DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sacred Language of Poetry

Natasha Tretheway: If I can't see it, I can't say it.
It's one of the most enduring questions in human history -  how does someone become a better person, a person more capable of reaching outward to show concern and compassion to others. Many focus on religious teachings. Others look to ethics or morality studies. But another answer, suggests Natasha Tretheway, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, may be found in the language of poetry

"Poetry is a sacred language to speak to each other and hear each other," Tretheway says. "It is most sacred in how it teaches us to empathize. We see ourselves in poetry which allows us to see others."

Tretheway appeared last night at the Newseum to present her thoughts in a program entitled The Story Being Written: The Poet as Public Figure. The program was presented by the First Amendment Center and Emory University, where Tretheway currently serves as a creative writing professor.

In her poetry, Tretheway explores themes of history, knowledge, and family. Those themes are revealed in the titles of her works such as "Illumination," "Knowledge," "Enlightenment," or "Elegy for My Father." The poet was born in 1966 in Mississippi to a white father and a black mother, meaning that her parents were not legally recognized as being married in that state and she was considered illegitimate. Ironically, today, not only is she the American Poet Laureate, she is also the Poet Laureate of the state of Mississippi.

Although she uses her personal experiences, the universal appeal of her works is evident. "To have intimate conversations (about family) is really to have a conversation with America," Tretheway contends. "Poetry helps us know something about ourselves and the world we live in and our place in the world we have been given."

"When I write about history, I'm really writing about the present," she says. In her poetry, Tretheway has termed history "a beautiful ruin etched in the mind's eye."

"People are dropped into history and history is trapped in us also," she explains.

As you might expect, Tretheway read a few of her poems as preface to her remarks. One of the most poignant was "Help, 1968," which deals with the Mississippi times when her mother was mistaken for her maid and forced to assume a mask of "the dark foil in the American story."

Tretheway says her mixed-race background compels her to look at the codification of racial differences in society. "You are what the cops say you are," she says somewhat jokingly. "But geography is fate. There is the idea of white supremacy and black inferiority and all that is implied in that. Not to deal with my personal history, for me, that would mean turning away from my mother, turning away from her story."

Being of mixed-race, Tretheway says she has always been forced to face conceptions about the subject.  "I've heard things like 'that's your white side' or 'you're not like the rest of them.' But I choose to represent the rest of them as the best of them."

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If you would like to learn more about Tretheway's writing and see samples of her poetry, click here.

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