The Poetry of Janice Potter

A Review of Meanwell

MeanwellBack in June I reviewed an Anthology of Vermont poets. Here’s one of the reasons I liked the anthology:

“[It is replete with]…the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place.”

I followed that up with a sampling of poetry by Janice Potter. About two weeks ago, Potter, a Vermont poet, sent me her recently published book “Meanwell” and asked if I would review it. In exchange, I asked if she would write up one of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. So you’re in for a treat. After the review, you can read what Potter wrote about Bradstreet’s poem, In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet Who Deceased June 20, 1669, Being Three Years and Seven Months Old.

Potter’s book, published in 2012, is called Meanwell and it’s like no other contemporary poetry I’ve read, though it’s not the first of its kind. The poems offer us a first-person narrative in the voice of Anne Bradstreet’s servant, Meanwell. Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her poetry published in (what was to become) the United States.

There are other contemporary books of poetry written as first-person narratives. The two that immediately come to mind are by our present Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard and Bellocq’s Ophelia. The former is written in the voice of a slave and the latter a New Orleans prostitute. They first came to my attention via a review by William Logan in roles in puritan societyhis book Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. I couldn’t be any less impressed by Trethewey unless I were William Logan. My problem with Trethewey is the prosaic dullness of her language,  imagery and technique – utterly predictable stuff. Logan reads for content and pillories Tretheway on that count too. I mention it because Trethewey’s failings provide an instructive contrast to Potter’s successes. Here are two pertinent passages from Logan’s review of Native Guard:

There were literate slaves, all too few, and perhaps none among the lowly soldiers serving at the sandy, fly-ridden prison near Fort Massachusetts. (The major of the regiment, however, a slave-owning Creole, spoke five languages and was the highest-ranking officer in the Union Army.) To create a voice rendered mute by history, Trethewey has sometimes borrowed from a white colonel’s memoir to make do. Putting the words of an educated white into the mouth of a freed slave isn’t so bad; but, when Trethewey is forced to choose between the pretty and the profane, the pretty wins every time. She’s an aesthete in wolf’s clothing. (pp. 193-194)

A paragraph later Logan will write of Trethewey’s other book Bellocq’s Ophelia:

Trethewey wears her 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 as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset.

Potter’s Meanwell is not the obsequious narrator one might expect. Potter’s narrator doesn’t pay anne-hutchinsontribute to Bradstreet. The poet, rather, is just another blurry shadow moving through the icy dogma of American puritanism and the leanness of its cruel and unforgiving winters. The Puritans were an intolerant and narrow-minded bunch (who would soon, and venally, shut down the greatest theatrical flowering since classical Greece). The English were all too happy to send the savages to the New World (and we still haven’t recovered). Meanwell’s attachment to Bradstreet is portrayed as a fact of her station (and nothing more). Meanwell never really expresses any affection for Bradstreet and is jealous of the poet’s privilege (inasmuch as a Puritan woman could be privileged) and her protective familial bonds.

…but whether my mother was a book or not
I have no knowledge
other than that I was always without parent…

and then, in the close of the same poem:

…and I did marvel on this well-beloved child
whose dear mother Dorothy
wrapped her with her cherished book in arms

while my vexed eyes one blue and one brown
did cloud with desire
to seize her soft nest once sickness was done

Meanwell’s narrative will not be like the “blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks”. In fact, by the end of the book, one really wonders whether there’s any affection at all.

…odd cloaked as a muse she tends her wilderness
mansion filled with English chests and tables
and ancestral portraits and eight-hundred books
all of an Englishness I am meant to polish well
and preserve for those whose kind benevolence
allows me to grow old in service to this house

and I do polish and scrub here for twenty years
as she grows to love her nest feathered with things
that make her heart glad her husband her children
her writings on stashes of paper her vast hearth
her great baskets of carded sheep’s wool that catch
the house afire when a servant drops a lit candle.

