Some of the most important time in Tracy K. Smith’s life was spent in the armchairs of Lamont Library.
During a tumultuous first year at Harvard College following the death of her mother, Smith found moments of clarity in the corners of the library, covering the pages of her sketchbook with poetry.
The certainty she felt in that library guided Smith when the rest of her life felt uncertain.
Nearly 30 years later, Smith ’94 was welcomed back to campus as the 2019 Harvard Arts Medal recipient at a ceremony Thursday in Agassiz Theatre, kicking off Arts First weekend. Smith was introduced by fellow poet and English professor Jorie Graham, who praised her unique voice and “remarkable bandwidth” as an artist.
In the years since College, Smith has become a prolific writer, publishing four collections of poetry on a vast range of topics, from the Civil War to outer space. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012 and was named the 22nd poet laureate of the U.S. in 2017.
Ultimately, Graham said, “Tracy K. Smith grew up into the poet she dreamed, in Lamont Library, she might become.”
Smith is the 26th recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, which is given annually to a graduate or faculty member who has achieved artistic excellence and made a contribution through the arts to education or the public good.
“Harvard is a place from which an astonishing number of this nation’s crucial artists have sprung,” said Graham, who is herself a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. “This year, it is a delight for me to celebrate the art form I love so dearly and its singularly glorious practitioner, Tracy K. Smith.”
Smith said receiving the medal is “an honor that means the world to me.”
The Arts Medal ceremony began with the introduction from Graham, the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric, and ended with the medal presentation by Harvard President Larry Bacow. Most of the ceremony, though, was reserved for Smith to discuss her work with Boston journalist Callie Crossley.
Their conversation wound its way through many themes of Smith’s poetry: grief and pain, empathy, recognition of others’ humanity, love and intimacy, the natural world, and imagining God and the afterlife.