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Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith
Smith in October 2012
Born (1972-04-16) April 16, 1972
Occupation Poet, educator
Nationality American
Genre Poetry
Notable awards Cave Canem Prize (2002)
James Laughlin Award (2006)
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2012)

Tracy K. Smith (born April 16, 1972) is an American poet and educator.[1] She has published three collections of poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for a 2011 collection, Life on Mars.[2][3] About this collection, Joel Brouwer wrote in 2011: "Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. ... As all the best poetry does, Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled."[4]


  • Life and career 1
  • Critical reception 2
  • Books 3
    • Contributor 3.1
  • Awards, grants, fellowships 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7
    • Online poetry 7.1
    • Bibliography 7.2

Life and career

Smith is a native of Falmouth, Massachusetts.[1] She was raised in northern California in a family with "deep roots" in Alabama. She received her A.B. from Harvard University in 1994, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 1997. From 1997 to 1999 she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. She has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. In 2005 she joined the faculty of Princeton University, where she is professor of creative writing.[5][6]

Smith is a judge for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize.[7]

Critical reception

In his review of Life on Mars, Troy Jollimore selects Smith's poem "My god, it's full of stars" as particularly strong, "making use of images from science and science fiction to articulate human desire and grief, as the speaker allows herself to imagine the universe:"[3]

... sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

In his review of the collection, Joel Brouwer also quoted at length from this poem, writing that "for Smith the abyss seems as much a space of possibility as of oblivion:"[4]

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Dan Chiasson writes of another aspect of the collection, "The issues of power and paternalism suggest the deep ways in which this is a book about race. Smith’s deadpan title is itself racially freighted: we can’t think about one set of fifties images, of Martians and sci-fi comics, without conjuring another, of black kids in the segregated South. Those two image files are situated uncannily close to each other in the cultural cortex, but it took this book to connect them."[8]

About "The Body's Question" Lucie Brock-Broido writes, "How delightful it is to fall under the lucid and quite more than lovely spell of Tracy K. Smith's debut collection. Smith's work is deceptively plainspoken, but these are poems that are powerfully wrought, inspiring in all the clarity of their many gospel truths. 'The Body's Question' announces a remarkable new voice, brilliantly bundled, ingeniously belted down."

Yusef Komunyakaa writes, "'The Body's Question' is an answer to pure passion, but the beauty is that the brain isn't divorced from the body. The strength of character in these marvelous poems delights and questions. Here's a voice that can weave beauty and terror into one breath, and the unguarded revelations are never verbal striptease."

"Tracy Smith speaks many different languages. Besides the Spanish that graces the 'Gospels' of her book's opening section, Smith also seems perfectly at home speaking of grief and loss, of lust and hunger, of joy and desire, which here often means the desire for desire, and a desire for language itself....She seems to speak in tongues, to speak about that thing even beyond language, answering 'The Body's Question' of her title." said Kevin Young.

About her second book, "Duende", Elizabeth Alexander writes, "Tracy K. Smith synthesizes the riches of many discursive and poetic traditions without regard to doctrine and with great technical rigor. Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious. Writers and musicians have explored the concept of duende, which might in English translate to a kind of existential blues. Smith is not interested in sadness, per se. Rather, in the strange music of these poems I think Smith is trying to walk us close to the edge of death-in-life, the force of hovering death in both the personal and social realms, admitting its inevitability and sometimes-proximity, and understand its manifestations in quotidian acts. This dark force is nonetheless a life force, which, in the poem 'Flores Woman,' concludes 'Like a dark star. I want to last' If 'Duende' were wine, it would certainly be red; if edible, it would be meat cooked rare, coffee taken black, stinky cheese, bittersweet chocolate. Tracy K. Smith's music is wholly her own, and 'Duende' is a dolorous, beautiful book."

Her book “Ordinary Light: A Memoir,” about growing up in a bookish family and the dawning of her poetic vocation, was named to the National Book Awards longlist for Nonfiction in 2015.

Smith lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their three children.[9]


  • The Body’s Question. Graywolf Press. 2003.  
  • Duende. Graywolf Press. 2007.  
  • Life on Mars. Graywolf Press. 2011.  
  • Ordinary Light. Knopf. 2015.  


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Awards, grants, fellowships


  1. ^ a b "Tracy K. Smith". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2012-04-18. 
  2. ^ a b "The 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Poetry". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-04-23.  With short biography and publisher's description.
  3. ^ a b  
  4. ^ a b Brouwer, Joel (August 26, 2011). "Poems of Childhood, Grief and Deep Space". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Saxon, Jamie (April 16, 2012). "UPDATE: Princeton's Tracy K. Smith wins Pulitzer Prize for poetry". Princeton University. 
  6. ^ a b "Tracy K. Smith Web site". Archived from the original on 2008-10-11. 
  7. ^ "Judges for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced". 19 August 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2015. 
  8. ^   Review of Life on Mars. Chiasson notes that "... it's fitting that to write about the Space Age Smith turns to forms that predate the modern world (including a terrific example of the villanelle, that old troubadour invention, about the euthanizing of geese at J.F.K. Airport)." The villanelle is "Solstice".
  9. ^ "Bios of 2005 Whiting Writers' Award Recipients". Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. 
  10. ^ "James Laughlin Award". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2012-04-24. 
  11. ^ "ESSENCE's Literary Awards Winners". Essence Magazine. February 1, 2008. 
  12. ^ Dodd, Philip. "A Meeting of Minds" (PDF). Cycle 5. Retrieved 2012-04-23. 
  13. ^

Further reading

  • "Seven Poets Guest-Edited by Tracy K. Smith".  
  • "Fiction review: Duende". Publishers Weekly. May 21, 2007. Federico García Lorca famously described duende in relation to flamenco music, but understood it as the dark wellspring for any artistic endeavor. As interpreted by Smith in her Laughlin Award–winning second collection, duende is the unforgiving place where the soul confronts emotion, acknowledges death and finds poetry.  Starred review of Smith's second collection.

External links

  • Tracy K. Smith Princeton University Faculty Page
  • Profile at The Whiting Foundation

Online poetry

  • "Tracy K. Smith". From the Fishouse. Retrieved 2012-04-18.  Short biography and links to audio recordings of Smith reading her poetry and responding to audience questions.
  • "Self-portrait as the Letter Y".  
  • "Duende". Academy of American Poets. 
  • "My God, It's Full of Stars". Bibbins, Mark, ed. (October 1, 2010). "The Poetry Section - Tracy K. Smith". The Awl. 
  • "Tracy K. Smith". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-24.  Links to several of Smith's poems.


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