A few weeks ago, I was surprised thrilled to learn that I would have a chance to listen to a real-live poet laureate speak. Natasha Trethewey delivered a mixed talk and poetry reading this afternoon at a local university. She spoke about events in her life that “hurt me into poetry,” as well as historical events that feature in her work. The poems Trethewey chose for today included one palindromic poem inspired by her grief for her mother that was shatteringly moving and several elegies. She finished with a poem called “Enlightenment,” which is based on how her father spoke of race and how visitors to Monticello discuss Sally Hemings’ ancestry.
To hear a poet reading their own work adds something that is lost on paper. I don’t think about how something sounds much when I read novels. Novels are meant to be read silently. (Usually, anyway. I have my doubts that Tolkien’s books are meant to be read aloud to an audience—possibly with tankards of mead in the vicinity.) Reading poetry, rather than hearing poetry, can make me feel like there’s something lost in the translation process. As she read, Trethewey modulated her voice from speaking to reading. Her pitch rose, just a bit, and she inserted pauses after phrases to give them extra weight.
I hurt my hands clapping after Trethewey concluded; her work resonated with me in a way I rarely experience with poets. I usually avoid poetry because so much of it is so emotionally raw that I feel like an intruder. I certainly felt emotion listening to Tretheway: anger, fear, shock, grief. But the emotions were grounded by Trethewey’s references to people and events, giving my brain some context to work with. In the past, I’ve always liked poetry with strong storylines and characters and have been turned off by highly experimental work or work that tries to call emotion out of the void.