If Frederick Smock had not been named Kentucky’s 28th poet laureate this past spring, he might as well have been content to park himself inside his Bellarmine University office, gaze at the campus’ verdant grounds and continue to spin out tersely elegant stanzas celebrating the relationship between man, nature and an expressive cosmos defined by his own restless curiosity.
So much for conventional, comfortable professional stillness.
With a broad, two-year mandate from the Kentucky Arts Council (on recommendations from past laureates) to go forth and versify, Smock will likely establish boundaries marked on one hand by geography, and on the other by impulse. Call him a peripatetic poet. For now, it’s as good an identifier as any.
“The broad brush of our responsibilities is to promote the literary arts around Kentucky,” Smock, 63, explained during an expansive interview in his Highlands apartment. “And poets laureate have interpreted that in various ways. George Ella Lyon, my immediate predecessor, is from Harlan County, and she had people write their own versions of ‘Where I Come From’ poems. I’m going to go around to people and just read poetry, [asking them simply to] sit with it and take it in, because people are not reading poetry much anymore. And being an educator, I want to talk about the joy we had as children and try to recapture some of that.”
The “educator” part is crucial. Undergraduate students are the ongoing, inevitable focus of Smock’s university life as a professor of English at Bellarmine. His typical schedule includes teaching courses on creative writing and upper-level American poetry (made up largely of departmental majors), plus English 200, a general-education course required of all students.
Smock loves that particular assignment, even if many of his 19- and 20-year-olds arrive on the first day less than enthused.
“They don’t want to be there,” he acknowledged. “It’s going to be poetry, so there is grumbling coming in. I canvass them about their experience with poetry before they got to college, and usually it’s pretty dismal. High school teachers, bless them, are there on the front lines, in the trenches, and they teach to the test—but in my classes, I get to flip the experience.”
Poetry, Smock assures his assembled cynics, is not akin to torture. “I tell them, ‘You may never have heard the words “poetry” and “pleasure” used in the same sentence before, but that’s what it’s about.’ I go into it with missionary zeal.”
Americans, particularly young adults, often do not know what to make of this thing called poetry. “Mostly they have no experience” with it, Smock has observed semester after semester, year after year. “If they’ve ever heard of a poet, it’s probably Robert Frost.” Cue a few lines from The Road Not Taken, with its narrative that concludes:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Never mind that this is just the sort of piece students are made to believe encapsulates a neat, readily digested philosophy but which, Smock emphasized, is almost always completely misunderstood. He’s not alone: critic David Orr famously produced an essay about it subtitled, The Poem Everyone Loves and Everyone Gets Wrong. In other words, you read one poem, dismiss it in a few self-satisfied phrases that pass for pithy analysis, and then move on to something more approachable.
“Poetry is such a niche thing,” Smock said, leaning forward on his living room couch. “When was the last time you saw a poet in Time magazine? The New Yorker, yes, but mass culture is pretty much oblivious to poetry.”
Then again, when was the last time anybody read Time magazine? Maybe Smock can be forgiven for forgetting—or perhaps not even realizing—that general-circulation newsweeklies are pretty much journalistic goners. He writes in longhand. His cell phone, which communicates solely by this hoary thing called “voice,” sits on a table inside a home unsullied by internet access.
Smock isn’t a Luddite; he just unapologetically regards technology as a worrisome domestic distraction. His dining room, which is less a place to eat as it is a sanctuary in which to read, write and ponder, is this morning host to a thick biography of Emily Dickinson. No other companions are immediately apparent.
Recently divorced from his second wife, Olga-Maria Cruz (herself a writer), with a girlfriend in Oregon and two grown sons who live in Louisville, Smock seems to know how to love family without having to be in love with himself. A framed coat of arms acknowledges his Dutch paternal forbearers who immigrated to America in the 17th century, but he doesn’t make a big deal of it until asked by visitor. “Was it Aristotle or one of the Greeks who said, ‘It’s good to be well-descended, but the glory belongs to your ancestors’? My mother on her side was Scottish. She was descended from Robert the Bruce, as far as I know the only man to kill another man in church and then later be absolved by the Pope.”