To this reader, at least, it’s hard not to read Meanwell’s commentary on Bradstreet, her Englishness, her “things”, and her “kind benevolence”, as dripping with bitterness and contempt. Which servant was it, I wonder, who (accidentally?) dripped the lit candle in the basket of carded wool? Was it Meanwell? Whether or not that was Potter’s intention, I’m left wondering whether this poem, A Servant Drops a Lit Candle, was Meanwell’s Iago-like confession. She will later say:

[I am] bound to serve it
this dread-hell she [Bradstreet] suffered when on earthy

am I bound to serve what I hate

While only just before, in the same poem, saying:

weary weary that a man must look upon
servants doing what once was
the work of his wife in her constancy
and afterwards sleep alone

who will serve him and obey him
down to the smallest kiss of his most
unspeakable manly part…

How are we to read this? Is it pity, compassion, contempt, gloating? And how are we to read the sexual content of Meanwell’s observation. Earlier in the book, Meanwell acknowledges the memory and pleasure of a former lover’s body “covering mine”. She can “watch a seaman’s firm buttocks rise on the mizzen” and doesn’t miss it when a seaman catches a skimpy maid “coarse-handed by the arse”. The way I read these lines is that she imagines taking Anne Bradstreet’s place. She imagines kissing “his most unspeakable manly part”, that is, symbolically submitting to the master of the life-style she has and continues to covet (or thinks she does). Perhaps the notion is fleeting, but I think it’s revealing. To deny the desire for a thing is to admit the thing’s desirability. We don’t talk about things that we don’t notice.

And this is the curious and most enjoyable facet of this book. None of the characters are likable and, in truth, (and from a twenty-first century perspective) none of them probably were likable. Even Anne Hutchinson, who was tried for loudly condemning a vindictive Puritan patriarchy, comes off as gratuitously combative when she states in Potter’s words: “it came to me by direct revelation”. Here is what Hutchinson, according to sources at the time, actually said:

“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of our hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state”

This sounds like a woman in the throes of a self-destructive delirium (and Hutchinson had good reason to be delirious given the hell she was put through). Meanwell idolizes Hutchinson (rather than Bradstreet) but is too cowed and has too much to lose to cheer Hutchinson on.

Hutchinson and her family, a number of her children included, were to be brutally murdered by the Siwanoy of New Netherland (in and around present day Bronx and New York City). Her children, including the youngest, were scalped and beheaded, then incinerated in their own house. The Siwanoy chief, Wampage, had forewarned the settlers. Whether because she felt a false sense of security or because of the same courage (or stubbornness) that characterized her dealings with the Puritan ministers, she foolishly stayed behind. To commemorate his courage and bravery in slaughtering an exhausted middle-aged woman and her children, the Siwanoy chief adopted Anne’s name, becoming known as Ann Hoeck alias Wampage.

Hutchinson.massacre

The various ministers, who had excommunicated Hutchinson, also “celebrated” Hutchinson’s murder by treating it as a sign that God agreed with them and had undoubtedly lent a divine hand to the gruesome and just slaughter of Hutchinson and her children.

Not Faithful But True

Bradstreet was born, 1612, when Elizabethan poetry and theater were at the pinnacle of their glory. At the hands of Shakespeare, Jonson, and the deceased Marlowe, blank verse had matched and exceeded the accomplishments of the classical Greek and Roman poets. John Donne was inspiring a whole generation of metaphysical poets. Though somewhat more constrained in subject matter, women were also among the poets being celebrated, admired and published — Mary Sidney being the foremost example, though there were others (see the comment section in my post on Bradstreet). For all that, Bradstreet’s verse doesn’t inherit the brilliance of the times. Her Iambic Pentameter is as conservative as her religion, stuck in the 1590’s, and she never tries the sonnet or imitates the brilliant lyrics of Donne.

