Poetry Friday: 1943 and the frontier

After a week off—we had guests in town, including my two youngest nephews, which had me more than busy enough to skip Poetry Friday—we return to the poetry of 1943, and I have to say I love this week’s piece.  Veteran readers of this blog will remember my excited discovery last year of the work of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benet, when I happened upon his book-length poem John Brown’s Body and shared both an excerpt of his invocation and a paragraph of his comments on reading poetry.  Benet has a sturdy American voice: not flashy like Fitzgerald or as punchy as Hemingway, but far more resonant than a word like “plain” can capture.  I advised you then to read his work aloud in a simple speaking voice—not like a politician giving a speech, but like a person talking calmly about something they care about.  I think that advice should hold here, because yes, we’re back to Benet and he’s just as good as I remember.

This time, it’s another epic poem, which Benet again styles after the great poets in that tradition, complete with an opening invocation to some nameless muse who can inspire his song.  The poem, Western Star, looks deeply into the idea of America as a frontier, and into the lives of the people who took what they thought of as “wilderness” and made it a country.  For all its good intentions, it is of course missing an important part of the story—Benet’s work is not as sensitive to the stories of native peoples as it ought to be, and the whole “claiming the frontier/wilderness” theme is definitely locked into a white European settler’s way of seeing and understanding the natural landscape.  Especially on Columbus Day weekend, I think it’s good to remind ourselves that we need to hear the stories of people who have not been given much of a voice in American conversations, and sometime between now and Thanksgiving I’ll be making a sincere effort to bring one or more Native American poets into the mix.  But I also don’t want to let that reality turn us away from hearing the voices of those people who crossed an ocean and spread throughout a continent: we don’t hear them much either, not as the people they were, instead sweeping them up into abstract phrases like “westward movement” and “manifest destiny”.  For many of us, these are the people we come from—farmers, trappers, people who would found a city and move on before its histories could record them, people who never really stopped moving all their days.  So I hope you can hear them in the lines below, and I encourage you to read aloud and let Benet’s voice speak a little of their strength into your Friday.  This is the invocation for Western Star, by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Not for the great, not for the marvelous,
Not for the barren husbands of the gold;
Not for the arrowmakers of the soul,
Wasted with truth, the star-regarding wise;
Not even for the few
Who would not be the hunter nor the prey,
Who stood between the eater and the meat,
The wilderness saints, the guiltless, the absolved,
Born out of Time, the seekers of the balm
Where the green grass grows from the broken heart;
But for all these, the nameless, numberless
Seed of the field, the mortal wood and earth
Hewn for the clearing, trampled for the floor,
Uprooted and cast out upon the stone
From Jamestown to Benicia.
This is their song, this is their testament,
Carved to their likeness, speaking in their tongue
And branded with the iron of their star.
I say you shall remember them. I say
When the night has fallen on your loneliness
And the deep wood beyond the ruined wall
Seems to step forward swiftly with the dusk,
You shall remember them. You shall not see
Water or wheat or axe-mark on the tree
And not remember them.
You shall not win without remembering them,
For they won every shadow of the moon,
All the vast shadows, and you shall not lose
Without a dark remembrance of their loss
For they lost all and none remembered them.

Hear the wind
Blow through the buffalo-grass
Blow over wild-grape and brier.
This was frontier, and this,
And this, your house, was frontier.
There were footprints upon the hill
And men lie buried under,
Tamers of earth and rivers.
They died at the end of labor,
Forgotten is the name.

Now, in full summer, by the Eastern shore,
Between the seamark and the roads going West,
I call two oceans to remember them.
I fill the hollow darkness with their names.

There’s a real loveliness to Benet’s writing about America because you can tell he loves the people, like Steinbeck’s treatment of the principal characters in The Grapes of Wrath, I think.  And this, his poem about the forging of the American identity, opens with his clarification that this isn’t an epic about the heroic figures normally  featured in this kind of work.  He sets aside the possibility that this could be a story of the “marvelous”, of the “wilderness saints”.  Instead, he turns his attention to the vast numbers of people who went through their lives unremarked, and he analogizes them to the land and the things growing in it—like seeds that grow and are cut down, like the forests that were laid low to clear the fields.  I like the way Benet’s love for the land and his admiration for the people who inhabited it fuse them together in this extended metaphor, and I find the lines themselves really peaceful.

