Natasha Trethewey

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose writings are plenty familiar to Lawrence University students will be the speaker at the university’s 2020 Commencement celebration, which will take place in a virtual format.

Natasha Trethewey, who served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States and whose book, Native Guard, has been part of the required reading for Freshman Studies at Lawrence the past five years, will deliver the address and receive an honorary degree.

Lawrence officials notified the senior class on Monday that an in-person Commencement ceremony on campus would not be possible this year because of the projected length and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. See President Mark Burstein’s message here.

Lawrence has moved its Spring Term to distance learning and has canceled all public events during that time.

Commencement, set for June 14, will continue, but it’ll happen in a virtual space. Details are still being worked out, but Trethewey has committed to participating.   

“No decision this year was more painful than the realization that we needed to transform our wonderful commencement celebration into a virtual event,” Burstein said. “Having Ms. Trethewey’s commencement address will help us all remember the importance of inclusive social connection and the power of humanity.

“Ms. Trethewey’s work has provided a gateway to our arts and sciences education for every Lawrence first-year student for years through our Freshman Studies program,” Burstein said. “It seems fitting that we honor Ms. Trethewey, whose powerful poetry has moved millions, at the Commencement of a class that her work launched.”

Trethewey previously gave a Convocation address at Lawrence in fall 2016.

“Our journeys have been intertwined since I visited Lawrence four years ago, and I am delighted and honored to be able to reconnect with this class in such a meaningful way,” Trethewey said.

A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Trethewey is the author of five collections of poetry: Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Native Guard (2006)—for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—Thrall (2012), and Monument: Poems New and Selected (2018).

In 2010, she published a book of nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Trethewey is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. In 2017, she received the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities. A member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

When Trethewey came to Lawrence in 2016, she spoke on “The Muse of History: On Poetry and Social Justice.”

It’s Native Guard, meanwhile, that Lawrence students will be most familiar with. It’s been part of the Freshman Studies reading list since 2015.

Garth Bond, associate professor of English, was directing Freshman Studies last year when he said this about Native Guard: “This short collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry teaches students to recognize the fullness and precision of meaning in language. Trethewey’s poems meditate on the role that objects—photographs, monuments, diaries—play in shaping our memories and histories. She begins with the personal loss of her mother, then turns to the public history of American racism and the memorialization of the Civil War. The final section revisits personal experience, now reshaped in the light of that public history.”

Reunion 2020 announcement: Reunion 2020, a four-day celebration with Lawrence alumni planned for the week following Commencement, will not take place as planned this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, University officials announced to Reunion classes on Monday. Lawrence officials are in the process of determining how the University will move forward to celebrate and honor Reunion 2020. A message to alumni from Matt Baumler, executive director of Alumni and Constituency Engagement, can be found here. Alumni are encouraged to check the Reunion page at lawrence.edu for updates.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu