Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Cultivates Community
|thenorthstar||Mar 15, 2019|
In her 2015 memoir Ordinary Light, US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith wrote that poetry fostered “not just pleasure but an indescribable comfort” and defined her intellectual and experiential relationship to poetry as a “dialect of the soul.” Throughout her award-winning work — which includes The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and American Journal: Fifty Poems of Our Time (2018) — and in her public role as a poetry evangelist, Smith uses the power of language to curate human connection across the divided terrain of politics, race, gender, class, and sexuality.
Now in her second term as poet laureate, Smith has traveled across the country for poetry readings, including to rural communities. “In reading and talking about poems in different configurations of community,” she said of her travels, “I notice that poems lead us not to a place of argumentation, but rather deep consideration and honest revelation.” To stir such possibilities, Smith launched a daily podcast called “The Slowdown.” The 5-minute-long program features Smith sharing an anecdote about the poem she’s reading that day. She insists that this contextualization encourages listeners (and readers of poetry) to spend time discerning the instructive moments that give life. In addition to Smith’s responsibilities as poet laureate, she keeps busy as a parent, partner, and proponent of poetry as a literature professor at Princeton.
One thread that stitches Smith’s work together is that of life’s materiality. Her poetry explores the messiness of relationships and the beauty of friendship. It meditates upon grand narratives and individual stories of tragedy and triumph throughout history, which bear witness to the past by exploring what such archival traces mean to survival in the present and the body politic in both an American and global context.
“Ransom” from 2007’s Life on Mars, for example, connects maritime conflict with environmental degradation and the recent history of US military aggression in East Africa. “They have guns. They know the sea like it/Is their mother, and she is not well,” Smith writes. “The white men scramble. Some fight back./When one is taken, the whole world sits up/To watch. When pirates fall, the world/Smiles to itself, thanking goodness.”
“Everything That Ever Was,” another selection from Life on Mars, turns to the energetic stillness of composing a poem, contemplating the pleasure and promise of literary construction. “Like a wide wake, rippling/Infinitely into the distance, everything/That ever was still is, somewhere,” Smith says of the connection between ordinary human life and language. “My hands/Sat working a thread in my lap.”
Smith’s poetry, and work as poet laureate, seeks to use language and words to curate connection between people of different backgrounds.
Poetry can create space for people, who don’t necessarily share the same life experiences, to listen to one another. She observes that the moment of encounter — the sometimes herculean effort required to connect with another human being, or with a larger community unlike one’s own — requires the heavy labor of truth-telling.
“Wade in the Water,” from a collection of the same name, underscores this point by referencing the famous Black spiritual and drawing on the history of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters from South Carolina. In the poem, the history of enslavement weighs heavy on the reader (“And a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest”), while survival’s “light” forces a reckoning with the past in the present moment. Black women lead the way in the act of demanding a collective truth. Through the repetition of the Geechee Ring Shouters saying “I love you” throughout the poem, Smith unlocks a sense of hope that emerges from acknowledging the racist sins of America’s history and its severe manifestations today. While possible, the reversal of the hypocrisy upon which the US is built is not easy. “Is this love the trouble you promised?” the poem asks. The reader is left to linger with this question, to transform an answer into action.
For Smith, poetry’s language, its visceral presence, and profound immediacy speaks to something beyond words. Yet poetry’s mystical sway emanates from the very materiality of words themselves.
If poetry is, in fact, a dialect of the soul, and its presence provides ordinary light, then we need its language now more than ever.
Smith’s role as poet laureate builds on the witness and work of African Americans who previously held this distinguished position: Robert Hayden (1976–1978), Gwendolyn Brooks (1985–1986), Rita Dove (1993–1995), and Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014). As a literary scholar, Olga Dugan explains in the essay “In the Catbird Seat: The African American Contribution to 20th-Century American Poetry,” Black poet laureates have collectively expanded the platforms for poetry’s performance across the US. They have amplified its role as a tool of resistance and remembrance across the halls of American history.
Dugan shows that their efforts to popularize poetry have also insisted on the power of language’s urgency — its verbalized material presence as the breath (and breadth) of sounds — to bridge the present with the past, and enliven history for today. This is a task that Tracy K. Smith has taken up with profound energy.
Smith’s faith in words to work as a bulwark against fear highlights the ways that language can disrupt division. It is recognizing that poetry can be a discourse of encounter instead of weaponizing words as rockets of verbal destruction. This is not simply a rhetorical solution to incessant discord. It curates connection by cultivating the capacity to see and to use language as a gift.
About the Author
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.