Doctor of Letters

Tracy Smith

May 28, 2023

Listen to an audio recording of Smith’s talk, below.

Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, memoirist, editor, translator and opera librettist whose luminous work brings history and memory to life, inviting long-silenced voices and perspectives to be heard while affirming what makes us most human. A professor of English and of African and African American studies at Harvard and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Smith served as poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019.

During her laureateship, Smith sought to expand access to poetry by bringing poems and conversations about them to places where poets don’t typically present their work: churches, community centers, rehab centers, prisons and jails in rural communities and small towns across the United States. With this outreach, she sought to encourage people who do not see themselves as scholars or artists to enjoy, benefit from and possibly even make poetry. As part of this project, she edited American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology featuring the work of 50 contemporary American poets, and launched the American Public Media podcast The Slowdown, which offers a poem and a moment of reflection every weekday.

President Elliott at podium presents Tracy Smith with honorary degree

President Elliott presented an honorary Doctor of Letters degree to Tracy K. Smith at Commencement (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh)

Smith is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections: The Body’s Question (2003), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Duende (2007), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award; Life on Mars (2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; Wade in the Water (2018); and Such Color (2021). Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2022, Castor and Patience, an opera featuring her first commissioned libretto, premiered in Cincinnati. Her upcoming nonfiction book, To Free the Captive, part memoir, part meditation, explores America’s past and present challenges and hopes.

Smith is the recipient of multiple honors and recognitions, including a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Whiting Award and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. She holds an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University.


Tracy K Smith smiling at a podium

Listen to Tracy K. Smith’s talk, “Where Are We Going? Who is Traveling With Us?” 

Audio file