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Tracy K. Smith Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate

The U.S. Library of Congress has named Tracy K. Smith as the new U.S. Poet Laureate.

Smith, 45, won the Pulitzer-Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars and was a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction three years later for her memoir, Ordinary Light. She will serve a one-year term.

According to Newsday:

The laureate’s responsibilities are few, allowing appointees to establish individual projects and priorities, such as the workshops for women organized by Maxine Kumin. The job’s official title is the lofty ‘Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry,’ with a more grounded stipend of $35,000. The laureate ‘serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,’ according to the library, and ‘seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.’

Publisher’s Weekly offered this round-up:

Other poets to have held the position include Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Rita Dove. The position has existed since 1937 and requires its holder to, according the Library of Congress, ‘raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,’ a duty that has historically been interpreted differently by each holder of the title.

Tracy K. Smith was born in Massachusetts and raised in northern California. She earned a BA from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. From 1997 to 1999 she held a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.

Smith is the author of three books of poetry, including Life on Mars, the Laughlin Award–winning Duende, and the Cave Canem Poetry Prize–winning The Body’s Question. Each was published by Graywolf Press. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. In addition to the aforementioned honors, she has won a Whiting Award, a Robert Creeley Award, a Rona Jaffe Writers Award, and Columbia University’s Medal for Excellence.

Smith currently serves as the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and director of the creative writing program at Princeton University. Her fourth poetry collection, Wade in the Water, is forthcoming in April, 2018.

On being appointed to serve as Poet Laureate, Smith said, “I am profoundly honored. As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture. I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

According to the Library of Congress, the first Consultant in Poetry, Joseph Auslander, was appointed in 1937 without a definite term. After Archibald MacLeish became Librarian of Congress in 1939, he decided the consultantship should be filled on a rotating basis. Throughout the 1940s, each consultant served for only one year. Beginning with Conrad Aiken in 1950, consultants have frequently served a second term if circumstances permitted. The history of this unique literary post up to 1986 is chronicled by author William McGuire in the book Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1988).

For more information about Ms. Smith and the poet laureate post, click here.