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U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey: Poetry still matters

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey concluded the 2012-2013 literary season at the Library of Congress with a deeply personal defense of poetry.

Her remarks were the culmination of a year spent promoting literature across the country and from her office in Washington. “From the catbird seat, I’ve found poetry to be the necessary utterance it has always been in America,” Trethewey told several hundred people who came to hear her closing lecture Wednesday night in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

One of the youngest people ever to serve as U.S. poet laureate, she’s been both extraordinarily popular and, at times, extraordinarily bold. In previous talks, she’s critiqued the way racism continues to blanch America’s historical memory. She opened her lecture Wednesday by taking aim at Joseph Epstein, who recently characterized contemporary poetry as irrelevant in an essay in the Wall Street Journal.

“Dismissals of poetry are nothing new,” Trethewey noted, before adding icily, “It’s easy to dismiss poetry if one has not read much of it.” While acknowledging that we live in an age burdened with “myriad distractions,” she insisted that “we turn to poetry when we need it.”

In her own life, that need has sometimes been dire.

When Trethewey was a freshman in college, her mother was gunned down by her mentally ill ex-husband. In the dark months following that tragedy, Trethewey turned back to poetry for the first time since elementary school. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” haunted and inspired her with its opening lines: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters.”

“The experience of poetry could bring my mother back to me,” she said. “Poetry offers a different kind of solace — here on earth. If this were a tent revival, this would be my testimony.”

From reading poetry, she began writing her own. “It took me years of attempts and failed drafts before I finally wrote the elegies I needed to write,” Trethewey said. One of the elegies she composed during that period was “Myth,” which begins:

I was asleep while you were dying.

It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow

I make between my slumber and my waking.

Her third collection, “Native Guard,” was dedicated to her mother’s memory. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

As her lecture drew to a close last night, Trethewey looked out at the audience and declared, “I have faith in poetry’s ability to . . . wield its ennobling influence on us and to save us, perhaps not as a nation, but one life at a time, like mine.”

Trethewey and her husband will leave Washington next month to return to their teaching jobs at Emory University. The Librarian of Congress will announce the name of the new poet laureate in early June.