Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith to Speak at Harvard Alumni Day

An alumna and faculty member at a new Harvard tradition

Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. SmithPhotograph by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University

The University’s inaugural Harvard Alumni Day will feature two-term U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith ’94, who last year joined Harvard as professor of English and of African and African American studies and the Wallach professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. 

Smith’s speech will anchor the June 3rd event, which replaces the traditional annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) held on the afternoon of Commencement. The program will also include the alumni parade, remarks by President Lawrence S. Bacow, musical interludes, and a ceremony honoring this year’s Harvard Medalists.

“At a time when so many of us are looking for ways to connect, and more importantly ways to understand and remedy the deep divides we see everywhere, I know our alumni will listen with great interest and care to the words of one of America’s most treasured poets,” HAA president Vanessa W. Liu ’96, J.D. ’03, said in a University news release today. “An educator and lyricist of the human condition, Tracy K. Smith is a powerful example of how Harvard alumni are transforming their expertise — their experience, empathy, and artful reflection on our world—to imagine a better world.”

As the poet laureate in 2017 and 2018, Smith created “American Conversations,” participating in a seven-stop visit to rural areas from Maine to Kentucky to Alaska. Through public readings and discussions, she presented poetry as an accessible art form through which anyone could gain insights about their own experiences, and those of others. She edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time and launched the American Public Media podcast “The Slowdown.” The author of five books of poetry, in 2012 she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Life on Mars, and in 2015 was a National Book Award finalist for Ordinary Light: A Memoir. Last fall, Graywolf Press published the collection Such Color: New and Selected Poems. Although she left the Princeton faculty for Harvard in 2021, Smith has long been a familiar face at campus events. Named the 2019 Arts Medalist, she was also elected the 25th reunion chief marshal of Commencement.

Throughout her three-decade career, Smith has sought to openly reflect on her own experiences, and those embedded in history, the body, and intimate relationships. Her elegiac poems have examined racism and discord, along with loss and grief. The desire to write grew more urgent as a young member of the Darkroom Collective (along with fellow poet Kevin Young ’92, the 2021 HAA annual meeting). Smith remembers wanting to “be in that space and see what the model for this life that I wanted looked like…the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”

Consider that youthful ardency, her encompassing role as a contemporary poet, and the way she speaks to the depth of human experience in these lines from her poem “I Sit Outside in Low Late Afternoon Light to Feel the Earth Call to Me”:

 Is the world intended for me? Not just me but

the we that fills me? Our shadows reel and dart.

Our blood simmers, stirred back. What if

the world has never had—will never have—our backs?




Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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