In Tracy K. Smith’s 2016 memoir, Ordinary Light, she recounts the death of a classmate on a school camping trip. A frighteningly expressionless teacher tells the children their friend died suddenly that morning — a “minor heart condition.” But Smith doesn’t cry like some of the other children. She doesn’t rush to tell her parents as soon as she gets home. Instead, she says, “I didn’t know what to think, or do, so I sat there willing my ears to listen.”
She discussed exactly how poetry can help us listen at a Winter Words book talk and signing on Tuesday. Smith, the current US Poet Laureate, Pulitzer prizewinner and professor at Princeton, read excerpts from Ordinary Light and from her forthcoming collection, Wade in the Water, which will be published in 2018.
Death and loss have shaped Smith’s poetry. She lost her mother when she was only 22. But love, faith and the ability to listen, not just death, quietly drive her writing. Her spare prose is free from overstated emotion. As a child, she simply wonders about her classmate, “How could he have been in the seat beside me . . . and then be gone?”
A sense of space, she said, is important to what poetry gives us. “Poetry is language working hard to capture the inarticulable feelings, understandings, reactions that we live with,” she said. Certain experiences, like losing a loved one, leave us with gaps between what we’re feeling and what is explainable with words. Poems help us bridge that gap.
And when you find a verse with that effect, you tend to carry it with you. Smith referenced a poem by Thomas James that ends with the line, “Why do people lie to one another?” It’s an innocuous question, but she says those words come back to her over and over again. They’re a way for her to explore her own experiences and emotions.
“I think my lifetime of reading poems has given me thousands of those little moments that are useful at unexpected occasions,” she said. “Every poem is full of really short little things that can live with you forever.”