Truth and Beauty: Natasha Trethewey

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division. Next Friday, May 1, Natasha Trethewey will be the fourth and final poet laureate featured in “The Poetry of Home,” the new weekly video series from the Library of Congress and the Washington Post launched in celebration of National Poetry Month. We also wish Natasha Trethewey a very happy birthday this Sunday, April 26!

Natasha Trethewey. Photo by Nancy Crampton.

As many people shelter in place during this pandemic, and face fears and personal losses, it is a good time to think about the transcendence and respite that poetry can offer. Two-term former Poet Laureate of the United States Natasha Trethewey does just that in her life’s work. By serendipity, Trethewey was born in the poetry month of April. She pinpoints the particular factors of that birthday for us in her poem “Miscegenation,” writing that the time and place of her origin were “near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.”

Trethewey has often described her mixed-race birth on Confederate Memorial Day in the Deep South as a kind of geography of destiny. She has spoken about the poetry of place and the existential wounds and bereavement that have caused her to write, and how she has used the telling of her own story as the nation’s story. Loss, grief, violence, and trauma are partial markers of both her geographical and family history. In her poems she makes tribute to her parents and to historical events—such as the white-terrorist abduction and brutal murder of young Emmett Till or Trethewey’s own mother’s suffering and murder by her stepfather.

Trethewey’s works also convey elements of healing and survival, perseverance, transcendence, and love—including love of poetry. She has recalled how her father, the poet Eric Trethewey (1943-2014), often recited poetry aloud for the pure pleasure of the word, but also to convey maxims and truths about the human condition. He made a gift of poetry to his daughter, to gird her up for both tragedy and beauty to come and to provide her with coping mechanisms and awareness that would help make sense of a complex and conflicted world.

Poetry, Trethewey reminds us, fosters skills of discernment and survival by bolstering our ability to engage in figurative thinking. She has discussed her use of photographs and paintings (at 39:12 in this National Book Festival webcast) as a foundation for some of her poems, as a way to explore multiple figurative and metaphoric meanings of an image, but also to introduce extra knowledge from “beyond the frame.”

For Trethewey the Deep South itself—home of her upbringing—is replete with metaphoric history: the twist of rope and strange fruit of racial violence; the symbols that frame the retelling of the past and aid in the reification of myth and of monuments. On her journey of self-discovery and shaping of herself as a poet, Trethewey studied the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden and William Wordsworth. She admires Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which famously queries both a sense of place and memory: “If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief/ Should be thy portion . . . wilt thou remember me . . . .”).

Trethewey’s work lifts us up out of our own solitude in time of fear, and pain, or grief, by power of allusion, memory, and connection. She has described her thought process when she was selecting poems for a 2017 anthology of American poetry. In thinking of times of crisis prior to the pandemic currently upon us, she notes that when “terrible events unfold in the news,” we long to reach out for comfort to those close to us whose wisdom we trust, and hear their voices. Poetry, meanwhile, provides us with respite, solace, and endurance. Contemporary poets can offer urgency and enlightenment about “our historical moment.” They help us “to contend with the tumultuous times we now face—both individually and collectively.” “We need the truth of poetry, and its beauty,” Trethewey concludes, “now more than ever.” (The Best American Poetry 2017, xxv).

Now, more than ever, read a poem a day. Recite poetry to your daughters and sons and those you love, and seek respite in truth and beauty.

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One Comment

  1. Harris Poet
    April 22, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    Keats is passionate lover of beauty…he had remained in his imagination and created poems.these poem have reflection of romanticism ….you know Keats had one dilemma or conflict that always battled in his mind.the dilemma of transiency of life and permanence of arts..so you can say he had to resolve this but able to do in his later ode, ode to autumn..the poem starts with imagination and had lamentation over the transiency of life..

    1. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”–that is all..

    Beauty is truth, he worshiped beauty and had passing for it. according to him,.all the generation would die but beauty will remain.and that stands for the permanence of beauty( Beauty is truth, )and this is—-truth beauty–means the immortality of beauty is truth

    2.Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    it stands for the pvs generation,present as well as coming generation..means populace will change and beauty of that place will remain.all generation will admire this beauty….

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