Tracy K. Smith

A single poem published in The Financial Times by Tracy K. Smith caught my eye: offhand, I can’t remember which one, but an enquiry with her publisher in America has unearthed this gem of a volume.

Poems by American and European English-speaking writers are as distinct as jazz and hip-hop, though there is no Berlin Wall between what they might have in common.

What I have long admired, even envied, about American poets, is their sense of the epic, their perception of the infinite and the immeasurable.

It seems to me that much of American poetry in the past sixty years flows from three distinct sources: Whitman, Bishop and Ginsberg.

This can read as a deference to the cosmos, the innocence of sense and, finally, their validation by the ego.

One of the best, Roethke, was dismissive of the Beats with ‘effects a child of two could improve on,’ but he didn’t live long enough to pursue their tremors. Tracy K. Smith has.

And as the Nile fractures into a thousand streams at the end of its course, so too American poetry, insatiable before the vast plain of what constitutes America, both real and imaginary.

Whitman made it possible, by stretching the line beyond convention, for a poet to become, notes Ezra Pound, ‘the hollow place in the rock that echoes with time.’

So too with Smith; ‘I wandered through evenings of lit windows, laughter inside walls/ the sole steps amid streetlamps, errant stars. Nothing else below walked,’ she writes in The Speed of Belief, an elegy.

But an American elegy: the foundation is memory and reflection (Then I slept, too young to know how narrow/And grave the road before you seemed,’) before the poem is airborne on the wings of twenty syllable lines, and now she is conducting an orchestra of images, raining full tilt (Old loves turn up in dreams, still livid at every slight. Show them out./This bed is full. Our limbs tangle in sleep, but our shadows walk.)

My God, It’s Full of Stars is a long poem that isn’t exhausting, like circumnavigating a new city in the slow lane, the senses alert and inquisitive, parts two and three coasting on alexandrines, where the poet is ‘one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’