The New York Times reports on Natasha Trethewey, the new poet laureate, with a sampling of her poems. The four samples become more interesting when one looks at them in light of Marjorie Perloff’s recent commentary on the “well-crafted” poem (also known as the “workshop poem”). For clarity: “well-crafted” is not a term of praise. It’s meant rather to suggest a formulaic and deeply restricted sense of what poetry might be. Perloff describes three main features of the “well-crafted” poem:
1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.The one “well-crafted” poem Perloff quotes in full in making her case: “Hot Combs,” by Natasha Trethewey.
I’ll consider the first six lines of one of the Times’s sample poems, “Limen”:
All day I’ve listened to the industry“Irregular lines of free verse”: yes, though there is a ghost of iambic pentameter in several of the poem’s lines, and three instances of rhyme or off-rhyme. But the lines do appear to be what I call chopped prose. Notice too the many prepositional phrases, beginning to, of, outside, at, to, of, and in.
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
If these lines suffer when turned into prose, it is because their false insistence and strained metaphor become more evident when the line breaks disappear:
All day I’ve listened to the industry of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree just outside my window. Hard at his task, his body is a hinge, a door knocker to the cluttered house of memory in which I can almost see my mother’s face.False insistence: would you, reader, really listen to a woodpecker peck all day? When it’s just outside your window? Wouldn’t you go the library or a coffeeshop or something? Strained metaphor: the bird’s body is a hinge but also a door knocker? And that makes the tree a house of memory that the bird is trying to enter? A treehouse in which the poet can almost see her mother’s face?
As the poem continues, the mother turns out to be elsewhere, “beyond the tree,” hanging sheets on a clothesline, “each one // a thin white screen between us”: another strained metaphor. And then “the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany”: the woodpecker is looking “not simply” for “beetles and grubs,” “but for some other gift / the tree might hold.” The poet is “sure” about it.
There’s nothing wrong with making something of a bird: John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop (to name a few poets) do so in poems that enact imaginative discovery and invite the reader’s participation in that discovery. What I see in Trethewey’s poem is a too-facile application of “poeticity” to a scene, an application that invites the reader to nod, Yes, it’s poetry. When it comes to poetry and woodpeckers, I’ll stick with Ron Padgett.
[That title — “Limen”? A word to look up. And yes, I’m aware that the presence of the poet’s mother in the poem involves a family tragedy.]