Poet Laureate Announced

The next Poet Laureate of the United States will be Natasha Trethewey. By what standards Trethewey was elected escapes me, but much about contemporary poetry escapes me. William Logan characterized Tretheway’s poetry in an article for the New Criterion this way:

As soon as you know the premises of Trethewey’s poems, you know everything: they’re the architecture of their own prejudices. Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

I, myself, wrote a post on Trethewey not so long ago. No sense in rehashing what I’ve already written.

What’s clear — judging by the poetic standards of those awarding today’s prizes, titles and MFAs — is that contemporary poetry has little to do with anything called poetry in prior centuries. Regularly, poets and poems are recognized that show little understanding of line, imagery or linguistic ingenuity. A reader of my blog recently commented that Shakespeare’s great soliloquy To be or not to be, when boiled down, is mundane. He’s right and he’s not the first to say so.  The originality of Shakespeare’s To be or not to be  (or Keats’ Ode to Autumn or Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening) is not in what was said, but how it was said. This used to be what separated poetry from prose. Writer’s used prose when what was said mattered; and writer’s used poetry when how it was said mattered. One could lean toward the other, but the distinction was understood.

That used to be true.

Modern standards seem to make no such distinctions; and so we get flavorless free verse. Poets win Pulitzers and are elected Poet Laureate for writing lineated paragraphs that are politically and socially topical and fashionable. And that brings me back to my reader’s comment. Each age’s criticism of Shakespeare (and poets in general) reveals more about the age and its critics than the poets. After a hundred years when prose has come to dominate literature and has redefined poetry in its own image, the observation that the content of Shakespeare’s To be or not to be is mundane tells us how and why poetry is being read in our own era and, perhaps, how and why a writer like Tretheway could become America’s Poet Laureate.

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16 responses

  1. Hi Patrick,
    Firstly, I think your blog is pretty fantastic, so thanks for doing it. Reading this post makes me wonder, in your opinion, which laureates in recent memory have met your standard for verse? No ax to grind, just curious…

    • Fair question. You know, I assume that individuals are nominated for the Poet Laureateship for reasons other than the accomplishment of their verse. I get that. An individual may have produced a number of translations in addition to their own poetry — interesting stuff — and interesting stuff by relatively unknown poets (think of W.S. Meriwn); or they may also have a history of letters, books, and overall stewardship that recommends them (thinking of Charles Simic), or if I think of Pinsky I’m just blown away by the energy he pours into popularizing poetry — reaching out to the public — and even if I find Billy Collins’ verse to be vitamin deficient, he’s the rare story-teller. I just don’t see what Natasha Trethewey brings to the Laureateship besides her verse?

  2. I haven’t read Trethewey but I don’t know if you can attribute the election of a not-so-great poet to anything innate to modern or contemporary poetry. How many of the many previous laureates are still read today or are even known to have existed?

    • I would attribute it not just to anything “innate to modern or contemporary poetry”, but also to how contemporary poetry is read, taught, discussed and criticized. I know I sound like I’m condemning free verse, but it’s not so much the verse form as the aesthetic that manifests itself through it.

  3. I really have nothing to say about Trhethewey being named Laureate (does such a thing REALLY matter any more?), but I’d like to address two unrelated points:

    [[[You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.]]]

    I know this was said by Logan in his review, but, hey, what’s with the shot at Edith Head and Max Steiner, two of the finest artisans Hollywood ever produced? I mean, I get that he’s trying to point out the artificiality of Trethewey’s poetry, but this is just a bad simile, because artificiality doesn’t equal a lack of feeling (Bresson would have something to say about that), and great craftsmanship from the days of classic filmmaking doesn’t deserve being paired with bland modern free-verse. Bad form, Mr. Logan, even if you are right about Trethewey’s poetry.

    [[[A reader of my blog recently commented that Shakespeare’s great soliloquy To be or not to be, when boiled down, is mundane. He’s right and he’s not the first to say so.]]]

