The Delight In Language

Two-Term U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Northwestern Professor and 2017 Heinz Award Recipient Natasha Trethewey Speaks as Jeanne Harris Hansell Endowed Poet


Photo credit: Anna Fuder

Visiting poet Natasha Trethewey speaks to the Parker community at Morning Ex.

In his 1940 poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden wrote: “Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Poet Natasha Trethewey wrote her first poem in the third grade for the same reason. Born a biracial and “illegitimate” child in Mississippi in 1966, the two-term U.S. Poet Laureate sought refuge in her Oxford English Dictionary starting at a very young age.

“My Mississippi, and my nation, with their difficult and troubling history of racism and violence, inflicted my first wounds,” Trethewey said. “When I was born, interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi and twenty other states, rendering me in the eyes of the law as persona non grata: illegitimate.”

Trethewey recounted her family history and several early memories to grades 3-12 at her Morning Ex on March 6. She detailed her childhood, everything from her parents’ love story to a domestic terrorist attack on her home, weaving snippets of history with her poems. She shifted effortlessly from story to poem and back, allowing snaps from the audience to differentiate the two.

After her Morning Ex, Trethewey met with the Upper School Poetry Club, the Poetry Slam team, and the first semester senior Poetry elective for lunch. Trethewey was set to perform a public poetry reading at Parker on April 16, but the event was cancelled because of COVID-19.

Sophomore Ava Utigard, a head of the Upper School Poetry Club, introduced Trethewey. “Ms. Trethewey has the ability to discover and encapsulate the beauty and the pain within the toiling hands of working people,” Utigard said.

Trethewey’s first official works can be found in the library of her elementary school. “My third grade teacher bound my very first poems, and put them in the school library.” Trethewey said. Even then, her poems explored her own world and connected them to the greater American experience.

“I wrote about what was then recent history: the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “But obviously, that connected to me, to my family. I understood even then who we were: an interracial family in Mississippi.”

Trethewey began writing poetry to make sense of childhood trauma and to explore her love and fascination for the English language. “I also came to poetry for the sheer delight of it. For the way that we delight in language, the sound of words, in the way they feel in our mouths and in our breath when we say them, and also the possibilities of meaning.”

The delight of language, Trethewey says, stems from the endless meanings of endless words. Trethewey investigates the definition of every word she uses and finds inspiration in her Oxford English Dictionary when she has writer’s block or is in pursuit of a poem topic.

The idea for Trethewey’s poem Genus Narcissus, which she read for grades 3-12 at her Morning Ex, started with a scene from her childhood in which she picked flowers for her mother. A closer look into the word “Daffodil” revealed its scientific name (Genus Narcissus), and drew Trethewey into the Greek tale of Narcissus. Tangents like these, Trethewey said, create her poems.

“It’s the deeper levels that give way to figurative meaning, when we spend time with our dictionaries and learn not just the primary meaning, but secondary and tertiary and so on,” she said. “We can appreciate the word and add that deeper, figurative meaning to a poem.”

Trethewey has two dictionaries in her Evanston home. An entire set of the Oxford English Dictionary, or as she casually refers to it, the OED, lies in her library. She rarely uses the 26 volumes, preferring the “little version” that sits on the podium in her study where she writes. “I love sitting there like Sherlock Holmes with my magnifying glass, looking at all these definitions of words. I feel like I’m a detective, seeking out some small kernel of knowledge.”

I love sitting there like Sherlock Holmes with my magnifying glass, looking at all these definitions of words.”

Most recently, Trethewey completed a memoir at her study podium. “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” reflects on Trethewey’s life after her former stepfather murdered her mother when she was just 19 years old. The book is set to be published on July 28, 2020.

Although Trethewey’s poetry is often autobiographical, she says her memoir was much more difficult to write. In poetry classes, students refer to the speaker in a poem as “the speaker,” as opposed to “the author.” That terminology creates a level of removal from the author’s own life, Trethewey explained. “There’s a different kind of mask,” she said. “ I don’t get quite as emotional as I do when the mask comes down and I try to write prose.”

Trethewey struggled to write poetry about her mother as well, although she contends it “saved her.” “Poems that I wanted to write about her were very personal in a way that made me uncomfortable,” she said. “I didn’t want navel gazing. I wanted my poems to always be looking outward. Even what was a very unique experience of my own I think can say something about our shared experience.”

Even now, Trethewey leads with that ethos, the same philosophy she followed in third grade. “I look out towards history to place my life and the lives of my family within the larger context of history. It is indeed how we all live life anyways.”