TOPICS > Arts

For newly named U.S. poet laureate, the power of poetry is opening ourselves to others

June 14, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Tracy K. Smith, a writer and teacher, is taking on a very public role as the nation's poet laureate. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Smith to discuss how language can be a tool of revelation, her reflections on race in America, her teaching philosophy and why we still need poetry.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a new national voice for poetry.

In a tradition dating back to 1937, the Library of Congress selects a prominent writer to serve as the country’s poet laureate for terms that have ranged from one to three years. The goal, according to the library, to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

The new laureate was revealed today, and our Jeffrey Brown had a chance to talk with her earlier this week.

READ MORE: ‘Life on Mars’ author explores humans’ relationship with the universe through poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: Empathy and self-awareness through language, that is the creed that comes through in talking with 45 year old Tracy K. Smith, writer, teacher, spouse and mother of three, including 4-year-old twins, and now taking on a very public role as the nation’s poet laureate.

TRACY K. SMITH, U.S. Poet Laureate: This is a position that allows me to kind of profess publicly all that I really hold true privately, that, if we can listen actively enough, if we can put enough pressure on ourselves and our thought process, language can be a real tool of revelation.

I love being able to do that with my students and my little seminars. And I love the idea that maybe there’s a way that this position allows me to do that with my fellow Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith is author of three books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Life on Mars,” in part an elegy for her father, who served in the Air Force before leaving to work on the Hubble telescope.

In her 2015 memoir titled “Ordinary Light,” she writes of growing up in a tight-knit middle-class family in Northern California, a coming-of-age tale exploring love and loss, race and faith, a theme that suffuses her poetry.

TRACY K. SMITH: I wasn’t even aware that that’s what I was doing until after my last book of poems came out, and I realized, wow, there’s a — these poems are thinking about space, but they’re also searching for God, in a way.

And I think it comes back to that sense that I grew up with that there is something large that we can cleave to, if we choose to. I wanted to figure out if there was a way that the artist in me and the 21st century academic in me could find something like a plausible version of God or a plausible version of the afterlife that I would be willing to claim publicly. And I think that language facilitated that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another big area that you’re often exploring is race. And, in your memoir, you talk explicitly about sort of comparing your upbringing to your parents and your grandparents, the differences there, but also things that have remained.

TRACY K. SMITH: A lot of my awareness of how race had imprinted by my parents, who grew up in the segregated South, a lot of that was shaped by a sense of sadness and a sense of anxiety on my part that made me not want to talk about it.

So, there were a lot of silences that I was drawn to explore in writing about that time that I had never felt capable of bringing into speech when I was growing up.

As I get older, I realize the history that felt so ancient when I was growing up is so — so close to us and present in ways that I had never imagined, or didn’t want to let myself imagine when I was a child.

So, writing about it, I think, is a way of reckoning with what is yet to be resolved about the present moment, about how we are willing to love each other, even though we look different from one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith has been a professor at Princeton since 2005 and now heads its creative writing program, teaching small seminars to young poets in the making.

Here especially, she says, the emphasis is on how we use language.

TRACY K. SMITH: Yes, this is our library and one of our favorite classrooms.

I want them to start thinking that a poem isn’t just an expression of all these things that you’re feeling, but it’s a set of choices that you’re making in language.

So, every description, every question, every statement, every turn is a choice that opens up or closes off certain possibilities. And you don’t always think about that when you’re sitting down to write in the flush of emotion. But thinking about …

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, the feelings are part of it, right?

TRACY K. SMITH: The feelings are part of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the expression is part of it.

But you’re saying the language choices …

TRACY K. SMITH: Beyond that, yes, the language can help you get some traction in those feelings.

“One of the women greeted me. ‘I love you,’ she said. She didn’t know me, but I believed her, and a terrible new ache rolled over in my chest.”

JEFFREY BROWN: To hear some of her language, Smith read part of a new poem titled “Wade in the Water.”

TRACY K. SMITH: “I love you throughout the performance in every hand clap, every stomp. I love you in the rusted iron chains someone was made to drag until love let them be unclasped and left empty in the center of the ring.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Tracy K. Smith will have a prominent voice, a very public national platform, to reach new audiences.

If you think about the tumultuous times we’re in technologically, all kinds of changes around us, if you think about the divisions politically at this moment, it seems like an appropriate moment to say, why poetry? Why bother? Why bother being a poet? What kind of impact could you possibly have, amidst all that?

TRACY K. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

I will say that a poem allows or requires you to submit to something else. Often …

JEFFREY BROWN: Submit means?

TRACY K. SMITH: That’s one of the things we don’t want to do, to say, OK, I’m not the expert. You’re the expert. Let me listen. Let me respond to something that’s completely counterintuitive for me, that pulls me toward a different sense of what’s valuable.

I think, when we do that with a work of art, we’re learning how to do that in real time with other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that mean even making us better citizens?

TRACY K. SMITH: I think so. Poems remind us of that.

Poems remind us that someone is saying, come here. This has happened to me. This is how it made me feel. This is who I am in the wake of this thing.

And we all have stories like that. And they’re important to honor, and they’re important also to say, maybe my story helps me listen and cherish this other person’s story, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith says a key goal for her as laureate will be to bring poetry into places where it’s not often heard.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Princeton, New Jersey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, online, you can watch Tracy K. Smith read two new poems.

That’s on our Web site at pbs.org/newshour.

SHARE VIA TEXT