After attending local schools in Hobart, Tasmania, Vivian Smith graduated with an MA in French from the University of Tasmania. After teaching French for ten years, he moved to Sydney in 1967. He completed a PhD in English at the University of Sydney and taught there for many years, retiring as reader in English in 1996.
Smith's poetry maintains a close connection with Tasmania, but his descriptions of Sydney have drawn comparisons with the poetry of Kenneth Slessor (q.v.). Influenced by Slessor and Judith Wright, Smith's poetry is often preoccupied with landscape and the sea, exploring themes such as loss and endurance, decay and renewal. He was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1997.
In addition to his poetry, Smith has edited a number of anthologies. From 1975 to 1990 he was the literary editor of Quadrant. He edited Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer (1977) and wrote the poetry section of The Oxford History of Australian Literature (1981). Smith has also written significant studies on Australian writers such as James McAuley, Vance and Nettie Palmer and the American poet Robert Lowell. He also published the work of literary criticism Tasmania and Australian Poetry (1984).
A short story anthology, Sydney's Stories: A Selection of the Best Short Stories Written About Australia (1994), co-edited by Smith, is listed in Libraries Australia. This book has not been traced.