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Tracy K. Smith's Speech





(Speech published as prepared for delivery) 

Good afternoon, and thank you. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be present with you here today.

One week after Commencement, at the end of a season when so much work has been completed, and presented and defended, I’d like to begin by sharing the first five lines of an untitled poem that, try as I might, I haven’t yet managed to finish:

Away? At home? Within? Where is it we’ve been
this ceaseless season—winter, summer, whole years


blown past by unrelenting wind? I sat in a chair
under an old scarred elm watching the nations


of cardinals and jays. And—the nations of men?


I spent days writing and rewriting the poem’s next line. Nothing I put down would stick. On my computer, the document contains a set of empty brackets marking where the missing piece should go. They look to me now like an open window through which the heart of the matter might one day barge or blow in. But I bring those few lines with me today, into the air we eagerly share, as a way of admitting why this occasion feels especially emphatic, and as way of signaling that it is the poetic imagination, however taxed or beleaguered it may be, that belongs with us here today.

Even as we find our way back toward one another, back toward the customs and occasions we crave, I think it’s important to admit that our course—by which I mean our understanding not just of where we are going but of why, how and with whom we must go—has changed. To be alive at this moment of the 21st Century is to be implicated every day, all the time, in a constant weather of multiple concurrent crises, each as urgent as the next. We tend to enumerate them on occasions like this one, but today I’ll refrain. Suffice it to say that, individually and collectively, physically and psychically, we navigate new terrain.

And so I want to ask you to think about how many feelings you carry with you into a celebration like today’s? Personally, I’m holding Joy for the opportunity to gather, to embrace, to talk and laugh and simply to be together. Joy that is partly Gratitude for what it means to be remembered, recognized and claimed by others. And those feelings—joy and gratitude—are made more pointed and complex by the presence of Grief for all we’ve privately and collectively lost; Courage for what we are called upon to acknowledge, protect, and build anew; and—If I’m being honest—an abiding Fear that makes courage necessary.

That untitled, unfinished poem I mentioned earlier is only just a string of fragments. To be honest, I thought it would become the beginning of the remarks I was invited, months ago, to offer you today. I wanted it to help open up a space inside of you and me that was deep and quiet and still, a space from which we could acknowledge the powerful spectrum of feeling and awareness we move back-and-forth along, many times each day. A space we occupy together even if it doesn’t always feel that way, and where we might choose to linger and admit that we are dizzy, yes. Tired, too. And that we don’t know how much more we will be called upon by our current circumstances to learn about ourselves and our neighbors, about the scale of our loss and the dimensions of our hope.

I taught myself to meditate in the summer of 2020. Not because of joy. Not because of gratitude, but as a result of my grief and my fear. I was a novice. What I lacked in discipline I made up for with desperation. My daily, or near-daily, quiet still space was a black Adirondack chair at the base of an old oak tree in my former back yard in New Jersey. Stepping out of my house, full as it always felt with the news or the aftershock of news, I took heart in what seemed to be the undeterred industry of birds, foxes and squirrels. Even the trees seemed to move with certainty through the work of each season. It helped me to see that these other living things still knew what to do. That the terms of their lives remained clear to them, even while the terms governing my human life felt suddenly questionable, alien. And when I sat down, slowed and deepened my breathing, and closed my eyes, it wasn’t silence or absence that I found—the goal of some forms of meditation I’d read about—but images, figures and symbols in my mind’s eye, and language in my mind’s ear. My journal from the last two years contains entries like this:

I heard the phrase: “Come to the mountain within.” As if the work of meditation can be simply attempting to stand still at its peak. Cardinal song seemed to undergird the phrase: “Come to the mountain within. Come to the mountain within.” Then another bird, jays, possibly, in their electric-sounding drone, helped me to say to myself, or to hear, “I want to call something forth.” The birds seemed to carry that thought up, to let it hover around me, closing in. The cardinals were there when I opened my eyes, flying from tree to tree. Calling from the top of the children’s jungle gym. I never saw the other birds. “I want to call something forth.” But I heard the movement of branches and wings.

