U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith ’94 to receive Harvard Arts Medal

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U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith ’94 will be awarded the 2019 Harvard Arts Medal by Harvard President Larry Bacow in a May 2 ceremony.

The award, presented by the Office for the Arts (OFA) and the University Board of Overseers, will include a conversation with Smith moderated by Jorie Graham, Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. Actor John Lithgow ’67, Ar.D. ’05, will host the afternoon presentation, which serves as the opening event for the annual spring Arts First festival to be held this year May 2‒5.

“I am so pleased that the first Arts Medal I bestow as president will recognize the tremendous talents of Tracy Smith,” said Bacow. “When she was named U.S. poet laureate, she spoke about the potential of poetry not only to cross divides, but also to mend them. The world needs that kind of wisdom, and hers is a powerful voice for the possibility of sympathy and empathy, especially where there seems to be little common ground.”

While a student at Harvard, Smith joined the Dark Room Collective, a local reading community for writers of color. She is the author of four poetry collections including “Wade in the Water” (2018), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Her debut collection, “The Body’s Question” (2003), won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the collection “Life on Mars” (2011) won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her memoir “Ordinary Light” (2015) was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

“With the Harvard Arts Medal, the brilliant Tracy K. Smith brings her unique voice to the tradition of poetry at Harvard which stretches more than three centuries — from Thoreau and Emerson to Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery among so many others — carrying and transforming the brave medium which is poetry through this fraught present to an as-yet-unimaginable future,” said Graham.

Smith was appointed the 22nd poet laureate of the U.S. in 2017, and is the host of the daily poetry podcast “The Slowdown.” Other honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She lives in New Jersey, where she directs Princeton University’s creative writing program.

The Arts Medal ceremony is free and open to the public. Tickets, available to the Harvard community April 17 and the larger public April 19, can be picked up at the Harvard Box Office at Smith Campus Center, or by calling 617-496-2222 or visiting www.boxoffice.harvard.edu (with service fees).

The Arts First festival takes place May 2‒5 throughout Harvard campus. Showcasing more than 1,500 students in indoor and outdoor venues, all events are open to the public and most are free and family friendly. For more information, call OFA at 617-495-8676 or visit its website.