The United States officially has a new Poet Laureate! In June, Tracy K. Smith was appointed to the position by the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. But what exactly does her job entail? What qualifies her for it? And just who is Tracy K. Smith? If you’re like me and don’t know that much about poetry, you might be wondering all of these things, too! Fear not, dear reader! I’m going to do my best to put together a short history of the position as well as give you some details about the Tracy Smith.
The Poet Laureate position has a long history in the United States, with each of the 22 Poet Laureates that we’ve had bringing their own special spin to the position. Tracy Smith is just the sixth woman and fourth woman of color to have the position since it was created in 1937 (although it wasn’t called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry until 1986). The Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, who consults with past Laureates, poetry critics, and other staff. Each Poet Laureate serves from September until May of the following year, although they can be appointed for a second term by the librarian.
Over the years, the Librarians of Congress have kept the rules for the position fairly lenient, wanting each new person to have the chance to work on any project they are passionate about. Other than opening and closing the annual series of speakers at the Library of Congress with a poetry reading and a lecture, the Poet Laureates are free to focus on almost anything. Rita Dove, who served from 1993 to 1995, brought together artists to explore African Diaspora. Gwendolyn Brooks visited elementary schools to encourage a love of poetry in the young students. Most recently, Juan Felipe Herrera spent his two terms creating several different projects, including La Casa de Colores. Tracy K. Smith told NPR that she plans on, “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.”
Ms. Smith is definitely an excellent ambassador for poetry! At the young age of 45, she has accomplished more than most people can hope for in their entire career. She’s published 3 collections of poetry as well as a memoir and has won numerous awards for her writing, including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her collection Life on Mars. She is also currently the head of the Creative Writing Department at Princeton. Now, with her appointment as the Poet Laureate, she has received the highest honor for a poet in the United States.
Her work has been recognized many times for the themes that she covers. Life on Mars contains everything from an homage to her late father to poems critiquing race relations in the United States. When talking about her decision to appoint Ms. Smith as the new Poet Laureate, Carla Hayden said, “Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us most human.” Tracy K. Smith fits perfectly into the demands that we have for writers today. She finds a way to take large topics like death and makes them somehow beautiful and easier to swallow.
Tracy Smith’s appointment is an excellent opportunity for poetry in America. Now more than ever we need outreach for the arts. Bringing poetry to people off the usual, beaten track of literary festivals will expose more people to the power of well-written literature. In a society that is rapidly moving towards defunding arts programs in schools and brushing aside the liberal arts as too fanciful to be practical, we need passionate people like Tracy Smith more than ever.