I also like the confidence in his lines, the way he repeats that we “shall remember them”, that somehow his poem has already won us over, that we cannot look at our world in the same way again.  And Benet has a reason to be confident, because his phrasing is so smooth and so vivid throughout, whether he’s dropping alliteration sweetly into a line like “the balm / where the green grass grows from the broken heart”, or he’s just using words to paint pictures like something out of a 19th Century master’s gallery, such as the scene where “the night has fallen on your loneliness / and the deep wood beyond the ruined wall / seems to step forward swiftly from the dusk”.  And then the rhythms start to feel like singing, especially “this was frontier, and this, / and this, your house was frontier” which sounds so much like Shakespeare, like “put out the light and then put out the light” or “fair is foul and foul is fair”, where the words play with each other and with us as they circle around.

And then come two couplets I just can’t do without.  First, “They died at the end of labor. /  Forgotten is the name.”  All the hope and toil of centuries wrapped up in that pair of simple phrases—the agony of dying before the dream is realized, the tragedy of being lost to even memory.  Sure, the taming of the rivers and blazing of the trails are American narratives, but these are too.

And then, I know it’s an exaggeration, but can there really be a better couplet in 20th Century verse than “I call two oceans to remember them. / I fill the hollow darkness with their names.”  There’s something bordering on reverence, on holiness, in Benet’s dedication, and the image soars.  He’s pulling together allusions to as many great texts as he can—evoking Revelation with the idea of the sea “giving up its dead” back into the light, drawing on Melville too, I think, and the idea of memory and the sea in Moby Dick, and then the hollow darkness fills like the opening of Genesis with the names of those he refuses to leave aside forgotten.

Benet is not, as I said, a flashy poet.  No one is going to recite Benet as the climactic scene in a movie; no one is going to print lines from his work and post them on their dorm room wall; nothing in his work is eligible for a cross-stitch sampler.  He’s direct and even prosaic, but never simple enough to really condense him into a pair of lines (as much as I’ve just tried to do that).  But he reminds me of what I love about America, and maybe especially the West (a frontier I grew up in without realizing how much of a frontier it was until I left it), and he makes me think.  I hope he does the same for some of you.

Poetry Friday: Our Favorite Poems

This post is likely to get me in trouble.  But what’s the point in blogging about poetry if you’re not going to speak your mind?  I’ll try to keep it civil, at least.

So, I started thinking about today’s topic earlier this week, when Paul H. (faithful reader, frequent commenter, English teacher extraordinaire, and all-around nice guy) posted something on Facebook about poetry.  I’m going to ruthlessly condense and paraphrase—essentially, Paul was ruminating on the fact that, every year, his high school has an anti-drunk-driving presentation that’s really powerful, and every year they read aloud the same poem during the most moving portion of the presentation.  Afterwards plenty of his kids comment on how much they loved that poem, and how they wonder if they can memorize it for credit or discuss it in class, etc.  And Paul is simultaneously glad that the message of the presentation got through to them and horrified at their love of what is pretty obviously an awful poem.  He asked us, his friends, a demographic that leans heavily into the poetry reading, English teaching, bookish end of things, to offer our thoughts on why it is that teenagers love bad poems more than good ones, and whether it was a good or a bad thing, and what if anything he should say about the poem if a student tries to discuss it with him.  I won’t be using that poem today, or the exact pieces of that discussion (my contributions or anyone else’s) but I did find the larger topic of what most Americans like in their poetry interesting and thought it would be worth reflecting on here.

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

I’m sorry, Papa Walt, but I really do think that a majority of Americans would guess that the person who sounds his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” was either Robin Williams or Homer Simpson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is a “good poem”, anyway?  An alien trying to sort this out would think, from the available evidence, that America likes a good challenging poem.  If you look around for it, you’ll find something like this best poem contest hosted by the Oxford Book of American Poetry, which concluded that America’s favorite poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, which narrowly beat out Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  This is, to be blunt, a fairly clumsy lie.  Oh, sure, the type of people who will cast ballots at Oxford University Press’s site are probably being at least mostly honest—though even I, a fan of both poems, think they’re pretty dense going to rate as “America’s favorite” (neither would be my pick, anyway).  But I’d be shocked if even 10% of Americans could identify the most famous lines in either poem, or tell you without consulting a reference source even a vague description of what either poem is about (though Whitman sort of gives that game away with his title).

