American Life in Poetry: An Old Story

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

Tracy K. Smith, former poet Laureate, has a wonderful way with strange and haunting images, that still manage to tell a resonant story.

I think of the old story she tells here – how future generations must contend with the grand absence that comes with the passing of time.

Yet, there is hope, there is hope in art, in song, and one imagines, in this poem. “An Old Story” is a beautiful anthem to the singing.

An Old Story
By Tracy K. Smith

We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind,

Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.

A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended

Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.

Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2018 by Tracy K. Smith, "An Old Story" from Wade in the Water, (Graywolf Press, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of Permissions Company, LLC and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2021 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.