Former Kentucky Poet Laureate Fredrick Smock dies at 68

By Keith L. Runyon

Frederick Smock, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and longtime professor of English at Bellarmine University, died Sunday of heart problems.

He was 68 years old.

Smock was familiar to readers of the Courier Journal, where his book reviews appeared regularly for more than 35 years. Bellarmine announced his death on Monday.

When Smock was named Poet Laureate in 2017, he said his goal was to bring poetry to the people of Kentucky.

In an interview in Bellarmine Magazine, he said, “I’ll go around and read some poetry to people, (just asking them to) sit with it and take it in, because people don’t read a lot of poetry anymore. And as an educator, I want to talk about the joy that we had as children and try to recapture some of that.

In the dozens of reviews Smock wrote for this journal, he continually shared his love of not only poetry, but also some of the best prose from the latter part of the 20th century. Above all, Smock rejoiced in discovering authors whose names were not household 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. At that time, like much of suburban Jefferson County, the land was underdeveloped and young Fred’s imagination flourished.

He 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 beloved writers and author of “Ahab’s Wife ” and “Four Spirits”.

“Fred was one of the first graduate students whose master’s thesis, a collection of original poems, I supervised at the U of L in the mid-1970s,” Naslund recalls. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Around this time, young Fred went to work in 1978 as the first employee of a new independent bookshop – Carmichael’s – on Bardstown Road at Bonnycastle Avenue.

Co-founder Michael Boggs recalls, “For the next 40 years he was a regular visitor, always taking the time to chat with staff, rave about a new author, poet or book he had discovered . In turn, he questioned us about our own current enthusiasms.

“Fred was the very definition of a ‘book,’ backed by the writing he relished and produced,” Boggs observed. His wife and co-founder, Carol Besse, said Smock was just in the Longest Avenue store a few days ago to pick up his daily newspaper.

Frederick Smock as Poet-in-Residence at Bellarmine University in 1994.

Naslund, who founded the Master of Fine Arts program in writing at Spalding University, explained Smock’s broad appeal: “His poems and many fine books, often published by Larkspur Press, are gems with the vitality flowers. Each of them presents something of its own nature and softness, informed by a unique way of living and reshaping what we thought the world was.

Smock was a quiet man of letters with an adventurous spirit. Several weeks ago he recalled a canoe trip with friends and family along the Green River in western Kentucky with the Nature Conservancy over 20 years ago. They mocked locals who raced their big-wheeled jeeps through the mud along the banks like characters from the movie “Deliverance.”

Smock was the antithesis of these folks, representing the softer side of Kentucky that was once 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 knew how to defy stereotypes. When fearsome feminist Sallie Bingham, herself a nationally respected writer, inherited part 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 newspapers, being related to longtime Courier Journal sportswriter Earl Ruby.)

In the 1990s, he joined the faculty of Bellarmine. There he came to lead the creative writing program, guiding a generation of students to a life of letters.

Frederick Smock as Poet-in-Residence at Bellarmine College.

In an interview, current Carmichael’s co-owner Miranda Blankenship said stores continue to stock and sell Smock’s books and will likely have additional titles soon.

According to Bellarmine’s online tribute, Smock has written five books 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 Intrantibus: A Meditation on the Poetry of Thomas Merton” (2007), and “Craft-talk: On Writing Poetry” (2008).

Garrison Keillor read some of his poems on “A Prairie Home Companion” (heard locally on WFPL-FM). Smock has received numerous awards, including the Jim Wayne Miller Poetry Prize from Western Kentucky University, the Wilson W. Wyatt Sr. Prize from Bellarmine, and the Al Smith Poetry Fellowship 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: naturally among those select literary finds that are described as jewels.

His life will be celebrated this fall at Bellarmine University, after students return to class.

Keith L. Runyon retired as the Courier-Journal’s editorial page editor in 2012. He served as that journal’s editor from 1989 to 2012.

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