The modern era of U.S. Poets Laureate began in 1986 with the appointment of Robert Penn Warren, a native of Kentucky. There have been 18 poets named to the position since then, and earlier this month the fifth woman and second Southerner was announced. Natasha Trethewey will take on the responsibilities of office in the fall of this year. There is every reason to expect she will handle the job with energy and verve.
Ms. Trethewey has already announced that she will reside in the Washington, D.C., area from January through May. Very few of our Poets Laureate have made a home in Washington during their terms of office, but such is our newest Poet Laureate’s commitment to the task that is described by the Library of Congress as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.”
Natasha Threthewey was born to a black mother and a white father in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966—a year when miscegenation was still a crime in that state. Her parents’ marriage ended, as did her mother’s second marriage to an abusive husband who murdered her in 1985 after their divorce.
With such weight in one’s history, one could be forgiven for being unable to bear any but personal burdens, but Ms. Threthewey found her true poetic voice when she embraced a stance of political and social purpose in her poems. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, said of her work, “Her poems dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.”
She has published three books of poetry and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Native Guard, a volume that was inspired, in part, by the loss of her mother. Her first book, Domestic Work, was released in 2000. Writing the introduction to that collection, which included portraits of black workers before the civil rights movement, Rita Dove (in 1983 the last African American Poet Laureate) said, “Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts.”
In “Letter Home,” Natasha Trethewey details such yearnings and hopes, writing
I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth.
The daughter of a professor of English—herself holding an MFA degree, the Charles Howard Candler Professorship in English and Creative Writing at Emory University, and the Poet Laureateship of Mississippi—Natasha Trethewey is no stranger to learning and teaching. If she applies her usual intensity to helping America learn more about the consolations and joys of poetry, we will have the best possible lightning rod and teacher we could ever imagine.