Tracy K. Smith, the nation’s newest poet laureate, says writing is not just about expressing emotion but also about the choices you make when putting words on the page.
The 45-year-old Princeton University professor, who was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, was appointed as the U.S. poet laureate on Wednesday. The Library of Congress says the duties of a poet laureate are to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” but beyond that, how they do it is up to them.
“I think the responsibility really is to just help raise the awareness of poetry and its value in our culture,” Smith told NPR. “To me that means talking to people — getting off the usual path of literary festivals and university reading series and talking to people who might not even yet be readers of poetry.”
Smith’s fourth book of poetry, “Wade in the Water,” will be published in 2018. In an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Jeff Brown, Smith read two of her poems: “I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it” and “Wade in the Water.”
Watch Smith read both poems below.
I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it
Excellent Sir, My son went in the 54th regiment–
Sir, my husband, who is in Company K, 22nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops
(and now in the Macon Hospital at Portsmouth with a wound in his arm)
has not received any pay since last May and then only thirteen dollars–
Sir, We The Members of Company D, of the 55th Massachusetts volunteers
Call the attention of your Excellency to our case–
for instant look and see
that we never was freed yet
Run Right out of Slavery
In to Soldiery & we
hadent nothing atall &
our wifes & mother most all of them
is aperishing all about & we
all are perishing our self–
i am willing to bee a soldier and serve my time
faithful like a man but i think it is hard to bee
poot off in such dogesh manner as that–
Will you see that the colored men fighting now,
are fairly treated. You ought to do this,
and do it at once, Not let the thing run along
meet it quickly and manfully. We poor oppressed ones
appeal to you, and ask fair play–
So please if you can do any good for us do it
in the name of god–
Excuse my boldness but pleas–
your reply will settle the matter and will be appreciated,
by, a colored man who, is willing to sacrifice his son
in the cause of Freedom & Humanity–
I have nothing more to say
hoping that you will lend a listening ear
to an umble soldier
I will close–
Yours for Christs sake–
(I shall hav to send this with out a stamp
for I haint money enough to buy a stamp)
This poem was included in “Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present,” released in 2013. Smith composed the text from the letters and statements of African-Americans enlisted in the Civil War and their family members. She worked to preserve the original spellings and punctuation in her poem.
Wade in the Water
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,
Like in a room where the drapes
Have been swept back.
I love you,
I love you, as she continued
Down the hall past other strangers,
Each feeling pierced suddenly
By pillars of heavy light.
I love you, throughout
The performance, in every
Handclap, 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.
I love you in the water
Where they pretended to wade,
Singing that old blood-deep song
That dragged us to those banks
And cast us in. I love you,
The angles of it scraping at
Each throat, shouldering past
The swirling dust motes
In those beams of light
That whatever we now knew
We could let ourselves feel, knew
To climb. O Woods—O
Dogs—O Tree—O Gun—
O Girl, run—O
Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O
Lord—Is this love the
trouble you promised?
Videos by Andrew Bossone and Matthew Ehrichs of the PBS NewsHour.