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Sherry Kearns

SMITH, DAVE (1942- ) Dave Smith is one of the major southern poets of the last third of the 20th century. His poems blend Robert Penn warren's elevation of regional subjects with James wright's search for beauty amid working-class life. Whether writing about the Virginia tidewater of his youth, the Midwest, or the barren Utah landscape, Smith brings a rich and dignified vernacular music to his meditations on violence, history, and the struggle for grace.

Born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, Smith received degrees from the University of Virginia (B.A., 1965) and Southern Illinois University (M.A., 1969) before serving in the U.S. Air Force (1969-72). After earning a Ph.D. at Ohio University (1976), Smith began a teaching career, serving most recently at Johns Hopkins University. His first book of poetry, Bull Island, was published in 1970 and has been followed by 20 books of poetry, a novel, and several edited collections of essays and verse. His book Goshawk, Antelope was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and Dream Flights was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1981. Smith has received a number of fellowships, and, as coeditor of the Southern Review during the 1990s and a poetry editor for Louisiana State University Press, he has significantly influenced the direction of contemporary mainstream poetry, particularly among southern authors.

Natural symbols and forceful rhythms built on enjambment create an intensity in Smith's work that Terry Hummer calls "tornadic" (76), capturing the drama and danger that sometimes disrupt daily life (see prosody and free verse). Attending to "the paradoxical problem of making art out of the muck of the world around us," as Bruce Weigl observes (69), Smith often structures his poems around physical journeys that occasion psychic or spiritual ones. In "The Tire Hangs in the Yard" (1981), the poet's visit to a childhood tire swing recalls his adolescent romances and jealousies, as well as the violent, rowdy life that he escaped that others his age could not. Smith's style ranges from historical narrative to personal lyric, poetry, restlessly elevating ordinary speech into musical, stately utterance. As he writes in "The Roundhouse Voices" (1985), an elegy for his dead uncle, "All day I've held your hand, trying to say back a life." Smith resists the temptations of nostalgia and personal confession by emphasizing the struggle that physical existence entails. And he acknowledges that language is what makes up experience, although "Words ... us / no damn good. Do you hear that?" Yet Smith ever strives to affirm the life in art. In "Driving Home in the Breaking Season" (1976), an almost blasphemous exclamation results in grace: "Damn death. Today I do not believe / a single sparrow will die but I will croak back his life."

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