Tracy K. Smith
love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak
Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.
Tracy K. Smith is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University and the former Poet Laureate of the United States. Her poetry collections include Life on Mars, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Duende, and Wade in the Water. Her memoir is Ordinary Light. She’s the co-editor of the book, There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis.
Krista Tippett, host: I love Tracy K. Smith’s deep interest, as she’s said, in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She spent the past year traversing our country, listening for this, and drawing it forth as U.S poet laureate.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. I spoke with Tracy K. Smith at the invitation of New York’s legendary B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric. Tracy brought a stack of her books to read from if the inspiration came as we spoke, including her most recent book of poetry Wade in the Water.
Ms. Tippett: You were born in Massachusetts and raised in Northern California. I wonder how you would begin to describe the religious and spiritual background of your childhood?
Tracy K. Smith: I was born into a household where God lived. That’s what it feels like. My parents were both faithful people from the South. I think they had different relationships to that faith, but they both came from the Black Church. My parents were born in the mid-’30s, and I understand that the community that the church fostered was spiritual and social. There’s the sense of, God can make your life better, and if we can look out for each other, and if we can hold ourselves to a standard of discipline, it’s going to be a lot easier to live in this segregated place. I got both strains of that growing up. Of course, a generation later the political climate was different. But I think the sense of discipline and the sense that we owe something larger than ourselves our best was a big part of what I was raised just knowing.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and I think it’s in that spirit and with that sensibility that you’ve moved out into the country this year. I love thinking about you out there, in that spirit, interacting. I want you to tell us what you’re experiencing. I sometimes feel like there’s the official story of our time and the official conversation of our time. It’s strident and harsh and loud and fractious. But I feel like there’s this whole other narrative unfolding, and that’s what you are looking at, listening for, participating in. I wonder if you thought about it that way. What story of our time have you been experiencing these years?
Ms. Smith: It’s been beautiful, again, because poetry facilitates this thing that says, OK, we’re not going to be talking at each other or speculating about each other, but rather opening ourselves up to something, a voice on a page, and talking about what that speaks to. When you go out into the country, talking about poetry with people, we’re cleaving to the certainties that poems alert us to and listening to the private story that poems remind us of. Does that make sense? We’re sharing something and leaning into each other to say, “Oh, well, this reminds me of my father. My relationship was a little bit different. It was like this.” I feel like that’s antithetical to the tenor of political conversation, which is adrenalized; which is full of all of these certainties, whether or not they’re earned; and which is defensive. This is about saying, “Oh, right. I feel something. What do you feel?”
Ms. Tippett: I think you’ve been to South Carolina — these are some of the places I read about. You started in New Mexico, on an Air Force base.
Ms. Smith: Right, which was great. My father was in the Air Force, and so it was exciting to be in that space as an adult. It was odd to feel older than almost everybody. My father seemed so old when I was young, and suddenly I see all of these people in their 30s. And I visited the Native American School of Santa Fe, where there’s a really thriving sense of art and language that’s revered, preserved, and defended, even, in a way. That was exciting.
It was beautiful to think that some of the ideas I have about poetry and the thing that happens when we listen together and allow ourselves to be moved together. It was exciting to hear that talked about in a vocabulary that had to do with actual faith, or with ceremony that the students and the members of that community were familiar with. It stopped being metaphorical, if that makes sense.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I wonder if there’s a poem that maybe you’ve read in this time, out with our fellow citizens that has changed for you because — whether you would read something, maybe a poem that means something different to you because of the conversations it has sparked.
Ms. Smith: This is a poem — it’s sort of strange. It’s a metaphor-based poem. It feels, even as I read it, that the metaphor’s slippery. I wrote it thinking about one thing. And then, hearing people talk about it and ask about it, it’s come to mean something else for me. I’ll read it first.
“Ash” — “Strange house we must keep and fill. / House that eats and pleads and kills. / House on legs. House on fire. House infested / With desire. Haunted house. Lonely house. / House of trick and suck and shrug. / Give-it-to-me house. I-need-you-baby house. / House whose rooms are pooled with blood. / House with hands. House of guilt. House / That other houses built. House of lies / And pride and bone. House afraid to be alone. / House like an engine that churns and stalls. / House with skin and hair for walls. / House the seasons singe and douse. / House that believes it is not a house.”
