William Jay Smith was born in Winnfield, Louisiana. He was brought up at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, south of St. Louis. Smith received his A.B. and M.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and continued his studies at Columbia University, and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
In 1947 he married the poet Barbara Howes, and they lived for a time in England and Italy. They had two sons, David Smith, and Gregory. They divorced in the mid-1960s.
Smith was a poet in residence at Williams College from 1959—1967, taught at Columbia University from 1973 until 1975. He serves as the Professor Emeritus of English literature at Hollins University.
As of 2008, he lives in houses located in both Cummington, Massachusetts and Paris, France.
Smith is the author of ten collections of poetry of which two were finalists for the National Book Award.
He has been member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975.
His work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, The New York Review of Books,
When the whole history of twentieth-century American poetry is eventually written, it will surely be revealed that despite the apparently larger and often noisier triumphs of "open" forms, astonishingly good verse that we can call "metrical" or "formal" has continued to be written by some of the country's best poets — Smith himself along with his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. That Smith has written poems replete with rhythm, rhyme, wit, and melody — what Louise Bogan called "the pleasures of formal poetry," in an essay by the same name — is cause for celebration, homage, and gratitude.
The far-reaching themes and variety of styles in William Jay Smith's poetry prove that commonplace ideas and everyday activities can be reinvented by lyrical language that enlightens and entertains the reader. His magical "Collected Poems" span a half-century of his life and the life of the nation, adding up to a literary and social history of our times in verse.