    What page was this on? Because I’d like to jump into that debate. At the very least, I have to take issue with this too easy distinction between form (how it’s said) and content (what is said). If you want to boil everything down to paraphrased content, then it’s likely nothing new has been said since the Ancient Greeks. Even “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes back to The Bible. Surely one isn’t inclined to claim that something is mundane based on nothing but some underlying content or theme that’s been addressed before; because, if so, what art would escape the label of mundanity? The New Critics may not have gotten everything right, but I do believe Cleanth Brooks hit on something important about how in good poetry (and I’d extend that to all good art), the content and form are inextricable, as how something is said is expressing as much of the what is said as anything else. That said, I can’t agree that, taken in context, TBONTB is mundane in the slightest. At least, what I would say is that the directness of its expression is precisely what makes it stand out in a play that, up this point, has been immersed in so much mystery and obscurity; and that is anything but mundane.

    That said, I can’t agree with this: “…This used to be what separated poetry from prose. Writer’s used prose when what was said mattered; and writer’s used poetry when how it was said mattered.” At least, how far back are we going with the “used to be?” Because the study of rhetoric was an integral part of a classical education up until about the 19th century; and rhetoric, which is entirely about the “how” something is said, is as applicable in prose as much poetry. Likewise, even not considering rhetoric, there’s plenty of “how” things are said in prose. One certainly can’t paraphrase Madame Bovary or Moby Dick and end up with comparable masterpieces. If anything, poetry just adds more “hows,” in order to make the “hows” more potentially suggestive in powerful. So, while in prose syntactical construction might matter, in poetry you have syntactical structure as playing against the linear unit; instead of one “how” you have two. So, I wouldn’t say that in prose it’s only the “what” that matters at all; rather, I’d say the how matters in all art-forms but simply differs in degrees and types.

    Even if you want to separate art from science and philosophy, two areas where the “what” reigns, there is still always a degree of “how”. In fact, many of the debates in philosophy are about disentangling the WHAT from the ambiguity of HOWs inherent in all language; and science has gone so far as to try and limit terms to having only one referent, which is why in much science you can speak entirely in mathematical symbols with only a minimal amount of explanatory prose. As long as anything is using language as a means of expression (be it art, science, philosophy, politics, etc.) then HOW will always be as important as WHAT because they inevitably get entangled.

    • Hey Jonathan, I won’t defend Logan’s analogy. I’m out of my depth when discussing film. :-) As to the distinction between how a thing is said and what is said, I think it’s an important one if poetry is to be distinguished in any way. You’re right to say that rhetoric is as applicable to prose as to poetry, but rhetoric wasn’t really what I had in mind (or at least not in isolation). Just in terms of language, poetry took advantage of meter and rhyme in a way that prose never could and never will. Any sonnet, or Ode or half the poems by Frost or even Stevens, would cease to exist (in a sense) if they were robbed of their meter and rhyme. The limerick would cease to exist in every sense of the word. But there’s more than meter and rhyme. There’s also analogy, simile, metaphor, imagery, figurative language. You find these in prose, the novel or short story, but the best poems (in my opinion) take these as their starting point. If a poet doesn’t avail herself of any of these techniques then — to me — she might as well be serving an uncooked potato.

  4. To be fair, the debate concerning form and content is one of the oldest in all the arts, going all the way back to Plato. In an early chapter of Reading Poetry by Furniss and Bath, they give a sketch of how the issue has been viewed by various schools of thought throughout the centuries. I also think Princeton has a fairly detailed discussion if you look up “form,” as well as other headings for the competing schools of thought. Perhaps the two most common are that: (1) form is simply content “dressed up” in a particular way, making them extricable from each other, and (2) form indelibly influences how we react to/understand content, making them inextricable from each other. The first was a very neo-classical view, perhaps best expressed by Pope’s “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,”. The second was particularly heralded by the New Critics, perhaps most famously in Cleanth Brooks’ The Heresy of Paraphrase (in The Well-Wrought Urn) we he tries to demonstrate how in certain poems you can not alter the form without altering the content.

