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 Ep. 9: "Declaration" by Tracy K. Smith


Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be reading and talking about the poem, “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith.

Tracy K. Smith was born on April 16, 1972 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She was largely inspired to begin writing poetry by the works of Emily Dickinson. Smith attended both Harvard (where she got her Bachelor’s Degree) and Columbia University (where she got her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing). Much of her poetry follows the theme of slavery and early American history. For instance, many of the poems in her collection, “Wade in the Water,” are drawn from historical documents and letters by former slaves. One example of a poem like this is “Declaration.”

Tracy K. Smith was United States poet laureate from 2017 to 2019, preceded by Juan Felipe Herrera and followed by Joy Harjo. Smith has published four books of poetry and a memoir titled, “Ordinary Light,” in which she says that she was  inspired by Elizabeth Bishop and other poets. Her book of poetry, “Life on Mars,” which I greatly enjoy,  is dedicated to her father and his life.

He has


           sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people


He has plundered our


                                           ravaged our


                                                                         destroyed the lives of our


taking away our­

                                  abolishing our most valuable

and altering fundamentally the Forms of our

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for

Redress in the most humble terms:


                                                                Our repeated

Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.


We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.


                                    —taken Captive


                                                                    on the high Seas


                                                                                                     to bear—

All of the lines in this poem are drawn in order directly from the Declaration of Independence, hence the title of the poem, “Declaration.” The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” However, when these lines were written, millions of Black people were enslaved. It was simply ridiculous for the writers of the Declaration, many of them slave owners themselves, to say that they believed men were created equal when they did absolutely nothing to stop the mistreatment of African Americans. So, what Smith does is that she cuts certain sentences off and picks just the right parts of the document to make it a Declaration of Independence for Black people today. The poem begins with what is perhaps the most important word, “he.” In the Declaration of Independence, “he” refers to the King of England, but here Smith makes that “he” refer to the capitalist system and white supremacy. The line, “he has sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people” could indicate the BLM movement and how hundreds of Black people are killed by the police every year in the US. Smith also makes connections between the tyranny of England’s rule during the time that the Declaration of Independence was written and the struggle against racism. When the poem says, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms…” it could refer to the Civil Rights Movement, to peaceful protests, to the many marches and speeches against racism. “Taken captive on the high seas to bear —” could be talking about the slave trade and slave ships. In a way, “Declaration” makes fun of the Declaration of Independence. 

“Declaration” makes use of short lines, many of which are cut off before the sentence ends. Many of these sentences can be finished by the reader — for example, “he has destroyed the lives of our —” could be “he has destroyed the lives of our people.” Of course, what’s interesting about using line breaks this way is that there are multiple words to end this phrase besides “people.” The last lines, “taken captive on the high seas to bear —” can also be finished. From the very beginning, slaves were brought to the United States and to many other countries to bear years of oppression. Years of mistreatment. Years of unfairness. Years of having their rights taken from them. And years of torture. 

This is a cool technique to use if you want to write a poem, because it allows the reader to imagine what the author means. So it’s almost like the poet writes half of the poem, but the reader writes the other, not only interpreting what the poem as a whole means, but also finishing the sentences. This is a style that I find really interesting.

Maybe “Declaration” will inspire you to speak out about issues you care about. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one! 


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