A Letter to the Poet Laureate
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The United Kingdom has a state-anointed top-dog writer called a poet laureate, so the United States has had one as well since 1985. He or she is sort of like the village bard made famous in the French Asterix comic book series, but on a national level.
The oddly juxtaposed adjective for English, ą la “notary public,” refers to the laurel tree, wreaths made from the branches of which were used to confer honor in ancient Greece. Classical scholar and poet A. E. Housman refers to the honorific use of the laurel twice in “To an Athlete Dying Young:”
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead.
(Mention of Housman’s famous poem suggests a short digression. The untimely death of Meet the Press host Tim Russert prompted me to write a eulogy of sorts that was subtitled “To a Journalist Dying Youngish.” More recently I did another parody, “To a Journalist Dying Old.”)
An article that appeared in The Washington Post this past week reminded me that the current poet laureate of the United States is my fellow Southerner, Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey. We both still live and write in the South, though not in the states of our birth. She teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, which, for what it is worth, makes her a colleague of the estimable Harvey Klehr and the notorious Deborah Lipstadt. I was born and educated in North Carolina and have lived in Fairfax County, Virginia, since 1982.
A couple of questions by The Post interviewer and her responses prompted me to send her an email:
April 28, 2014
Dear Professor Trethewey,
I noted with some interest your exchange with an interviewer from The Washington Post:
What should a great poem do?
Well, the easiest answer to that is that it should touch not only our intelligence, but also our heart. It should move us not just with its subject matter but also its musicality. For my own purposes, those are the hardest things to achieve.
Is Washington a particularly poetic city?
[Laughs] I love Washington, and I think of it as a poetic city because it has a sense of history. I like that I can walk up from the Dupont Circle Metro and read Whitman on the walls. When I’m in Washington I feel in touch with America’s past.
I agree with you completely on your response to the first question, although I must note that achieving musicality is made considerably more difficult by dispensing with rhyme and meter as most modern poets choose to do. As for the second question, I would first note that poetry, to me, is a way of expressing strong feeling in a compact way, and my experience with Washington, which goes beyond yours by a considerable degree, has certainly stirred up strong emotions in me on many, many occasions. Permit me to share with you some examples, the first of which would have been timely a couple of weeks ago:
April in Washington
Around the basin there's a ring
Of cherry trees now blossoming.
Showing off the city's best,
They give the residents a rest
From all the darker doings there
That constitute the normal fare.
As I observe the Asian gift,
My spirits get a fleeting lift.
Forgetting everything I know,
I enjoy the annual show,
Admiring in her loveliness,
The harlot in a wedding dress.
Alas, the "everything I know" is quite a bit and very depressing and it constitutes most of what one can find on my web site whether in prose or in verse. How it has affected my life may be summed up with the following poem:
Could it be I've learned too much?
If charged, I must confess.
My views would be more popular
If I knew much less.
I might vote for the Democrats
Or for the GOP
And not have old acquaintances
Almost run from me.
Education's big with them
And ignorance the foe,
Except for those disturbing things
That they don't want to know.
Concerning those disturbing things, and the "darker doings" in Washington referred to in the first poem we might plunge right in by turning the pejorative expression "lunatic fringe" back onto those who use it on free thinkers who have the temerity to question some of the outrageous things fed them by the government and the mainstream press: "The Lunatic Fringe"
One will notice in that poem skeptical reference to the official story in the case of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the suspicious death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster, Jr., and the Oklahoma City bombing. More assassination skepticism and the broader implications are to be found in "Converging Systems" and "Barren Summit."
The city, itself, and not just the policies emanating from it, also has plenty of material for poetic inspiration:
And, most recently, we have produced a paraphrase of Carl Sandburg's "Chicago," also named "Washington, DC."
As you can see, then, our nation's capital can indeed be a “poetic city,” and for a lot more reasons than the one you give.
It’s been a few days now, and I haven’t heard anything back. Oh well, if she’s like the ones around here she probably just thinks I’m hitting on her, or she’s sized me up as someone who can’t do anything to help her career, or both.
May 1, 2014