News / Arts & Entertainment

US Poet Laureate: Find the Poem that Speaks to You

Pulitzer Prize-winning Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate, signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan, March 30, 2011. (Photo Credit: Jalissa Gray)
Pulitzer Prize-winning Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate, signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan, March 30, 2011. (Photo Credit: Jalissa Gray)
TEXT SIZE - +
Adam Phillips
— 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.

You May Like

Algerians Vote in Presidential Election

There were few media reports of protests and clashes around the country, but so far no significant violence More

Sharks More Evolved than Previously Thought

The discovery could “profoundly affect our understanding of evolutionary history” More

Pakistan Military Asked to Protect Polio Workers

Request comes as authorities say a Taliban ban on vaccinations in 2012 and deadly attacks on anti-polio teams have prevented thousands of children from getting inoculated More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

With over five million records sold worldwide, singer-songwriter MIKA is best known for his hit single “Grace Kelly.” MIKA joins "Border Crossings" to perform live and to talk with host Larry London about his latest CD “The Origin Of Love.”

Blogs