Discovering the Relevance of Words
THE STORY OF NATASHA TRETHEWEY’s life as a poet began with her mother’s death. Until then, though her father is a poet, poetry had not figured in her future plans. She was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Georgia when her mother died a tragic, untimely death.
In her telling, the young Trethewey felt the smallness of her loss measured against the immensity of the world and as if by an instinct of grief she remembered W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poem salved her suffering, and while her story is profoundly personal, Trethewey’s turn to poetry in a time of desperate need illustrates our primal desire for consolation. “Musée des Beaux Arts” gave Trethewey both an accompaniment to her sorrow and words to make sense of her incalculable loss.
The poem remains a stalwart in Trethewey’s emotional life, and she returned to it again for solace shortly before I interviewed her on December 17, 2012. It was the Monday morning after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the passing of poet Jake Adam York, Trethewey’s close friend who collapsed from a sudden stroke only the day before. I knew from my research preparing for the interview that York’s and Trethewey’s careers were interwoven; theirs was a conversation on poetry and the world between true friends that had over the years formed a fabric of bold intention. Both poets hail from the deep South — York from Gadsden, Alabama and Trethewey from Gulfport, Mississippi — and both have cultivated a poetics born from an intimacy with Southern history and a passionate sense of social justice.
Given their friendship, it’s hard not to see Trethewey’s work in conversation with York’s, and her poetics builds from a lineage whose stylistic range includes, among others, Yeats, Robert Penn Warren, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet together allude to poetry’s collective efforts to, in Adorno’s words, “imagine a world in which things might be different.” Still, in the bracing reality of Monday morning, I made my phone call with greater trepidation knowing that I would be interfering on her grief and that, further, to talk of poems somehow made us more powerless and more silent after the Newtown massacre and Jake’s death. What was I doing calling the poet laureate, who was after all only a private citizen in mourning, to ask her about metaphorical language?
JENNIFER CHANG: You’ve written that “the best repository for the most humane, ethical, and just expressions of feeling are in poetry” and that you write because you “cannot stand by and say nothing.” How do you translate that into a public engagement, especially now as the poet laureate? How can the writing process — the spontaneities of inspiration and creative work — connect to readers beyond the page and enact the ethical imagination?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The inspiration or what comes to me as what I must write about always seems to come from the public sphere. It comes from what I observe in the world, what I read in history, and so the Library [of Congress] seems to me to be a good place for that continued kind of engagement with history because of all the things that it contains that I might on any given day browse through and find so…