What would a better representation of “America’s favorite poems” be?  There’s no one source, but I had a style in mind I’ve seen frequently, and I guessed I could find it pretty quickly.  I googled phrases like “best poem” or “favorite poem”, etc., and quickly found a website called “family friend poems”.  They assure the reader that “we only publish poems after we already know they are well liked by our audience.”  They also keep a list of the top rated poems, the best of which has been rated a few thousand times.  Is that any better sample than OUP had?  Probably not, but I think the style of this poem captures the style of poem that I honestly think a lot of folks like (or claim to), and it’s similar in many ways to the poem Paul originally called to my attention.  Here’s their poem, “Why I Love My Sister“, by Shiv Sharma:

“A sister is someone who loves you from the heart,
No matter how much you argue you cannot be drawn apart.
She is a joy that cannot be taken away,
Once she enters your life, she is there to stay.

A friend who helps you through difficult times,
Her comforting words are worth much more than dimes.
A partner who fills your life with laughs and smile,
These memories last for miles and miles.

When she is by your side, the world is filled with life,
When she is not around, your days are full of strife.
A sister is a blessing, who fills your heart with love,
She flies with you in life with the beauty of a dove.

A companion to whom you can express your feelings,
She doesn’t let you get bored at family dealings.
Whether you are having your ups or downs,
She always helps you with a smile and never frowns.

With a sister you cannot have a grudge,
She is as sweet as chocolate and as smooth as fudge.
Having a sister is not just a trend,
It is knowing you can always turn to her, your best friend.”

Now, I do want to make clear that my goal isn’t to attack anybody, including the author of this poem, Sharma, or the readers who voted for this poem and consider it among their favorites.  My interest is in trying to figure out A) why so many Americans do like poems like this, to the extent that they are all over my Facebook feed and all over blogs and tumblrs and quoted from frequently in online profiles, etc., and B) why I and most Americans who read a lot of poetry, including the poets who are widely accepted as being “the best” by the sort of experts who try to rate such things, find this kind of poem really unsuccessful, and lastly, C) what, if anything, this tells us about poetry and Americans and how they relate to each other.

I’m taking for granted a premise you may disagree with—that the above poem is a good representation of the sort of poem that most Americans, especially Americans who do not read a lot of poetry in their ordinary lives, find appealing.  My Google searching suggests I’m on pretty firm ground, but I’m not going to try and establish this with firm evidence.  Disputes of this claim should be taken up in the comments.

I don’t care for this poem.  At all.  But in some ways it’s not that far off of poems that I can see as successful.  Another widely loved poem is Mary Elizabeth Frye’s “Do not stand at my grave and weep“, and as you can see if you follow that link to another PF post, I took that poem seriously and defended it against those who consider it merely cheap and trite (though I did accept that it has its trite moments).  Why do people love it?  Here are my guesses, which are sincere in intention but may be wide of the mark.  The poem directly addresses an emotion that is easy to relate to—our love of a relative.  Culturally we sometimes have a hard time expressing why we care about someone, and the advantage of a poem about that exact thing is that it can be used to both express those feelings and distance ourselves from the vulnerability of trying to figure out how to say it ourselves: this is what is often called “greeting card poetry”, and while that may be a mostly pejorative term, let’s at least acknowledge that it can serve a useful purpose for a lot of folks.  Unlike other poems, this one is direct, its phrases are generally clear and unambiguous, and the rhyme pattern is easy to identify and pleasing to the ear—or at least we can say that English speakers do really seem to love them some end-stopped rhyme (other languages, to my limited knowledge, seem less obsessive about it).  The poem is so general that anyone can feel it represents them, but the images are chosen in such a way that they can be interpreted personally in really specific ways, e.g., “yeah, remember that time when Linda saved me from a boring chat with Uncle Ted at Xmas? wow, she really does look out for me during ‘family dealings’.”  Did Sharma just toss this off?  I kind of doubt it.  I suspect this is the work of someone who’s both spent some time writing poems like this, and some time tinkering with this one, to get it to the point where it accomplishes all this.  There is craft here that has a specific audience and aim in mind, and clearly at this website, at least, it achieves it.

