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Tracy K. Smith

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Tracy K. Smith
Smith in 2017
Born (1972-04-16) April 16, 1972 (age 52)
EducationHarvard University (BA)
Columbia University (MFA)
Occupation(s)Poet, educator
TitlePoet Laureate of the United States
AwardsCave Canem Prize (2002)
James Laughlin Award (2006)
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2012)

Tracy K. Smith (born April 16, 1972) is an American poet and educator. She served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019.[1] She has published five collections of poetry, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 volume Life on Mars.[2][3] Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was published in 2015.

In April 2018, she was nominated for a second term as United States Poet Laureate by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.[4][5]

In 2023, Smith was elected to the American Philosophical Society.[6]

Early life[edit]

Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts,[1] she was raised in Fairfield, California, in a family with "deep roots" in Alabama. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer[7] who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.[8] Her book Life on Mars pays homage to her father's life and work.[9] Smith became interested in writing and poetry early, reading Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain in elementary school; Dickinson's poems, in particular, struck Smith as working like "magic," she wrote in her memoir Ordinary Light, with the rhyme and meter making Dickinson's verses feel almost impossible not to commit to memory.[7] Smith then composed a short poem entitled "Humor" and showed it to her fifth-grade teacher, who encouraged her to keep writing.[7] The work of Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Rita Dove also became significant influences.[7][10]

Smith received her A.B. from Harvard University, where she studied with Helen Vendler, Lucie Brock-Broido, Henri Cole and Seamus Heaney.[10] While in Cambridge, Smith joined the Dark Room Collective.[11] She graduated in 1994, then earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 1997. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.


Smith reading at the Library of Congress in 2017

Smith has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. She taught summer sessions at Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in 2011, 2012, and 2014 and was the 2014 Robert Frost Chair of Literature.[12]

In 2006, she joined the faculty of Princeton University, where she was made a member of Phi Beta Kappa[13][14] and the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities.[15][16] On July 1, 2019, she became Chair of Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts.[17]

Smith was a judge for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize.[18]

From 2018 to 2020, Smith hosted the podcast and radio program The Slowdown.[19]

In 2021, Smith joined the faculty of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.[20] She is the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute[21]

Critical reception[edit]

In his review of Life on Mars, Troy Jollimore selects Smith's poem "My god, it's full of stars" as particularly strong, "making use of images from science and science fiction to articulate human desire and grief, as the speaker allows herself to imagine the universe:"[3]

... sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

In his review of the collection, Joel Brouwer also quoted at length from this poem, writing that "for Smith the abyss seems as much a space of possibility as of oblivion:"[22]

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Dan Chiasson writes of another aspect of the collection: "The issues of power and paternalism suggest the deep ways in which this is a book about race. Smith’s deadpan title is itself racially freighted: we can’t think about one set of fifties images of Martians and sci-fi comics, without conjuring another, of black kids in the segregated South. Those two image files are situated uncannily close to each other in the cultural cortex, but it took this book to connect them."[8]

About The Body's Question, Lucie Brock-Broido writes: "How delightful it is to fall under the lucid and quite more than lovely spell of Tracy K. Smith's debut collection. Smith's work is deceptively plainspoken, but these are poems that are powerfully wrought, inspiring in all the clarity of their many gospel truths. The Body's Question announces a remarkable new voice, brilliantly bundled, ingeniously belted down."

Yusef Komunyakaa writes: "The Body's Question is an answer to pure passion, but the beauty is that the brain isn't divorced from the body. The strength of character in these marvelous poems delights and questions. Here's a voice that can weave beauty and terror into one breath, and the unguarded revelations are never verbal striptease."

"Tracy Smith speaks many different languages. Besides the Spanish that graces the 'Gospels' of her book's opening section, Smith also seems perfectly at home speaking of grief and loss, of lust and hunger, of joy and desire, which here often means the desire for desire, and a desire for language itself....She seems to speak in tongues, to speak about that thing even beyond language, answering 'The Body's Question' of her title," said Kevin Young.

About Smith's second book, Duende, Elizabeth Alexander writes: "Tracy K. Smith synthesizes the riches of many discursive and poetic traditions without regard to doctrine and with great technical rigor. Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious.”[23][note 1]

Smith has received praise throughout her books for her questions on relationships, identity and sexuality.[24][25] Hilton Als of The New Yorker writes: "Part of the gorgeous struggle in Smith’s poetry is about how to understand and accept her twin selves: the black girl who was brought up to be a polite Christian and the woman who is willing to give herself over to unbridled sensation and desire."[26]

Her book Ordinary Light: A Memoir, about race, faith and the dawning of her poetic vocation, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.

