Posts Tagged ‘Poet Laureate’

poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

March 1912

                              –Postcard, en route westward

by Natasha Trethewey


At last we are near

breaking the season, shedding

our coats, the gray husk


of winter.  Each tree

trembles with new leaves, tiny

blossoms, the flashy


dress of spring. I am

aware now of its coming

as I’ve never been—


the wet grass throbbing

with crickets, insistent, keen

as desire.  Now,


I feel what trees must—

budding, green sheaths splitting—skin

that no longer fits.




For those of us in Michigan, the first day of spring is always a matter of faith.  This year especially, after a record-breaking winter and too many visits from the Polar Vortex, we have to believe in what we don’t see. The vernal equinox is here!  If you measure by hours of sunlight and not the greening of the earth, you can celebrate with these lines from Natasha Trethewey’s poem “March, 1912”:

At last we are near

breaking the season

Those are joyful words to me, words to carry around like a tiny solar cell under my coat.


It was seven degrees when I left the poem on a tree at a nature center a few days before the official start of spring. Buckets hung on the sugar maple trees like fanny packs, ready to collect the sap that was purportedly rising.  A maple syrup demonstration was scheduled for two days after I left the poem, and I hope the wind didn’t take it before then.  It’s a beautiful reminder for all spring-starved Michiganders that under the snow, a big sexy earth is ready to explode.


Trembling, throbbing, shedding its clothes, keen with desire–Trethewey’s spring pulses with the erotic.  What makes the poem so beautiful (and even more sensual) is the formal structure that contains, just barely, all that desire. Each stanza has lines of 5-7-5 syllables. That’s haiku, in case you’ve forgotten. The poem is a perfect balance of opposing forces.  Like a tight corset barely holding in a heaving bosom.


Unfortunately, the only throbbing going on after I left the poem was my frozen fingers thawing when I got to the car. But there were birds, in the sky, as song goes, and I never would have seen them winging (or heard them singing) if I hadn’t spent time with Trethewey’s poem.


“March 1912” is taken from Bellocq’s Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes in the early 1900’s. (You can see the photographs here.) Tretheway imagines one of Bellocq’s subjects as a mixed race woman named Ophelia.  Ophelia, originally from Mississippi, turns up at a New Orleans brothel after she can’t find other means of supporting herself. The poems read like chapters in a novel, and Trethewey creates a fascinating character in this underground world.


Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi in 1966.  Her father was a white Canadian, a poet, and her mother a black social worker from the deep South. Her parents were married a year before mixed marriages were made legal.  They divorced when she was six.  From an early age she was aware of how she was treated when she was with her father and she could “pass” as white, and how she was treated when she was with her mother.


She was a freshman in college when her mother was murdered by her second husband.  Trethewey started writing poetry after her mother’s death as a way to deal with her grief.


Among the many awards she’s received, Trethewey has won the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation and NEA. She was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012, a post she still holds.  As Poet Laureate, she has partnered with PBS to produce the show “Where Poetry Lives.”  Link here for an inspiring episode about poetry in Detroit schools, featuring Detroit writer Peter Markus.


She is the director of creative writing at Emory University, and lives in Georgia with her husband, a historian and fellow professor at Emory.  I just found out she’s coming to Detroit next month.  She’ll be reading at Marygrove College on April 4.  Link here for details.  I’m crushed that I’m going to be out of town that date, but if you go (lucky you), send regards from Poem Elf.

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poem is taped to trashcan


By W.S. Merwin


My friend says I was not a good son

you understand

I say yes I understand


he says I did not go

to see my parents very often you know

and I say yes I know


even when I was living in the same city he says

maybe I would go there once

a month or maybe even less

I say oh yes


he says the last time I went to see my father

I say the last time I saw my father


he says the last time I saw my father

he was asking me about my life

how I was making out and he

went into the next room

to get something to give me


oh I say

feeling again the cold

of my father’s hand the last time


he says and my father turned

in the doorway and saw me

look at my wristwatch and he

said you know I would like you to stay

and talk with me


oh yes I say


but if you are busy he said

I don’t want you to feel that you

have to

just because I’m here


I say nothing


he says my father

said maybe

you have important work you are doing


or maybe you should be seeing

somebody I don’t want to keep you


I look out the window

my friend is older than I am

he says and I told my father it was so

and I got up and left him then

you know


though there was nowhere I had to go

and nothing I had to do



In honor of W.S. Merwin, the new poet laureate of the United States, I taped this poem to a trashbin in a small garden area of an outlet shopping mall. I wasn’t mocking Merwin or the office. It was just that on a blindingly bright day (oh why was I wasting it at the outlets?) the side of the trashcan was the only place with enough shade to get a decent close-up. 

I was attracted to this poem because at the outset it was so simple to understand, a trait I like in poetry more than people.  The language is straightforward.  No fancy words and not a single metaphor.  And it’s written in dialogue, the most reader-friendly form of writing around.

