Over the course of a 45-minute reading this past Wednesday, poet and memoirist Tracy K. Smith transported listeners on a journey that began with snapshots of her family life and ended in the depths of outer space.
Sharing pieces that were highly personal in nature yet palpable to the observant ear, Smith substantiated two principles that poets have maintained for time immemorial: that the artistic process is a celebration, and that poetry is for everyone.
Smith, who received her undergraduate degree at Harvard followed by an M.F.A. at Columbia, is no newcomer to the literary scene. However, her work has the power to stimulate the mind of anyone with a love for language, which was demonstrated at the Chapel on Wednesday evening.
Even before 8 p.m., when the event was scheduled to begin, students and faculty members had already crowded into the ground floor of the Chapel. The warm yellow of the space’s lighting gave rise to a quieting, tranquil mood.
Smith began with a piece that encompasses the themes present in many of her works: that of death and its impact on the living. The poem was formatted by way of postcard exchanges from murder victims to their assailants. In a majority of cases, the deaths were politically charged, but the nature in which the poems were presented forced language to expand past the political. Smith fleshed out and rendered human figures more widely known due to circumstantial events.
“I can choose to feel or not to feel—I realized that today,” wrote one character. “Mostly, it’s just nice to move through the crowds like I used to. Except now, they move through me too.”
Smith reads in a clear, soothing voice: collected and cautious, yet striking. With each line she recites, she appears to relive the experience that inspired it. She laughed ever so slightly during a number of opening lines, as if they reminded her of memories that had just escaped her.
The opening piece was indicative of Smith’s ability to alternate between voices, while maintaining a consistent insightfulness between the two registers. She breathes depth into each narrative voice, adding a layer of complexity and personal conflict that punctures the approachable front that characterizes her language.
Smith’s undeniable adeptness with regard to voice has certainly been made note of in the past. Visiting Writer Alan Gilbert, who introduced her at the reading, commended Smith’s use of persona and voice to draw a quality of lightness to themes like death, allowing readers to share experiences and find places in language that simultaneously comfort and afflict.
Though taking on distinct personas is of particular importance in epistolary pieces of writing, Smith’s approaches to poetry are as diverse as the voices that drive them.
In one poem titled “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” Smith paid tribute to the late David Bowie’s life while inserting herself into the poem. In the piece, she wondered aloud and delved deep into his New York and her New York. Though they never met, she recalled feeling a poignant connection to him through the commonality of shared places.
“I’ve lived here all these years / And never seen him. Like not knowing / A comet from a shooting star. But I’ll bet he burns bright / Dragging a tail of white-hot matter / The way some of us track tissue / Back from the toilet stall.”
“Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” is a free-flowing rumination with a tight center. Though longer in length than Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems,” this piece manages to capture the energy of New York City in a similar fashion, all while showing the energy that Bowie emanated on his own. Smith is a quiet observer in this piece, a dreamer and wonderer who seeks to glorify the mundane and celebrate the star power of a beloved figure in contemporary culture.
This, along with other poems presented at the reading, were part of Smith’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Life on Mars,” which is made up of poems that use extraterrestrial themes to ground what consumes us in life.
In Smith’s own words, “Sci-fi provides an artificial distance from the choices we’re in the act of making.”
Perhaps venturing far into the galaxies can help us make sense of the unresolved losses, decisions, and ruminations that can be so definitive of life on earth. Or maybe it is just Smith’s mastery of perspective that brings her out of this world.
During the brief Q&A session following the reading, Smith described the artistic process that goes into her poems. She starts small and garners inspiration from the most minimal traces of her perspective or, more often, from a question that’s been needling her. After exploring said question or perspective, she directs her attention to sound patterns, repetition, and rhyme, which are the classic tools in a poet’s toolkit. With these devices, some pieces gain momentum and undergo a multi-phasic revision process. Others don’t survive and become overworked; they, too, can die.
However, these “dead” poems often become “organ donors” for Smith and are able to spare portions of lines and cells of creativity to other poems that might need them.
But regardless of the nuances that can be detected in each of Smith’s works, one element runs throughout her writing: the mastery of presenting the universal amid the personal. She allows readers and listeners alike to bond with each narrator, to find resonance within each idea. Every piece has a visceral takeaway that lingers long after the final line has been uttered. And although this approach is certainly best for listeners rather than readers, perhaps Smith strikes this balance for her own benefit. After all, as she said, “the public teaches you to see the private differently.”