Natasha Trethewey may be the best thing to happen to the Library of Congress since the invention of paper. The 46-year-old poet laureate has inspired a palpable sense of excitement among the staff and patrons of the library. She tweets, she charms Diane Rehm, she even impresses Fox News, and everywhere she goes, she attracts enthusiastic crowds.
A month ago, her lecture on the Civil War drew a standing-room-only crowd of 300 people to the Jefferson Building. Before her appearance on Wednesday, Feb. 27, the venue had to be moved to a larger room to accommodate everyone clamoring for an invitation.
The occasion this time was the 75th anniversary of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. The Center, which is partially funded by private donations, is dedicated to increasing public appreciation for literature through public readings, panel discussions, lectures, fellowships and awards.
After Wednesday’s buffet lunch in the Montpelier Room of the James Madison Building, staff members, poetry lovers and donors to the library, listened to Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour interview Trethewey about her poetry and her new job.
She began by acknowledging that one of her goals is to make the poet laureate position “even more public” — to be, as she said recently, “a cheerleader for poetry.”
(That hasn’t always been the prevailing attitude. Ten years ago when Brown contacted then newly appointed Poet Laureate Louise Gluck, she told him she didn’t want to be interviewed….)
An engaging reader of her own and others’ work, Trethewey is particularly well qualified to promote poetry among the masses and the literati. She can move deftly from discussions of prosody to cultural analysis to popular appreciation. “I hope to demystify poetry for some people,” she said. “Understanding is very important to me. I’ve always been interested in our private stories and our shared history.”
Her reflection on our “shared” Civil War history inspired the poems in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “Native Guard.” Early in her life, she noticed how completely black soldiers were written out of the public record. Touring parks and monuments, she was troubled by the effects of what she called “a national erasure.”
“If you go around the Deep South — and you didn’t know any better — you might think that the South won the war,” she said. As the daughter of a black woman and a white man, she spent years considering “all the things that weren’t being conveyed by our historical markers.”
It takes a rare kind of grace to encourage a nation to acknowledge the blind spots in its well-manicured past. But Trethewey has the humility and the words to make that process as moving as it is uncomfortable.
A library staff member at my table remembered that just before Trethewey’s previous appearance, he saw a group of young women rushing down the marble hall to make sure they got in. “When’s the last time you saw people running, actually running, to a poetry reading?” he asked.