But back to me and my dislike for the poem.  I don’t want to just rip this apart—it’s the work of an amateur (in the true sense; it’s clearly a work of love), not a professional, so the blog’s mighty cannons will not be trained against it as they were at, say, The Able McLaughlins (which I’m thinking of referring to as The Novel Which Shall Not Be Named from now on).  But I do want to be clear about why this is really a poor example of what I think poetry can and should do, the kind of poem I would never otherwise even read, let alone post on this blog.  The things others might love about it are what I dislike.  Poetry has the capacity to be startling and complex—unlike prose, which is ordinarily so very communicative, poetry eludes us, offers us multiple paths to meaning, argues with us.  The directness of this poem is irritating to me: there’s no complexity here, nothing for me to discover later, or to mull over until I gain a sudden insight.  It feels as artistic to me as a list of ingredients on a package—I basically know what I’m in for the moment I start reading, and there isn’t much to hold my interest.  I’m a fan of poems that ditch rhythm and rhyme in order to be plain-spoken, and of poems that ditch plain-spokenness to play with sound and rhythm.  This falls in the deadly valley between the two—some of the rhymes are tragically unfortunate, as words chosen solely for their sound undercut an otherwise plain sentence and make the speaker sound insincere or almost mocking.  A sister whose words are worth more than ten cents and whose existence is more than a trend (unlike, say, jeggings) is someone on the receiving end of compliments so back-handed they could win Wimbledon.  And ultimately, the poem spends too much time saying too little for me.  Any relationship is more complicated than this—each line of this poem more or less reiterates the same thesis.  A haiku would be too long a poem for this theme, which I think boils down to “My sister is awesome and I love her” although I sort of suspect this is really “My hypothetical sister is awesome and I theoretically love her”.  And yes, that last one was more than seventeen syllables.  I think you get my point.

Again, my goal here isn’t to rag on people who like poems I don’t like.  I’d much rather that Americans like these poems than that they like no poems at all.  But I have to be honest in admitting that I would rather live in a country where we really did read and talk about Eliot and Whitman.  I think that kind of poetry forces us to think more deeply, examine ourselves more closely, and ultimately bring more of our experiences out into a mindspace where we can actually do something useful with them.  But all of this may just be snobbery, right?  It could be that I’m just another sour-faced lit-blogger who has snarky thoughts about the “hoi polloi” and their sub-standard popular art.  I’m not sure, though.  I feel like the types of movies and television that are popular with the vast majority of Americans are not usually what I consider to be “the best” but that they’re a lot closer to the best stuff than this popular poetry is to what I consider to be “the best poetry”.  That is, unlike my aloof demeanor about other kinds of art, which is probably fairly characterized as a little snobby (“Well, frankly, I think the best film this awards season is that dark Iranian piece about the collapse of middle-class families.”), in the case of poetry, I feel like this is just me assessing the artistic landscape fairly.  But maybe not?

I guess the questions I’m left with are the following, any of which I hope will be taken up in the comments.  Am I selling this kind of poetry short or otherwise missing out on what makes it popular?  Is it plausible that America’s taste in poetry could significantly move towards what I consider to be “good poetry” or is it unrealistic to think that less sentimental rhyme-y poetry can take hold with the masses?  Lastly, does anyone have experience with popular taste in poetry outside the U.S. sufficiently to be able to tell me if this impulse is human, or if there’s something uniquely American about this type of artistic taste?  There’s something important here that I wish I understood better.  It’s related to why I try every Friday (well, all the Fridays I can) to bring a good poem into the lives of other people and talk a little about why poetry is vital to me as a person, and I think should be vital to all of us as people.  So thanks in advance for letting me have my say, apologies again to folks who think I’m too hard on Sharma or Americans or rhyming couplets, and I look forward to any thoughts offered in the comments section below.

Poetry Friday: Black Friday Edition

I know that on a busy holiday weekend like this one, we all don’t have as much time for poetic pursuits as we might like, so I’ll keep this one brief and on topic.  In the recent poetry collection I co-wrote with Shane Guthrie, Ouroboros 2, one of the poems I wrote was, in fact, about “Black Friday” itself, the day after Thanksgiving.  I thought it was as apt a moment to share the poem as I am likely to have, and it’s provided for you in full below.  As is the case with all the poems in the Ouroboros (don’t know what an “Ouroboros” is? see this page for an explanation), it appeared without any title, and as is always the case when I share my own work for a Poetry Friday, I provide it without any further comment in the post itself.  If folks have reactions—good, bad, or indifferent—I hope you’ll share them in the comments, where I will happily interact and maybe even explain what I think I was going for.  To the extent that I know, myself.  Without further ado, my Black Friday poem from Ouroboros 2:

I pushed it open. Any way the crowds wanted to,
they surged,
shouting Black Friday instructions to their conscripts,
heaving like a tide into the electronics section
for this hollow holiday,
the day after gratitude when all we want is to carry over
that full feeling
into some other place inside us that remains empty.
And as much as I want to look down on you
as you pass like war-torn refugees
between the theft-prevention gates,
I am complicit in this profane event:
I am trading my time
for something of yours.
Not just money, but something larger than that:
the dignity of longing that is lost by possession;
the kindness we earn
by learning how to live without.