Smith is writing the librettos for two operas, one about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses[27] and their competing visions for New York City (a project with composer Judd Greenstein and video artist Joshua Frankel). The other, Castor and Patience with composer Gregory Spears, about slavery's legacy[28] was premiered in 2022 by Cincinnati Opera.

Personal life[edit]

Smith lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their three children.[29] Allison is the author of Bodies on the Line: Performance and the Sixties Poetry Reading. University of Iowa Press. 2014.. The family previously lived in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.[30]



  • The body's question. Graywolf Press. 2003.
  • Duende. Graywolf Press. 2007.
  • Life on Mars. Graywolf Press. 2011.
  • Wade in the water. Graywolf Press. 2018.
  • Such Color: New and Selected Poems. Graywolf Press. 2021.
List of poems
  • "Ash". The New Yorker. Vol. 91, no. 37. November 23, 2015. p. 52. Retrieved April 15, 2022.
  • "Declaration". The New Yorker. Vol. 93, no. 35. November 6, 2017. pp. 32–33. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
Anthologies (as editor)
  • American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. Graywolf Press. 2018.
Anthologies (as contributor)
  • Poems, Poets, Poetry
  • Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook
  • State of the Union: 50 Political Poems
  • When She Named Fire
  • Efforts and Affection: Women Poets on Mentorship
  • The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets
  • Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century
  • The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry
  • Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade
  • Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website
  • Poetry 30: Thirty-Something Thirty-Something American Poets
  • H. L. Hix, ed. (2008). New Voices : Contemporary Poetry from the United States. Irish Pages. ISBN 978-0-9544257-9-1.
  • Warr, Michael, ed. (2016). Of Poetry and Protest : from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-35273-3.
  • Yi Lei (2020). My Name Will Grow Wide like a Tree : Selected Poems. Translated by Smith, Tracy K.; Bi, Changtai. Graywolf Press. ISBN 9781644450406.


Awards, grants, fellowships[edit]


  1. ^ Elizabeth Alexander also writes about Smith’s use of the concept of duende :“Writers and musicians have explored the concept of duende, which might in English translate to a kind of existential blues. Smith is not interested in sadness, per se. Rather, in the strange music of these poems I think Smith is trying to walk us close to the edge of death-in-life, the force of hovering death in both the personal and social realms, admitting its inevitability and sometimes-proximity, and understand its manifestations in quotidian acts. This dark force is nonetheless a life force, which, in the poem 'Flores Woman,' concludes 'Like a dark star. I want to last.' If Duende were wine, it would certainly be red; if edible, it would be meat cooked rare, coffee taken black, stinky cheese, bittersweet chocolate. Tracy K. Smith's music is wholly her own, and Duende is a dolorous, beautiful book."[23]


