Teaching a collection of poems using Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard as a test case, Part 2

Hello there, poetry fans. Last time I was here, I stumped for teaching collections of poetry, rather than individual poems from anthologies, and I got us going thinking about patterns of images, themes, and stylistic choices in our test case collection, Natasha Trethewey’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard.

This time, I’d like for us to focus on the little things in a poetry collection that are easy to overlook: titles, epigraphs, section breaks, section order, and poem order. These elements add layers of meaning to collections of poems, and they are worth our students’ time to discuss.

Titles

I start with the title of the book, asking, “Before you even opened this book, you saw the cover and the title. When you read the title Native Guard, what did you think this book would be about?” It’s important for students to think about what “native” means, as well as what they think is being “guarded” in the book, and by whom.

It’s also fruitful to spend a few moments discussing individual poem titles as well, because students may not be paying close attention to titles on the first read-through. I’ve noticed that when I ask students to read poems aloud (in any class, including creative writing workshops), they often skip over the title (even when it’s their own poem!). Although it’s true that some poets (I’m looking at you, Dickinson) have eschewed titling their poems, for most poets, the title is an opportunity, a succinct way to quickly orient readers to the poem. It can be a statement of genre, as in Trethewey’s “Graveyard Blues” or “Elegy for the Native Guards,” letting us know what kind of poem to expect; it can be a statement of time or place, as in “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi: King Cotton, 1907.” From here, we can discuss the expectations we bring to poems once we’ve read their titles: what we expect from an elegy, what we expect from a documentary, what we expect from a poem set in the early 20th century. This brief set-up allows us to discuss how Trethewey meets or thwarts our expectations within the lines of the poems themselves.

An example I often use to stress the importance of titles is the poem “What is Evidence.” The title asks a question, and the rest of the poem attempts to answer it—without making reference to the word “evidence” again. (I had a student this term tell me that she found the poem confusing at first because she didn’t initially read the title. So it’s worth a few minutes in class to draw students’ attention to the title before moving through the rest of the poem.)

Epigraphs

Native Guard is full of epigraphs. Trethewey places an epigraph at the opening of the book, and she also positions an epigraph at the beginning of each section. These epigraphs orient readers as we move through the book, in effect guiding us in how to read the sections. As we move through the book chronologically over the course of several days, I spend a few moments looking at the epigraphs Trethewey places before the start of each section before we begin discussing each section’s poems.

Two of these epigraphs offer a chance to bring a little audio (or video) into the classroom. When we discuss the epigraph to section one, which is taken from the traditional folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” I play students a version of the song. (There are many versions online, so pick one you like. Students may recognize the Ed Sheeran version; I’m partial to this one from Emmylou Harris, not only because it’s beautiful, but also because I—and the students—enjoy the weird, fuzzy 80s videography. Be on the lookout for the long, dramatic bedazzled cowboy hat shot about a minute and a half in.)

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We discuss how “Wayfaring Stranger” is a folk song whose origins are lost to us; in a book about what gets lost to history, this is an important theme. We also talk about how “Wayfaring Stranger” is a religious song. I ask them to think about which poems in section one might be involved in interrogating some kind of folk (“Graveyard Blues,” “Myth”) or religious (“Graveyard Blues,” “Letter”) traditions. We also discuss the idea of “wayfaring,” or traveling, in the context of section one. Journeys are a huge theme in this section and in the book, and the epigraph alerts us to this before we even turn the page to the first poem. We also consider what it means to be a “stranger,” as Trethewey deals with the subject of geographical and psychological exile in the book. And of course, we relate the song—with its refrain of “I’m going there to see my mother”—to the many elegies for Trethewey’s mother in section one.

Section two begins with an epigraph from Nina Simone: “Everybody knows about Mississippi.” What students may not know, since many of them are not familiar with the song, is that Trethewey has purposely left off the famous last word of the line: “goddam.” Without telling students this, I play them a clip of Nina Simone performing “Mississippi Goddam.” We talk about “goddam” as an expression of frustration but also as a religious expression. We talk about what Trethewey is aiming at by leaving off that word in her epigraph—what kind of understatement might be at work here, and why? We also talk about the song as a Civil Rights-era protest song and situate it in its own time period. This leads us to more connections with the book: in what way is Native Guard a protest book? We also consider the theme of singing, prevalent in the book, more broadly: Where do we see characters in the book singing? How are their songs related to Simone’s? And how might we connect Simone’s song to “Wayfaring Stranger”?

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Because this book is so much about the South, and because I teach at a college in the upper Midwest where many students have stereotypes about southerners, I also use this as an opportunity to ask them, “What does everybody know about Mississippi?” We sift through various notions and stereotypes and consider how Trethewey confirms, questions, critiques, or complicates them. We can then bridge from this discussion to Trethewey’s commitment to showing us, in section two, what perhaps we didn’t know about Mississippi: the service of the all-black Union regiment of Louisiana Native Guards at Gulfport, the Pilgrimage days in Vicksburg that celebrate the antebellum South, or the history depicted in scenes from old photographs.

There are also important epigraphs to individual poems like “Genus Narcissus” (which features an epigraph from 17th century poet Robert Herrick), “Native Guard” (which features an epigraph from Frederick Douglass), and “Elegy for the Native Guard” (in which Trethewey powerfully takes on Allen Tate’s poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and deals it an upper cut right to the jaw—well, if poems had jaws). Spending just a few moments discussing these epigraphs before diving into the poems will give students a much fuller picture of what Trethewey’s doing in the book.

Sections, section order, and poem order

When I teach students who don’t have much experience with reading poetry collections, they will often assume that the poems are presented in the order in which they were written. I call attention instead to the book as a made thing, something Trethewey arranged very carefully and deliberately in order to create a particular arc of emotion and meaning.

Not all poetry books are broken into sections, so whenever one is, we have to think about what work the sections are doing in the collection. As we read Native Guard, we look at the order of poems within each section and think about what kind of arc of meaning Trethewey creates in that section. For example, one of my current students wrote a great paper in which he analyzed how section 1 of the book begins with a poem about leaving home (“Southern Crescent”) and ends with a poem about trying to call someone (a cat, a mother) home.

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You can also think about how the order of the sections in the book is working. Roughly, section one is about the murder of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, by Trethewey’s stepfather; section two is about Mississippi history, particularly that of the Civil War and the Louisiana Native Guards; section three is about Trethewey’s own struggles growing up biracial in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve had many fruitful discussions with students about what would happen if we rearranged the sections. I ask students, “Would we have the same book if the sections were in a different order?” They instinctively say “no,” and they are correct. It’s also worth taking a moment to get students’ personal reactions to the order of the sections. For example, I’ve had many students say that the elegies for Trethewey’s mother pulled them in emotionally as the historical sections would not have if they had begun the book. Yet by the time students got to the historical poems, they were emotionally invested enough to dig into these poems, rather than skipping over them.

Finally, on the last day we spend on Native Guard, I ask students to think about what kinds of arcs of meaning Trethewey creates from the book’s first poem to its last. What questions does she ask in the beginning that she answers (or decides not to answer) toward the end? How does Trethewey bring back images from the first part of the book toward the end of the book? How does the first poem in the book, “Theories of Time and Space,” dovetail with “South,” the book’s concluding poem?

All of this, and we still haven’t close read a single individual poem or talked about poetic elements like metaphor, refrain, and rhyme. That’s next time, when, in the conclusion to this sequence of posts, we’ll take a more microscopic look at Native Guard and talk about how to break a poem down by various levels. Poetic form-nerds, start your engines!

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