Poetry Friday: 1940

English: Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942)

Alice Duer Miller, who (it should be remembered as you read) was a descendant of a signer of the Constitution and a general in the Revolutionary War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the length of The Grapes of Wrath, I’m likely to have a few opportunities to read and reflect on the poetry of 1940, so for today I’m branching out a little farther into the forgotten poets of this era than I might otherwise do.  In 1940, an American suffragette named Alice Duer Miller, with a reasonably long career as a writer of novels and screenplays, published a novel in verse entitled The White Cliffs.  The book tells the story of an American woman who marries an Englishman, and is widowed by the First World War—she remains in England, and as the book ends she fears for her adopted country, and for her English son who wants to go, like his father, to war.  I can’t claim that I think most of The White Cliffs is particularly good poetry, although as pro-English propaganda, published during that portion of World War II where England stood largely alone against the Axis powers (and America sat idly by), the novel is alleged to have had a meaningful impact on the increasing willingness of the otherwise isolationist American middle class to contemplate going to war.  Anyway, there are moments where the verse works well enough for me to want to reflect on it, and here on this final weekend of the London Olympics, it seems fitting for me to think a little bit about England and Englishness, with Miller as a guide.  Here is a sonnet from The White Cliffs, section XXI of that novel:

“The English love their country with a love
Steady, and simple, wordless, dignified;
I think it sets their patriotism above
All others. We Americans have pride—
We glory in our country’s short romance.
We boast of it, and love it. Frenchmen, when
The ultimate menace comes, will die for France
Logically as they lived. But Englishmen
Will serve day after day, obey the law,
And do dull tasks that keep a nation strong.
Once I remember in London how I saw
Pale shabby people standing in a long
Line in the twilight and the misty rain
To pay their tax. I then saw England plain.”

I was especially drawn to this poem because it contemplates patriotism, something I’ve been wrestling with for a while in my musings about America and what our literature reveals about us.  The Olympics have been another opportunity for me to encounter patriotism—both American and English.  To name only two media accounts that caught my eye this last week, first off, I saw a clip from Fox News in which the hosts complained that people don’t shout “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as much as they used to at the Olympics, which to them seemed a troubling sign of America’s impending doom as a culture and nation (I paraphrase, of course…but I’ll admit to being at least a little surprised at how seriously they took an issue that feels more like an Onion article to me).  Then I read an article just today about the BBC, whose director instructed the team covering the Olympics to be sure not to fixate too much on the events where British athletes were likely to medal, but to cover important achievements in sport no matter what nations were involved.  These are extreme examples, of course—not every American pumps their fist about gold medals, and not every British citizen is self-effacing.  But I wonder if Miller was, in fact, on to something when she suggests a simple contrast between the countries.  The Americans have pride, she says, and the British have duty.

She makes no secret of her preference (or rather, her character’s preference) for the British approach, as she describes it.  As a self-confessed Anglophile (though hopefully not a pretentious one), I understand the tendency of a certain kind of American personality to praise something we feel was lost in our country’s separation from Britain—national humility, perhaps, or the ability to endure great trials with quiet resilience.  Despite the reality that I know is lost in this generalization, it’s hard not to think that there is something really right about it.  When Mo Farah crossed the line, and London’s Olympic stadium erupted with joy, I didn’t hear anyone shouting “U-K! U-K!” (or “G-B! G-B!” for that matter).  I know I have a few readers from the United Kingdom—would you agree with me that citizens of the U.K. would find that kind of thing pretty unthinkable?  It’s certainly hard for me to envision.  I was thinking about “U-S-A!” after seeing that piece on television, and I thought how odd it seemed.  If Michael Jordan hits a three-pointer, I’m thinking it would be an incredibly dickish move for him to shout “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” as he runs back down the court.  If the crowd shouts it, though, I think we’d cut them slack.  “U-S-A!” creates this weird problem, then—the people shouting it are shouting about the athletes and themselves.  (I should note that we are not the only nation on earth to do this—I’ve heard “Ca-na-daaaa” shouted at international curling championships, though it’s usually shouted as a cheer during the match to express support, and not as a chest-bumping display of dominance after the team wins.)

