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!
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.
- Natasha Trethewey, guest editor, and David Lehman, series editor, The Best American Poetry 2017 (New York: Scribner Poetry, 2017). “Introduction” by Natasha Trethewey, pp. xxi-xxvi.
- Natasha Trethewey, Monument: Poems, New and Selected (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). lccn.loc.gov/2018012255.
- Poetry of Place: National Book Festival. 2019. Video. loc.gov/item/webcast-8844/.
- Watch all Library of Congress webcasts featuring Natasha Trethewey.