    The real question to be asked is “where is the line drawn?” Which, in itself found a great expression Yeats’ “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Intuitively, it’s easy to make the distinction, but it becomes entangled the farther down you look. You say yourself that: “Any sonnet, or Ode or half the poems by Frost or even Stevens, would cease to exist (in a sense) if they were robbed of their meter and rhyme.” And I agree, but then doesn’t this statement argue for the fact that formal features such as rhyme and meter affect how we react to and understand the content? Personally, I do think that all great poems—indeed, all great art—avails itself of the formal features available to its medium and relevant to its intent in order to suggest things that paraphrasable content can not; express things that, if attempted in another formal context, would simply not be the same thing at all.

    Where, I think, we differ most is in your frequent insistence that free verse lacks the same formal expressive possibilities as verse. My opinion is more along the lines that bad verse uses rhyme and meter as nothing more than an aurally pleasing dress-for-thought, the same way bad free verse uses line-breaks as nothing more than as a way to separate it from prose; while, on the other hand, good verse uses rhyme and meter to affect how we react to what’s being said, the same way that good free verse uses line-breaks (and other features, like Eliot’s syntactical repetitions and mirroring) to affect how we react to what’s being said. To me, all free-verse really did was take the emphasis off some formal devices and place them more onto others and, in doing so, they increased the importance of those devices to influence the content. The best free-versers have never taken this lightly and, indeed, learned a lot of lessons from the verse poetry that they rejected.

    • //Where, I think, we differ most is in your frequent insistence that free verse lacks the same formal expressive possibilities as verse.//

      I was just writing to a friend; saying that a poet like Jean Valentine would have been my pick. Again, it’s not free verse, per se, but how it’s used. Valentine primarily writes free verse (though I haven’t read all of her works). Unlike many writers, she uses it to write poetry – richly figurative and metaphorical. But yes, free verse lacks the same expressive possibilities as traditional verse. Free verse can’t reproduce the effects associated with rhyme and meter. It’s that simple. You can’t write a free-verse limerick. Period. That doesn’t make traditional verse better than free verse any more than anatomy makes a man better than a woman (or vice versa); but pretending like there’s no difference between the two is not a river in Egypt. Get my drift? :-)

      Addendum:

      //To be fair, the debate concerning form and content is one of the oldest in all the arts…//

      Yes, but form’s relationship to content is a somewhat different argument than pointing out that form exists and was what distinguished poetry from prose.

  5. [[[Yes, but form’s relationship to content is a somewhat different argument than pointing out that form exists and was what distinguished poetry from prose.]]]

    I wasn’t attempting to argue that there’s no difference, or that form wasn’t the essence of that difference (we agree there). To clarify, I have two major points:

    1. I was arguing against the too-easy distinction between form and content, especially against the point we could say that it’s only the form of Shakespeare’s TBONTB speech that makes it great/memorable as the content is “mundane”. At least, I think if by “content” we mean “most fundamental underlying theme/subject/idea,” then all art is mundane (since all themes/subjects/ideas have been written about). But I’m of the school that form and content are more closely related, and that content can’t be boiled down that simply. Perhaps a classical example from that speech is the “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles;” line where the mixed metaphor and its implications (how inneffective “taking arms against a sea” would be) can’t easily be swapped for something that “means” the same thing. “or to futilely fight against our troubles” may be saying the suggestive thing explicitly, but is that really the same content? Are not the metaphors themselves (taking arms, the sea of troubles) content, and not just the literal meaning of them?

    2. I don’t believe that form is more important to verse than free-verse, merely that the emphasis on the types of form is different. We should be able to say about the best free-verse that if you write it out as prose, or if you change its line breaks, then it would “cease to exist” in the same way that “any sonnet, or Ode or half the poems by Frost or even Stevens, would cease to exist (in a sense) if they were robbed of their meter and rhyme.” A good free-verse poem should avail itself as much of its inherent formal devices (choice of line breaks and stanza length) the same way any formal verse does.