What was talking to me? Was it me? Maybe. In writing poetry I have come to accept that there is a part of me—my unconscious likely—that knows more than I know, and fears less than I fear, and can say and hear things in language that my everyday self, left to her own devices, might shy away from, not wanting to hear. I believe that a large version of myself—my soul maybe—came to my rescue when called. But I don’t believe she was alone. I choose to believe she brought ancestors and companions from among the life forms and sources of energy and insight that accompany and surround us.

I’ve spoken often and more-and-more-unabashedly about this form of meditative dialogue as a practice aligned with my creative life and, more urgently, with my ability to stay grounded and keep standing through the upheavals of our increasingly turbulent time. I’ll admit that doing so today, in the company of thousands of Harvard alumni who live, work and lead in various specialized vocabularies—well, I feel a bit exposed. But I take heart in the fact that, like me, you have been challenged, enlarged and activated by this institution at formative points in your own lives. And so I choose to speak to you as kin—albeit perhaps as the strange cousin or odd aunt who corners you, bearing her own peculiar truth.

A stalled poem that points to a mammoth site of collective uncertainty without naming or taming it. A spiritual practice that defies logic, can’t be proven, and yet pulls the practitioner toward sources of knowledge and clarity that counteract fear, confusion and futility. I guess I am inviting you to consider that there are tools and terms beyond those typically indexed to the work we do within institutions like Harvard which are nevertheless also essential to the project of collective human flourishing. I’m thinking beyond law, health care, education, economics, public policy, and more—beyond the essential fields and disciplines which help us measure, hold accountable, and sustain our social institutions. I’m thinking about what else bolsters our health, dignity, access and sets the terms of our civic care and regard. What does it mean to flourish in a time of uncertainty? Might flourishing be the result of living together in such a way that love rather than tolerance, community rather than division or tribalism, and reciprocity rather than transactional exchange comprise the things we seek to offer and receive? I ask because not only are we no longer where many of us thought we were as recently as 2019, the last time we gathered here as a body; we may never truly have been where we—as a nation, as a civilization—long believed ourselves to be. And so let us try to get—and to be—elsewhere.

I had the audacity to read you an unfinished poem of my own. Let me make it up to you by reading an indelible, fully-realized poem by the great poet Lucille Clifton, who makes concrete and concise what it looks like to love, claim and nurture awe for those our culture has not yet taught us to revere.


like my aunt timmie.
it was her iron,
or one like hers,
that smoothed the sheets
the master poet slept on.
home or hotel, what matters is
he lay himself down on her handiwork
and dreamed. she dreamed too, words:
some cherokee, some masai and some
huge and particular as hope.
if you had heard her
chanting as she ironed
you would understand form and line
and discipline and order and

The speaker’s Aunt Timmie is the poem’s unacknowledged master. She is not singular; the poem tells us there are others like her, pushing irons like hers across sheets or shirts that belong to others. If we don’t know their names it is because we haven’t been taught them, and haven’t thought to ask. And while no reader of the poem is surprised that “the master poet” dreamed, the work of the poem is to remind us that Aunt Timmie dreamed, too. In fact, it is Aunt Timmie, not the poet, who is referred to as the master in the poem’s title. Her dreams are the site where “the huge and particular” terms of our humanity crystallize and converge. The poem is also a site where the huge and particular scales of language converge: concepts dream and hope, for example, are not undercut so much as anchored by small images like iron and handiwork. The poem’s closing lines are a list: “form and line / and discipline and order and / america.” They invite me to consider nationhood by way of the lines corralling us within strata and communities, the lanes hurtling us toward or else swerving us away from forms of opportunity and belonging; and the discipline that keeps us safe within our roles, or else punishes us for demanding new terms.

