In today’s Thoughtful Thursday we continue our month long tribute to women poets in honor of Women’s History Month. Today we shine a spotlight on the four African-American female poets who have been appointed by the Library of Congress to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate, our nation’s chief poetry consultant.
Originally called the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” when the position was established in 1937, the name was changed by an act of Congress to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” in 1986. Each year the Librarian of Congress appoints a poet to this position who takes on the mission to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry”.
The first African American women to hold the position was Gwendolyn Brooks, who served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. The next was Rita Dove, who served two terms (1993-1995). She was followed by Natasha Trethewey, who served two terms as well (2012-2014). And our current U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, has served since 2017.
Below is a selection of poetry from each of these esteemed poets. Share the poems and the poets with your children, and enjoy.
The Bean Eaters
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering …
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.
Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!
If I don’t eat you quickly,
you’ll melt in my palm.
Pleasure seeker, if i let you
you’d liquefy everywhere.
Knotted smoke, dark punch
of earth and night and leaf,
for a taste of you
any woman would gladly
crumble to ruin.
Enough chatter: I am ready
to fall in love!
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
Tracy K. Smith