I wrote that poem thinking about the body, thinking about what it means to be alive in this human form and how strange it is that it’s temporary, that we are not just the body, but something else. That’s the way I’ve read it the first many times that I read it, or, at least, what I heard myself saying. But there’s a lot of ambiguity in the poem, and so people have questions about it. Someone has told me it feels like a poem that, more than just being in the body, is about being a woman and that sense of vulnerability and also sheltering something. Then, because a lot of these poems in this book are thinking about nationhood and American history, I was really excited to hear it described as a poem that is about the country as a house, and taking us back even to Abraham Lincoln in the sense of “a house divided against itself.” I love that active readers can give you a good enough argument to re-hear and see what you’ve made yourself.
[music: “Orrery” by Spiro]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a public conversation with the U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith.
Ms. Tippett: I want to dive in a little bit more to some of the things you said recently in this interview. You were talking about this time you’re spending as poet laureate. You said, “I think there are lots of places where we have something very clear, compelling, and welcome to say to one another.” — “I’m interested in the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” Tell us how that sounds. Tell us what you’ve been hearing.
Ms. Smith: Well, one of the things I’m struggling with is, OK, it’s going to sound different everywhere. There isn’t a “rural perspective” that I can report on, which is great.
Ms. Tippett: Well, I think that’s actually part of it, that it’s not one voice or one conversation.
Ms. Smith: Exactly. I remember some really lovely things. It was my first time in the state of Kentucky, and I was really blown away by the beauty of the landscape and just driving. We did a lot of driving from one destination to another and seeing this beautiful, undeveloped land with a few horses, or houses that were so close to the miraculous beauty.
I really wanted to know what that felt like, what people’s sense of allegiance to the natural world felt like there; how much they were aware of it or whether it was so familiar that they didn’t see it. I was in a room with mostly mothers and young kids in a library, and the kids were interested in nature and interested in video games and all the things all of our kids are aware of. The mothers that I spoke to said, “I’m excited that my kid has access to everything that everyone else has, and I’m really scared too, because they don’t play in the mud the way that I used to. I don’t know that they see what we have in the way that I can.” Even over the last few decades, the small changes signal that maybe this is finite in some way.
To me, that felt really exciting, more exciting than saying, “What’s your take on environmental protection?” What do you look out and see, and what does it make you want to do, or what does it make you long for or want to protect in some way?
Ms. Tippett: I wonder, have there been things that this listening and this conversation, things you’ve learned about yourself, that have surprised you? Actually, one thing that was interesting to me is that you — Wade in the Water was published, converged with becoming poet laureate and being out there. And you said that you were surprised to realize that this was a book that had a really political overtone. What did you say? That these are such American poems, but that you, yourself, had not understood that until the book was beginning to engage with the wider world.
Ms. Smith: Yeah, it was really surprising to me, but I think it also makes sense to me that the questions I have about the moment that we live in now, all of the difficulty we have in talking to each other about difference, about race; all of the ways that history, which once felt so remote, feels closer and active and unresolved — it makes sense that those are questions that are on the surface of these poems and that looking back to history is an attempt to say, “Is there anything that we haven’t yet heard that could be helpful now in unraveling this knot?”
I found myself listening to voices that come out of slavery in a way that I had never done before, in a way that I thought, “Oh, other writers are better at that. Other writers know how to tell those stories.” But I was and am interested in the very compelling statements of lived experience that blacks during the Civil War made to President Lincoln or to the Pension Bureau. Writing this book during a time where there was a lot of racial violence made those voices urgent to me in a new way.
Ms. Tippett: Just the way you said that feels so important. It feels like something that’s all around us, but you’re putting words around it, that one of the aspects of this moment is that things that felt farther away not that long ago feel so close and so alive, which I think often comes to us as a terrible shock and feels like a failure. But it is also a moment of reckoning.
You have that sequence of Civil War poems, the found poems. Would you read a little bit of that and tell the story of those?
Ms. Smith: OK. I never had a curiosity about the Civil War. I had discomfort when learning about it in school. But I found letters and testimonies that black veterans had given after the war in an attempt to get their pensions. And again, that distance closed up. I just said, if we could listen to these together, maybe we could feel something that could be really helpful. So maybe I’ll read you one section of a poem in which family members are writing to the president about the experience of their enlisted family.