    • //I don’t believe that form is more important to verse than free-verse, merely that the emphasis on the types of form is different. We should be able to say about the best free-verse that if you write it out as prose, or if you change its line breaks, then it would “cease to exist” in the same way that “any sonnet, or Ode…//

      I disagree. There is no equivalence to removing rhyme and meter in free verse because free verse doesn’t offer anything equivalent. Remember my post on Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody? You are making the same argument (and mistake in my opinion) that Hartman was making – trying to draw an equivalence between rhyme and meter versus the lineation of free verse. There is none. To draw some kind of fuzzy, subjective equivalence is one thing, but to actually demonstrate that equivalence is another. (We’re not discussing two verse forms that do equal things in different ways.) Again, you can test this. Read a T.S. Eliot poem to a person the way Eliot wrote it, then read an Eliot poem to the same person after you’ve changed the line breaks. No difference. Read a limerick with and without rhyme and meter, and the difference will be night and day. It’s objective. It’s science.

  6. Also, FWIW, what I say about form being equally important in verse and free-verse applies just as much to prose. Prose has its own formal considerations that have to be utilized properly, and the same way you can’t go willy-nilly removing the meter in a Frost poem, or changing the line-breaks in an Eliot poem, you can’t go you changing words and paragraphs and punctuation in Moby Dick or Madame Bovary.

  7. The only equivalence I’m trying to draw is one of delineation being “equal in import, different in kind and effect” to rhyme and meter. You talking about a demonstrable difference seems to be making it an aural issue only; but surely you don’t think rhyme and meter’s only purpose is for aural effect? Even if that was the case, the only way an Eliot poem would be the same aurally even if you changed the line breaks would be if you didn’t pause while reading a line break, or pause to consider what effect the line break has on the content; both would be as grievous a mistake in Eliot as it would be in Milton’s blank verse. Of course, if you take away the rhyme and meter from a limerick then it’s no longer a limerick—that’s not what I’m debating, but are you really saying that opening of The Waste Land has no distinct rhythmic effect generated by its line breaks that would be quite different if altered?

    APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.
    Winter kept us warm, covering
    Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
    A little life with dried tubers.

    Rewritten as:

    APRIL is
    the Cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out
    Of the dead land, mixing memory and
    Desire, stirring dull roots
    With spring rain. Winter kept us
    Warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow,
    Feeding a little life with dried tubers.

    In Eliot’s there is an undeniable emphasis given to all those line-ending participles, and every line ending has us asking “___ing what?” There is tension created not just by the enjambment (in that it leaves the sense suspended), but in the words themselves (especially breeding, mixing, stirring). There’s also the formal parallelism of “Month/Season+complete clause, participle / participle phrase etc.” between lines 1-4, 5-7, With the participles unseparated by line breaks from their object, the sense, emphasis, and rhythm changes drastically IMO. Something like “winter kept us / warm” is quite different than “winter kept us warm,” since the line break creates double syntax (where “kept us” is a complete clause, only modified when we reach the next line). Milton found some very telling uses for such double syntax, a famous example being: “Then feed on thoughts that voluntary move / Harmonious numbers;” where the line initially suggests that “move” is intransitive, but ends up transitive in the next line. Knowing when to avoid that (as Eliot does) is as important as knowing when to use it. Also, isn’t there amount of “surprise” lost at the lines “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee / With a shower of rain;” when the line DOESN’T break at the participle “coming” when it has for 5 straight lines where it’s appeared?

    • //You talking about a demonstrable difference seems to be making it an aural issue only; but surely you don’t think rhyme and meter’s only purpose is for aural effect?//

      Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Rhyme and meter are aural effects. Traditional poetry is descended from music, lyrics and the oral tradition. See here.

      (I personally don’t think that the rise of free verse and the type-writer are purely coincidental.)