But the more time I spend with “Yesterday,” the more complicated it becomes.  The two principal speakers, the  I of the poem’s narrator and the I of the older friend as he narrates his own story, can get convoluted. Take the first line:  “My friend says I was not a good son.”  The sentence can be read two ways.  It could be a direct quote, as in, My friends says, “I was not a good son” or it could be a paraphrased accusation:  My friend says (that) I was not a good son. The meaning is cleared up in the next few lines, but the reader is disoriented from the get-go. 

Merwin could have made this poem a whole lot easier if he used some darn quotation marks, but how different a poem it would be with them. The confusion of the I’s shows how the narrator shares his friend’s guilt over neglecting a father. Identifying who the  I is is further complicated by the addition of a conversation within the conversation.  There are actually four speakers:  the poem’s narrator, the friend in the present moment, the friend’s father, and the friend in the past when his father was still alive. To track the identity of the speakers, the reader has to follow the carefully constructed line breaks, the white space, the verb tenses, and the verbal tics of each speaker.

Is the poem’s narrator giving his friend the kind of half-attention that the friend gave his father?  His responses to his friend’s story seem rote and distracted (oh yes and I understand). Except for the part where he remembers his father’s cold hand, he seems as distanced from the friend’s conversation as the friend was from his father. The friend is older than the speaker, suggesting the father-son dynamic is repeated in the friendship.  At one point, the speaker even looks out the window, just as the friend looked at his watch while his father was speaking. Both gestures signal the desire to be elsewhere.

There’s a whole culture of emotional disengagement here that struck me as distinctly male.  The fathers and sons feel deeply but are unwilling to open up.  Come on, fellas, I thought, only connect!  Unfortunately E.M. Forster stepped aside for Harry Chapin, and I started humming “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In both Merwin’s poem and Chapin’s dreary song there’s a cycle of fathers and sons failing each other.  The desire for closeness never happens to both at the same time, and men’s lives are full of regret for missed intimacy.

But as I thought about it, I realized this emotional laziness or fear or whatever and wherever it comes from is not limited to the male sex.  I could write my own poem that begins, “I was not a good daughter.” When I visited my father in his last year, all he wanted was for me to sit in the living room with him and listen to him tell me whatever was on his mind—his musings on politics, science, and religion, his three main interests. “When you’ve got a minute,” he’d call to me as I busied myself in the kitchen.  A minute.  That’s all he asked for. 

Finally I would settle on the couch, legs crossed, arms crossed, thinking of the other things I needed to do.  He’d talk in his weakened voice, and as he did, he’d look at his hands, flipping them from palm side to nail side.  He had macular degeneration and could hardly see his hands, but perhaps this was a habit of old to give him the air of thoughtful speculation. I had never noticed it before.  Now I could hardly stand it. When I would sit with him, everything in me was burbling up wanting to run away.  A fault of mine.  A sin.  What I can’t undo.

I find this poem remarkable.  It reads like a slacker poem, idle, aimless and affectless.  But it lurks in the back of my head, sharp and knowing.

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Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

by Billy Collins

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.


My apologies for the awkward dash between stanzas.  It’s the only way I can figure out to separate the stanzas in wordpress.

This poem of Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate (a post that seems much too stiff and ceremonial for a sweet-faced Irish fellow like him), ended up in my mother’s upstairs bathroom for the following reasons: a. she loves dogs; b. she likes little tricks; and c. I knew she’d like the silly humor of this poem. Which she did.  “Arf, arf,” she emailed me when she found it.

Plus, I think Collins, with his nimble imaginative leaps, might enjoy finding himself in that little-used room, with its patched plaster wall, untrustworthy toilet and world map shower curtain.  He seems to like going to unexpected places, at least in his imagination.

The barking dog in the poem suggests an image to me of the poet as he writes.  Collins is holding on, just barely, to a leashed dog, a curious and happy but untrained black lab.  The dog leads him where it wants to go, and Collins, no Cesar Milan, tries to keep up. He starts out for a walk around the block and ends up in a parallel universe bagging doggy turds on the corner of What-If and What-the-Heck-Just-Happened.

This is a poet with total faith in his imagination.  He follows its lead and we chase along, amused and wondering.  A barking pet keeps barking until four stanzas later Beethoven’s written a symphony for dogs.  Walking my own dog, I laughed out loud thinking about the dog sitting in the oboe section and the conductor “entreating him with his baton.” Here the original situation–the poem’s speaker wanting the dog to stop barking–is reversed.  The conductor wants the dog to keep on barking, louder and more expressively.  His efforts are successful.

Man vs. dog is usually a comic scenario (unless you’re trapped in a Stephen King novel), and the dog usually wins.  No exception here:  the dog takes over the orchestra, the symphony, and ultimately the poem itself.

Jane, ready for her solo

(Quirky timing footnote: the very weekend I hid “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” in my mother’s house, she showed me a gun she had just found hidden in my father’s dresser.  It was a black pistol, startling to find among the reading glasses and military pins of his junk drawer.  We have little experience with firearms, so it took us some time to figure out it was just a BB gun.  He must have bought it to scare off intruders who never bothered to intrude.)

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