“Excellent sir My son went in the 54th regiment— / Sir, my husband, who is in Co. K. 22nd Reg’t U.S. Cold Troops / (and now in the Macon Hospital at Portsmouth with a wound in his arm) / has not received any pay since last May and then only thirteen dollars— // Sir We The Members of Co D of the 55th Massechusetts vols / Call the attention of your Excellency to our case— // for instant look & see / that we never was freed yet / Run Right out of Slavery / In to Soldiery & we / hadent nothing atall & / our wifes & mother most all of them / is aperishing all about & we / all are perishing our self— // i am willing to bee a soldier and serve my time / faithful like a man but i think it is hard to bee / poot off in such dogesh manner as that— // Will you see that the colored men fighting now / are fairly treated. You ought to do this, / and do it at once, Not let the thing run along / meet it quickly and manfully. We poor oppressed ones / appeal to you, and ask fair play— // So Please if you can do any good for us do it / in the name of God— // Excuse my boldness but pleas— // your reply will settle the matter and will be appreciated, / by, a colored man who, is willing to sacrifice his son / in the cause of Freedom & Humanity— // I have nothing more to say / hoping that you will lend a listening ear / to an umble soldier / I will close— // Yours for Christs sake— // (I shall hav to send this with out a stamp / for I haint money enough to buy a stamp)”
I love the appeal to justice and goodness, the sense that it’s not just that, but it’s also, “You have to do the manly thing. You have to man up.” I was really just moved to see somebody who is enslaved saying that they’re willing to sacrifice their son in the cause of freedom and humanity, and suddenly, those words are not abstractions. Or throughout these letters, the sense of powerful metaphor that comes up in this attempt to make an urgent appeal — there’s one letter that a mother wrote saying, “My son is the only help I have, and now he’s gone. I’m old, and my head is blossoming for the grave. Just, please, help.” I didn’t think that there was any need for my voice to enter this poem. I just wanted to curate a chorus of these other very compelling voices.
Ms. Tippett: There’s such depth and dignity. It’s so different from a letter you can imagine anyone writing to anybody in a bureaucracy now. What is that?
Ms. Smith: Yeah. I don’t know. There’s this really beautiful sense of belief in the tenets of democracy that are being offered by someone who is locked outside of that promise, but seeing, “If Abraham Lincoln could make the right choice, the doors to freedom and humanity will open up. We’ll be inside of it.” So maybe there’s a sense that “I must believe that this is possible.”
That was really awe-inspiring. And maybe I like the idea that if we stop being cynical, and if we believe that this thing we’ve built is built on something that’s real and that’s worth struggling for, if we hold each other to a higher standard, maybe we can open those doors again.
[music: “Thought 8” by Thrupence]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Tracy K. Smith. We are putting all kinds of great extras into our podcast feed: lots of poetry, music, and a new feature, “Living the Questions.” You can get it all as soon as it’s released when you subscribe to On Being on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the 22nd U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. She’s chosen to spend the past year traveling around the U.S. with a special intention to be in places where people live and poets don’t routinely present their work. We spoke together at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan and took a few questions from the audience.
Audience Member: I’m Larissa Wohl. I’m the Tzedek or social justice program manager at the synagogue. I’m very delighted to be here. This is for both Tracy and Krista: Can you share some of your feelings and experiences in using poetry as a tool to catalyze difficult and transformational conversations?
Ms. Smith: That question makes it sound like it’s easy. It’s so well laid-out.
Well, I teach. Most of my experience, even though I’ve been traveling a lot this year, is in the classroom. I try and urge my students to think that the questions they have as people and as citizens can be processed by the writing of a poem. I ask them to write, sometimes, about things they haven’t got their heads around, things they don’t understand, things that are unresolved, things that worry them. Somehow, we get to think about the ideas and the themes and the facts. We’re moved by them. We’re made to see them in new ways. We also get to think about what language is doing in the poem.
What excites me about poetry is that language insists upon what is not easy. A good poem isn’t made of the first thoughts or words that come into your head. A good poem is never going to follow the well-worn path of habit. Language urges you to push against what you might think you know, what you might initially be inclined to draw from what you’ve observed and even what you believe. That’s exciting because you’re wandering away from the things that you feel confident of, and you’re wandering into a place where — oh, maybe you’re not so right. Maybe you’re vulnerable in ways that you hadn’t anticipated, and maybe the vulnerability that you’re willing to claim isn’t the whole story.