I’ve steered this reflection into the world of athletics, but of course we have to acknowledge that Miller is writing it in a time of war, as a woman who remembers another world war in her youth—the character voicing these thoughts is even more personally affected by both wars than Miller is herself.  This ode to duty, to obedience, to civic responsibility, takes place against the background of the London Blitz—if you’ve never read about the Blitz, you should.  The stories are very moving, whether you read non-fiction accounts of the city’s survival, or one of the many books that are set in that time and place: my personal favorite, of course, is Connie Willis’s two-part novel, Blackout / All Clear, her magnum opus (although maybe not quite her best novel).  In any case, Miller, through her character, is praising the qualities the British people discovered in themselves that—this cannot, I think, be overemphasized—saved Western civilization, saved the democratic experiment and the idea of freedom.  It may be that, similarly pinned in a corner, any nation would have been able to sum up that kind of stoic and obstinate unwillingness to quit the field.  All I can say is that I see and admire it in other nations, and I sincerely wonder if my country—a people sometimes seemingly united only in our hatred for each other—could do the same against such odds.  There were beautiful glimpses of it in the fall of 2001, inspired (of course) by tragedy.  Tragedy is not really the American experience, or maybe rather I should say that it is not our country’s narrative, not the story we tell ourselves as we drift to sleep each night.  Our narrative casts us as the up-and-comer, the beacon of liberty, the victor over the despots of the world, the bringer of peace.  There’s an important truth in each of those statements, but I hardly need tell you that this narrative is also seriously misleading about who we were and who we are.  Every nation’s story is more complicated than that.

I haven’t said much about the language in Miller’s poem—for good reason, I think, since I really don’t feel the sonnet is well crafted (compare it to Millay’s from two weeks ago: the two women are not playing in the same league).  But I do want to credit her for accomplishing, in a short space, some important rhetorical observations about national pride.  The comparisons of pride to duty, of romance to logic to obedience, are telling even if overly broad.  The closing image is an important one—in some ways I feel a lot of truth in what she says about that misty scene of the taxpayers’ line, although I wonder what that image obscures, what objects in the distance will grow fuzzy and indistinct if I focus in on that moment.  I wonder what image I would use to characterize America honestly and positively—this nation of my birth that, despite the faults that dismay and anger me, I love and would defend.  I only hope to avoid a boastful love.  For my part, I’d like what Miller praises: to love America “with a love steady”, simple and dignified (though not wordless….wordlessness is a power I do not have).  I’d welcome any thoughts you readers have, about America and about the United Kingdom, about patriotism and love of country (the same thing?).  And of course thoughts about Miller’s poem as a poem, if you have them, especially if you think I was too dismissive of it.  Certainly I’ll credit her with making me think.

Poetry Friday: 1938, part 2

It’s been too long since I was able to sit with one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, so I was glad when I stumbled into the stuff Langston Hughes was writing in 1938: I feel like digging into a great poem, but unfortunately the length’s a bit daunting (I try to cap the amount of poetry I ask anybody to take in from a blog post at about 20-25 lines).  So it seemed best to me to just sit with the first portion of this poem: you can read the whole thing here, if you like, but my comments are going to focus primarily on the excerpt I provide below.  This is the first few stanzas of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again”:

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”

I like the prophetic feel of the poem—the underlying sense that Langston is speaking something into being, that he has come out of the wilderness, his breath stinking of locusts and honey, ready to tell his nation some hard truths.  His doubled use of the word “America” is, of course, the key to the poem, and I think it works really nicely: the contrast of the world as it is with the world as it claims to be.  In this case, I am struck (despite the poem’s criticisms of America in 1938) by Hughes’s positive associations with the American ideals: this isn’t a jaded man too bitter to express hope.  He’s talking about the pioneer spirit and about the dream of freedom, using phrases like something out of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or the verses of “America the Beautiful” that we have trouble remembering.

Langston Hughes, 29 February 1936

Langston Hughes, who despite being one of the most influential figures in American letters in the 20th Century never won a Pulitzer or a Nobel for his writing.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But falling in the gap between the stanzas of hope and praise are the footsteps of the truth: that America has never been “America”, not to the black Langston Hughes, despite his fame as a writer.  He is so plain-spoken, so direct, which I think is the source of a lot of his strength as a poet—this is the same direct power I remember from the way he addresses his white teacher in the poem he writes for “English B”, and expressed in the closing lines of his more famous poem that begins “What happens to a dream deferred?”  The power of his statements actually arrests the poem’s forward momentum—the four-line stanzas halt suddenly, as the poem addresses his parenthetic comments, asking who it is that comes to bring this challenge to the idea of America?

