Poet Laureate Steps Off Beaten Path, Takes Poetry to Small Towns, Rural Communities

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Photo of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith
Photo of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith by Rachel Eliza Griffiths / courtesy Graywolf Press

“I am thrilled that Tracy K. Smith has accepted my invitation to continue sharing her poetry with the nation. Her exchanges with Americans in small towns and rural communities are inspiring an appreciation of poetry and history—and remind us that poetry has value for all our lives.”

—Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress

This past March, shortly after the Librarian of Congress named Tracy K. Smith to a second term as Poet Laureate Consultant of Poetry, Smith, the 22nd U.S. poet laureate, addressed an audience in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium and described her initiative in the previous year. She took poetry to underserved segments of the population and regions, including small towns and rural communities in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

During Smith’s initiative, she presented poems by John Yao (“Music from Childhood”) and Natalie Diaz (“My Brother at 3 a.m.”).  “Poetry invites us to listen to other voices,” says Smith, “to make space for other perspectives and to care about the lives of others who may not look, sound or think like ourselves. . . . Not only do we recognize and have many things to say to each other, but talking about poems together allows us to access and share our feelings and bear witness to the experiences that shape our lives.”

In an onstage interview at the Library the night of her annual lecture as poet laureate, Smith said that her interest is not in advocating for specific social causes but rather to be an “advocate for the medium itself.” She continued, “I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets,” she said. “Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them.”

Later in the program, and followed by her formal lecture titled “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” Smith read aloud some of the poems she presented in underserved regions as part of her initiative. She also read some of her recent poems, including one originally called “Mowing”—a title inspired by Robert Frost—which, two years later “during the poisonous political climate of the election” Smith changed to “Political Poem.” As in Frost’s poem “Mowing,” Smith’s poem is a hymn to the motions and cadences of labor but adds another mower, at a distance, who gestures at times to the first mower during the work. The first mower, moreover, gestures back during the afternoon toil. The result is, even at a great distance, or because of it—separated as the mowers are by other fields—respect, harmony, and hope: “the day, though gone / would never know the ache of being done.” Smith told Ruth Franklin of the New York Times: “It’s a poem that has this wish for effortless comprehension.”

Teachers will find much in Smith’s approach to writing her own poetry and in her comments about the poetry of others that will be of use in discussing the contemporary American poetry scene. High school students who write poetry or read contemporary poetry can identify a wide array of forms and content in Smith’s work. Hayden has noted that her work blends “personal observations and experiences with weightier universal themes.”

Smith has published several works of poetry, including, most recently, Duende in 2007, Life on Mars in 2011, and Wade in the Water earlier this spring. All three books, published by Graywolf Press, show Smith’s flexibility and willingness to write in a variety of forms and to broach themes ranging from history and mythology to personal relationships.  

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