There are elements of whimsy in his second-floor apartment, most notably a Matisse-like mural, resplendent with bright blue curves, that his ex-wife painted, over their bathtub. The adjacent kitchen is neat, unadorned and mostly unused. Smock is not much of a cook. He prefers escaping his solitary space for the company of friends in a nearby restaurant.
“For me, there is no other neighborhood but the (Cherokee) Triangle,” he said. “There are so many restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores I can walk to. I pretty much live inside this little village inside the city, so it’s rare that I go downtown.”
Does that make Smock a true social animal?
“Yes and no,” he answered. “You see this in a condensed form at a writers’ conference. We like to be by ourselves at home, but go to a conference, and we are so hungry for connections with others like us that we will socialize very intensely, then split up and go back to our rooms and be quiet. So I do have that social connection. I love meeting friends for lunch, but then I come back and I need to recharge. I can’t be relentlessly social.”
His ideal situation, he said, would be like that of a character in a Jane Austen novel, with one thing to accomplish per day. “Write a letter to Cousin Harriet. That’s all they had to do. The rest of the day was spent changing clothes, lounging about, waiting for a meal,” he said. “But I also feel that the writing of the letter itself got postponed, so the one thing didn’t always get done. So yes, I think a writer guards his time; a writer guards his or her emotional energy. Not that we are writing all the time, especially when you write poetry, and short poems like I do. I have friends who are novelists, where you have to put hours in at the desk every day. That’s the tough stuff. What I do just happens, and I write it down and then go on to the next thing.”
It is a sensibility shaped by growing up in comfortable circumstances as the son of a Louisville physician. “For six years we lived downtown in my grandmother’s big old house,” Smock recalled. “Then my father built a house in the country out in Fern Creek. It was back in the day when I could leave the house in the morning, be gone all day and go anywhere and do anything. My mother had a bell installed on the front of the house to call us to dinner. So I was very used to having that outdoor connection.”
After graduating from Seneca High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown (Ky.) College before enrolling in a master’s program at the University of Louisville. There he studied creative writing under Sena Jeter Naslund, who would go on to become a celebrated novelist and author of such works as Ahab’s Wife, Four Spirits and Adam & Eve.
“I knew from the beginning that Fred was a rare and special talent,” Naslund said during a phone interview from her Old Louisville home. “What I continue to see in his work, but amplified, is centered in language and his care for language. He doesn’t just want the right word. He wants what I would call the gleaming word—the word that has a startling and meaningful appropriateness to it.”
A former poet laureate herself, from 2005-2006, Naslund anticipates that Smock’s concise expressiveness will appeal particularly to audiences who may not be deeply versed in verse.
“I don’t want to suggest that Fred is a ‘little’ poet; he isn’t,” Naslund said. “He writes short poems. What I find in Fred’s own manner is that he’s a very kind and attentive person to be with, and as he travels Kentucky I know he’ll bring that quality of attention to others.”
Indeed, Smock has learned, in various guises, how to be a keen listener. Beginning in 1984, he edited The American Voice, a literary journal funded by Sallie Bingham, whose father once owned The Courier-Journal and other local media properties. There Smock was a curator, not a creator, though “there were sometimes things that I questioned, or wanted tweaked, that crossed the threshold … I didn’t write a whole lot during that time; I think I was seeing so much bad writing that I thought, why add to the pile?”
With budget issues becoming increasingly contentious, the journal ceased publishing in 1999, and Smock found himself casting about for another position, “which is when I talked my way into Bellarmine.”
The ensuing years have been kind to Smock, who, besides teaching, has written ten volumes of poetry and essays. His most recent collection of poems, The Bounteous World, app-eared in early 2013. The slender volume includes reflections of Smock’s visits to Scandinavia, meditations as heavenly as the moon’s celestial wanderings and as earthbound as skiing alongside his two young sons. There is a straightforward soulfulness to his verse. He does not aim to confound or to confuse.
