FEATURE

Poet in Motion

US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith '97SOA gives wings to words.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2018
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Photographs by Nathan Perkel

In the fall of 1995, Tracy K. Smith ’97SOA sat in a classroom in Dodge Hall at Columbia University, listening to the poet Lucille Clifton talk about her late husband. Clifton, a visiting professor and one of America’s most beloved poets, often spoke about the interplay of her personal life and her writing, but one story was of particular interest to Smith: after Clifton lost her husband, strange poems began coming to her, as if from outside her own mind — poems that were telling her about the future.

At the time, Smith, a young graduate student, was still mourning the loss of her mother, who had died the year before of cancer. Kathryn Smith had been a devout Christian, proper and gracious, the backbone of the family, and she and Tracy, the youngest of five children, had had an intense bond.

Now, at age fifty-nine, she was gone.

Yet here was Clifton, in class, intimating that her dead husband was not exactly dead. “I remember her saying that there is energy all around us, communicating with us — if only we could listen,” Smith says.

Smith has been listening ever since, her crystal-clear receptiveness and hunger for contact leading to four books of emotionally potent, revelatory poetry. She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Life on Mars, and her coming-of-age memoir Ordinary Light was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. Last year, Smith attained one of poetry’s highest honors when the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, acting on the consensus of more than a hundred poetry authorities nationwide, named Smith the US Poet Laureate for 2017–18. This past March, Smith was appointed to a second term.

In her work, Smith hurls herself through the weather of human feeling: love and loss, desire and need, dread and awe. Whether contemplating the worm inside the mescal bottle (“Its last happy exhalations, / Lungs giddy, mouth spilling / A necklace of minuscule bubbles”) or deep-space images of dust funnels and stars (“We saw to the edge of all there is / So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back”), there is always some underlying ache for “those moments where you don’t have control, where you wish something could overtake you, which I think is a big part of what being alive is about,” she says. Lately her mind has been on the idea of compassion, and she is using her pulpit as poet laureate to bring the Word to places on the map often overlooked by the culturati: a church in South Carolina, an opioid treatment center in Kentucky. She wants people outside of cities and college towns to get the chance to talk about, as she says, “the big questions of feeling and experience that poetry puts us in mind of.”

Smith writes mostly in free verse (unrhymed, unmetered), with the occasional formal composition — a sonnet, a villanelle — stitched neatly into the fabric of her slender books. Each poem begins its life as “an anxiety, some sort of unrest, good or bad, something I’m unsettled by or worried about, something I don’t have a grasp on,” Smith says. “A poem allows me to wrestle with these ideas and inklings and get somewhere with them.” As she works, her ear gets busier, “listening to the sounds of words, and the images that emerge organically, and the ideas that those things give way to.

“I find poetry lifts us out of our conscious concerns and helps us think in different ways. You’re playing with form, you’re listening to strange associations, and something you didn’t know you knew comes out. That fascinates me. It’s one of the things that made me want to write poems: teaching myself something I didn’t think I knew.”

 

Photographs by Nathan Perkel

Smith first encountered the power of language through nursery rhymes and the Bible, and from the locutions of her Alabama-born parents. She grew up in Fairfield, California, halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, and one town away from Travis Air Force Base. It was the 1970s, when, as Smith writes, “everything shone bright as brass”: there were Saturday-morning cartoons, sprawling family breakfasts. Outside, a flowering yard hopped with finches that “scattered like buckshot” at human approach, and roads led to pastures where unsaddled horses came to your hand for apples.

Smith’s father, Floyd William Smith, was a patriotic, sci-fi-loving Air Force avionics engineer who, after retiring from the military, worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother ran the household, went to church, sewed dresses and quilts, made a heavenly Alabama lemon-cheese layer cake, and later taught school.

But beneath the surface of family life and the Smiths’ poised adherence to a code of excellence that was their answer to the assumptions of the white world around them, Smith, at age ten, lived with “a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright.” There was this unspoken thing whose presence she felt in her Southern-raised parents — what Smith memorably calls “the pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love.”

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