We rarely think of such kitschy science fiction films as Omega Man, Soylent Green and the many sequels to the original Planet of the Apes as poetic. But in a PBS NewsHour interview, Tracy K. Smith has said she drew inspiration for the poems in Life on Mars from such films and from classics like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Poets have always drawn on the popular myths of their times as resources. John Keats certainly didn’t believe in the literal truth of the Greek myths he alludes to so frequently any more than Smith believes Soylent Green is factual. The popular myths for people who’ve come of age in the last century have been largely shaped by popular movies. Star Wars has probably had as much impact on the consciousness of contemporary poets as Chapman’s Homer had on Keats.
But Smith has a more personal connection to science and science fiction. Her father worked on the Hubble space telescope, which sent back to earth the first vivid photographs of distance space. Those historic images were enthralling, widely distributed, and had a huge impact on how people imaged the universe and earth’s place in it. Listen to her read an excerpt from the final section of her poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” and the entirety of “It & Co” as part of an interview on PBS:
Reading Tracy K. Smith, or hearing her talk about her writing process, Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” comes to mind. For Smith, this doesn’t appear to be a mere stylistic preference so much as a method. The two poems she reads are from her Pulitzer Prize winning collection Life on Mars. Despite its title, the book is focused on the questions that arise from living on this earth. It’s almost as if she had to look to the stars to address what was happening under her feet.
And that ground was shifting dramatically. The book was written in a period that encompasses the death of her father and birth of her first child. Smith admits she didn’t know she was setting out to write a book about birth and death and the limits of existence. One can imagine that any poet consciously deciding they were going to write a book addressing such topics might find them too grand to know where to start. (Unless they were Milton.) But by following images from science fiction movies and her memories of her father’s work in the world of actual science, her imagination leads her to her true subjects. The result is an infinitely more layered, nuanced, richly engaging, open and inviting treatment of these topics than would likely be possible in a poem setting out to address them directly.
Smith doesn’t shy away from being direct. Many of the poems in her three collections are deeply self-reflective and apparently autobiographical. Even the poems about science fiction eventually lead her to deal directly with the very personal and powerful impact of her father’s death, for example. But because these poems are so imaginative, so curious about the world beyond the merely personal, they invite the reader in. We trust the speaker of these poems to recognize our connection to what she has to say, and to have something to say that welcomes and includes us.
Click here to hear more of Tracy K. Smith’s poems and excerpts from her PBS NewsHour interview.
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