UPDATE 1: The full text of Tracy K. Smith’s talk, “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” is now available through The Washington Post.
UPDATE 2: The full video of Tracy K. Smith’s talk, “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” is now available on the Library’s website. It is embedded below:
A near-capacity crowd filled the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium last night to listen to Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith pay tribute to the humanizing power of poetry.
Smith noted that the goal of her talk, officially titled “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” was to share her thoughts on “why poetry feels so important to me now,” and her experiences bringing poetry to rural U.S. communities during her first term as Poet Laureate.
To Smith, we live in an age when people’s ability to make meaningful connections with each other is threatened by recent developments in technology. Tech toys and gadgets, especially the ubiquitous devices we “live listening for and peer[ing] into,” offer up superficial social interactions and manifold distractions. These technologies threaten to turn each of us into a depersonalized brand offered, sold, and consumed in a market-driven culture. When Smith looks around she sees
things that have bombarded our lines of sight, and our thought space, and that tamper with our ability or even our desire to listen to that deeply rooted part of ourselves. I’m talking about the many products, services, networks, trends, apps, tools, toys, as well as the drugs and devices for remedying their effects that are pitched at us nonstop….
Poetry, Smith contends, offers a remedy to the “glib, facile, simplistic, and prefabricated language” that are hallmarks of these dehumanizing forces:
One of the only defenses against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others, and resistance to the overly easily and the patently false. Poetry is one vehicle for this humanizing, reanimating version of language, because the features of a poem insist upon a different value system. Rather than numbing or drowning out the difficult to describe but urgently sensed feelings that are part of being human, poetry invites us to tease them out, to draw them into language that is rooted in intricate thought and strange impulse. Rather than putting up a buffer between ourselves and those outside our immediate sphere, poems devise means to contemplate those others and to take in their perspectives.
Smith interspersed her talk with audio recordings, and close readings, of Laura Kasischke’s poem “Heart/mind” and John Yau’s pantoum “Music from Childhood,” both of which she read during her three rural tour pilot trips. Her close reading of “Heart/mind” showed how poems can “speak to [her] concerns about market-driven language” through the way “they direct our attention in ways that are antithetical to mere utility,” and how poetry “persuasively unsettles the unthinking or automatic ways we often experience content, language, and narratives.” And Yau’s poem, Smith said, connected deeply, and in different ways, with people in the rural communities where she read it. The poem offers an example of how poetry can “lead us more deeply within ourselves” and to “recognize that there are forms of communities that exist across or in spite of the obvious dividing lines we’re taught to respect.” (Both poems, as well as others played during Smith’s subsequent conversation with Ron Charles, will appear in the forthcoming anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, edited and introduced by Smith.)
You can listen to a partial recording of Smith’s talk, which constituted the first half of yesterday’s program, through the Library of Congress’s Facebook page. The full talk and program will be released on the Library’s website in several weeks, at which point I’ll update this post and embed it.
After Smith’s talk, she sat down for a 45-minute conversation with Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles. You can view part of the conversation below:
During the first several minutes of the conversation, which the recording skips, Ron Charles asks Smith about why people think poetry has nothing to do with the real world. Her response, in part, was that the way many children have been taught to read poetry solely for meaning—as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins has written, they want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it”—kills their innate joy of language and wordplay and tends to deter any future relationship with poetry.
The rest of the conversation touched on many topics related to her experiences on her recent tour of rural communities, and also featured Smith reading several of her own poems and playing recording of other poets’ poems, each of which, in their own way, helped illustrate how poetry can help foster empathy, understanding, and connections between different people. Below I link to major topics covered, and poems read during the conversation, in case you want to jump straight to the part that most interests you:
- On why she decided to visit rural communities during her first term
- On who attended her Rural Tour events
- On whether she received responses that surprised her or she hadn’t expected
- On which poems went over well with audiences during her rural tour
- Reads and discusses “Wade in the Water,” the titular poem from her recently released collection
- On what it means to be Poet Laureate in these “contentious” times
- On how poems can make us “a little less alien to each other”
- Reads and discusses her poem “Refuge”
- Listening to and discussing a recording of Aracelis Girmay’s poem “Second Estrangement”
- On the Civil War, and Civil War documents, as inspiration and source for some of her poems
- Reads and discusses her erasure poem, “Declaration”
- On the function of political poems, and reading her poem “Political Poem”
- Ron Charles on poems as windows into other people’s lives; listening to and discussing a recording of Natalie Diaz’s poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.”
- On the “deep and interesting kind of troubling that poems do”
- Reads and discusses “The United States Welcomes You”
- On what matters to her most as a poet
- Concluding remarks by Rob Casper, Head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center
Again, the full recording will become available on the Library’s website in a few weeks, at which time I’ll embed it in this post.
Now that Tracy has successfully concluded her first term, we look forward to the many amazing things she has in store for her second term. Up first: Serving as the inaugural guest on the Poetry & Literature Center’s new podcast series, which launches April 26! Stay tuned to From the Catbird Seat for more.