Authors: Dave Smith

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Bull Island, 1970

Mean Rufus Throw Down, 1973

The Fisherman’s Whore, 1974

Drunks, 1975

Cumberland Station, 1976

In Dark, Sudden with Light, 1977

Goshawk, Antelope, 1979

Blue Spruce, 1981

Dream Flights, 1981

Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, 1981

In the House of the Judge, 1983

Gray Soldiers, 1983

The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems, 1985

Cuba Night, 1990

Night Pleasures: New and Selected Poems, 1991

Fate’s Kite: Poems, 1991-1995, 1995

Floating on Solitude: Three Volumes of Poetry, 1996

The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000, 2000

Long Fiction:

Onliness, 1981


Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry, 1985

Edited Texts:

The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, 1982

The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, 1985 (with David Bottoms)

The Essential Poe, 1991


Southern Delights: Poems and Stories, 1984


Dave Smith’s parents, Ralph Gerald Smith and Catherine Mary Cornwell, were both from working-class families, their ancestors the farmers and coal miners of Virginia and Maryland. The work ethic by which Ralph Smith was able to lift his family into the suburban middle class undoubtedly left its impression on the son, but there was no precedent for the boy’s future in poetry. Dave Smith read widely as a teenager, but he cites Hot Rod magazine and rock and roll, especially rhythm and blues, as influences on his sense of language that were no less significant than the classics of English and American literature. The fishermen and laborers of the tidewater region around Chesapeake Bay, near his home in Portsmouth, Virginia, also imbued his imagination with scenes and characters that would begin to appear in the poems he wrote in early adulthood.{$I[AN]9810001665}{$I[A]Smith, Dave}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Smith, Dave}{$I[tim]1942;Smith, Dave}

Dave Smith

(© Maurice Duke)

In 1960 his father was killed in a car accident at the age of thirty-nine. Shortly afterward, at the University of Virginia, Smith made his first serious commitment to literature. After graduating with a B.A. in 1965, he took up teaching and coaching football at Poquoson (Virginia) High School, and he married Dolores Weaver (they would eventually have three children–Jeddie, Lael, and Mary Catherine). At Poquoson, a fishing village known to the natives as Bull Island, Smith began to hone his skill as a poet, finding in the local watermen the heroic subjects that would often inspire his most characteristic verse. In 1967 he entered a master’s program at Southern Illinois University, where he wrote a thesis on the poetry of James Dickey and edited Sou’wester, the student literary magazine. He received his M.A. in 1969, the year he was drafted into the Air Force. He served most of his tour of duty in Langley, Virginia, just a few miles from his sources of inspiration in Poquoson, and was able to continue to write and teach in the evenings. With his wife, he edited and published Back Door, a small magazine, and operated a chapbook press. After his discharge, Smith entered a doctoral program in creative writing at Ohio University, though he interrupted his studies to teach in Michigan and Missouri. By 1973 he was publishing regularly in literary journals and was seeing Mean Rufus Throw Down into print, the first in a steady stream of books. He quickly established a reputation with his second book, The Fisherman’s Whore, published by Ohio University Press, and with the first of his poems to appear in The New Yorker.

The year 1976 proved to be a turning point in Smith’s career: He completed his Ph.D., attracted national attention with the publication of Cumberland Station, and was appointed director of creative writing at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Smith thrived in the unfamiliar but invigorating landscape of the West, and during the following five years, while in his late thirties, his output was extraordinary–in quality as well as volume. The poems of Goshawk, Antelope (a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award) and Blue Spruce reflect the interplay of landscape, imagination, and memory that his new situation made possible, and they aroused considerable excitement among reviewers who found their complex images and energetic Anglo-Saxon cadences, together with their stubborn search for the truth of experience, both challenging and refreshing.