I have been in rooms where Lucille Clifton read her poems, and I’ve heard audience members swoon at the music of her language, or chuckle at the ironies to which her poems succinctly bear witness. But I think a poem like this asks to be taken to heart in a way that makes it harder simply to chuckle, to swoon, to go home from the reading and lie down expecting to dream like the master poet without puzzling over what the aunt’s chanting in the poem was aimed at and what it conjured, without marveling at the true mastery the poem sets out to celebrate.

When I think about all that you and I as alumni have been given, all we have earned, demonstrated, innovated and refined—all the feats that distinguish us and shine light back on this miraculous place—an increasingly audible voice in my mind begins to ask: What if the status conferred upon us by these achievements is aligned with a notion of human valuing that a poem like “Study the Masters” asks us to mistrust? Not that we should undermine or deny what we have achieved. Not that we should revert to the false modesty that once-upon-a-time may have led some of us to say a thing like, “I went to school in Massachusetts….” But perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves that the wish to protect what one has earned, and a reverence for the status it confers, can fortify the lines and the lanes holding us apart from one another.

It’s hard not to feel the wish to retreat to the security of standing and achievement in times where loss and devastation are frighteningly commonplace. But I’d like to read a strange, mysterious and vulnerable poem that strikes me as uncannily well-suited to our time of upheaval. D. H. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through” is a poem in which the speaker wants to accept change, to meet the moment, to become a vessel of belief and possibility. But, alas, it’s not easy.


Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,

The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

I can tell by the breathless insistent cadence of repetition in the poem’s opening lines that the speaker’s effort is earnest, yet difficult. He repeats: Not I, not I… and If only….If only. The closest he gets to enacting this wished-for version of himself, is to announce his intentions: to say what will and what shall occur. In fact, his syntax is most assured when he feels perhaps least certain: “The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.”

The poem lingers a moment in this willed-certainty, but then very quickly it reverts to conditional language:

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

This sense of wish, of intention, which is essentially aspirational, takes up 2/3 of the poem, and even there it can’t disguise the fact that it is merely a wish, a fantasy.

My favorite part of the poem is the moment of intrusion—the instant when something breaks in to arrest the speaker’s reverie:

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?

And the fearful mind, which is perhaps the speaker’s actual or dominant mind, which rushes to answer: “It is somebody wants to do us harm.”

I move back and forth most days along a path similar to that of the poem’s speaker, wanting to throw off my limitations, my fears, my same known self and to instead become “keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge / Driven by invisible blows.” Doesn’t this strange new age require as much of those who seek to be of use?

But what if that’s not who we are? What if the fear that rises quite naturally in response to the danger, disillusionment and uncertainty of our time holds us back from such easy courage or heroism?

No other voice breaks in to alter the course of the poem. Instead, what stops Lawrence’s speaker from getting carried away by his own fight or flight instinct is a willed leap of his own imagination. He talks himself back: “No. No.” He assures himself (though how can he be sure?) that “The knocking at the door in the night” is not “somebody come to do us harm.” How can he be certain it is, instead, a benediction, an annunciation. How can he say with such assurance, to himself, to us: “It is the three strange angels.”

Nothing in this poem is natural or easy. Nothing is without urging. Even the poem’s last line: “Admit them. Admit them” insists upon meaning two things at once: let them in, let them in, and also, concede that there are angels among us.

I don’t think it is courage or wherewithal that allows the speaker to break out of the circuitry of his own fear. I think it is need. He cannot change himself, he cannot deny the change blowing in on a “fine wind.” But he can open the door, expecting not burglars or assassins but angels. Because look how desperately he needs them.

Maybe the poem I started writing, the one that stalled, refusing to budge, might take recourse to a similar cocktail of dogged insistence, hope and desperation. Just as those of us who want peace, safety, and so much else—who want to flourish together with others, whatever that means and however it might be brought about—must admit the masters and angels, the ancestors and other sources of light and insight among us. Because look how desperately we need them.