New US Poet Laureate Explores Great American Losses, Like Hurricane Katrina and the Civil War

For poetry nerds everywhere, the appointment of a new poet laureate by the Library of Congress is just as exciting as a presidential election. Last Thursday Natasha Trethewey, 46, an English and Creative Writing professor at Emory University, was named the 19th Poet Laureate. She currently serves as the state poet laureate in Mississippi, and is the first to hold poet laureate positions for both a state and the nation. Trethewey is also the first southerner to hold the national position since the Library of Congress’ first appointment,  Robert Penn Warren in 1986. 

Obviously Trethewey is talented, but where her inspiration comes from makes her all the more admirable. Trethewey uses poetry as an emotional outlet, a way to work through personal tragedy; her stepfather murdered her mother when Trethewey was a freshman at the University of Georgia and her brother was sent to prison for drug possession. She is also inspired by tragic historical events such as the Civil War and Hurricane Katrina. Trethewey is not afraid to tackle the darker aspects of life and never lets sadness damper her creativity -- an important quality for the poet laureate to possess, as emotions are what encourage people to both write and read poetry.

Trethewey’s work is daring and emotionally raw, but she’s also not afraid to be funny. Her poems offer a refreshing, youthful perspective, especially considering that the last few poet laureates held the position while they were in their mid-80’s. Some examples of her work include an elegy to her father, titled "Elegy":

All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide’s casting

then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how

you tried — again and again — to find
that perfect arc, flight of an insect

skimming the river’s surface. Perhaps
you recall I cast my line and reeled in

two small trout we could not keep.

Another of her poems, titled "Pastoral", ruminates on life as a poet:  

In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop — 
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.

Writing poetry is almost as intimidating as it is difficult, but Trethewey seems to have a grasp on how to channel negativity into creative expression, and is able to relate personal tragedy to national tragedy. "I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11 … People who never had written poems or turned much to poetry turned to it at that moment because it seems like the only thing that can speak the unspeakable," Trethewey told the Associated Press. 

Trethewey is skilled not only at modern free verse, but at writing in a more structured form, such as sonnets and villanelles. Hopefully her knowledge of the art of writing, as well as her creative ability can be spread to younger generations who may not understand the intricacy of poetic form. Perhaps she can encourage others to apply personal emotion to national events in the form of poetry; perhaps her work can open discussion between different classes, races, and genders as is so often the case with poetic expression.