…I walk these streets
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,
a negress again…
—from “Letter Home,” in Bellocq’s Ophelia,
by Natasha Trethewey (2002)
When I started writing these Notebooks, it was a way to smuggle poetry out into the open, inspired by the samizdat readings of forbidden poetry in Warsaw before the Communists were overthrown in 1990 (we were at Warsaw University 1988-89). Poetry, of course, isn’t forbidden here; but exists in its own mildly comfortable gulag, let out to mingle with mainstream America on Special Occasions, after which the drawbridge is pulled up, and we can concentrate on Law & Order again.
Poetry does seem to prosper during difficult times, however, which is why there are pings of poetic activity these days — and an opportunity to introduce both America’s and England’s poets laureate, Natasha Trethewey and Carol Ann Duffy. But first, as a not untypical student recently asked, Where’d all this poet laureate jazz come from, anyway?
Appropriately enough, as the Games are unfolding in London this summer, it comes from the Olympics, the old pan-Hellenic sporting contests in ancient Greece. Back then, heroes were thought to wind up living with Zeus on Mount Olympus (no mention of virgins), and winners in the earthly races were rewarded with olive branches or laurel wreaths. Eventually “laurel” became a general word of praise and honor.
America’s poet laureateship, naturally, is copied from the British one, which began officially in 1670 with John Dryden, a fine sharp-tongued political poet (In friendship false, implacable in hate: / Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state — we could use him today!). Dryden’s pay was “£300 pounds and a butt of canary sack,” and I’ve been pressuring Mayor Foster to offer something equally enticing for St. Pete’s position.
The U.S. appointments are, democratically, only for one year, which can be extended for another; the British appointments used to be for life, but are now limited to 10 years. American poets don’t have to do anything, but are encouraged to take on projects to help heat up our country’s tepid appreciation of poetry. Billy Collins (2001), for example, compiled Poetry 180, an anthology of accessible poems, one for each school day, to be read in our schools just to be heard, not studied as dreaded homework.
British writer Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008) cleverly said, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” But both of our current laureates are exciting writers whose poems don’t do that at all.
Trethewey has a mixed background like President Obama’s (her mother was black; her father is white). Like W. B. Yeats, she was “stung into poetry” — Yeats’s phrase — when her mother was murdered while Trethewey was in college. At 19, she turned to poetry, as many do, “to try to make sense of it all.” Her poems are direct, dramatic, historical and personal all at once, as she focuses on where her own history and Southern history intersect: when Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, her parents’ marriage was still illegal.
Surprisingly, Duffy is England's first female Poet Laureate — and about time! America, only starting officially in 1986, has already had five. Duffy is openly gay and — like Trethewey — also reaches out to her audience. These developments, and others, are enough to give me twinges of hope for poetry’s blossoming.
Here’s a short poem from Duffy’s book, The World’s Wives (2009), a collection of imaginary musings by the wives of famous men. This is by the wife of the discoverer of evolution:
7 April 1852.
Went to the zoo,
said to him—
Something about that chimpanzee over there
reminds me of you.