I love doing that, and I love that I get to teach in a place where it’s a room of 10 or 11 people, and we feel safe, so we can go out on a limb. It’s harder to do that with strangers, but I think the act of reading allows you to quietly do that with a voice that’s not your own.
Ms. Tippett: I think I would just pick up on that word, “quiet,” that poetry induces a kind of meditative state, which can sound abstract. But there’s something about the way language works in poetry that it insists that you reflect and mull. The forms of language with which, actually, we’re skilled and fluent and trained in make no space for mulling or even for admitting what you don’t know. Even if you know you don’t know them, it’s not built into what you’re presenting. But poetry stops us, and it quiets us. I also love the way you said it turns us inside, but it comes from our interior lives, which are underdeveloped in this culture, compared to our exterior lives.
Ms. Smith: I like that poetry also brings in different words for thinking about things. The poems I’ve been writing recently are trying to bring love into the conversation with the political. Usually we can get as close to love as “tolerance” when we’re talking about policy, which is a very different thing. You get a look on your face when you’re tolerating something that’s not about embracing it.
Ms. Tippett: In the medical context, tolerance is about “the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment.”
Ms. Smith: Exactly. I just think we can do better than that. I’m excited to say, OK, love isn’t just flowers and hearts. Love is work. Love is dangerous. Love is ennobling, but not in the easy, pretty way that we sometimes imagine that it is, because love doesn’t just exist between two people who have chosen each other. So I’ve been really interested in writing about compassion, because I’m trying to learn it a little bit better.
Ms. Tippett: And create a public vocabulary for it as something that’s serious.
Audience Member: How do you balance outrage and sitting down for poetry or conversation with regards to the state of our nation and the treatment of black women?
Ms. Smith: I think there is a value to outrage. I think that it activates a kind of power that we can choose to act upon. In art, I think that outrage might lead me to the page, but it has to go sit down somewhere else when I’m writing a poem, because — I really do believe this — a good poem isn’t going to be the result of the certainty that drives emotions like anger and outrage. If I know I’m right, and they are wrong, my poem is going to be a tract. But if I can say, what are the weird spaces that are under-imagined? What are the areas where I either am already perpetuating something that is part of what I envision as the problem, or what are the imagined spaces I can enter into where I have to get uncomfortably close to that problem? That’s where something really, I think, interesting starts to happen. I might finish a poem and see something differently. It doesn’t necessarily change the sense of outrage that I might also feel, but it’s illuminated something that feels productive.
Ms. Tippett: I think that discipline that you describe doesn’t just apply to the writing of a poem. Somehow, outrage is justified, can be justified; it can be important; it can be a moral response. But finding how we let it drive us and when we know, in fact, being motivated by it, won’t affect what we actually need to affect.
Ms. Smith: Even those two words, they feel so — it’s forceful, but it doesn’t feel creative or generative. And changing things, it’s a generative act, I think. Can I read a poem?
There’s a photo that everybody’s probably seen that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement a couple years ago. It’s called “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” It depicts a woman — her name is Ieshia Evans. She’s wearing this gauzy sundress, blowing in the wind. And then on the other side of the frame, it’s a row of police officers in combat gear. I was invited to write a poem about that image, which I saw, and I felt something certain and powerful when I saw it, but the poem had me think differently. I had to come up with different terms for what I saw, and those terms pushed me to think about what we do, or what we might do differently, pushed me to think about fear, which is also, I think, part of that image, differently.
“Unrest in Baton Rouge” — “Our bodies run with ink dark blood. / Blood pools in the pavement’s seams. // Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak? // Even the men in black armor, the ones / Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else // Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade / Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat? // We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat. / Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean. // Love: naked almost in the everlasting street, / Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.”
It felt almost frightening to put love in the center of that image and to imagine that the officers, which to me seemed like the threat, were susceptible to something that’s stronger than they are, which is love. It made me also say, right, if I am going to love a stranger or even my neighbor, I’m vulnerable to them. I’ve got to say, OK, I know this is important to me, but I have to think about being faithful to what’s important to you. Framing it like that, the terms in the poem change my sense of what’s at stake, not just in the photograph, but in our interactions with each other. That felt sort of scary and productive.
