Here's how a woodpecker strikes you if you're Natasha Trethewey, who has just been named the new U.S. Poet Laureate: "So insistent" at pecking, she says, this bird must be looking for more than "beetles and grubs"—"some other gift": "All day he's been at work, / tireless, making the green hearts flutter." Wanting to cut through what we can see to what we cannot, that woodpecker is like Trethewey herself, a poet who works to expose what most stories leave out.
Some of what Trethewey's poems expose is the truth of her own past, rich in drama. She remembers how her white father and black mother broke Mississippi law with their marriage, and how she faced prejudice, growing up in the South. She remembers how her mother was murdered by her second husband. At the same time, her poems probe the secret lives of distant historical characters: washerwomen, for instance, or prostitutes, or the black Union soldiers she honors in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning Native Guard. Her personal poems and historical poems weave together, until we feel that one person's story is everyone's story: truth-telling involves us all.
In her language, Trethewey is a queen of elegant restraint. She writes picture-like poems about pictures; she’s at home not just in free verse but in tight, traditional poetic forms. Want to experience writing that delivers meaning sideways, instead of saying it straight out? Listen to "Southern Gothic" and "Incident," poems that make horrors seem more horrible by not naming them. Those are the first two poems Trethewey reads here:
Don't you love her clear, cool voice? It's a perfect match for all the poems say—and do not.
What is the U.S. Poet Laureate, anyway? He or she is a poet whom the Library of Congress appoints annually to promote appreciation of poetry nationwide. Trethewey, 46, is one of the youngest laureates ever, besides being the second African American female and the first Southerner since Robert Penn Warren. She plans to spend the second half of her term, roughly spring to fall 2013, in the Poet Laureate’s office in Washington, DC.
Reggie Harris, formerly of the Pratt, now of Poets House, helped host a reading Trethewey and two other poets gave at the Central Library in 2007. (Her part of the podcast starts near 30:00.) Trethewey, says Harris, is a "really lovely person" with “fantastic” work, a “terrific choice” for her new job.
For more writing by and about Trethewey, visit the Library of Congress's resource page, and check out her books in our catalog.
And for more poetry, come to the Central Library Wednesday for Poetry and Conversation with Kendra Kopelke and Mary Azrael or Thursday for a celebration of Lucille Clifton. To receive emails about future Pratt poetry events, contact email@example.com.