By Keith L Runyon
Frederick Smock, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and longtime English professor at Bellarmine University, died Sunday of heart problems.
He was 68.
Smock was well known to readers of the Courier Journal, where his book reviews had appeared regularly for more than 35 years. Bellarmine announced his death on Monday.
When Smock was named Poet Laureate in 2017, he stated his goal was to bring poetry to the people of Kentucky.
In an interview with Bellarmine Magazine, he said: “I’m going to go to people and just read poetry out loud,[justaskthemtositdownandrecorditbecausepeopledon’treadmuchpoetryanymoreAndasaneducatorIwanttotalkaboutthejoywehadaschildrenandtrytorecapturesomeofthat”
In the numerous reviews Smock wrote for that newspaper, he constantly shared his love not only for poetry but also for some of the best prose texts of the second half of the 20th century. What Smock enjoyed most was discovering authors whose names were not common words but who wrote as if they should be.
Smock grew up in Fern Creek, where his father, a radiologist who moved to Louisville from Owensboro, settled his family in the early 1950s. Back then, like much of Jefferson County’s suburbs, the country was undeveloped and young Fred’s imagination blossomed.
It matured at Seneca High School, then Georgetown College, and finally the University of Louisville, where he studied with Sena Jeter Naslund, who would become one of Kentucky’s most popular writers and the author of Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits.
“Fred was one of the first graduate students whose MA work, a collection of original poetry, I supervised at U of L in the mid-1970s,” recalls Naslund. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
It was around this time that young Fred began working in 1978 as the first clerk at a new independent bookshop – Carmichael’s – on Bardstown Road off Bonnycastle Avenue.
Co-founder Michael Boggs recalled: “For the next 40 years he was a regular visitor, always making time to chat with the staff, raving about a new author or poet or a book he had discovered. In return, he would quiz us about our own current enthusiasm.
“Fred was the quintessential ‘book person,’ buoyed by the writing he enjoyed and produced,” Boggs remarked. His wife and co-founder Carol Besse said Smock just stopped by the Longest Avenue store a few days ago to pick up his daily newspaper.
Naslund, who founded the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Spalding University, explained Smock’s broad appeal: “His poetry and many fine books, often published by Larkspur Press, are jewels with the vitality of flowers. Each of them shows something of their own kind and gentle way, shaped by a unique way of experiencing and reshaping what we thought the world was.”
Smock was a quiet writer with an adventurous spirit. A few weeks ago, he reminisced about a canoe trip with friends and family down the Green River in western Kentucky with the Nature Conservancy more than 20 years ago. They laughed at the locals speeding their big-wheel jeeps in the mud along the river bank like characters from the movie Deliverance.
Smock was the opposite of such people and represented the softer side of Kentucky, formerly represented by Robert Penn Warren, Alice Hegan Rice or Jesse Stuart and more recently by Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Silas House and Naslund.
And he could defy stereotypes. When feared feminist Sallie Bingham, a nationally respected writer, inherited a portion of the Courier Journal fortune in the 1980s, she hired Fred to edit the Kentucky Foundation for Women’s quarterly publication, American Voice. (Smock had a family connection to the newspapers, being related to longtime Courier Journal sports editor Earl Ruby.)
In the 1990s he joined the faculty of Bellarmine. There he led the creative writing program and guided a generation of students to a life of letters.
In an interview, current Carmichael’s co-owner Miranda Blankenship said the stores will continue to stock and sell Smock’s books and will likely have more titles soon.
According to Bellarmine’s online tribute, Smock wrote five collections of poetry: “Gardencourt” (1997), “The Good Life” (2000), “Guest House” (2003), “The Blue Hour” (2010) and “The Bounteous World” (2013 ). His prose books include Poetry & Compassion: Essays on Art & Craft (2006), Pax Intratibus: A Meditation on the Poetry of Thomas Merton (2007) and Craft-talk: On Writing Poetry (2008).
Garrison Keillor read some of his poetry on “A Prairie Home Companion” (hear locally on WFPL-FM). Smock has received many awards, including the Jim Wayne Miller Prize for Poetry from Western Kentucky University, the Wilson W. Wyatt Sr. Award from Bellarmine, and the Al Smith Fellowship in Poetry from the Kentucky Arts Council.
In 1996, the late Joy Bale Boone – founding editor of the Kentucky Poetry Review – praised Smock’s “This Meadow of Time: A Provence Journal” in a Courier Journal review: “It’s pleasant in every way to hold this little book with a colorful cover, the falls, of course, among those exquisite literary finds that are called gems.”
His life will be celebrated at Bellarmine University this fall after students return to classes.
Keith L. Runyon retired as editor of the editorial page of The Courier-Journal in 2012. From 1989 to 2012 he was book editor of this newspaper.