Three decades have passed since Tracy K. Smith first arrived in Cambridge as a teenager — years in which she published five poetry collections and a memoir, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was given the rare distinction of serving two terms as the United States poet laureate. But it feels easy to imagine this literary giant, now 50 years old, as a college freshman, walking around the Harvard University campus with the same sense of wonder and delight she exudes now.
We meet on a sunny afternoon in June, just weeks after the end of the school year. Smith is coming off her first year as a professor at Harvard, her alma mater, and still settling back into Cambridge after 15 years at Princeton, where she directed the creative writing program, among other responsibilities.
The peace and quiet of summertime on campus belies the roaring chaos of the world outside. Just beyond these brick buildings, the country is burning hot with grief and rage in the wake of the latest string of mass shootings, including the slaughter of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, and a white supremacist attack on Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York. In a matter of days, the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, as well as make it far more difficult to regulate guns and carbon emissions. Temperatures are once again setting records, and gas prices are, too.
And yet, amid it all, I’ve come to ask about poetry, of all things. In a world like this one — where crisis is constant and power seems increasingly concentrated in a few injudicious hands — can words and art really matter?
I can’t pretend to be disinterested in the answers. In the fall, I’ll be headed to graduate school for a master’s of fine arts in poetry, and I’d very much like to believe words and art do matter. I’ve been a fan of Smith since she visited my English class in high school, her presence an early bit of proof that I, too, could grow up to be a writer. But I’m not only asking for myself — I’ve noticed something, a surprising trend literary organizations around the country are noting, too: More people are turning to poetry.
If anyone could explain why, I believe it would be Smith. She has long conveyed in both word and deed that poetry can and should engage the world outside of the prestigious universities where she has studied and taught. As poet laureate, she visited schools and prisons, small towns and literary hubs, driven by a belief that literature can speak to anyone — maybe even everyone.
This isn’t exactly a foregone conclusion in the United States. For generations, poetry in particular has struggled to command sustained audiences, with some potential readers shying away from an art form they have learned to assume will be opaque, arcane, and inaccessible. As Smith puts it, “I think the audience for poetry doesn’t always recognize themselves to be that.”
But for the past several years, that’s been changing. Particularly since the start of the pandemic, writing centers and poetry organizations across the country have seen increased interest in the form of workshop enrollees, event attendance, and readership. A select few poets have even attained something bordering on celebrity — most notably Amanda Gorman, whose recitation at President Biden’s inauguration launched her into the public eye and paved the way for her books to top bestseller lists.
Poetry is having a moment, in large part because poets such as Gorman and Smith are ready to meet the moment — with ambitious questions, incomplete answers, and what Smith calls “empathetic imagination.”
“There’s so many obstacles to the smooth and efficient correcting of our social ills,” Smith says, reflecting on the country’s tumult and the despair that often follows. But people turn to poetry because it offers alternatives to that despair. “It creates other perspectives that lead to other terms of action and possibility. It’s the opposite of cowering and shutting down.”
“Perhaps the greatest error is believing we’re alone.” So begins the third section of “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” one of the standout poems in Smith’s Life on Mars, for which she won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Meeting Smith, it is hard to believe she has ever made the mistake of believing we are alone.
“I love what it means to be truly human, fully human,” Smith explains. She laughs a little even as she says it, but there’s plenty of evidence for its truth in her life and work.
Born in Falmouth in 1972, Smith, her parents’ fifth and final child, grew up in Northern California, where her father’s Air Force career took the family soon after her birth. In her memoir, she describes an early life filled with love, stability, and a wide selection of books. It was also in childhood that she became acquainted with the vastness of the universe: Her father later worked as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Smith’s interest in poetry, first sparked in fifth grade by an Emily Dickinson poem, was cemented at Harvard, where she began studying it as a craft. She also joined the Dark Room Collective, an influential group of young Black poets mostly based in Cambridge who wrote and read together in the 1980s and ‘90s. Today, many of them stand alongside Smith as titans of US and Black literature, including Natasha Trethewey, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and former poet laureate of both Mississippi and the United States, and Kevin Young, now director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smith later attended Columbia University for graduate school, where she earned her master’s of fine arts in poetry.
A sense of largeness and open-eyed wonder echoes through Smith’s work — as do longing and loss. Her mother, Kathryn, died in 1994 after a battle with cancer that stretched throughout Smith’s college years. Her father, Floyd, died in 2008. Despite grief, or perhaps because of it, Smith’s work resists loneliness. She invites in any reader who is, like her, curious about the world.