[music: “Kat’s Gut” by Gustavo Santaolalla]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a public conversation with the U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith.
Ms. Tippett: I would like to talk about love some more, because I feel like it’s this paradoxical response to the moment. And yet, it’s absolutely right. It’s symmetrical. It’s the only thing that is symmetrical in facing up to all the fear and outrage and what looks like anger and hate.
Ms. Smith: We’ve gone so far in one direction that we’ve exhausted that rhetoric, and so now we get to swing back toward what is enlarging and what I believe is eternal. It’s not just this celestial framework or holy framework. Love is a life force. Love is something that animates a person or two people or a family or a community.
I spend a lot of time looking at narratives of near-death experiences. There’s one poem in this book that draws from that. I think that the fascination I have is that love is one of the — it’s the central term. People who die on the operating table and feel that they go somewhere, feel that they’re made to learn or remember something fundamental. No matter who they are, no matter what they believe, no matter whether they subscribe to a religion or not, “love” is the word that’s on their mouth, their lips, when they wake up — like, “I remembered it’s just about giving this thing to everyone that I can. That’s why I’m here.”
It’s exciting. I love that love is coupled with a sense of threat, and yet, if we’re willing to be larger than the fear that that incites, something great could happen.
Ms. Tippett: I think we need a sensibility that allows us to get quiet and to be patient, to live into that, to grow into that. We’re not there yet, completely.
Ms. Smith: Some of us might be able to get there in small steps, in the day-to-day and those small acts of saying, “Oh, I see you must be feeling this. Maybe you’re upset, not because of me standing here, but because of something else that happened.” Even that little leap of the imagination, I think, restores something.
Ms. Tippett: I think that something manifests as a personal interaction, but in fact, it has civilizational effect if it’s something we all choose to take up.
Ms. Smith: Absolutely. There are versions of the universe where everything continues moving outward and touches everything else eventually. I listened to a podcast that was talking about how the air that Christ breathed is still here circulating somehow. I think that there’s a way of thinking that the intentions that we bring to our actions remain, and they have an effect too.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking about this great speech that John F. Kennedy gave in 1961 — do you know this? About poetry.
Ms. Smith: I don’t know if I remember it.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, that’s so great that I get to share this with you. He says, “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.” Of course, you read this, and you think, it is absolutely inconceivable to imagine a politician on any side of our political boundary thinking anything like this, even to themselves, much less saying it in public.
I had that thought, and then I was looking at the story of you becoming poet laureate, and I saw that 2017, which is the year you became U.S. poet laureate, the first youth poet laureate, that seat, was established. And I thought, OK — because we feel like nothing good and beautiful can emerge, even in the Library of Congress. And it’s not true. There was this beautiful thing, and you actually have taught — you said something about how meeting her — and what is her name?
Ms. Smith: Amanda Gorman.
Ms. Tippett: Amanda Gorman — that it made you feel old in a lovely way. [laughs]
Ms. Smith: [laughs] Amanda’s amazing, and I feel that way a lot when I meet members of her generation who have this beautiful sense of what is possible and this really gorgeous sense of fidelity to what is right and kind. I love how my students and students like them are working to create more inclusive spaces; how they have a beautiful, ample sense of selfhood, the fluidity of self. They’re completely unafraid of the things that terrified my generation, let alone my parents’ generation. It’s not real to them, and they’re teaching, in their gentle yet urgent way, their teachers and their parents how to look at things differently. I get so excited when I think, these kids are going to grow up, and their perspective on the world is going to make so much possible that right now is impeded by fear, rigidity, a sense of “Well, this is how things have always been done, and this is what we can’t stop doing.”
Ms. Tippett: There was a funny story — or, you didn’t mean for it to be funny, but I think Elizabeth Alexander was asking you about your daily rituals. I just really liked that you said, “When I’m happy, I love to eat breakfast,” and that eating breakfast reminds you of these family breakfasts when you were growing up in a household of five kids. And then you said, “When my heart hurts, breakfast is a cigarette, sitting at my computer, incessantly checking my email inbox.”
Somehow, that idea of your heart hurting, just that language — I just feel like so many of us feel like that a lot of the time now. As we close, I want you to read another poem or two. But I just wonder, right now, this week, what makes your heart hurt, and where are you finding hope?
