Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

"An Old Story"

A Poet a Day: Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.”
— Bill Moyers

Tracy K. Smith was the 22nd poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She has published four collections of poetry and was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 volume Life on Mars. In this video, recorded last week in her home in New Jersey, she reads “An Old Story,” a poem from her most recent poetry collection, Wade in the Water, published by Graywolf Press.

“An Old Story”

By Tracy K. Smith

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.


Smith teaches creative writing at Princeton University and hosts American Public Media’s daily radio program and podcast The Slowdown, which is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation.


Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith.  Reprinted by permission of Tracy K. Smith.

Featured photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths