Thinking Aloud

Pulitzer Prize Poet Natasha Trethewey

This was part of the header in an E-Mail I received announcing Natasha Tretheway’s upcoming reading at the University of the Vermont.

I had never hear of Tretheway so, given a Pulitzer prize, I was curious to find out more. The first thing I did was to look up some of her poems. I was disappointed. I then looked up the Pulitzer Prize — more disappointment. The Pulitzer Prize website looks cheap and washed up, in desperate need of a makeover. (Any number of free WordPress templates would do the job if they can’t afford a professional.) I also found no clearcut criteria for what constituted a Pulitzer Prize. After 10 minutes of searching, here’s all I could find on the Pulitzer website:

  • The award in poetry was established in 1922 and that for nonfiction in 1962.

There you have it. Wikipedia was only mildly more forthcoming:

  • Poetry – for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American poet.

And that’s that. No explanation for what constitutes “distinguished”. “Original”, I assume, excludes translations and me submitting North of Boston under my own name. Here’s what Pulizer’s own website offers us for Trethewey:

  • For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Not much to go on. Who were the jurists?

  • Cynthia Huntington, professor of English, Dartmouth University (chair)
  • Rafael Campo, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • Claudia Emerson, professor of English, Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, University of Mary Washington

All of them appear firmly ensconced in academia — no reason to disqualify them, but also no reason to trust their judgment. Cynthia Huntington was a New Hampshire Poet Laureate and I found the following poem at Orion Magazine, called All Wet and Shine:

It sounds like the cracks and clicks of the house settling
as the room warms in morning, it sounds like a fan
whispered up. It tastes of wood smoke—sweet and then stale.
It looks like the curve of a mountain
under streaked sky, and everything pale blue
just before sunrise, everything translucent,
even stone. The stone is blue, it tastes, after all,
like tea in a glass cup, it feels like wanting a
blanket on your lap, nesting, hovering around
a wound, no a break, where the mountain opens,
wanting to heal, to soften the gap, to close it (….)

This kind of poetry isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see why others would enjoy it. The first strike against it, for me, is the free verse. It’s flavorless compared, for instance, to Ferlinghetti. All free verse is prose, but some is more like prose and some less. The free verse of Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Ferlinghetti is less like prose and, in my view, the more interesting because of it.  That’s a personal bias, I admit. The imagery is vivid, but there’s nothing innovative. There are no similes that give me pause. What do I mean by that? Consider the beginning to Frost’s Hillside Thaw:

To think to know the country and now know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow! (….)

Frost’s simile as striking and arresting. Or consider these opening lines to Frost’s Hyla Brook:

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow)—

The simile, Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow, is a show stopper. You might think it’s unfair to compare Huntington to Frost. I don’t. She’s a former New Hampshire Poet Laureate and is a professor of English at Dartmouth University. Huntington’s poetry is the poetry of competence but, in my judgment, not much more. After reading All Wet and Shine, I walk away thinking that I’ve read something poetic, but not what I would call poetry. Here’s another poem by Huntington, Curse One: The Wraith:

You are a small shape of death crouched among leaves.
The twist of your red mouth is the torque of poison.
Tangle of leaves, spill of leaves, slow rot of leaves. . .
Misery, ruin, iniquity. You are the scuffling thing in dry grass.
Rodent, snail, the curly-legged spider, centipede, rat snake.
I see you by the back-hooded barbecue in November, brooding
like the smoke of burned meat. (….)

The poem works harder, but offers no insight beyond the cleverness of its invective.  It’s fun. It’s vivid, but it’s not something I want to go back to or memorize. Our second judge on the list is Rafael Campo – a professor at Harvard Medical School. Curiously, the brief bio doesn’t mention why he was sitting on the panel. But, in case you didn’t know, he also writes poetry. An example can be found at Poets.org:

The Distant Moon
by Rafael Campo

I

Admitted to the hospital again.
The second bout of pneumocystis back
In January almost killed him; then,
He’d sworn to us he’d die at home.  He baked
Us cookies, which the student wouldn’t eat,
Before he left–the kitchen on 5A
Is small, but serviceable and neat.
He told me stories: Richard Gere was gay
And sleeping with a friend if his, and AIDS
Was an elaborate conspiracy
Effected by the government.  He stayed
Four months. He lost his sight to CMV. (….)

Like Huntington’s verse, the free verse is flavorless. One could just as easily write it as a paragraph. There is nothing particularly poetic about the poem – no imagery or simile stands out. This reminds me of a passage I once read by, I think, William Logan. I can’t remember but I’ll write my own version.  It goes something like this:

The muse of poetry does not reward the deserving. The muse of poetry is fickle, mercurial and coquettish. If she were just, she would pour her elixir into the mouths of the wizened bishop, the statesman in times of war and the war-weary soldier, the struggling mother and the bereaved father, or the doctor at the Harvard Medical School whose hands finesse life from the grip of death. She doesn’t. Banality is strewn through the poetry of the deserving. It is the theme of Amadeus. Why did God favor the vulgar creature who was Mozart, rather than the vastly more deserving Salieri? Why did the muse of poetry favor the short-lived John Keats, rather than the hundreds of poets who extinguished their long lives in obscurity? As it is, the Harriet Monroe’s of the world tried to right that wrong. Organizations like the Pulitzer Prize give right of judgment to the deserving — the department chairs, the doctors and the distinguished laureates — but the muse of poetry will have none of it. She is as willful as ever. The verses of the deserving, whose lives are rich with experience, she scorns with undeserved banality.

Campo’s poem ends with the embarrassingly banal: In the mirror shines/The distant moon.

Claudia Emerson is not only the holder of the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry, but a Pulitzer Prize winner herself. If I had to choose a favorite among the three, I would choose Emerson. A nice collection of her poems can be found at Blackbird: An online journal of literature and the arts. Even so, I find her verse flavorless, barely rising above a well written paragraph by any fiction writer. Her poem, Pitching Horseshoes, begins:

Some of your buddies might come around
……..for a couple of beers and a game,
……………..but most evenings, you pitched horseshoes

alone. I washed up the dishes
……..or watered the garden to the thudding
……………..sound of the horseshoe in the pit,

or the practiced ring of metal
……..against metal, after the silent
……………..arc—end over end. (….)

These are straightforward, unvarnished statements of fact. Once again, there’s nothing poetic. Anyone could have the same conversation and arrange their statements with the same cascading nod to formality. There is nothing extraordinary or even memorable about her imagery.  Another of her poems, Surface Hunting, assumes the same first person voice addressing a generic you. The poem appears to be syllabic — seven to eight syllables per line — but the choice doesn’t feel, in any sense, organic.

You always washed artifacts
……..at the kitchen sink, your back
……………..to the room, to me, to the mud

you’d tracked in from whatever
……..neighbor’s field had just been plowed.
……………..Spearpoints, birdpoints, awls and leaf-

shaped blades surfaced from the turned earth
……..as though from beneath some thicker
……………..water you tried to see into. (….)

The most compelling poem that I could find was Bone. The verse remains flavorless but the imagery comes nearer to the poetic:

It was first dark when the plow turned it up.
Unsown, it came fleshless, mud-ruddled, nothing
but itself, the tendon’s bored eye threading
a ponderous needle. And yet the pocked fist
of one end dared what was undone
in the strewing, defied the mouth of the hound
that dropped it. (….)

Unfortunately, the poet’s descriptiveness is lost in confused obscurity. What is the reader to make of the “pocked fist” and what is the “one end” and how did it “dare” and what was “undone/in the strewing”. The “pocked fist” must be the end of a bone but the rest is something the poet seems unable to effectively control or communicate. I’m sure there’s an explanation; however, the skilled poet manages to compress and still communicate. There’s a favorable review of her poetry by Randy Marshal called Platform: An Introduction to Claudia Emerson, but Marshal’s writing is vapidly academic. He writes:

By virtue of their formal range alone, these poems transcend mere confessionalism, to say nothing of the poet’s uncanny ability to craft absurdly, breathtakingly perfect metaphors from the raw material of her own witnessing.

Or

Abundantly populated as they are with a host of such multivalent avatars, Emerson’s new poems titillate and trouble, they cajole and instruct. Not so much through narrative or rhetoric, but with a deft, almost painterly lyricism that suggests as much as it asserts.

Or

Emerson returns to her technique of crafting very subtly linked imagery across the individual texts that, paradoxically, encourages acute analysis and amazing synthesis with the same set of gestures. The result is prismatic and, just as a prism deconstructs a ray of white light into its component wavelengths, the poems in Figure Studies refract and attenuate various ad hoc aspects of gender through Emerson’s poetic rendering of different scenarios and contexts from which that unifying idea derives its power. They tease out macro from micro; they make effects explain cause.

Got that? What’s so interesting about the review is that it reveals what is esteemed among, as Frost put it, “the critical few who are supposed to know”.  Theirs is a rarefied air, completely divorced from the “general reader who buys books in their thousands”.  One gets a sense for how these three poets became Pulitzer Prize jurists and why they chose Natasha Trethewey. This is how many of these poets write and talk to each other in academic exchanges. Don’t believe me? A while back I came across a book called American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan Poetry Series), I commented on it at Amazon and selected a few choice quotes. Here they are:

“Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and toward collectivities is the understanding that collectivities are often composed against a constitutive outside.” p. 144

“Morris effectively valorizes somatic experience to dispossess and repossess the language of identity. This is no hairsplitting intellectual argument…” p. 226

“As the remainder of this essay will demonstrate, the “cobbled solutions” Wheeler devised in her own attempts to invigorate poetry’s radical cultural force involve foregrounding, both formally and in her poems’ content, the contemporary “problems” of “steamroller” consumerism/commodification and of artistic assimilation so as ultimately to recast them as opportunities and resources.” p. 306

“In other poems, performivity asserts the constructed identity over the essential self when poems speak from the male voices of Casanova…” p. 58

“She tests the potentials of the work she samples in relation to their points of contact and fracture — where the palindrome meets the merry-go-round. What happens to both structures upon contact and what futurities are proposed at the point of contact?” p. 284

This is the language which circulates among contemporary poets. This is the intellectual arena in which aspiring poets will succeed or fail. Marshal’s review, like those above, is revealing in that he spends the lion’s share of his effort examining the contents of her poetry. What is it about. When he turns to more mechanical aspects — simile, metaphor, figurative language — he is reduced to bland and unexamined generalities:

Crafted in staggered couplets and tercets (which Emerson has noted were “modeled somewhat after William Carlos Williams’ triadic line”) the visual instability of the poems in “Divorce Epistles,” the book’s opening movement, helps the poet convey the themes of imbalance and dissolution that animate these texts.

Modern poets live or die on content, and so it’s no wonder that a self-interested cottage industry of fellow poets and “fellow” reviewers extol content. The mechanics of contemporary free verse offers little to nothing for the modern reader. In other words, there is little which separates one poet’s verse from the next or all of their verse from prose. There is little that separates one poet’s use of image or metaphor from another. They all seem to carve with the same chisel. This means that reviewers are forced to discuss poetry as if they were reviewing a short story or novel: content, content, content. The poet, like Trethewey, will be extolled because of what she writes about. For example, here’s an introductory from Octavia Books:

Trethewey found inspiration in Robert Penn Warren’s book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, in which he spoke with southerners about race in the wake of the Brown decision, capturing an event of wide impact from multiple points of view. Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos. She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the hurricane through the story of her brother’s efforts to recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration.

Notice that there isn’t one word about her skills as a poet. You will find this laudatory description  typical, not just of Trethewey, but of all (to my knowledge) contemporary poets who have achieved (among themselves) any sort of recognition. Are we to attend Trethewey’s poetry readings because her subject matter is deserving? Or is it because she’s a good poet? Evidence seems to argue for the former. There are numerous examples of poets being awarded recognition not for the quality of their poetry but because of their poetry’s subject matter and who they are. How do we know? Because poets have entered contests giving false names and ethnicities. Some of these poets won the competitions they entered; but when their identities were revealed, their awards were revoked. The question begs to be asked: If not the poetry, then what exactly were the jurists awarding?

The fictional Salieri of Peter Shaffer’s movie Amadeus would be well gratified by the 20th and 21rst century. The “deserving” are now rewarded. The Mozarts of the world, tactless creatures that they are, are relegated to obscurity. Write mediocre poetry; but if the content of your poetry is timely or, in some way, judged to be meaningful, you will succeed and be recognized. It’s not the stories of Mozart’s operas that make them great, it’s his music. The stories are insipid. Today? Not so. Those in the know don’t care about the music. They care about the story. The mediocre artist is avenged. Poetry’s coquettish muse has been vanquished.

Or has she?

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, let a lone a Greek muse. I suspect she’ll consign 9,999 out of 10000 modern poets to well deserved obscurity. Just give her time.

What about Natasha Tretheway’s poetry? It is exactly what one would expect. Here is the poem Providence:

What’s left is footage: the hours before
………….Camille, 1969—hurricane
…………………..parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
………….fronds blown back,

a woman’s hair. Then after:
………….the vacant lots,
………….boats washed ashore, a swamp

where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
………….moving between rooms,
……………………..emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
………….on its cinderblocks—seemed to float

………….in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
………….tying us………….to the land.
………….In the water, our reflection
…………………………………………….trembled,

disappeared
when I bent to touch it.

It bears an eerie resemblance to the poetry of at least two of those who sat as jurists. The verse is just as flavorless and the imagery doesn’t rise above the ordinary. The poem closes with imagery that is mawkishly obvious. But why the Pulitzer? Maybe because the content of her poetry is deserving?

To me, the conclusion is hard to avoid:  It’s not how your write; it’s what you write.

22 responses

  1. First, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on “My Last Duchess” — I return to Browning’s poem again and again (and used it as the touchstone for “The Mad Monologue of Doctor Chronology” from my collection).

    Also, thanks for this new post. I’m not sure I can cast my dissatisfaction with so much free verse as widely as you can, but you make some very valid points.

    I’m often amused, though rarely enlightened, by the great lengths many literary critics go to to sound intelligent by using terms rather than words to support an argument, as though poems were classes of beetle that must be killed before they can be categorized. A college teacher once told me, “You know you don’t know what you’re saying when no firm word will come to your aid…and everything you do say is slick and slippery as grease.”

    I’m right there with you in your desire to celebrate verse that is more musically made than an able prose paragraph.

    While I do like several of Trethewey’s individual poems, I find myself lumping together my response to the fancy line breaks, gaps, and indentations in “Providence” with my response to the jargon of the critical passages you cite above. This is posturing, posing — look how “poetic” I’m being — rather than actually integrating content and form, what and how (and I do realize I’m using open terms here).

    The second-to-last stanza of “Providence,” for instance, looks pretty on the page, but the graphic design does not contribute much to the sonic design of the stanzas that come before it, or to the sense of the lines. But the appearance of verse structure is there, so…

    …the appearance wins out.

    But what have we really won?

    • *Sigh* I know I sound dismissive of all and any free verse, but I’m not.

      Also, I don’t envy Ms. Trethewey’s success. I wish her continued success and more. She’s pursuing her dreams and I’m happy that she’s achieving them. That said, I try to be honest in my appraisals.

  2. It’s amazing that the lady under discussion won a Puliitzer Prize, simply amazing! Lately, I have been trying to write poetry myself, trying to create art not just description. Compare Tretheway with Elizabeth Bishop, there’s a genuine art in the way Bishop chooses words to describe the everyday world in whiich we all reside. So sad, the state of twenty first century American poetry. In an essay I read by Donald Hall, he recommends reading the great ones. When I decided to start writing again, I read Yeats, Robert Lowell, Bishop and James Wright. I can never get to that level, but they sure are inspiring. Tim Dyson

    • Lately, I have been trying to write poetry myself, trying to create art not just description.

      That’s what separates the men from the boys. That’s what changes the poetic, to poetry. If you can pull that off, you will be a better poet than most.

    • P.S. You write: “It’s amazing that the lady under discussion won a Puliitzer Prize…”

      Maybe it’s not. I wasn’t so impressed by the Pulitzer’s choice of recipients (through the years). On the other hand, their criteria is non-existent. What does it mean to win a Pulitzer? What does the award signify? “Excellence” can mean anything. I might just apply for the Pulitzer myself?

  3. I felt that the poems of the three jurists were boring, as was the Pulitzer prize winners poems.
    They were as dry and flavorless as dust.

    Thank you for analyzing the poetry and sharing all of your insights into what it was about.

    • Thanks Jessica.

      Don’t you ever wonder why there has to be an award? Every year?

      I’m of two minds about contests, competitions and awards. On the one hand, the individuals and organizations who offer them want to encourage what they value in poetry. That’s cool. However, to the extent that they “encourage”, all competitions have an agenda. There’s no such thing as an award that celebrates what’s “distinguished”. That claim will always come with so many provisos and stipulations as to render it laughable. The Pulitzer, like any prize, rewards the poets whose aesthetics most self-interestedly appeal to the vanity of the jurists. In a very real sense (and in all such competitions) jurists are awarding themselves. And that’s what bugs me about grants. competitions and awards. Not that they do it, but that they assume the mantel of impartiality, whether deliberately or by default.

      There’s no such thing as a competition for “distinguished verse”.

      Likewise, those anthologies like the “Best American Poetry Series” are a joke. They assume, by implication and in their title, that they know what the best American poetry is. Hardly. All artists, critics and editors define greatness in their own image. When they pick the “best” poetry, they’re creating an anthology in their own image. The Best American Poetry series is nothing more than an exercise in vanity.

      I feel another post coming on…

    • I reread “some” of the poems as I can barely make it through a reading. First of all I may be experiencing a lack of emotion on a mental level at this time in my life, I will take responsibility for me. When I read the poetry of the jurists and the poet who won the Pulitzer, I am reminded of being in first grade listening to children who read, One. Word. At. A. Time. Does. This. Explain. How. Stilted. The. Poetry. Can. Appear. To. Read?
      The poetry does not elicit feeling in me. I think, though, I may be experiencing an emotional lack at this time, that the jurists were validating themselves by awarding the Poet in question, the Pulitzer Prize.

  4. Your discussion of content versus mechanics is very helpful to me. It sent me into revisions! I keep thinking about the “integrity” of a work of art. A poem, to be great, or even good, must be more than content driven. Content driven poems reveal a lack of desire and fervency for the thing we call poetry. They may be nice, but they will never be great, or intense. Nor will they deal with the difficulties and complexities of life with any substantial meaning. They reveal the deficit of meaning apparent in all areas of our culture and experience.

  5. I’m writing a poem about the true story of Johnny Robinson, a 16 year old who was shot by a policeman the day of the 16th street church bombing in Birmingham, 1963. My desire is to tell the story in such a way as to get myself out of the way. I am experiencing the difficulty of telling a story in poetic form. The story stands on its own, but to do it with appropriate mechanics, that is the trick. Plus, it is a story outside of my experience and beyond my understanding in some ways. So I am writing not only to tell the story, but as an attempt to better understand the meaning of civil rights and the Southern mindset, as well as the experience of a black boy from Birmingham. I’m at around 27 drafts. Thanks for asking.

    • There are times when my own despair turns to rage. That’s when I wrote the post “Let Poetry Die”. The truth, though, is that mediocrity has always been the rule, rather than the exception. What’s different in the 20th and 21rst century is that the mediocre artist has learned how to define the artistic standards in their own image; and that beautifully self-serving estimation is promoted by fellow artists who have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by celebrating it.

    • Agreed, I am trying very hard to improve myself as an artist but the mediocre get all the accolades and awards. As for my avatar, that’s my poet symbol. The Eye of Horus is an integral part of my personal mythology :)

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