Poetry is what gets lost in translation.
– Robert Frost
U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey came back to Georgia earlier this month to lecture at her alma mater, the University of Georgia. Trethewey, who received an undergraduate degree from UGA in 1989, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Native Guard. She was chosen national poet laureate earlier this year.
Her credentials are impressive, but for most of us her craft remains mysterious. What is good poetry?
Stuff that rhymes is popular, but as we got into high school most of us became aware that not all poems did.
So, let me judge your taste. I have selected some examples of sensitive wordplay. See if you pick out the work of our poet laureate.
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.
The lads I’ve met in Cupid’s deadlock
Were – shall we say? – born out of wedlock.
They broke my heart, they stilled my song,
And said they had to run along.
The windows of time stand open
Into the Soul of the World
I tread the Path
And there I stood
Crouched on bootfeet
Three things there be that I cannot endure,
A little child too sick to help or cure,
A dying dog, killed by a neighbor’s hate,
An empty stocking by an empty grate.
You can’t see me
I’m the future
I represent how it’s gon’ be
I’m the future
That fawn-skin-dappled hair of hers,
And the blue eye
Dear and dewy,
And that infantine fresh air of hers!
Miranda in Miranda’s sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty.
Ready for the answers? Example 1 does come from our poet laureate and is the opening of her poem Limen.
Example 2 comes from a poem by Dorothy Parker called A Fairly Sad Tale.
Example 3 is from Augusta attorney Joe Neal Jr., who offered these lines in the The Running of Bulls, which was on his Web site.
Example 4 was from a poem written 80 years ago by editorial page columnist Louisa K. Smith, urging people to contribute to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Example 5 might be called urban poetry. These are lyrics from the hip-hop performer Lil’ Bow Wow in The Future.
Example 6 is from A Pretty Woman by high school lit favorite Robert Browning.
Example 7 is from A Lady Who Thinks She’s Thirty by Ogden Nash.
I’m not sure what all this proves, but I know its practitioners were similarly conflicted. As Dorothy Parker (Example 2) once wrote:
Should Heaven send me any son,
I hope he’s not like Tennyson.
I’d rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.