“There are no hidden meanings,” he said—not in his works, nor in practically anything that is truly genuine. “You want to read a poem carefully, where would we hide the meaning?” he asked rhetorically.
His verse is softly lyrical, the product of a kind of relentless patience.
“These things, for me, have to percolate,” he said. “You give it a shot, and it either works or it doesn’t. I know the first rule of writing is to keep (your) notebooks, but I can’t stand to have all that stuff around me. If something comes to me, I’ll write it down. I’ll play with it for a while. I can pretty much tell early on in the process if this is going to work or not, and if it doesn’t work, I’m not interested in keeping it around. I don’t care to be that prolific. I’d rather put out a small body of really good work than mediocre it down.”
Much of the time a poem’s gestation “happens pretty fast for me,” Smock said. “Maybe that’s not good, but I don’t go over and over and over. Because I found that when I do that, it’s looking labored, and I wanted to feel just as natural as a breath of wind.”
Once in a while, Smock’s writing finds its way to an unusually large constituency. A couple of times Garrison Keillor read works of his during a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, a welcome flicker of literary fame. “And he pays well,” Smock observed: “a hundred dollars for every little poem he reads on his program. It’s probably the most money I ever made from a poem. I did sell one once to the Hudson Review, a big-time journal with offices on Park Avenue, and I thought, ‘Yes, this is going to be a payday.’ It was a sonnet, 14 lines, and I got a check for $14. They paid a dollar per line. And I thought, ‘All right, I don’t really care.’”
What he does care about, profoundly, is the intrinsic value of quietude. Smock often asks his students where they seek out relative silence.
“Most of them are aware of the things they do to be un-plugged,” he said. “Some of them go driving; some of them go to their grandparents’ farm. Most of them have places they go where they can be by themselves and be quiet. We get a lot of students who are pioneer students—first-time college students—from the counties around Jefferson County, and they may be more open to that sort of thing. Bellarmine is on its own hill, surrounded by woods. It’s a very pastoral setting. A lot of students talk about how beautiful they find the campus. So there was a connection with nature even in the middle of the Quad.”
Ultimately, what may matter most is encouraging students—and himself—to slow down, to stretch time until the pressure of the right-now is relieved. Smock’s students may be assigned to read a certain poem before class, but if for some reason they haven’t fully digested it, he regards that not as a frustration, but as an opportunity.
“‘OK, I’m going to read it to you now,’” he might tell them. “And I’ll read it slowly, and we’ll talk about it. Typically I’ll read it again, so in class I slow them way down.”
Occasionally, to secure his point, Smock will refer to one of his own poems.
“There is one that has real pedagogical use for me,” he said. “I tell them the last two lines just popped into my head. I’d written what was essentially a journal entry. I wrote them down, and I think I lifted that journal entry into the realm of poetry, but not even I can tell you what they mean. Nor would I even want to. It’s your call now, not mine. So have at it.”
By Andrew Adler
Photo by Jessica Ebelhar
Poetry by Frederick Smock
The Deer at Gethsemani
There was a gate,
old and green,
that swung in the wind.
No fence stretched away
on either side anymore,
if ever one had.
The gate stood alone,
open on the meadow,
a seamless drift of land.
To my eye, that gate
organized the whole field
of vision. Everything
circled around the gate,
or radiated out from it,
or passed through it.
Surely I could never think
of crossing that field
and not passing through.
There was an inevitability
to it, and a promise that,
after passing through,
was sure to be revealed
on the other side.
The day lengthens,
the old earth tips its hat
to the moon.
The changeful moon
goes through many phases,
even in a single night,
though it is the same
moon, as ever, we know this.
We are the changes.
All year long there is
the table by the window,
blue cups with white rims,
the black teapot.
There are sometimes flowers,
when we remember.
There are paisley napkins,
and always oranges.
The window looks down
into a courtyard,
and sometimes up
into blue sky.
Every forest has
a central tree,
one the whole forest
You may not
be able to find it.
It lives deep
in the heart.
It may even have
ago, but its memory
is that strong.