Poet in Motion

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

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2018
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“I want to find out what our anxiety is about. Poems help me ask these questions of myself, guiding me toward a better clarity around questions of compassion.”

In Wade in the Water, Smith artfully interrogates racism, sexism, xenophobia, and environmental destruction (the poem “Watershed” blends the text of a New York Times Magazine exposé on chemical dumping with testimony of near-death experiences, to remarkable effect), but she does not read as a “political poet” in the doctrinaire sense. She’s a seeker, an asker of questions at a moment when empathy is often politicized. Smith plays with this idea in “Political Poem,” a title that “makes you expect something dogmatic,” Smith says. Instead, you get a dreamlike vision of two mowers in a field, a mile apart, and the poet imagining what would happen if they saw each other across that distance and waved — how their work would “carry them / into the better part of evening, each mowing / ahead and doubling back, then looking up to catch / sight of his echo, sought and held ... ”

And then there are angels: the pair of bikers, all leather jackets and corroded teeth, in “The Angels”; and the celestial associations of the title poem, “Wade in the Water,” named for a spiritual sung along the Underground Railroad as a reminder to people escaping slavery to take to the water, to throw the dogs off the scent. 

These elements link Smith’s personal history to America’s, and to the ever-rushing current that runs through all things, from the river to the stars.  

“I think my work is motivated by a wish to connect to something outside of what we can see and understand,” Smith says. “Something that might help us to deal with what we’re confronted with — the real.”


The position of poet laureate was established in 1985, a revision to the title of consultant in poetry, which dates to 1937. In total, forty-eight American poets, including Bishop and Dove, have served as America’s official bard. Smith is the third Columbia graduate to hold the post, along with Daniel Hoffman ’47CC, ’56GSAS (1973–74) and Anthony Hecht ’50GSAS (1982–84).

The poet laureate opens and closes the Library of Congress’s annual literary series with a reading and a lecture, gives readings and interviews, and generally serves as a national consciousness-raiser for the art form. Shortly after Smith’s appointment, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a poetry lover, invited her to his state. Smith visited Cannon Air Force Base, and at night she gave a reading of her own poems and those of other poets. “Some people wanted to read some of the poems I had read, in their own voices,” Smith says. “It was another way of sharing these texts — almost as offerings to each other.”

Photographs by Nathan Perkel

She also visited the Santa Fe Indian School, which the US government founded in 1890 with the goal of acculturation, and which gained autonomy in the 1920s. “It’s a beautiful place, where students are so mindful of their own culture and language, of the ways language is vital to identity, and of the threats that put language at peril. There was a sense of the living word, sacred and religious, which relates to poetry in many ways.”

“I think my work is motivated by a wish to connect to something outside of what we can see and understatnd.”

On a trip to South Carolina, Smith went to rural sites: a church, a school involved in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court cases. Congressman Jim Clyburn joined Smith and framed his introduction around Black history, “which was perfect, because so much of the poetry in my readings is drawn from history, or from thinking about the connection between current events and the history of civil rights and the Civil War,” Smith says. “I met a lot of people who were happy and proud. A woman told me, ‘I brought my daughter here because I wanted her to see that someone who looks like her can do what you’re doing.’ There was a motivation that had to do with selfhood and offering role models for a new generation of Black kids. It was a really special trip.”

If being a poet is to ask questions, being poet laureate is also to field them. People at Smith’s readings usually want to know where poems come from and how they’re made, while the press makes its perennial demand that poetry justify itself. “Why bother being a poet?” a reporter from
PBS NewsHour asked Smith, naming runaway technology and political strife as possible disincentives. “What kind of impact could you possibly have amidst all that?” On CBS This Morning, an anchorwoman noted to Smith that many people find poetry “difficult” and “boring.”

But Smith says poetry is necessary in twenty-first-century life, “because it rewards us for naming things in their complexity. It creates a vocabulary for our difficult-to-name feelings; it brings us in touch with the quiet voice of the inner life, which most facets of consumer culture are drowning out. I think poetry is one way of saying, ‘None of that’s important. There’s something quiet that I house that’s worth contemplating.’”

Photograph by Przemyslaw Koch / Alamy Stock Photo

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