Bradstreet’s only mention of a near English contemporary is in her poem: An Elegy Upon That Honorable and Renowned Knight Sir Philip Sidney, Who Was Untimely Slain at the Siege of Zutphen, Anno 1586. She references Arcadia, a prose work, but also describes him as “the brave refiner of our British tongue…” This makes me think that Bradstreet must have been familiar with Sidney’s poetry (and some of it very erotic). Bradstreet writes that “[Sidney in his] wiser days condemned his [own] witty works”; but that many “infatuate fools” were caught in the “gin” [the snare] of “his rhetoric”. In the most revealing moment of all, she writes that, nevertheless, “a world of wealth within that rubbish [lies]”: “learning, valour and morality,/Justice, friendship, and kind hospitality, /Yea, and divinity within his book…”

Bradstreet reveals that she was exposed to the erotic wit of the Elizabethan era, but also reveals her own tastes and what she values. She was a Puritan, first and foremost, by choice.  How much was Bradstreet exposed to during the early 1600’s? Donne was circulating his poetry privately and among his peers. It’s possible but unlikely that Bradstreet’s father (let alone Anne) would have been in that circle of readers. Most of his poetry, on top of that, was considered erotic. Donne would die in 1631, a year after Bradstreet arrived in America. Neither Shakespeare nor Jonson’s plays were published in Folio form. It’s highly unlikely that Bradstreet’s Puritan family would have attended the theaters (which the Puritans would later shut down in a fit of self-righteous probity). It’s also very unlikely that her family would have read any of Shakespeare’s published works, like Venus & Adonis or the sonnets, which were considered erotica by just about everyone. Marlowe, likewise, translated Ovid’s erotica. The theater was considered the den of iniquity. What did that leave? Pious and dull verses by pinch-lipped religious men and, especially, women. Women were encouraged to translate or write pious verse. As Christina Rosetti would demonstrate a couple hundred years later, some women need no encouragement to dip their quills in the venomous ink of self-righteous rectitude. It wasn’t all men making them do this. There was also Du Bartas, who Bradstreet read and eulogized, the French poet and Hugeonot famed for his religious epic poetry (which had been translated into English).

The older verse of the 80’s and 90’s along with translated religious verse (always more conservative) is probably what Bradstreet read and used as a model. It’s a miracle that she later wrote the kinds of poems she did. They start out bland and pious, but at some point she seems to have drained that cup. She begins to write about her life, her husband and her children.

So, with all that as a background, I was interested to see how Potter would “write” Meanwell. What would she imitate? Would she imitate the language, the verse forms of the era, Bradstreet? The questions are fraught with pitfalls. Should a modern poet avoid anachronistic verse and language, or dive into it, producing not only the voice of the period, but its literature? If so, to what degree? Should an illiterate servant be reciting her narrative in brilliant metaphysical rhymes and Shakespearean sonnets?  Logan’s issue with Trethewey, after all, isn’t that she put the words of a white slave owner into a slave, but that she did so with a bias for the pretty (rather than profane). Potter, I think, avoids that pitfall. Meanwell describes the facts of life, sickness and death with a brutal factuality map-picture-claes-van-visscherthat I found believable and true. In an era that had seen the plague, saw executed prisoners hang until they rotted from the rope, and the amputated hands and legs of traitors nailed to the walls of the Thames.

We, today, would have been horrified. In Meanwell’s world, that’s just the way it is. Get used to it. Get over it.

Heaving and setting with such force that the ocean might spill
from off God’s earth makes it a great wonder
to behold our sister ship the painted Jewel
for we need her midwife most urgently to disencumber
a good-wife retching under her bloody cloak on the shit-slick boards
where fearful ladies huddle under the hatches from the storm

though I mean well I cannot bear to look on her
small head where a twist of hen-scrapings might be her face
for she appears not a creature of a human nature
rather then entrails of an animal gouged alive from its earthly form
the shrieks swelling over its foul-smelling mire…

~ The Death of the Lewd Seaman Attends a Sea-Born Child

The quality of Potter’s poetry that impressed me in Birchsong, it’s concreteness of imagery — tangy, evocative and fresh — continues in Meanwell, and is the quality that saves her free verse from the generic dullness of her peers. I tried to discern whether any of her poems were in any sense formal — if there was any accentual,  syllabic or accentual-syllabic verse. If there was, I have missed it. There was no rhyme but for the occasional off-rhyme (so unpredictable and occasional as to feel accidental rather than deliberate). I confess a little disappointment in this regard, but only a little. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. Her poems do resemble, in their shape and rhetorical compactness, the flavor of 17th century verse.

