Skip to content

Tracy Smith on language and poetry

Poetry is hard to interpret precisely because it’s operating on the boundary of what our language supports.

Shamay Agaron
Shamay Agaron
. 1 min read

This is the kind of podcast episode you need to listen to more than once to fully appreciate. Ezra Klein sits down to talk about poetry with Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and two-time US poet laureate.

I’ve never really been comfortable with poetry. Honestly, it’s always been kind of intimidating and that’s probably true for a lot of people.

But the way Tracy Smith talks about poetry is so captivating. She describes poetry as being about expressing the “feelings that defy language”. Poetry is hard to interpret precisely because it’s operating on the boundary of what our language supports.

This makes me think about how much influence our language has on the limits of our thoughts (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). When we don’t have a word for something, we’re severely limited in our ability to engage with it. A topical example is the novel concept of “social distancing” and all the connotations that came with it.

To quote James Williams again,

We expand our awareness, both of ourselves and of our world, when we expand our language. We see things we didn’t know to see before, and we learn how to talk about them with others.

As the world changes, we need new words to interface with our current reality. In this light, poems represent one way to grapple with moments of drastic change.

In Tracy Smith’s words,

Poems are resourceful in finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech.

With the coronavirus wrecking havoc on the world, how can poetry help us understand our own thoughts and feelings beyond what our language supports?

short-form