      You’ve tried to create a prosody out of T.S. Eliot’s lineation, but it’s entirely subjective. There’s no way of knowing whether you like the original because it was the original, or because it’s better. I could easily see some Jonathan Henderson in a parallel universe passionately defending the rewrite (the original in mirror-mirror world) with all kinds of rationalizations. Mirror-mirror Henderson would dismiss the repeated -ing endings as the hallmark of a crass amateur and laud the subtleties of the rewrite. He would bristle at the notion that the great T.S. Eliot would have been so predictable. He would write me posts saying: Isn’t it obvious it couldn’t have been written any other way?

      //if you take away the rhyme and meter from a limerick then it’s no longer a limerick//

      Exactly.

  8. Actually, I’ve linked to your page on rhyme and meter and its oral history before when I’ve had debates with others on this subject, so I’m quite familiar with it. Believe it or not, I do agree with you on the majority of your points; but what fun is it to talk about the points where we agree? ;) Trust me, I find myself having to defend the virtues of meter and rhyme much more than I have to defend the virtues of free verse, and I honestly don’t think there’s a better metrical/rhyme apologist writing today than you, so I’m frequently pointing others to these pages.

    Anyway, we’re in agreement about poetry’s aural tradition, and the strong aural effects of meter and rhyme, but I was just asking whether you thought the aural component was the only thing that meter and rhyme were good for. For me, the aural component is only valuable insofar as it lends substance to the content, which is why I’ve always felt that variations were the lifeblood of metrical poetry. The right variation at the right time can have the effect of an atomic bomb.

    Regarding the prosody of Eliot’s lineation, of course the quality is subjective, but it’s no more subjective than the quality of any metrical poetry. Any variation used in metrical poetry is a deviation, a “flaw” in the pattern; yet, as someone I heard once said, genius is a flaw in the machine. How can one objectively judge the quality of a metrical variation except by what one likes? I think it’s rather foolhardy to try and separate if one likes something “because it was the original” or “because it’s better,” as if the quality of being better is or can be objective, and not simply a classification of the subjective mind (“there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”). Every standard we create for anything has a subjective origin and component.

    Anyway, the point really wasn’t about the quality of Eliot’s prosody or line breaks, but the fact that there IS a prosody AT ALL. I didn’t do the rewrite to show that Eliot’s was better, but merely that it was distinctly different. If you record yourself reading both, properly pausing at those line breaks (the way I read line breaks is to hold the final sound of the line-ending word for maybe 1/2 second; so with “breeding” you hold the “ng” sound out-loud for a moment before hitting “Lilacs”), then there’s an undeniable aural difference in the rhythms. I mean, of course if you read it no differently than you would prose then there’s no difference, but why would you just skip over a line-break? Like I said, I think it’s a mistake to do that in blank verse as much as in free-verse (it’s one problem I had with Lesser’s reading of Paradise Lost on Naxos).

  9. I remember you linked to Eliot’s reading of Burnt Norton when discussing Hartman’s erroneous prosodic claim about the “not” in “Will not stay still” being stressed. Well, I checked out Eliot’s reading of The Waste Land (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tqK5zQlCDQ) and was pleased to find that he pretty much reads it as I would. There is a pause at the end of those participles where he holds the final sound (though I may hold it a touch longer), and you can tell a difference when he hits that “summer surprised us, coming over” line because there IS no pause between “coming” and “over” like there was after “breeding, mixing, stirring” etc. So why is this not prosody, and why would it not be different with different line breaks?

    You may argue that this prosodic effect of line breaks in free verse is no different than the one already there in meter, and I’d agree with you. The fact that metrical poetry adds another rhythmic element within the lines (rather than just across them) is why I think line breaks are forced to carry so much more of a burden in free verse that they don’t in verse, where the meter tells you where to end the line, rather than you choosing where to. I don’t think you can have awkward line breaks in verse, but you certain can in free-verse.

  10. Pingback: Music and Poetry; or, The Dilemma of Aural Effect « circlecitadel

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