And I am impressed by the scope of Hughes’s ideas, since it would be easy to focus on the numerous injustices being suffered by his community.  But instead he opens with poor white laborers—they stand next to him in the shadows, beside the outcast Native American and the suffering immigrant.  All of them look to America in disappointment: they were promised the Land of Opportunity, and they got this.  In a world where the winds were beginning to blow again—where German racism and Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism were joining forces to imperil the survival of ideas like equality and liberty—Hughes wants not so much to damn America as to wake it up.  He is smart enough to know that America may, in 1938, prove to be the last best hope for freedom: he also knows that too many Americans take for granted that the battle for freedom has long ago been won.

This is a message Americans have a hard time hearing.  Even now, we still live in a country where it is considered disloyal for a politician to suggest that there may be some things that America needs to live up to.  We still live in a country where many of us think being proud of our great ideals is so precious a possession that we are unwilling to risk losing it, even if it means blinding ourselves to the truth.  Just the other day, at the school where I used to teach, a parent requested a meeting with teachers and administrators in order to complain that American history classes were teaching about injustices in America’s past—the rationale for the objection?  Essentially that, if they are taught the truth, students might stop loving America.

It makes me wonder.  Much as I am proud of many of the stories in my country’s past, I wonder if it would be so bad a thing to lose my love of it—if I would be a better man, a better citizen, if I loved less and challenged more.  Langston’s poem still lies ready to challenge us, to ask us to live up to the dream that had not been realized in 160 years when he wrote the poem, and which has lain unrealized another 75 years since he did.  He believes that the country we believe in can still rise up—that, as he says later in the poem, “out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, / The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,” we can redeem our lost opportunities and the waste we have made of our promise.  In fact, he more than believed in this idea: towards the end of the poem, he swears an oath to make that future real.  It is, I think, more than a shame that a man who had every reason to be angry at his country could be so lonely in that oath; that, while he was swearing a commitment to the country that had failed him, the powerful people who preached the American ideal largely did not bother themselves enough to make it happen.

So this is a poem that reminds me to be more aware of my surroundings—to spend less time counting my blessings as an American, and more time asking myself if the American dream has really been extended to all the people who have been promised it.  We pat ourselves on the back more than any nation I know of.  Perhaps we should spend a little less time blowing our own horn, and a little more time living out the dream.  If we manage to realize the truly inspiring ideals that we have long taken as our creed, somehow I think there will be no shortage of other people to speak up on behalf of America, land of the free.

Poetry Friday: 1934

Based on the feedback from last week’s poll, we forge ahead with American poetry.  Today’s work is, in part, a “found poem”—a poem written on the basis of (and borrowing many details and phrases from) an actual letter published in a magazine.  The letter was written by a worker in the garment industry in San Antonio in 1934, a worker named Felipe Ibarro.  The poem was then composed by a young woman named Tillie Lerner (who was later better known under her married name, Tillie Olsen).  I’m only sharing a portion of the poem here—if it grabs you, you can set about hunting it down.  Here’s the opening passages of “I Want You Women Up North to Know”:

I want you women up north to know
how those dainty children’s dresses you buy
at macy’s, wannamakers, gimbels, marshall fields,
are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,
down in San Antonio, “where sunshine spends the winter.”

I want you women up north to see
the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill
“exquisite work, madam, exquisite pleats”
vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,
gouging the wages down,
dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,
stitching these dresses from dawn to night,
In blood, in wasting flesh.

Catalina Rodriguez, 24,
body shriveled to a child’s at twelve,
catalina rodriguez, last stages of consumption,
works for three dollars a week from dawn to midnight.
A fog of pain thickens over her skull, the parching heat
breaks over her body,
and the bright red blood embroiders the floor of her room.
White rain stitching the night, the bourgeois poet would say.
white gulls of hands, darting, veering,
white lightning, threading the clouds,
this is the exquisite dance of her hands over the cloth,
and her cough, gay, quick, staccato,
like skeleton’s bones clattering
is appropriate accompaniment for the esthetic dance
of her fingers,
and the tremolo, tremolo when the hands tremble with pain.
Three dollars a week…

There’s a lot more—more about Catalina and Maria and Ambrosa, and the rest.  I find this work amazingly powerful: powerful enough to want to sit with just these opening lines and ponder them.  The anger and the dignity in the opening address—you northern women, you shoppers, you ladies who lunch, hear the voice of the people on whose backs you are borne—is immense.  The sharpness of that catalog of department stores, the cut in the little quotation about San Antonio…these little touches are very skillfully done.  It’s amazing to me to see how openly our culture could have confronted all of this as far back as 1934.  My grandmother was in high school, and sweatshop laborers were toiling at the clothes she may have worn.  I like the way the images of the salesladies bleed into the images of the foreman and the workers themselves, all of them caught in this chain of blood, no matter how much the retail end of it may have felt insulated from the brutality of manufacture.

