Arthur Smith, a poet who taught at the University of Tennessee for three decades, died Nov. 9 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
As a friend and teacher, Smith loved to use the phrase “your work.” How was your work going? Were you working hard? On your poems, he might scribble “nice work,” which was not the same as “nicely done,” which was practically a major award.
I began studying with Art when I was 20. I had no “work,” only the encouragement of two great other teachers, Libba Moore Grey and Marilyn Kallet, and an affinity for language. I was single-minded – showboating my way into every possible writing class, with little thought to the classes I needed to take to graduate.
I remember his trying to tell me that routine was an underrated saving grace, both for writing and for life. He encouraged his students to look outside of themselves for material, to be interested in science, nature, history, other people. He had a gift for matching the right student with the right writer – he gave James Wright to a friend who was trying to find a voice for small-town rural life, and he recommended to me the plain and cool works of Robert Creeley, still my favorite poet.
If he was disappointed in me for leaving school without a degree, he never said so. When I ran into him after selling my first novel to Harlequin, he was delighted. My friend Scott Barker, a longtime local journalist and co-founder of Compass News, said in a Facebook post (quoted with permission), “He didn’t look down on me when I turned out to be better suited to be a reporter than a poet or novelist. … He told me I was a success for finding a way to make a living by writing.”
Writer and Knoxville Children’s Theatre Academy director Dennis Perkins, my friend since childhood, has one of my favorite Art stories. His college roommate and best friend, late KCT founder Zack Allen, had a class with Art and possessed a copy of his first, award-winning book, “Elegy for Independence Day.” As copies were almost impossible to come by, Dennis borrowed Zack’s for almost 20 years. He told Art about the permanent loan when he came into the wine shop where Dennis was working. The next night Art dropped off a copy inscribed to him, gaining a lifelong loyalist. Dennis had just told this story a few weeks ago, at an elegy for Zack.
Art’s own four collections of poetry circled back again and again to those words, those concepts. Elegy. Remembrance. Letting go. Keeping on. Finishing the work. Back at UT part-time this semester, finishing that handful of classes, I walked over to McClung from the Hill to look at the tributes to Art. Students and colleagues have taped photos and poems to his office door. They join the memorials his friends and students have shared across Facebook (although Art himself was famously not on social media).
Someone posted one of my favorite of Art’s poems, “Here,” in which the narrator, a quiet observer at a busy restaurant, writes,
“I’m no longer frightened
When I think of the scene without me
Tomorrow, or forty years from now
As though it were tomorrow –
Waitresses, young and rushing, bussing trays,
Men ringing the counter, talking as they eat,
Women arrayed in booths,
And, in my seat, someone else.”
Godspeed, Art. You are missed.
(An informal memorial for Arthur Smith will take place at 3:30 p.m. today (11/16) at 1210 McClung Tower on the UT campus. A formal memorial will be announced later.)