United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith spoke about reconciling poetry with modern political and technological culture at the Philomathean Society's Annual Oration.
Smith, who has published five books and won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 poetry collection "Life on Mars," addressed a crowd of more than 300 students and community members in a lecture titled "Why Poetry? Why Now?" Throughout her hourlong talk in Meyerson Hall, she shared anecdotes and read various poems to show how poetry can provide an alternative to the impersonal nature of the digital age.
“In some ways, the question ‘Why poetry?’ disheartens me,” Smith said. “I wonder why poetry is one of the few art forms that's subject to such a persistent need for defense. We don’t hear ‘Why fiction?,’ ‘Why film?,’ or ‘Why dance?’”
Smith contrasted the universal feelings acknowledged in poetry with the modern focus on individual uniqueness, saying that poetry allows a new perspective.
"You might also begin to recognize there are new possibilities of feeling and awareness available to you, ones that take you far beyond those pitched to you by marketing teams of corporations of products,” she said.
College Junior Sydney Gelman, who is the Philomathean Society's Annual Oration Director, praised poetry's ability to bring people together at Penn, despite the University’s pre-professional climate.
“I feel like a lot of times at Penn we are a very pre-professional society in which it's like work work work, have to get a job at Goldman Sachs," Gelman said. “I personally think literature is an entryway to empathy for groups you don’t normally come into contact with."
Smith is in her second term as the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate, a position she assumed in 2017. She also serves as the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
When reading and speaking about her own poetry, she highlighted her focus on expressing difficult emotions.
“I take part in the struggle that characterizes so much of living,” Smith said. “Sometimes that means the anger that I feel because there is something that I know is wrong that I know is happening.”
College freshman and Philomathean Society member William San Pedro said the event gave him a new appreciation for contemporary poetry.
“When I think of poetry, the first thing that comes to mind is Shakespeare or Robert Frost,” San Pedro said. “There’s still poetry happening now, and there’s a lot of ways you can appreciate it. This [event] is one of them.”
Each year, the Philomathean Society hosts the Annual Oration to bring notable speakers to campus. Past speakers include neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, primatologist Jane Goodall, and political scientist John Mearsheimer.