Ms. Smith: It’s a hard question, because there are a lot of things. What is the small, useful thing? There’s a poem. Maybe I’ll offer to share it because it came out of seeing someone who — her heart hurt. I could see it. There was something that made me so uncomfortable about observing that. I wanted to say something or do something, but I couldn’t, because that’s rude and presumptuous. I also, in writing a poem about this, realized, it wasn’t just compassion that I felt. I felt distaste or anger at the fact of her pain in my face. The poem pushed me to figure out, maybe, a little bit about why. So maybe I’ll read this poem. It’s not generous. Then I hope that in its stinginess, it’s shining a light on me. It’s asking me to do something that I need to do.
“Charity” — “She is like a squat old machine, / Off-kilter but still chugging along / The uphill stretch of sidewalk / On Harrison Street, handbag slung / Crosswise and, I’m guessing, heavy. / And oh, the set of her face, her brow’s / Profound tracks, her mouth cinched, / Lips pressed flat. Watching her / Bend forward to tussle with gravity, / Watching the berth she allows each / Foot (as if one is not on civil / Terms with the other), watching / Her shoulders braced as if lashed / By step after step after step, and / Her eyes’ determination not to / Shift, or blink, or rise, I think: / I am you, one day out of five, / Tired, empty, hating what I carry / But afraid to lay it down, stingy, / Angry, doing violence to others / By the sheer freight of my gloom, / Halfway home, wanting to stop, to quit / But keeping going mostly out of spite.”
Ms. Tippett: I think, maybe, one more poem.
Ms. Smith: We can’t end on that note.
Ms. Tippett: We can’t end on that note. Even if we could, I want to hear another poem. I love “Garden of Eden,” the first poem in Wade in the Water. Here we are in New York, and I also just kind of like you standing on the cusp of the century. What do you feel drawn to?
Ms. Smith: Maybe I’ll read the title poem, partly because it feels like the inverse of that awful scene that I just described. Is that OK?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and then everybody should go away and read those other two.
Ms. Smith: Yeah, please.
This is a poem that comes out of an experience I had that was so beautiful because someone else saw me and is committed to seeing other people. I was in Georgia. I attended a ring shout. It was a trip where I was also visiting a lot of historical sites that had to do with the history of slavery. It was a heavy trip. Then I got to this place, and one of the women who was about to perform saw me, and she said, “I love you.” She gave me a hug, and I lost it. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know what I was dealing with. But that offering did something beautiful and painful and great. She said it to everyone, but it didn’t get cheapened by that gesture. So I wanted to dwell in that sense of grace, almost, that she created. Her name is Bertha McKnight, and she’s one of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters.
“Wade in the Water” — “One of the women greeted me. / I love you, she said. She didn’t / Know me, but I believed her, / And a terrible new ache / Rolled over in my chest, / Like in a room where the drapes / Have been swept back. I love you, / I love you, as she continued / Down the hall past other strangers, / Each feeling pierced suddenly / By pillars of heavy light. / I love you, throughout / The performance, in every / Handclap, every stomp. / I love you in the rusted iron / Chains someone was made / To drag until love let them be / Unclasped and left empty / In the center of the ring. / I love you in the water / Where they pretended to wade, / Singing that old blood-deep song / That dragged us to those banks / And cast us in. I love you, / The angles of it scraping at / Each throat, shouldering past / The swirling dust motes / In those beams of light / That whatever we now knew / We could let ourselves feel, knew / To climb. O Woods—O Dogs— / O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run— / O Miraculous Many Gone— / O Lord—O Lord—O Lord— / Is this love the trouble you promised?”
Ms. Tippett: Tracy, thank you so much for representing all of us so well as the poet laureate. And thank you to B’nai Jeshurun for having On Being here tonight.
Ms. Smith: Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: Tracy K. Smith is the 22nd United States Poet Laureate and she’s the director of Princeton University’s creative writing program. Her works of poetry include Wade in the Water, Life on Mars, and Duende. Her memoir is Ordinary Light. She’s written the introduction to a new book, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time and she’s launching a new podcast called The Slowdown.
[music: “Memories of Home” by Songs of Water]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, and Damon Lee.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks to Rabbi Shuli Passow, Larissa Wohl, Adarra Davis, Jeannie Blaustein, and the tremendous congregation of B’nai Jeshurun.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.