Why people don’t care about poetry #14137

April 20th, 2011

Over the past weeks I’ve received a couple of invitations from a poetry professor at the local university, to a reading this evening by poet Natasha Trethewey.  I am totally unfamiliar with her work.  So… why should I go?  The publicity that Professor J– has sent me includes a picture of an attractive woman of indeterminate age, perhaps in her thirties?  That’s not enough to entice me out of doors on a rainy evening.  It says she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Well, good for her, but in today’s literary environment that tells me nothing.  Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer last year.  W.S. Merwin won it the year before.  These names may mean little to you.  What they mean to me is that you can win the Pulitzer with a lifetime of great work behind you and a recently popular but relatively weak book, or even despite the fact that your work sucks.  Trethewey’s won several other prizes, too, none of which I’ve ever heard of.  Today’s poetry world is full of prizes.  Every issue of Poets and Writers magazine has pages upon pages in the back, listing all of that month’s prizewinners.  I’m not sure that every one of them is great and fully deserving of our attention.  Finally, there’s a quote from the introduction to Trethewey’s most recent book.  The introduction was written by Rita Dove.  Whoa!  She’s a heavy hitter, a former U.S. poet laureate and herself a Pulitzer winner.  Okay, so these honorifics mean little in themselves, but they do catch the attention.  And here’s what we’re told Rita Dove has to say:  “Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts—reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”

Now, what I didn’t tell you is that the invitation also contains a short example of Trethewey’s work, a fourteen line poem titled “Southern Pastoral” about a moment in a dream when Trethewey and some other southern poets have their group photograph taken.  The last three lines allude to the author’s biracial identity confusion and ambivalence about the South.  The poem is flat in tone and somewhat inert on the screen.  Far from meeting Emily Dickinson’s standard for good lyric poetry, that it makes you feel as if the top of your head was blown off, it barely ruffles my hair.  Maybe the author reading it in person could make it more entertaining.  It’s about her dream, after all.  But most poets are terrible performers.

Given the poem’s subject matter, the taking of a group portrait, it is a bit odd to read, immediately below it, how Trethewey “eschews the Polaroid instant.”  Maybe Dove was not speaking so literally.  Maybe she was being, like, poetic, you know, using a metaphor.  If so, the choice of this poem to illustrate her quote (or vice versa) is strange, since the poem itself could most aptly be described as a snapshot of the moment when the picture is taken.  It’s unclear to me what, in any case, Dove means by “the Polaroid instant,” or why it is a virtue of Trethewey to eschew it, if that is in fact what Trethewey does.  Come to think of it, the use of the word “eschew” is a bit odd here, since it implies that Trethewey has successfully resisted the urge to indulge in a form of temptation, namely polaroidism, that I had not known existed.

Let me eschew snark for a second and state it plainly – the Dove quote is a perfect example of the kind of mushy bullshit that passes today for critical comment on poets by poets.  It describes nothing and doesn’t say anything.  Do “unsuspecting yearnings” and “tremulous hopes” accompany your “most private thoughts”?  How about anger, lust, fear, amusement, pleasure, and other emotions?  Does Dove mean to say that Trethewey has chosen in her poetry to evoke only a precious few of these penumbral feelings, as an alternative to depicting the events that trigger them?  Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense in relation to the poem we have just read, which describes in fairly bald terms the scenery, sounds, and actions which constituted Trethewey’s dream.  Maybe Dove was thinking of something else.

Okay, move on.  Dove says that Trethewey “reclaims” our “inner life.”  Reclaims it from what?  Did it need reclaiming?  Was it lost?  Stolen?  Abandoned? Pawned?  Having reclaimed it, what is she going to do with it?  Myself, I didn’t know that my inner life was missing or in hock.  That’s too bad, because without it apparently my true self has been unable to flourish, and has been withering, all unbeknownst to me, and whatever I have been returning to in solitary reverie, for strength, it has not been me, and bereft of my unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes how shall I go on?  Fortunately here is Natasha Trethewey to restore me to them and it, or it and them to me, or something.

You might not have suspected it, but this kind of messianic soul-regenerative power is not vouchsafed by the muses to Natasha Trethewey alone.  Look on almost any page of Poets and Writers and you will see a blurb ascribing similar properties to somebody or other’s new book of lyrics.  It’s a wonder that psychotherapists stay in practice and that religion has not folded its tents, faced with such competition.  People die every day for lack of what is found in poetry, said William Carlos Williams, but I don’t think he meant that everybody with an M.F.A. and a publisher is your savior.  By routinely suggesting that is the case, poets may make each other feel good; the public, however, caught on to the scam long ago.

Oh, heck.  Did I mention that the reading is at 5:30?  That’s right about dinner time. Think I’m going to stay home.  I’ve got some leftover lo mein that needs eating.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 at 10:47 pm and is filed under Poetry. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Why people don’t care about poetry #14137”

  1. Mack Says:

    So someone really asked for a blog post on this topic?

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    Spur of moment. Posts on requested topics forthcoming. – The Mgt.

  3. Upton O. Goode Says:

    In 1989, thousands of singers, musicians and recording luminaries voted, as they customarily do, for the most talented entrant into the profession of that year. The highest vote getter for the “Grammy Award” for Best New Act was acclaimed to be the duet known as Milli Vanilli. It was later disclosed, however, that the two members of the group did not do any of the singing, instrument playing or songwriting on their debut album. They did have quite a knack for lipsynching and dancing about in their trademark bicycle shorts.

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