Virginia’s new poet laureate, Ron Smith, on saving poetry.
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Virginia poet laureate Ron Smith at home in Richmond.
photo by KC Johnson
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Smith representing the Commonwealth in Rome, Italy.
photo by Dolores Smith
In 1967, Ron Smith received offers for two college football scholarships—one from the Citadel, not far from his home in Garden City, Georgia, and the other from the University of Richmond. Eager to explore the cultural opportunities in the upper South, he chose Richmond, home of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and what was then known as the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine, a museum honoring Smith’s favorite poet.
Almost five decades later, Smith, 66, and his wife Delores, a fellow Georgian, consider Richmond home. It’s where they raised their son and where Smith has made a name for himself as a major player on the Virginia literary scene. Last June, Gov. McAuliffe named Smith Virginia’s 17th poet laureate—an honorary position that makes him the Commonwealth’s ambassador to the world for literary arts.
Smith succeeds acclaimed poets, including Pulitzer Prize winners Claudia Emerson and Rita Dove, and assumes a mission that some think is nothing short of radical: He wants Virginians to experience poetry as an essential and joyful part of their everyday lives. If anybody is qualified to take on such a challenge, it’s Smith.
After double-majoring in philosophy and English while playing offensive guard for the Spiders—who won the Tangerine Bowl his sophomore year—he accepted a job teaching English at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. He then earned master’s degrees in humanities and creative writing from UR and Virginia Commonwealth University, respectively, and published three volumes of poetry, including Its Ghostly Workshop, widely praised for its refreshing accessibility and deft ruminations on subjects ranging from football to travel. In the collection’s title poem, the speaker offers wisdom to his grandson:
“Don’t wield too long nor grip too hard / what you take for truth. Be always prepared / to let it go. Let it go.”
In 2005, Smith won the Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry, presented each year at the Library of Virginia’s Literary Awards Celebration. A fourth book, The Humility of Brutes, is forthcoming.
Not that Smith, whose distinguished gray hair adds gravitas to the athlete’s sturdy frame, is resting on his laurels. He remains on the faculty at St. Christopher’s and has also taught at the University of Mary Washington, VCU and UR. He knows firsthand what a transformative experience interacting with literature can be.
“I loved ‘reading’ before I could read,” he recalls. As a little boy, he would get upset with his mother for not always giving in to his demands for “one more” bedtime story. On one fraught occasion, he says he advised her, “I can’t wait till I learn to read, then I won’t need you.”
Encountering Poe’s work in middle school elevated that affinity to a spiritual level. “Reading ‘The Raven’ for the first time made me dizzy,” Smith says. “I remember thinking, What is this doing to me?” He loved how Poe’s words affected him, and wants all Virginians to feel that same thrill. As poet laureate, he’s getting the word out by speaking at events across the state.
He realizes that he faces a challenge since many people are nervous about poetry. “Are some poems impossibly dense? Sure,” says Smith, “but not the best ones. Great literature is human. It’s not about showing off to baffle the reader. If you come across a poem that’s too hard or doesn’t do anything for you, skip it and find another one you like better.”
Smith’s role as poet laureate includes celebrating the Commonwealth’s poets. “Virginia is rich in poets, poets who deserve much more recognition and more readers than they currently have.” He has been singing their praises locally and at events around the country and internationally, including in Ireland and Italy. He sat down with us recently to share his thoughts about preserving poetry for the next generation.
The state of poetry in America is not good. Too many of our kids no longer memorize poetry or write poetry on their own. Our culture suggests that there are better things to do with their time. In other countries, poetry comes first and is the most highly respected literary form. In Russia, if the subject of poetry comes up, people sit up straight; you can feel the respect in the room. In Italy, the streets are named after poets. We are the anomaly and that bothers me. Most Americans don’t have a clue how much more joyful and satisfying life would be if they read and even
The solution to saving poetry is teaching it well. Let kids experiment with language. Show them how to get the most out of it. Small children have no trouble appreciating poetry. There is something deeply satisfying about playing with words, and kids get that. But that talent becomes dormant as we grow up and are forced to focus on other things.
Too many people approach poetry like it’s a math problem to be solved. They say, ‘I don’t get it’ and get mad and give up. They don’t realize that appreciating poetry requires patience and an open mind. My favorite poem is “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens. The first time I read it, it blew me away. I knew something important was going on, but didn’t know what it was. It took me years to figure out that he was talking about death as the mother of all parties.
Approach poetry the way you do music. The first time through, does anything—any part of it—intrigue you? If so, go back and read it again. See what strikes you this time. Keep going back, just as you would with a song that catches your ear. We have no problem liking songs that we don’t understand right away. Take that same attitude with poetry. Even if you don’t have a clue what’s going on, you can still love the sound, or maybe a character, or just a line. Sometimes a poem is pure fun, and that’s great too.
Poetry has long been an important part of Virginia culture. The Founding Fathers all wrote poetry as boys. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t especially poetic, but just look at the Declaration of Independence. If the beginning and end of that document aren’t American poetry, we don’t have any American poetry. And then there’s Poe. He’s very much a Virginian, despite what other states like to claim.
Virginia is fertile ground for poetic inspiration. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman wrote fine poems set in Virginia during the Civil War and there are some wonderful contemporary poems by Dave Smith and Claudia Emerson set in Virginia.
I’m working on a number of poems dealing with Virginia geography, geology and history. One entitled “Mr. Jefferson Speaks of Rapture” was inspired by Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, an extremely unpoetic book, but which contains an astounding passage about Natural Bridge. This new, sort of hyperventilated Romantic Jefferson intrigued me.
My favorite experience as poet laureate was when I was in Ireland, they loved introducing me as ‘the poet laureate of Virginia.’ They did so every chance they got. The Irish love of poetry is, of course, legendary.