As it is, Potter does dress her verse with the kind of extended metaphors and poetic personifications we’d fully expect from poets of the era:

Ruined as I am the sea makes no mind
as it leaps and licks higher by the moment
with the icy winds that hound us
like dogs baring long teeth at our bellies
and where is our God I wonder
who would seem to punish the revolt
of dour Puritan men against the prelates
with slanderous blows of the great water…

…as if a servant might possess a low power
to save souls from the monstrous jaws
of the watery beast that wing-spread doth
rise and bend over our whole company…

As the rough sea licks out bitten skin with salt tongue…

…and a great whale drifted along our side spouting water
as if it were God’s leviathan sleepily smoking his pipe at twilight…

Potter really seems to let her hair down when describing the animalistic gyrations of the ocean. I can’t help thinking she revels in the excuse to use the extended metaphors, auxiliary do forms, grammatical inversions, and personifications that contemporary poets, otherwise, wouldn’t dare use lest they sully their unassailable reputation for the boring. It’s in Potter’s use of language and imagery, rather than meter or rhyme, that she reminds us we’re in the 1600’s. That’s okay. I think it works and I think she manages the effect beautifully, not too much and not too little. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that a Jacobean servant would have narrated her life with such trenchant imagery or in such a poetic voice, but at some point one must grant that art’s job isn’t to be faithful but to be true.

Other than that, the reader will notice that poems aren’t punctuated. I’m not sure why Potter chose this affect, but I can theorize. One reason may be that she wanted to suggest Meanwell’s lack of education, that she’s not “booked”. Meanwell’s monologues plow from one thought to the next the way, perhaps, such an uneducated woman would speak. Another reason might be that Potter wants to make the reading a little more difficult, as if to suggest a different period of time and way of talking. Another is that Potter simply prefers to write that way. Some readers will be put off by this. I wasn’t.

When Meanwell is finally free to live her own life, the verse follows suite. The lines no longer imitate, in appearance, the blank verse or stanzas of the 1600’s, but the open and unstructured free verse of contemporary poetry.

Westward

In the back matter of the book, we’re told the following:

“Through Meanwell, the feelings of women, silecned during the midwife Anne Hutchinson’s fiery trial before the Puritan ministers, are finally acknowledged. In effect, the poems are about the making of an American rebel. Through her conflicted conscience, we witness Meanwell’s transformation from a powerless English waif to a mythic American who ultimately chooses wilderness over the civilization she has experienced.”

My own reading of Meanwell isn’t quite so pat, and that’s a good thing. There are no heroes in the book, least of all Meanwell, and that reminds me a little of Robert Frost and the characters in North of Boston. There’s a meanness and pettiness to Meanwell that makes her appealing and human. How could she be otherwise? In the poem Two Annes Have I served Half-Faithfully, Meanwell tells us something that Bradstreet Hutchinson has said.

once I heard her proclaim
that to be a woman was to be
blessed

that to be a woman was to possess mastery
of one’s own
body········one’s own
········mind

Jan, 25 2013 ~ Note: When I originally wrote the review, I incorrectly remembered that the above lines were spoken by Bradstreet. Potter sent me an E-Mail to correct me. She wrote:

“But I should point out one minor but intriguing misreading. I confess that I like your misreading because it opens a fascinating view down the road not taken. It is actually Anne Hutchinson who says (and did say in real life) that to be a woman is to be blessed. It’s part of her feminism, of course, and another reason why she so enraged the ministers. But–what if Bradstreet had said it? What a delicious irony!”

