Tracy K. Smith, the new poet laureate of the United States, arrived for duty Wednesday at the Library of Congress in Washington. By tradition, Smith began by signing the guest book in the Poetry Office, adding her signature to those of Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Billy Collins, Rita Dove and more.
The poet laureate, who usually serves a one-year term, is largely free to define the position however she chooses. For her opening lecture in the Thomas Jefferson Building, Smith read a selection of poems from her three collections, “The Body’s Question,” “Duende” and “Life on Mars,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She also read from her upcoming collection, “Wade in the Water,” which will be published by Graywolf Press in April. Among her most powerful new pieces were “found poems” constructed from archival letters that African American veterans sent to President Lincoln asking for pensions they were owed.
In an interview before taking the stage, Smith said, “I go to a lot of writers conferences and literary festivals that tend to be in college towns or cities, and I’m eager to see what happens if those same texts and those same questions move outside of those areas to smaller rural communities where there are surely people who read and love poetry. I am eager to see how that conversation will change and what poems speak to that is relevant to lives in other places.”
Smith, who teaches at Princeton University, is the first poet laureate appointed by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.
Before bringing Smith to the stage Wednesday night, Hayden introduced the first national youth poet laureate: Amanda Gorman, a sophomore at Harvard University. She was chosen from five finalists representing five regions across the country.
Gorman read a dramatic poem she wrote called “In This Place (An American Lyric),” which blends Whitmanesque catalogues with a passionate recognition of the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States.
One stanza in Gorman’s poem alludes to Heather Heyer, who died after a car slammed into a crowd of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last month:
There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tikki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue —
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.
In the audience Wednesday night were Smith’s publisher, Fiona McCrae, and executive editor, Jeffrey Shotts. Nothing could have made the evening better for them. Earlier in the day, they had learned that three Graywolf books are on the longlist for the National Book Award in Poetry.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.