Virginia's Poet Laureate

August 6, 2014
Passion for poetry and craft drives Ron Smith, R'71, G'74, and G'94

Earlier this summer, Ron Smith got the call he’d been appointed as Virginia’s poet laureate. For the next two years, he’ll hold the honorific title. Smith is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, runner-up for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and the Samuel French Morse Prize. He was also the recipient of the inaugural Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize in 2005. We caught up with him while he was in Ireland for a poetry conference to talk about his new duties, poetry, and the similarities between art and athletics.

What are the duties of the poet laureate?

Here’s how I interpret my vaguely stated obligations: First, to celebrate, encourage, and promote poetry in Virginia. Second, to focus local, national, and international attention on the commonwealth.

What do you hope to achieve in your time with this role?

I hope to write — or finish — new poems about Virginia’s people, history, and landscape, and to find new ways to spotlight the work of Virginia’s many fine poets.

You played on the UR football team that won the Tangerine Bowl in 1968. Tell me about the ways in which football and poetry are more alike than one might think.

Both football and poetry live in the body — the body as animated by the mind and spirit. They both demand precision and perseverance. They are both extremely hard to do well. Both teach you how to handle failure, how to keep going long after you want to quit.

What still inspires you from your days at Richmond?

Most inspiration is sub- or unconscious, but let me see ... The philosophy classes I had with Jim Hall, the English classes I had with Irby Brown, John Boggs, and Edward Peple. They were inspiring teachers, all of them — partly because they were very demanding. The hills and the woods of the campus. I spent a fair amount of time either running in the woods or taking long walks.

My years at Richmond were good ones. God only knows how many experiences bubble up out of the dark to help me to think and create and, well, just live.

Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

Only if they are used intelligently. And honestly. Poetry is a way of being truthful and fully alive. The Internet and, say, Facebook and Twitter, can help. Or they can hurt. They are tools that require users of integrity.

What do most poorly written poems have in common?

Good question. Just as there are many ways to write well, there are also many ways to write badly. Most of the failed poems I come across tell the reader what the reader already knows; they either insult the reader’s intelligence or bore him. A lot of bad poems are riddled with clichés. Poetry demands fresh language — if not an invented language, a new version of the language. Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and G.M. Hopkins, just to name three great poets, had to invent words and idioms to say what needed to be said.

Some poets imply (or state outright) that language has no real relation to or connection with reality — that words can’t really tell us truths about the world. This is nonsense, of course. That stuff usually bores me silly, even when it’s well done.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

The best poems deliver a needed truth and do so in memorable language. They tell the truth and make it sing. Some good poems tell us “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” as Alexander Pope said. But some take us to places we had never glimpsed before, expand our sense of possibility. Good poems make us more human, more alive.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to "solve" the poem?

The primary aim of belletristic literature is not clarity, it’s power. There are many worse things than being obscure. But, of course, it’s easy to be baffling. A poem’s difficulty ought to be a necessity. No poem — or prose passage, for that matter — should be any harder than it has to be. Of course, complex matters usually require complex treatment. And form must match or in some way serve content.

Neither transparency nor opacity is an artistic virtue in itself. Robert Frost is transparent — or so we think at first. He is “accessible” we say; but he is also dense with meaning and irony. The longer you look at a Frost poem the more complex it becomes. T.S. Eliot is the opposite: At first, he’s terribly difficult. But, if readers will simply relax and let The Waste Land or Four Quartets come to them, those poems become clearer and clearer.

Difficulty and ease, clarity and obscurity — these things are tools, not ends in themselves.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m in Ireland. So, I’ve been reading poems and prose about Ireland’s history, geography, and culture. I’ve been rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems and a little of his prose, Yeats’s poems and a little of his prose, and poems by other Irish poets, such as Patrick Kavanagh and Desmond Egan.

I’m always reading sports poems submitted to Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. (I’m the poetry editor of that journal and I enjoy the work.) What else? Some passages from and stuff about ancient sacred texts, from the Hebrew Bible to the Koran. Oh, and Irish newspapers, which are often hilarious because they present uncomfortable material with delightful frankness. Or so it appears to this American just now.

Photo: Ron Smith at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Ireland. July 30, 2014. Credit: Delores Smith