And that led me on a very interesting diversion. Did Bradstreet never once refer to her identity as a woman? So I got out my copy of Bradstreet’s writings and searched through them. The closest Bradstreet comes to referencing her own identity as any thing other than a Christian, first and foremost, or “soul”, is in her short prose autobiography To My Dear Children. She writes:

It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave me many more of whom I now take the care, that as I have brought you into the world. and with great pains, weakness, cares, and fears brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you. [The Works of Anne Bradstreet: Edited by Jaennine Hensley p. 241]

But for these brief words — “I now travail in birth again” — we might imagine a father writing this. That Bradstreet has so subsumed and suppressed (if that’s the right word) her own identity as anything other than a Christian whose identity exists only in reference to her husband and patriarchal faith, makes her contrast with Hutchinson all the more striking. It’s tempting to say that Bradstreet’s sensibility would be utterly foreign to a modern and secular woman. I’m not so sure. Meanwell, from this perspective, not only straddles two different paradigms of womanhood in her own day (with an ear to both and drawn to both worlds) but also, perhaps, speaks to modern women who, though now firmly in Hutchinson’s world, are nevertheless compelled, in some small way, by the perceived safety and certitude of a “traditional” woman’s role. Does a woman seek the solace and approval of children, family and faith, or does she risk independence, potential isolation and disapproval (excommunication). Anne Hutchinson’s isolation led to her murder and was understood by men( and probably women too) as a just warning to any woman desiring to reject the patriarchal roles assigned to her.

All that being said, I still wonder that Hutchinson’s words didn’t put it in Meanwell’s mind to burn a house down — she who had never possessed mastery of her own body — her fate.

Jan 27, 2013 Potter, via E-Mail, brought to my attention another passage in which Bradstreet briefly describes her position as a woman writing poetry:

“I like her poem, “Prologue,” for her musings on what she faces as a woman-writer.  I feel her taking a deep breath, and then diving into the wreck.  Especially pointed is part 5:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the poem, she bows once more to male superiority.   (I think she was politically astute.)  The only public acknowledgement of herself as poet that she claims to seek is a modest wreath of thyme or parsley, rather than the bay wreath, or laurels of famous men.  But she clearly wants some credit, and she wants it as a woman.”

The only observation I would add is that Bradstreet reveals some ambition, in addition to wanting credit. My own feeling is that she shows some awareness and pride in her own talent and is excited to write poetry. The passage also reveals the kind of thing she must have heard from men and women. Mainly, they didn’t believe women were capable of accomplished poetry, dismissed their efforts or accused them of plagiary or dumb luck. Elizabeth Cary, another female poet and contemporary of Anne Bradstreet, was most forcefully discouraged from poetry by her own mother (who didn’t approve of Elizabeth’s “devotion to books”. We can’t necessarily conclude that the “carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” was solely the tongue of men. Nevertheless, what the passage does tell us is the difficulties and discouragements Bradstreet must have confronted and how lucky she was to have had (what must have been) a supportive husband and children – something Meanwell sorely envied.

puritans

Meanwell desired the outward privileges, as she saw it, of Bradstreet’s world, but did she ever fully comprehend it? I think it’s only when Meanwell is finally freed from servitude, in my reading, that she reveals something like admiration and compassion for Bradstreet and only then begins her search for her own identity and meaning.

…what a fool I was
to believe········to believe
rhymes with Eve so what if those
ministers may be right

no I believe········with two Annes
it is blessed to be
woman

My feeling is that this book is a keeper and well worth reading. The poetry is some of the best around and Potter’s trenchant, concrete imagery is perfectly suited to evoking the hard and cruel landscape of the old world in the new. There are other moments and nice details I haven’t mentioned, but you will have to read the book. My advice is to buy this book and buy Bradstreet’s poetry with it. The two go together beautifully.

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.

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.