Poetry is Essential to Democracy

An Interview with Tracy K. Smith

Aired September 30, 2012

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Busting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
It they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.
“My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Although Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Life on Mars boldly addresses lofty issues from the existence of god to the possibility of life on other planets using such science fiction icons as Charlton Heston, David Bowie, and the film 2001, she is equally interested in the role that poetry can play in our civic life.

In this episode of Humanities Connection, Smith, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, talks about what she sees as the essential link between poetry and democracy and how poetry can help make each of us better citizens. Along the way, she reads an excerpt from Life on Mars, talks about why David Bowie is such an inspiration to her, and what it means to see literature as world-changing. Smith is the featured speaker at NJCH’s awards event 40YearsNew, which celebrates the Council’s fortieth anniversary, on October 10, 2012 at Drew University.

Photo by Tracy Chang.

As the 2012 Presidential elections ramp up in volume and velocity, it may seem that there is little connection between poetry and democracy, as least as it’s practiced in its most visible form. But for Tracy K. Smith, poetry is essential to democracy, and an important counterweight to the reliance on soundbites and spin in our media. As she discusses in this clip, poetry teaches us to see the world with new eyes, questioning what we know, and makes us learn to think and express ourselves precisely, all skills of democracy.

Although poetry is often seen as being abstract or difficult to understand, Smith mixes the images and tropes of popular culture, from David Bowie to 2001, into her poems, using science fiction’s interest in alternative realities, provocative questions about the future, and sense of wonder to bring her ideas together. In this clip, Smith discusses her love of science fiction, and also reads an excerpt from her poem, “The Speed of Belief.”

How does poetry differ from prose? This isn’t a trick question. For Smith, there’s an important difference that has less to do with style, than with form. While prose is usually linear, poetry bring us into contact with unfamiliar language that sparks our senses and that encourages readers to understand associations between things that we usually don’t connect together. This skill—and Smith feels it is a skill—is why, as she explains in this clip, “a poem is one short step to being changed.”


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