Tracy K. Smith
Natasha Trethewey, a treasured Poet Laureate of the United States and recent Columbia honorary degree recipient, describes poetry as a "sacred language that allows us to connect across time and space, across all the things in everyday life that separate us and would destroy us." You, Tracy K. Smith, have learned this sacred language and now speak it in your own distinctive voice. Over and over, you demonstrate the gift of being able to connect the intimacy of love and acceptance, yearning and absence, with the infinity of our fragile human lives. Each of your three collections is a standout: The Body's Question, your 2003 debut and winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Duende, which four years later earned the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and then Life on Mars, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume described in another citation from this University as a "collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain." In your most recent work, Ordinary Light, you reveal the ability to extend this lyrical power beyond verse to produce a penetrating memoir of family and adolescence. Your special talent germinated in youthful experimentation aided by an early vintage Mac computer, which served as the vehicle for your word play, elaborate enjambments, and fledgling attempts at distilling the experience of a moment. You would hone your skill at the Dark Room Collective, a groundbreaking workshop you joined while an undergraduate at Harvard. Here at Columbia, you pushed yourself further, earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and gaining experience and wisdom from a different creative community enthralled by poetry's special alchemy. It is no wonder that words you heard years later in a simple song sung at your daughter's preschool—“when we tell our stories, we make power”—carry a special resonance for you. Now your students at Princeton have the great fortune to have you as their guide in telling their stories and finding their power. Your leadership of that university's creative writing program is driven by a commitment to the type of embracing community you found in Cambridge and then New York. Colleagues on the Princeton faculty join with your students in expressing their admiration for your insight, empathy, and enthusiasm—the very same qualities that have garnered praise for your work from the Academy of American Poets, The Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. For speaking the sacred language of poetry so beautifully, so powerfully, and so truthfully, we are enormously proud to welcome you back to Columbia and to present you with the University Medal for Excellence.