Poetry has been an important part of HMH’s legacy from the very beginning, so naturally we love celebrating National Poetry Month. HMH’s list of poets has included Poet Laureates, Pulitzer winners, 19th century poets with long flowing white beards, 20th century women poets who smoked cigarettes, drank martinis and broke barriers, and of course, contemporary poets who are alive, well and still writing wonderful poems.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was probably the most famous American poet in the 19th century, and he possessed one of the finer flowing white beards.
Longfellow is best known for his lyric poems, particularly those that told the legends and stories of America, such as “The Courtship of Myles Standish” and “The Song of Hiawatha.
He was consciously trying to create origin tales for the new nation that were similar to the epics at the root of many European countries. It is because of his telling of “Paul Revere’s Ride” – “Listen my children and you shall hear / of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” with its story of hanging lanterns in Boston’s Old North Church “one if by land and two if by sea” that most of us know the story behind the start of the American Revolution (even though it didn’t actually happen that way).
Longfellow’s works were published in many forms and became an essential part of many American school curriculums for much of the 20th century. His poem “Evangeline” was the first publication in the Riverside Literature Series, the groundbreaking series of American literature schoolbooks begun by Houghton Mifflin in 1882.
Telling America’s story is an idea that has engaged our writers throughout history. A century and a half after Longfellow, HMH poet Natasha Trethewey is expanding America’s story to include everyone and every tale that makes up our country’s past, present and future. Rather than take the omniscient voice that Longfellow used, Trethewey excels at combining the personal with the historical, which lends extraordinary power to her work as it speaks of life in America today.
Trethewey was born in Mississippi. She is the daughter of an African American mother and white father who married before such unions were legal throughout the country. “Native Guard” (2006), Trethewey’s first book published with HMH, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In it she writes a sequence of sonnets through the voice of a black soldier in the Louisiana Native Guards, a regiment of former slaves who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. The book also includes poems to her mother, who was murdered when Trethewey was in college. The poems in her most recent book, “Thrall” (2012) examine historical representations of mixed-race families, particularly fathers and children, by looking at 18th century portrait paintings.
Trethewey was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2012, and served a two-year term. (She was the first Southerner to be named Poet Laureate since HMH author Robert Penn Warren.) Trethewey turns 50 on April 26, so there’s every reason to celebrate her, along with all poets, as National Poetry Month draws to a close.