  1. ^ a b "Tracy K. Smith". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  2. ^ a b "The 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Poetry". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved April 23, 2012. With short biography and publisher's description.
  3. ^ a b Jollimore, Troy (April 17, 2012). "Book World: Tracy K. Smith's 2012 Pulitzer-winning poems are worth a read". The Washington Post.
  4. ^ Alter, Alexandria (June 14, 2017), "Tracy K. Smith Is the New Poet Laureate", The New York Times, retrieved June 14, 2017
  5. ^ "Librarian of Congress Names Tracy K. Smith Poet Laureate". Library of Congress. June 14, 2017. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  6. ^ "The American Philosophical Society Welcomes New Members for 2023".
  7. ^ a b c d Alter, Alexandra (June 14, 2017). "Tracy K. Smith Is the New Poet Laureate". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  8. ^ a b Chiasson, Dan (August 8, 2011). "Other Worlds: New poems by Tracy K. Smith and Dana Levin". The New Yorker. pp. 71–73. Review of Life on Mars. Chiasson notes that "... it's fitting that to write about the Space Age Smith turns to forms that predate the modern world (including a terrific example of the villanelle, that old troubadour invention, about the euthanizing of geese at J.F.K. Airport)." The villanelle is "Solstice".
  9. ^ Paul, Crystal (April 13, 2016). "12 Books Of Poetry By Writers Of Color For a More Inclusive National Poetry Month". Bustle. Retrieved October 28, 2020. Smith's father was one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Telescope project, and this collection pays homage to him and his work. Futurism and space come together in this imaginative collection that begs to be called sci-fi poetry.
  10. ^ a b Nguyen, Sophia (April 9, 2015). "A Conversation with Tracy K. Smith '94". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  11. ^ Nguyen, Sophia (June 14, 2017). "Tracy K. Smith '94 Named U.S. Poet Laureate". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  12. ^ "What's Happening | Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English". www.middlebury.edu. May 2018. Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  13. ^ "Phi Beta Kappa Society". www.facebook.com. Retrieved January 26, 2020.
  14. ^ "2017 Summer Reading List". www.pbk.org. Retrieved January 26, 2020.
  15. ^ Saxon, Jamie (April 16, 2012). "Update: Princeton's Tracy K. Smith wins Pulitzer Prize for poetry". Princeton University.
  16. ^ a b "Tracy K. Smith Web site". Archived from the original on October 11, 2008.
  17. ^ "Tracy K. Smith Named as Chair of Lewis Center for the Arts". Lewis Center for the Arts. Princeton University. March 6, 2018. Retrieved July 7, 2019.
  18. ^ "Judges for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced". The Griffin Trust. August 19, 2015. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
  19. ^ Holmes, Anne (October 4, 2018). "Announcing "The Slowdown" with Tracy K. Smith | From the Catbird Seat: Poetry & Literature at the Library of Congress" (webpage). Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  20. ^ Aggarwal-Schifellite, Manisha (September 23, 2021). "Tracy K. Smith reflects on her new faculty role at Harvard | From the Harvard Gazette" (webpage). Retrieved November 20, 2021.
  21. ^ "Tracy K. Smith Radcliffe Professor | Harvard Radliffe Institute". www.radcliffe.harvard.edu. Retrieved November 20, 2021.
  22. ^ Brouwer, Joel (August 26, 2011). "Poems of Childhood, Grief and Deep Space". The New York Times.
  23. ^ a b Poets, Academy of American. "The Line Between Two Worlds: Tracy K. Smith and Elizabeth Alexander in Conversation". Poets.org.
  24. ^ Smith, Tracy K. (November 8, 2018). "Poem: A Man's World". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  25. ^ Jamison, Leslie (November 7, 2019). "Cult of the Literary Sad Woman". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  26. ^ Als, Hilton (September 24, 2018). "Tracy K. Smith's Poetry of Desire". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  27. ^ Nguyen, Sophia (June 14, 2017). "Tracy K. Smith '94 Named U.S. Poet Laureate". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  28. ^ Domonoske, Camila (June 14, 2017). "Tracy K. Smith, New U.S. Poet Laureate, Calls Poems Her 'Anchor'". NPR. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  29. ^ "Bios of 2005 Whiting Writers' Award Recipients". Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Archived from the original on July 16, 2011.
  30. ^ Feuer, Alan (January 25, 2013). "Poetry, Puppets and Playgrounds". The New York Times. Retrieved May 25, 2018.
  31. ^ "Tracy K. Smith delivers a plea for the American soul". MPR News. January 26, 2024. Retrieved March 28, 2024.
  32. ^ gazetteterrymurphy (November 9, 2023). "Tracy K. Smith explores America's past, present challenges, hopes in new book". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved March 28, 2024.
  33. ^ "James Laughlin Award". Academy of American Poets. Archived from the original on April 23, 2009. Retrieved April 24, 2012.
  34. ^ "ESSENCE's Literary Awards Winners". Essence Magazine. February 1, 2008.
  35. ^ Dodd, Philip. "A Meeting of Minds" (PDF). Cycle 5. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
  36. ^ aapone (December 31, 1979). "Academy of American Poets Fellowship". Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  37. ^ "2015 National Book Awards". National Book Foundation. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  38. ^ "Robert Creeley Foundation » Award – Robert Creeley Award". robertcreeleyfoundation.org. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  39. ^ "Tracy K. Smith | Office of the Secretary". Columbia University. Retrieved May 8, 2024.
  40. ^ "2018 American Ingenuity Award Winners". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  41. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  42. ^ "Announcements – John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation…". May 15, 2024. Archived from the original on May 15, 2024.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Seven Poets Guest-Edited by Tracy K. Smith". Guernica Magazine. October 15, 2007.
  • "Fiction review: Duende". Publishers Weekly. May 21, 2007. Federico García Lorca famously described duende in relation to flamenco music, but understood it as the dark wellspring for any artistic endeavor. As interpreted by Smith in her Laughlin Award–winning second collection, duende is the unforgiving place where the soul confronts emotion, acknowledges death and finds poetry. Starred review of Smith's second collection.

External links[edit]

External audio
audio icon Tracy K. Smith, The Poet and the Poem 2017–18 Series

Online poetry[edit]