Tracy K. Smith grew up in a house lined with books, an eclectic library that included dime-store mysteries, 19th-century novels, science fiction paperbacks, Shakespeare’s sonnets and Reader’s Digest Abridged Classics. It seemed vast to her as a child, but soon she’ll have full run of the world’s largest library: On Wednesday, Smith was named the new poet laureate of the United States.
“I was stunned,” she said from her office at Princeton University, where she is director of creative writing. “It took me a minute to take it in and think about it, and then, of course, I was immensely honored and started thinking about all the ways I could lend my voice to the celebration of poetry on the national stage.”
Smith, 45, is the author of three widely praised collections, “The Body’s Question” (2003), “Duende” (2007) and “Life on Mars,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She is the first poet laureate appointed by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who succeeded James H. Billington last fall. The poet laureate position, which comes with an office in the library, a travel budget and a modest stipend, has few official duties and no political entanglements — no required sonnets on the occasion of Donald Trump’s birthday, etc. Smith, who plans to continue living in New Jersey, will be free to define her role however she’d like.
“It’s what every artist is hoping for: time and space and support for the freedom to create,” Smith said. “I get to immerse myself in the conversation that poetry generates. When we’re talking about the feelings that poems alert us to and affirm, we’re speaking as our realest selves. To imagine bringing the tone of that conversation into different parts of the country and having conversations with people I can’t come into contact with every day, that feels like a really wonderful opportunity.”
Smith’s interest in reaching a broad audience made her an especially attractive choice. “One of the things I have been stressing thematically across the library is that we want to be accessible and relatable to people all across the country,” Hayden said. “The fact that Tracy wants to go into rural areas and talk about poetry is such a great idea and something that really excited me because I think that’s the kind of thing we should be doing as an institution.”
The youngest of five children, Smith was born in Falmouth, Mass., and raised in Fairfield, Calif., in a loving home she describes in her memoir, “Ordinary Light,” which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction. Her parents managed to shield her, for a time, from some of the racial challenges they faced as African Americans growing up in the 1940s. Smith’s mother was a deeply religious woman whose faith defined Smith’s world until she began to read more widely and went to Harvard, where she discovered the works of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, writers whose work, she says, “hurt, but buoyed me, too.”
Smith’s father served in the Air Force and then worked as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. She alludes to him throughout “Life on Mars” — a title inspired by a David Bowie song. One of the poems in that collection, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” — a phrase drawn from Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001” — ends with these lines that recall the Hubble’s initial malfunction:
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
Smith’s range, seen here in the way she can stretch so gracefully from science fiction to astronomy to Nietzsche, will surely be one of her strengths as poet laureate. Her work can be appreciated on a variety of levels. Even while publishing poetry that rewards careful study and elicits praise from her peers, she has no patience with the impenetrable obscurity of some contemporary verse. “Poems infatuated with their own smarts and detached from any emotional grounding can leave the reader feeling lonely, empty and ashamed for having expected more,” she once wrote in the New York Times.
Smith says she’s troubled by the approach to poetry that she sees in too many high schools and middle schools. “Students are beginning to feel anxious about what they’re being asked to do with a poem — as though the poem is out to trick them. I love being able to say, ‘Let’s just take the poem at face value and see what the poem is saying.’ Getting back to regular conversational ideas about what words say and what they make us think — that’s a great first step.”
A mother of three, Smith knows that children “live in metaphor” and take readily to poems without “any anxiety that hampers the pleasure of poetry.” But soon, she laments, “they are forced to put that away.”
Smith wants to find a way to revive that early enthusiasm for poetry across the country. It’s a quest driven partially by her concern for how divided America feels today.
“Poetry can help us make sense of the contemporary moment,” she says. “I’m excited by the fact that what poets are writing speaks to a particular moment and it speaks to the ages. Any political moment is uncertain, and a voice that lets us think about that will last. Let’s think about how empathy can drive our perspective of one another. Let’s think about how we can get past what’s binary and simplest to what’s complicated.”
Or, as she writes in a poem called “Sci-Fi”:
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Smith, who succeeds Juan Felipe Herrera, will begin her year-long term as the 22nd poet laureate consultant in poetry with a public reading of her work at the libraryin September. Her next collection, “Wade in the Water,” will be published in April.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.