mr. Smith was proficient in several languages and translated the work of French, Italian and Russian poets. He was known as a careful poetic craftsman and easily adapted to diefferent styles.
“Smith has not once voice but many,” literary scholar Elizabeth Frank wrote in the Atlantic in 1998. “He can be contemporary and edgy. He can describe peacocks and chrysanthemums as if enameling a Persian miniature.”
Throughout his career, Mr. Smith often wrote in a rigorously classical style, using the traditional forms of meter and rhyme that many other 20th-century poets deemed outmoded.
“I believe that poetry should communicate,” he wrote in an essay, and “its complexity should not prevent its making an immediate impact on the reader.”
When Mr. Smith succeeded James Dickey as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1968, he encouraged the library to record poets reading their work. He traveled widely throughout the world, including the Soviet Union, where he developed friendships with many writers.
He did not like the term “poet laureate,” as the position later became known, because he thought it implied a quasi-official responsibility to be a national cheerleader. He also detested literary theory, which he said contributed to “the ruination of English departments,” and he sometimes clashed with other leading poets and critics.
In one controversial poem, “The Tall Poets: A Bicentiennial Mediation, July 4, 1976,” Mr. Smith took direct aim at poetic self-indulgence — with a thinly veiled reference to John Ashbery, in particlar:
I am bored with those Tall Poets,
those first and second-generation baby Bunyans,
sick of their creatively written writing,
their admired ash-buried academic anorexia …
I’m weary of having to dive into their driven dreck that hits the fan
weekly in every puffed and pompous periodical …
I long for the pure poem,
the passionate statement,
the simple declarative sentence …
William Jay Smith was born April 22, 1918, in Winnfield, La. He grew up near St. Louis, where his father was a clarinetist with an Army band — and an occasional bootlegger during Prohibition.
Mr. Smith studied French literature at Washington University in St. Louis, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1939 and a master’s degree in 1941. In 2012, he published a memoir about one of his college friends, the playwright Tennessee Williams.
During World War II, Mr. Smith served in the Navy, including a stint as a liaison on a French ship. He later studied at Columbia University and was a Rhodes scholar in England and a student at the University of Florence in Italy.
While teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts in the 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Smith lived in Vermont, where he was elected to a two-year term in the state legislature. In 1964 and 1965, he was a writer in residence at Washington’s Arena Stage, where he occasionally appeared in plays.
He taught at Hollins College (now Hollins University) from 1970 to 1980 and later was a poet in residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
His first marriage, to poet Barbara Howes, ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, David Emerson Smith, died in 2008.
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Sonja Haussmann Smith of Lenox, Mass.; a son from his first marriage, sculptor Gregory Jay Smith of North Pownal, Vt.; a stepson, Marc Hoechstetter of Cummington, Mass.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Although he spent many years as a professor, Mr. Smith came to believe that college creative writing programs produced a dull blandness among their students.
“Every poem reads as if it had been written by a committee,” he said.
He also maintained that too much modern poetry was gloomy, serious and opaque. Dark, confessional poems had their place, but he believed a true poet should be just as adept at humor and light verse. In his 1954 poem, “Now Touch the Air Softly,” Mr. Smith wrote playfully on the everlasting theme of love:
So touch the air softly,
And swing the broom high.
We will dust the gray mountains,
And sweep the blue sky;
And I’ll love you as long
As the furrow the plow,
As However is Ever,
And Ever is Now.