A poet's legacy is recorded on film and set to music


PITTSFIELD >> It took some persuasion to get former U.S. poet laureate William Jay Smith to be filmed reading his poems aloud.

Smith, a long-time Cummington resident, was 95, sometimes cranky and in the midst of assembling a book when Lanesborough composer Alice Spatz approached him. She wanted to record him discussing and reading his poems to a backdrop of she music would compose.

"He would say, 'Okay, okay, all right, we'll do it,' " Spatz recalls. "And then we would talk some more and he'd say, 'No, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know if we should do this.' That's the way it went, back and forth, until he finally agreed that we would do it."

Smith died last year at 97, but not before Spatz composed her score and she and filmmaker Eric J. Shepherd had two filming sessions with him. The hour-long movie, "Poetry with Music and Film," will have its first major screening at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Berkshire Athenaeum.

Smith was poet laureate (a position then known as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress) from 1968 to 1970 and taught at Williams College from 1959 to 1964 and 1966 to 1977. He was not as well known as his poet-neighbor Richard Wilbur, but he wrote 30 books of poetry, some for children. In his obituary, The New York Times said his poetry "was known both for its acuteness of observation and acuteness of craftsmanship."

The film features Smith speaking about and reading five poems that he and Spatz chose. The subjects range from a seemingly fanciful argument between a floor and a ceiling (hinting at a divorce at the end) to a lament "for a world whose wars will never end."

Spatz's music sometimes accompanies the reading and sometimes follows it. Three live musicians — two singers and a harpist — appear on screen but most of the scoring is for a computer-generated ensemble consisting of flute/piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello, double bass, harp and percussion.

Grants totaling $2,750 from local cultural councils and other groups, including the Athenaeum, did not allow the luxury of more live musicians, Spatz said in a phone interview. Nature scenes, mostly from the Berkshires, also accompany the spoken words.

Spatz and Shepherd were assisted by Patty Kimura of Worthington, who served as Smith's assistant during his last five years, assembling his papers, handling his correspondence and doing Internet research for him. Often, Kimura recalled in an email, "we simply talked.

"He shared a lot of his life with me, his likes and dislikes, his thoughts on other writers and poets, gossip, our shared progressive Democratic politics, his failures and his successes, the tumult of his childhood and where he found peace and solace then. He felt he was nearing the end of his life, and I think this put him in a mood not to care as much about what others might think, but more about what he wanted to say about his own life."

Spatz, the bassist in the Berkshire folk trio Wintergreen, got the idea of a collaboration three years ago when Wintergreen performed at a William Cullen Bryant celebration at the 19th-century poet's homestead in Cummington. Smith and Wilbur, the poet laureate in 1987, gave readings at the event.

"Completely blown away" by Smith's poems, Spatz originally planned a CD of them with her music. With soprano Maureen O'Flynn she made a demo of one poem and sent the setting off to Smith. He called, and as they talked, the project evolved into a film.

Three things helped to win the balky poet over, Spatz said. One was that she had gone to Bennington, where Smith had many associations. Another was the arrival of Shepherd as filmmaker; Smith took to him strongly. And Kimura was always present to smooth the way.

"It was hard for him to imagine this whole thing because he had never seen anything like it," Spatz said. He saw a rough early version of the film but died still hoping for one more session to improve on his readings, she said.

Future screenings are scheduled in Lanesborough on June 5 and Cummington on June 11.


What: "Poetry with Music and Film." Documentary by videographer Eric J. Shepherd with five poems by former U.S. poet laureate William Jay Smith set to music by Berkshires composer and musician Alice Spatz

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Berkshire Athenaeum, Library Auditorium, 1 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield

Admission: Free


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