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.