Tracy K. Smith was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in 1972, and raised in Fairfield, California; her family heritage is from Alabama. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope. Smith became interested in writing and poetry as a child, reading Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain in elementary school.
Dickinson's poems in particular struck Smith as working like "magic", she wrote in her memoir, with the rhyme and meter making Dickinson's verses feel almost impossible not to commit to memory. Smith then composed a short poem entitled "Humor" and showed it to her fifth-grade teacher, who encouraged her to keep writing. The work of Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Rita Dove also became significant influences.
Smith's first collection, The Body's Question (Graywolf Press, 2003), won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2002. Her second book, Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her most recent collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A starred review of Smith's work in Publisher's Weekly noted her "lyric brilliance and political impulses." A review of Duende in The New York Times Book Review stated, "The most persuasively haunted poems here are those where [Smith] casts herself not simply as a dutiful curator of personal history but a canny medium of fellow feeling and the stirrings of the collective unconscious...it's this charged air of rapt apprehension that gives her spare, fluid lines their coolly incantatory tenor."
Smith is the recipient of the 2014 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. About Smith, Academy of American Poets Chancellor Toi Derricotte said: "The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person's shoes. The Academy is fortunate to be able to confer this fitting recognition on one of the most important poets of our time."
Her other awards and honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2008 Essence Literary Award, a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, a fellowship from the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, and a 2005 Whiting Award. In 2017, Smith was appointed poet laureate of the United States. She was the Poem-a-Day Guest Editor for April 2019 and 2018, and the director of Princeton University's creative writing program.
In 2021, Smith joined the faculty of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Poems - 10 in all
Tracy K. Smith
The Good Life
Garden of Eden
Wade in the Water
Tracy K. Smith - 2 ~ New ~
I Don't Miss It
A Man's World
We Feel Now A Largeness Coming On