Rhyme and Rhythm, Words and Wonder: Princeton’s Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

Princeton’s new poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. Princeton University, Office of Communications, photography by Denise Applewhite.

By Stuart Mitchner 

If you don’t count nursery rhymes, songs, and “The Night Before Christmas,” the first time poetry happened to me was at the end of the Classic Comic of Moby Dick. Each issue closed with “Highlights in the Life” of the author. Herman Melville’s ended with four couplets from a poem “published during the Civil War” that “best expresses our bewilderment of today.” I had no idea what was meant by “bewilderment.” I was 6. The Second World War was still going on. A red, white, and blue banner at the bottom of the page contained a Buy United States War Savings Bonds stamp. The lines that struck and stayed with me were these: “Can no final good be wrought?/ Over and over, again and again,/Must the fight for the Right be fought?” I had only a vague sense of the meaning beyond its being patriotic; what resonated, and still does, was the infectious play of rhyme and rhythm, especially the way it rocks the last line.

The same instinct, the same receptive reflex, is still working in poetry that moves and startles and stays with me today. On first reading “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” by America and Princeton’s new poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, what drew me in was the casual almost offhand wording of the title, the sense of random inquiry, like a nudge from a stranger standing beside you in the same city doorway during a thunderstorm. Right away you feel like you’re sharing a special moment rather than reading a poem.

Then, three lines in, comes “Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being.” It’s rhyme and rhythm again and an instant rush of associations with the Starman. Just last week I was playing Blackstar for the first time since his death in January 2016 and feeling everything I felt and more when he sings “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside.” And here he is “aching to make us see” in a poem written when he was alive and walking the streets of New York, and Smith already seems to be hearing the “aching” in the song, writing “Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep.”

Reviewing Smith’s prize-winning volume Life On Mars (Graywolf 2011), which shares the title of one of Bowie’s most stirring word-movies, Dana Jennings in The New York Times says “The book’s strange and beautiful first section pulses with America’s adolescent crush on the impossible, on what waits beyond the edge of the universe. . . . But what’s most satisfying … is that after the grand space opera of Part 1, with its giddy name checks of 2001 and David Bowie, Ms. Smith shows us that she can play the minor keys, too. Her Martian metaphor firmly in place, she reveals unknowable terrains: birth and death and love.”

For me, the “wonder” in “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes” is best expressed in the fourth stanza’s closing reference to “the life/ In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky/Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands/Even if it burns.”  

Poetry in Princeton

The Princeton poetry connection dates back to Philip Freneau (Class of 1771) and 1943-44 Poet Laureate Allen Tate, first head of the Creative Writing Program now headed by Poet Laureate Smith. Another Princeton Poet Laureate is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner W.S. Merwin, who decided to be “a poet and nothing but a poet” when studying at Princeton under John Berryman and Creative Writing Program founder R.P. Blackmur. Princeton and poetry will be in the spotlight again in October as poets from here and around the world arrive for the biannual Princeton Poetry Festival, one of the events featured in a multi-day Festival of the Arts to celebrate the opening of the new Lewis Center of the Arts complex.

Books published this year by Princeton poets include the late C.K. Williams’s Falling Ill (Farrar Straus and Giroux), of which the Philadelphia Inquirer said “Many poets have gone out writing poems, but few have been such a poet.” Williams’s 20-year tenure at Princeton is celebrated by the C.K. Williams Reading Series in which senior thesis students at the Lewis Center read from their work, with established writers as special guests.

According to The Washington Post, Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) “demonstrates why he has long been regarded as one of the most significant poets of the past fifty years.” In Creative Writing faculty member Susan Stewart’s latest collection Cinder: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf), she writes, in the words of The American Poetry Review, “the kind of poem, virtuosic and illuminating, that goes on giving warmth and light long after the proverbial switch has been flipped off.”

New Faces

Two members of the Creative Writing faculty with new books out are Monica Youn and Ericka L. Sanchez. According to critic Stanley Fish, Princeton graduate Youn’s Blackacre (Graywolf Press $16) is a “remarkable series of poems,” in which “words and objects are alike subjected to a probing intelligence that is at once philosophical and psychological.” Erika L. Sánchez has been greeted as “a vital new voice in American poetry” by Eduardo C. Corral, who praises the “penetrating intelligence and lyrical precision” of her debut volume, Lessons on Expulsion (Graywolf $16), in which she “makes visible the violence striking down Mexican women living on the border and interrogates the historical and the familial origins of misogyny.”

The Bewilderment of Today

The institutional weight of the title U.S. Poet Laureate can seem at odds with the spirit of a poet whose most productive flights have little or nothing to do with ceremonial duties on the grand national scale. That line in the wartime comic of Moby Dick about a poem that “best expresses our bewilderment of today” sounds painfully relevant in 2017. It’s clear from Life On Mars and poems like “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” that Tracy K. Smith is the right person to speak for poetry and poets, especially given the present state of the nation. Asked what she’s working on now, she writes that she has “a new book of poems coming out in April that takes up history as a gauge for grappling with race, violence and intolerance in our time.  To my mind, the book is also yearning toward some sense of the ever after, contemplating our small fragment of the history of Eternity.”