When a Poet is Read and Read About

July 21, 2012

It was announced last month that Natasha Tretheway will be the next Poet Laureate of the United States and in doing so will be the first Southern Poet Laureate since Robert Penn Warren, the first person to hold the position. She will also be the first African-American Poet Laureate since Rita Dove, who served from 1993 to 1995. Already the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and a professor at Emory University, Natasha Tretheway has been a star in the world of poetry and beyond for years, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard in 2007 and writing several respected books of poems and a book of nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her fourth collection of poetry, Thrall, is forthcoming this fall, and perhaps most startlingly, her decision to write a memoir resulted in an auction among publishers for the right to print it. Ecco came out the winner, and on July 1st The New York Times quoted Daniel Halpern, Ecco’s president and publisher, as saying, “I can’t remember a more emotionally intense auction for a book, ever.”

It’s possible to see Tretheway’s career as one paved in gold—the daughter of a poet (her father is a professor of English at Hollins University), she has hit nearly every major mark of success available to a poet in the United States and achieved a level of acclaim and visibility that transcends the normally insular world of verse, all by the astonishing age of 46. But as readers of her work may know, her life has been difficult, scarred by the murder of her mother by her second husband when Tretheway was only 19. This is a fact that stuns, but it also partly explains the intense interest in her memoir. The fight among publishers over the privilege of printing the book can be seen as a triumph for poetry: a moment when a poet emerges with something not only relevant and compelling to say, but with the appeal and visibility to say it widely. On the other hand, this attention comes for a book of prose, not poems, and reminds us of the indifference of commercial enterprise toward poetry.

It’s somewhat disturbing that while most articles describing Tretheway cite her CV (her “poetry credentials”), they avoid conversation with the poems themselves. Much space and energy is given to her race, gender, and geographical provenance, but a critical response to the work is lacking. There are, after all, many poets who, like Tretheway (Southern, African American, female), buck historical trends and write work that is worthy of serious recognition. I think we can reasonably ask why so much attention should fall to one poet and question whether the attention of the media and commercial publishing is attention that helps poetry or potentially distracts from poems. If the gaze of major publishing houses and the mass media results in a narrowing or pigeon-holing of the discourse about poetry, or focuses entirely on the person of the poet, then perhaps we should look at these types of stories skeptically. It seems inarguable to me that as readers of poetry we should raise our voices in praise of the gifted poets this country is teeming with, and that our praise should be tied to the pleasures of their poems.

What do you think? Can great recognition for a poet distract from the poems themselves? What poets’ work would you like to see share the limelight in a serious discussion of contemporary poetry?

—Jasmine V. Bailey

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