Her latest book, Such Color: New and Selected Poems, due in paperback this summer, is like a map to the big questions Smith has asked throughout her career: The deeper meaning of desire, sex, death, identity, and the cosmos. The weight of history and racism, and the urgency of political rage. And she speaks often to what we — and she uses that pronoun both generously and deliberately — wonder and want and must do.
These qualities likely played a large part in the librarian of Congress’s decision to name Smith as poet laureate in 2017. She was invited to serve a second term.
From 2017 to 2019, she toured rural parts of the country that traditionally have less access to literary programming, stopping at sometimes unexpected venues along the way. She invited people to share what poems made them feel and think about, without requiring academic analysis. In a 2019 interview, she described sharing a love poem with an audience at a rehab center. For one attendee, the poem resonated with their experience of addiction as “a love affair,” Smith recalled them saying.
As laureate, she also launched a podcast, The Slowdown, now hosted by recently named US poet laureate Ada Limón, which invites listeners to spend about five minutes each day entering the world of a poem.
“Tracy was a really wonderful poet laureate,” says Jen Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, which promotes poetry in the United States in a number of ways, including maintaining a trove of work on the website Poets.org. “She helped dispel what truly is a misperception that poetry can be difficult, that it isn’t for everyone.”
Bringing poems to new audiences — whether working adults just finding their way to literature or college students who find their way into her classes — is one of the things that fuels Smith. “I’ve seen what happens when people listen to the ways that poems speak and coax and surprise them.”
In 2015, a Washington Post headline declared, “Poetry is going extinct.” There were data to back it up: A National Endowment for the Arts survey showed that the percentage of US adults who read poetry hit an all-time low of 6.7 percent in 2012, less than half of what it was in 1992.
But with hindsight, it’s clear that the death knells were premature. By the mid-2010s, while columnists lamented the decline of the art form, American poetry was already quietly entering a renaissance.
The same agency that revealed a steady decline in readership starting in the ‘90s recorded a reversal in 2017, the latest year with data available, when readership hit nearly 12 percent of US adults. It is still a modest segment of the population to be sure — for comparison, almost 42 percent of adults read a novel or short story that year — but it represents a shifting mood toward poetry, particularly among some segments of the country. Young adults and Black adults show surging interest in verse, with above-average percentages of each group reading poetry and attending poetry events.
Driving part of the rise in interest is a crop of writers who have managed to command social media as a channel for building excitement about and access to poetry, bringing it beyond the classroom and the bookstore reading. YouTube has helped spread slam poetry and spoken word, long traditions in Black poetry circles. Twitter ties poets and their poems to the news cycle, with voices both old and new being used to weigh in on pressing issues. And Instagram has created something of a poetry micro-genre, with short, piercing snippets of verse going viral online. Rupi Kaur, a leading figure of the form who this year is performing her work on a world tour, has 4.5 million followers on the platform. British-Somali writer Warsan Shire has also used social media to grow her following — before being handpicked by Beyoncé to write poetry for her award-winning visual album, Lemonade.
There are signs that this decade could be even more promising for poetry. At the Academy of American Poets, Benka and staff have seen a marked increase in website traffic, especially since early 2020. Even Eventbrite, the event and ticketing website, has noted a shift. Poetry-related events listed on the site grew by 26 percent in the first five months of 2022 compared with the same period in 2021, and 58 percent compared with 2020.
Boston-based writing center GrubStreet also noticed a surge of interest in 2020 and 2021, when virtual programming allowed students to enroll in writing classes from far outside New England. Writers are especially interested in courses that address identity, social issues, and politics, says education director Dariel Suarez. “They’re sort of looking at poetry as a way to explore those things.”
“I think it’s American poetry’s heyday. It’s come into its own,” Benka says. “The art form is alive and vibrant in a way that I don’t think it ever has been.”
For the country to begin responding to poetry, poetry had to rediscover the art of responding to the country — in all its complexity, diversity, grief, and passion.
The leading voices today make a strong case for art reflecting the experiences of a broad public. Cathy Park Hong achieved a rare moment of recognition, for both poets and Asian Americans, when she was selected for one of the covers of the 2021 Time100. Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Mellon Foundation and a poet respected for her contributions to American and Black literature, made Time’s list this year. Joy Harjo, who just finished her third term as United States poet laureate, is a writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation; her work is associated with the Native American Renaissance. Harjo’s successor, Ada Limón, is the first Chicana poet laureate. Several recent Pulitzer Prize-winning collections focus squarely on experiences and cultural inheritances shaped by race, citizenship, and sexuality.
