There are poets who take an aesthetic position that does not include history, politics or social issues as subject matter for their poetry. They maintain this position because they are more interested in poems that go inward, explore the inner life of the mind and heart and spirit. Natasha Trethewey, our new U.S. Poet Laureate, is a poet who writes poems of intense and unflinching interiority. She examines the inner workings of her own consciousness and feelings with a steady, patient, inquisitive mind that does not rest on assumptions, or mask what it sees with self-pity or self-aggrandizement.
But for Trethewey, the private, interior life is peopled by history, both familial and communal. In her poems, personal memory and shared history are interwoven. Public and private are not distinct entities, they are the warp and woof of a life, of how anyone experiences and sees the larger world, strives to understand their place in it, tells that story or writes poems.
Listen to her read “Miscegenation.”
For those of us fortunate enough that our families were not directly impacted by anti-miscegenation laws, it might be possible to consider them a piece of American history, however shameful, that is not really part of our personal lives or identity. For Trethewey, who was an illegal child in the year and state in which she was born, no such aesthetic distance is possible.
Trethewey’s identity and world view were shaped at least in part by her family history. Her family’s history was shaped by the pressures of the times they found themselves living in. Her parents had to leave Mississippi to get married. When they returned, the contraband they were smuggling across state lines was their marriage.
Amiri Baraka, Eavan Boland, Nikky Finney and Juan Felipe Herrera are only a few of the 2012 Festival Poets for whom, like Trethewey, the retelling of history through the lens of personal experience and family history has been a key factor in their development as artists. From her first book, Domestic Work, throughher Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard and up to her most recent collection, Thrall, Trethewey has extended herself to imagine the inner lives of others. Whether they be domestic workers, the forgotten members of the pre-Civil War African-American regiments, or an artist who must paint in secret because of their race, Trethewey enters their lives in an effort to understand her own, and, in doing so, invites us to better understand our relationship to this shared, if often neglected history.
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