Whenever U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey
is asked for a simple definition of a poet, she quotes the early 19th century British poet Percy Shelley, who described them as the "unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
“I think that poems legislate the world for us because they not only reckon with the past, with our history as human beings, they also help us to envision and imagine the better worlds that we are every day working to build,” she said. “Poetry can do that for us."
Listen to the audio version of this story, featuring Natasha Trethewey:
Trethewey, the nation's 19th Poet Laureate
, was born to a white father and a black mother in Mississippi in 1966, when inter-racial marriage was still against the law. Her poetry often explores the way her personal history and that troubled period of American history reflect each other.
Hear the U.S. Poet Laureate recite her own work:
She explores the lingering notions of racial difference in her poem “Knowledge,” excerpted below from “Thrall,” Trethewey’s new poetry collection. It was inspired by a Victorian drawing that shows several white male doctors conducting an autopsy on a young woman who drowned. But it also contains a line written by her father, who is also a poet.
…. In the drawing this is only the first cut,
a delicate wounding: and yet how easily
the anatomist’s blade opens a place in me,
like a curtain drawn upon a room in which
each learned man is my father
and I hear, again, his words - I study
my crossbreed child - misnomer
and taxonomy, the language of zoology. Here,
he is all of them: the preoccupied man -
an artist, collector of experience, the skeptic angling
his head, his thoughts tilting toward
what I cannot know…
Trethewey said when she hears her father read the line “I study my crossbreed child,” she feels like an object on display, partly because of the word "study."
“I felt I was being sort of examined under a microscope or looked at in a scientific sort of way by a distant lens. But also because of the word ‘crossbreed.’ In the [English] language, human beings can’t be ‘crossbreeds,’" she said, adding that the word implies "something of animal husbandry” and that being black is something less than human.
Through her teens, Trethewey wrote only fiction, not poetry. But that changed after her mother was murdered by an abusive second husband in 1985, when Trethewey was 19.
“It seemed to me that poetry was the only way to reckon with that loss and what I was feeling,” Trethewey recalled.
The resulting poem was “What is Evidence,” from “Native Guard,” the collection of Trethewey’s poems that garnered her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. It evokes images of the abuse her mother suffered before she was killed.
Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she’d steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove …
… Only the landscape of her body - splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal - her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
The Poet Laureate understands many Americans think of poetry as overly complex, obscure, and self-involved. Growing up, so did she.
“I couldn't enter the poem and find myself inside of it," she said. "But then there was a particular poem that spoke to me, at some point in my life, and I realized it was just about finding the right poems.”
For Trethewey, the “right poem” was W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
Auden addresses the way grief, which can feel so all-consuming to the bereaved, contrasts with the way the world moves heedlessly on in spite of tragedy. But she said everyone must find their own “right poem.”
“What poem is going to move you may not be the same one that moves me, but I am convinced that there is something out there for all of us that can make us love poetry. Sometimes we can read a poem about ... something that is nothing like anything we’ve experienced. And yet in there, the emotional strength of the poem is what connects us to … the place of empathy.”
Trethewey is the first U.S. Poet Laureate in nearly 30 years to spend part of her term working out of the Poetry Room, an ornate office within the Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center in Washington, D.C.
She said she has been inspired by the beauty of the Library as a people’s house of knowledge, and by the opportunity to entice others to discover poetry’s magic and mystery.