“So many different communities, bearing witness to their lives, their stories, their experiences” is now a hallmark of American poetry, Smith says, something that seemed unimaginable just a short time ago. “In every way, I think this rescued American poetry from just kind of being ... obsolete.” She chuckles a little: “Maybe ‘obsolete’ isn’t the word I want to use, but something that’s private. And now it feels beautifully public.”
But for generations, esteemed creative writing programs discouraged budding writers from being “too political,” a critique that often landed unevenly on writers of color. It’s an art-for-art’s-sake mind-set Smith remembers from her own early days as a student. In some ways, her writing has pushed against this teaching from the very beginning by considering race, gender, and experiences of inequality as central to her own and her speakers’ identities. But in her early work, Smith tended to address these larger themes in the context of individual narratives, rather than as collective experiences or explicitly political issues.
Those were days when it was barely imaginable that a Black poet’s collection, regardless of its politics, would even be considered for a Pulitzer Prize, says Jericho Brown, a poet and professor at Emory University.
Brown remembers years when he was able to read every new book published by a Black poet — that’s how few there were. It was in those years that he came across Smith’s first collection, The Body’s Question, from 2003. It’s a book in which the poet comes of age, grappling with identity and desire. Not yet published himself, Brown sensed immediately that he and Smith would become friends. And they have. They have also each won a Pulitzer Prize, a recognition that once seemed so out of reach.
And while Brown cautions against taking anything for granted, he is unafraid to admit that he delights in the surging interest in Black literature and poetry more broadly. Over the past two years of sickness and violence and death, a growing number of people “realized that they didn’t necessarily have the language for what was going on,” he says. “What poems do is give you the perfect language for the things that seem unsayable, the things that seem impossible to articulate.”
He also has some ideas about what draws people to his friend’s work in particular. “For me, what’s been wonderful about reading Tracy’s books is watching her concerns change and shift over the years,” Brown says. “Whatever she does, she does it to the height of her ability. She’s always after excellence.”
Neither change nor excellence is easy work. Just as an evolving country and world have demanded new things of poetry writ large, they have also changed and challenged Smith’s work, both as an educator and a writer.
At Harvard, she has noticed more and more students from across disciplines enrolling in poetry classes. These students — studying environmental science and law and history, working toward their bachelor’s and their master’s degrees — are eager to use poetry as a tool to deepen their understanding of real-world issues they already study in other forms. It’s a trend that excites Smith, and tracks closely with her own growing interest in working across disciplines. (In addition to poetry and memoir, she has written multiple opera librettos, one of which, Castor and Patience, premiers July 21 in Cincinnati.)
Events beyond campus have also made an impact on Smith’s work. She recalls how her life and worldview transformed in 2020, first in the silence of lockdowns and later in the roaring grief brought on by both COVID-19 and police killings of Black people. Smith began to meditate, to literally listen for ancestors’ answers to her questions new, old, and urgent.
Over the past two years, she says, “I have been initiated into the tradition of Black life on earth.” It’s an unexpected revelation from a 50-year-old artist who is one of the most prominent Black writers alive, and who has painstakingly used her art to reveal the contradictions in our white supremacist democracy.
She uses that word, “initiated,” not because racism was news to her in 2020 or 2021, but because its depth revealed itself anew. She refers vaguely to “feeling the cost” of speaking up about racial injustice in spaces she once considered safe. A mother to three, she recalls feeling the desire, for the sake of her children, “to be more large-hearted and useful.” Such experiences woke her “to the fact that the error under which I was operating was the belief that I was free, the belief that my freedom has long been won for me by generations before.”
In her newest poems, published in her book Such Color and mostly written in 2020, “we,” that pronoun that Smith has always used so generously, is more specific, a fact she readily admits. “These are poems that are turning toward a very specific audience as the direct address. I’m thinking about the community of Blackness, as I understand it,” she says. “And then I also want people who are outside of that to feel like they’re eavesdropping.”
The new poems in Such Color ache with uncertainty and resist easy comfort. In “Riot,” the speaker asks, “How many are we?” A chorus of ancestors responds: “Many are we.”
And though Smith is speaking to a more defined audience than ever before in “Riot,” the intimacy and precariousness she expresses echo in the fear and longing so many people feel today. The call and response continues:
“ — What have we been led here to learn, to teach?
— We have been led here to learn, to teach.
— Have we ever felt death so near as we do this year?
— Have we ever! Near, dear, year upon year . . .”
The answers are never complete, but in asking our questions anyway and in listening carefully, we arrive at something resembling understanding. That, I think, is what poetry asks us to believe. And that’s why it matters, even — and especially — right now.
Dasia Moore, formerly the Globe Magazine’s staff writer, is a poet and journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore. Send comments to email@example.com.