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  • NYS Writers Institute

Poetry Friday: Tracy K. Smith's "Ode to Joy"

Former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Hatch Shell on Boston's Esplanade (Erin Clark / Boston Globe)
Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Hatch Shell on Boston's Esplanade (Erin Clark / Boston Globe)

Tonight in Boston, when the Handel and Haydn Society performs the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, audience members will hear the premiere of former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's new English translation for “Ode to Joy.” It's a premiere a year overdue.

Smith’s translation was commissioned in 2020 as part of Carnegie Hall’s yearlong project All Together: A Global Ode to Joy, connecting new presentations of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. COVID disrupted those plans.

Serendipitously, the concert is in Boston, where Smith lives and where she teaches at Harvard, and the conductor will be world-renowned Marin Alsop, who had planned to spend her 2020 leading performances of Beethoven's Ninth on six continents, with the “Ode to Joy” text translated into a local language for each one.

Smith spoke with Boston Globe reporter A.Z. Madonna about her approach to this translation project. "When I get into the nuts and bolts of translation . . . I’m thinking line by line," Smith said. "I wasn’t making a statement in classical music. I was simply thinking about words and images and rhythms.”

“I think that joy is about acknowledging the largeness and beauty of others," Smith continued. "Joy is about doing that work in order to create harmony, and I loved that [Friedrich] Schiller’s poem seems to be thinking about that. It was really exciting to think about bringing those ideas into contemporary, familiar English.”

“Ode to Joy”

Text by Tracy K. Smith

O friend, my heart has tired

Of such darkness.

Now it vies for joy.

Joy, bright God-spark born of Ever

Daughter of fresh paradise—

Where you walked once now walk rancor,

Greed, suspicion, anger, fright.

Joy, the breeze off all that’s holy,

Pure with terror, wild as flame.

Make us brothers, give us comfort,

Bid us past such fear and hate.

If you’ve loved another’s beauty

If you’ve craved the warmth of flesh,

If your spirit is invested In another’s sense of worth,

Lift your voice to touch my voice now,

Let our song bring joy to earth.

Lift your voice to touch my voice now,

Let our song bring joy to earth.

Joy like water, milk of mothers.

Kind and wicked all deserve

Joy’s compassion freely given,

Joy which can’t be sold or earned.

In the depths of blackest soil

In the lightless atmosphere

In the atom and the ether,

Animating all that is.

Let us feel it, let us heed it,

Let us seek its deepest kiss.

Let us live our brief lives mining

That which joy alone can give.

Battered planet, home of billions,

Our long shadow stalks your face.

All we’ve fractured, all we’ve stolen,

All we’ve sought blind to your grace.

Earth, forgive us, claim us, let us

Live in humble thanks and joy.

Let our hearts wake from our stupor,

Let us praise you in one voice.


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