A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate who has used poetry to bridge differences and build community, Tracy K. Smith ’94 will be the featured speaker for Harvard Alumni Day, the Harvard Alumni Association’s University-wide and global event honoring and celebrating alumni impact, citizenship, and community. The event, formerly known as the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, will be held on Harvard’s campus on June 3 and will be simultaneously live-streamed for those who cannot attend in person.
Serving as the 22nd poet laureate of the U.S. in 2017 and 2018, her three-decade career as a poet and her work championing poetry’s critical social value have made Smith a powerful cultural voice on the national stage. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said at the time of her initial appointment that Smith’s 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.”
Last year, Smith returned to Harvard, from a position at Princeton, taking on a new role: professor of English and of African and African American Studies and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
“Tracy is an inspired choice to serve as the first official speaker for Harvard Alumni Day. Her poetry has the power to create common ground and to mend what is broken — a gift to all of us, especially in dark times,” said President Larry Bacow. “We are fortunate that she will share with our alumni her abundant insight, passion, and wisdom, and I look forward to hearing her speak.”
“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,” said Vanessa W. Liu ’96, J.D. ’03, HAA president. “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.”
“I’m excited and deeply honored to be addressing the alumni body,” said Smith. “It’s important to come together after this time of relative isolation and speak about this place that we share.” Smith said she feels a “kinship” with her fellow graduates, connected by the common bond of that shared experience. “All of us who’ve passed through Harvard have been changed by this place. It’s about more than just a degree; it’s this sense of what parts of ourselves this place helped give to us.” It was at Harvard, she said, where she began to find herself. “I was enlarged or emboldened by my time here and being back here feels like I’m constantly in contact with that young, wishful self who began to see language as a tool for living more fully and honestly.”
Listen to Smith read ‘An Old Story’
An Old Story
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
As a writer, educator, and ambassador for poetry, Smith has found new and creative ways to transform what the art form can accomplish. During her laureateship, Smith created “American Conversations,” participating in a seven-stop visit to rural areas across the U.S., from Maine to Kentucky to Alaska. The tour included public readings and discussions meant to help people discover how poetic language sheds light on their own experiences and those of others. Her work making poetry more publicly accessible also included editing the anthology “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time” and launching the American Public Media podcast “The Slowdown.”
Last fall, Smith published her latest book of poems, the career-spanning “Such Color: New and Selected Poems.” Her book “Life on Mars” earned her the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her memoir, “Ordinary Light,” reflects on race, religion, and the death of her mother, who died soon after Smith graduated from Harvard. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and named a Notable Book by both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her essays include “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” published in The Washington Post.
During the challenges of the COVID crisis and amid racial strife in the U.S., Smith co-edited the 2021 prose anthology “There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis,” and spoke to Time magazine about “finding joy during an unbearable year.” In 2021, she was a guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2021 and was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Smith’s ties to the University include being elected by alumni to serve on the Board of Overseers, one of Harvard’s two governing boards. She was also elected by her classmates to the role of chief marshal in 2019 and that same year received the prestigious Harvard Arts Medal.
As a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, she said, “There’s a really meaningful link to the students, a powerful dynamic that exists in the teaching and advising that I’m extremely grateful for right now.” Smith said she also feels “closer to those people who were once mentors and who are now peers — and whose work inspires and motivates me.”
As part of Harvard Alumni Day, Smith’s fellow alumni will be able to reconnect in person to each other and to a campus many have not had the opportunity to visit, due to the pandemic, for two consecutive years. In addition to Smith’s address, highlights of Harvard Alumni Day will include the traditional alumni parade through campus, remarks by Bacow, and a ceremony honoring this year’s Harvard Medalists. The Harvard Choir and Harvard Band, with many participating alumni, will provide musical features.
“This day will be the highlight of the alumni calendar, with the traditions and the pomp and circumstance we all love — and I am thrilled that we will be hearing from Tracy K. Smith, one of our most compelling alumni voices,” said Philip Lovejoy, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association. “We are also excited to welcome our alumni back to campus after such a long hiatus, and to celebrate our extraordinary community and its irrepressible drive to make the world better. Tracy K. Smith — her stunning poems and her visionary work to promote poetry’s power to connect — is a shining example of that alumni spirit.”
Harvard Alumni Day will take place on campus — and virtually for those who can’t attend in person — on June 3. For more information, visit alumni.harvard.edu/alumni-day.