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Literary voices: What does 'Hope' mean now?

A close-up of Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster from 2008.

Image of Life on Mars: Poems
Author: Tracy K. Smith
Publisher: Graywolf Press (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 88 pages

We dream on our backs, eyes shut to the world. Dreams carry us away, but when we wake from them, we're right back where we were when we lay down. For all but the most exceptional of people, dreams keep us from stirring, from making a peep. I'm tired of dreams.

I'm tired of what we mean when we tell kids (particularly the ones who seem to be up against the most insurmountable odds) to "dream big." What can dreaming really do to help a person prevail against the many perils of poverty and injustice? And I'm tired of the dream that flickers in the mind's eye whenever anyone alludes to the values this nation was founded upon. How relevant is the notion that hard work is all it takes to get ahead in the era of reality TV, Citizens United and widespread acceptance of the idea that wealth equals worth?

As far as I'm concerned, it's time to wake up.

Enter, hope, another story altogether. Hope is not about receiving, about being the beneficiary of some nebulous good fortune, it's about putting desire into action. Hope is an idea with an engine.

Whenever I hear people disparaging the notion of hope -- and I heard a lot of it in the four years following the 2008 election -- I think how used we've gotten to the symbols of action, and how far those symbols sit from action itself: "Like" us on Facebook! And we do, we most certainly do. Then, we scroll ahead and disappear back into our private lives. But the hope I'm talking about isn't a symbol. It sits well beneath the surface of language and requires us to unravel what we say, to de-code what we are routinely told, to verify what we are only just beginning to think. Moreover, it requires us to keep at it, to remain awake to the world.

Hope makes us agents in our own fates. Hope defies us to sit back and wait. It says, buckle down, gather steam. Hope denies us retreat to the dream.


You can read an excerpt from Smith's latest collection, "Life on Mars," here.

(Tracy K. Smith. “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.)

About the author

Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet.
Image of Life on Mars: Poems
Author: Tracy K. Smith
Publisher: Graywolf Press (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 88 pages
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