In 1980, wanting to bring his family back east, Smith took a position at the State University of New York in Binghamton. In nearby Montrose, Pennsylvania, he and Dee found a Victorian home that had formerly belonged to Judge Edward Little; here he wrote the poems for In the House of the Judge. Although frequently linked to the Southern gothic tradition, Smith’s work could no longer be identified with one or even two regions. He had become a regionalist in the best sense, a poet who discovers the universal in the local and particular. With his itinerant career, it is hardly surprising that “home”–ancestral or suburban, lost or tentatively found–became a central theme in his poems, and that narrative structures became thickly layered with memory and reflection. A year later, he returned to the South, first to the University of Florida, Gainesville, then back to his roots, taking a position at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

The 1985 publication of The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems met with a favorable reception, though some critics wondered if Smith was publishing too much too quickly. Nevertheless, it encouraged retrospective assessments of Smith’s substantial body of work at this point of early maturity, and these reviews widely recognized him as one of America’s most accomplished and influential poets. Subsequently, Smith’s output has been smaller, with the dark, unsettling Cuba Night appearing in 1990, after a relatively long silence, to critical acclaim. In that year he began teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and coediting the influential literary journal Southern Review with James Olney. His anthology The Wick of Memory was praised for its well-rounded representation of Smith’s work. Despite living and working in academic settings, he resists the abstract and systematic, exploring instead the intricate dramas that spring from common objects and common lives.

BibliographyBalakian, Peter. “Heroes of the Spirit: An Interview with Dave Smith.” Graham House Review 6 (Spring, 1982): 48-72. Smith responds to questions about the large number of downtrodden characters in his work, his affinity with romantic tradition, his narrative impulse, and the complex issue of Smith’s identity as a regional writer. Particularly useful are observations on the strong-stress rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poets and of Gerard Manley Hopkins as they influence Smith’s own work.Christensen, Paul. “Malignant Innocence.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12 (Fall/Winter, 1984): 154-182. Christensen’s article is one of the most comprehensive examinations of Smith’s work, discovering in the poet’s voice a version of an American and Southern archetype mediating between youth and age, initiate and elder. Christensen provides a rich understanding of the mythic taproots of Smith’s career and of his major themes.DeMott, Robert J. Dave Smith: A Literary Archive. Athens: Ohio University Libraries, 2000. Important for biographical and bibliographical research. The introduction, which traces DeMott’s relationship to Smith, sheds a highly personal light on Smith’s life and art. DeMott also describes the Ohio University Alden Library’s Foundational Dave Smith Collection.Millichap, Joseph K. “Dave Smith.” In Contemporary Southern Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. This brief overview of Smith’s career stresses the “trend toward variety and diversity” in style and subject. Comments on each major volume through Fate’s Kite.Smith, Dave. “An Interview with Dave Smith.” Interview by Ernest Suarez. Contemporary Literature 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 348-369. This excellent interview begins with an intelligent overview of Smith’s art and an examination of a representative poem. Suarez’s questions bring forth comments on influences, writing habits, the creative process, Smith’s sense of the poet’s role, and his own particular ambitions as a writer. Intriguing comments as well on form and on the term “confessional” poetry.Suarez, Ernest. “An Interview with Dave Smith.” Contemporary Literature 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 348-69. This excellent interview begins with an intelligent overview of Smith’s art and an examination of a representative poem. Suarez’s questions bring forth comments on influences, writing habits, the creative process, Smith’s sense of the poet’s role, and his own particular ambitions as a writer. Intriguing comments as well on form and on the term “confessional” poetry.Swiss, Thomas. “‘Unfold the Fullness’: Dave Smith’s Poetry and Fiction.” The Sewanee Review 91 (Summer, 1983): 483-490. Swiss examines the architecture of Dream Flights, Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, and In the House of the Judge, collections that mark Smith’s imaginative homecoming.Vendler, Helen. “Dave Smith.” In The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Vendler here modifies her original view that Smith is a regional Southern writer. She now argues, on the basis of Goshawk, Antelope, that he is “a distinguished allegorist of human experience.”Vendler, Helen. “‘Oh I Admire and Sorrow.’” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. The first extended statement by a major critic on Smith’s work. Vendler enjoys the momentous energy in Smith’s style, the range of his subjects, and his ambition. Praises especially his poems about the Civil War and fishing.Weigl, Bruce. “Forms of History and Self in Dave Smith’s Cuba Night.” Poet Lore 85 (Winter, 1990/1991): 37-48. In examining the long poem “To Isle of Wight,” Weigl stresses Smith’s mythmaking ability and his ongoing struggle with his Southern heritage.Weigl, Bruce, ed. The Giver of Morning: On the Poetry of Dave Smith. Birmingham, Ala.: Thunder City Press, 1982. This first slender collection of comment on Smith’s work fittingly assesses the amazing first dozen years of his career.
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