And the way the poem works with even such simple things as capital letters gives me pause—are maria, ambrosa, and catalina lowercase because they are objectified, reduced to less than human?  Or is it more that Tillie is rejecting the conventionality associated with proper nouns, and essentially presenting us with a poetic voice that is intentionally raw and less than perfect?

Catalina is heart-breaking, the shriveled little girl’s body at work in a factory that will kill her.  Even in the image of her slowly bleeding to death, her blood continues to “embroider” in a double metaphor that was beautiful and terrible, for me.  Everything takes on that horrific sheen—the “music” of the sewing machine and the rhythms of her hands become a dance, but not just any dance.  It is the skeleton’s dance—the Danse Macabre—for which she will get, if she is lucky, three dollars a week.  The poem is almost too much to read in one sitting, even though it is only two or three pages long.  Just that paragraph about Catalina is enough to push me over the edge.

This makes it, for me, all the more remarkable to consider the author.  Tillie Lerner Olsen wasn’t a poet by trade, as you may have caught in that aside aimed at “the bourgeois poet”.  She was a radical, a member of the American Communist Party.  She fought for workers all over the nation throughout her long life (90+ years).  She was arrested on Bloody Thursday, in the San Francisco General Strike.  She was jailed for helping packinghouse workers organize their own unions.  Armed with only an 11th grade education and the books at her public library, she became an intellectual and a writer of high acclaim, winning awards from foundations and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, teaching at Stanford and MIT, and ultimately receiving a special award from the Institute of American Arts and Letters for having essentially developed “a new form of fiction” in the writings she composed out of the realities facing the working class.  Regardless of your specific feelings about the benefits of unionization (or the concerns you may have about someone’s willingness to commit to Communism as an ideology in the 1930s), I think Tillie’s clearly a remarkable woman, and deserving of admiration in many respects.

By the time Tillie writes this, she has already fallen seriously ill with pleurisy and with tuberculosis.  Whether caught in the factories she had worked, or in the jails she had been confined to, these were the consequences of trying to live as she did.  I love that Tillie’s first published poem—this piece—is not about herself.  She had lived a remarkable life already, and would go on to do much more.  But in this piece she backs away to give someone else the center stage: she uses many of their own words, and is loyal to telling their story.

These people were real.  Frail Catalina, age 24, was a real woman.  She made clothes that our grandmothers wore—perhaps some of us, in a closet somewhere, still hang on to that handiwork as nostalgia.  To us, they may have symbolized a simple time: an era of sweetness and happiness.  I think we need to see them again, not to become paralyzed by guilt or anger, but to acknowledge that history is complicated.  To acknowledge that injustice has been done, and that our willingness to remain blind to it makes us complicit in that injustice in a real way, however small.  I don’t know what we can do for today’s Catalinas, for the workers of the world whose lives are brutal and painful in part because we like buying cheap clothing.  It’s more complicated than any one sentence bromide I can offer.  I think we owe it to Catalina, and Maria, and Ambrosa, to hear their voices, at least, and to invite them to speak more clearly to us.  We will be afraid of what they have to say, but we cannot keep hiding from it.  We should not, at least, and I hope that we won’t.

Martin Luther King and the Nobel Peace Prize

Here, on this blog that wrestles with and searches for America, I can hardly let the holiday honoring one of our greatest citizens pass without note.  Dr. King did more than maybe any other American (with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln) to publicly call this country to a true vision of itself.  He saw what we were, what we could be, and most strange of all, he believed that there was a simple (though arduous) path to be walked between the two points.  If they could see past his race, I believe the nation’s founders, brought back to life today, would acknowledge that his vision of the country was the fullest realization of their patriot dreams, and that in a very real sense some of the final battles of the American Revolution were fought on the road from Selma, and on the bus to Montgomery, and in the Birmingham jail.

Happily for my purposes, King doesn’t just connect with the “American” interest for this blog—his use of language is poetic and powerful and of real interest to anyone who wants to be serious about American writers.  Most of us know his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, and some of us probably know passages of his final speech or his letter from jail.  I thought today I’d share an excerpt of something you may never have encountered—a portion of his acceptance speech upon having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.  I’ll make a few comments afterwards, but mostly I just hope you read this, and remember Dr. King today.  He believed in all of us more than we have ever given reason to deserve.  He had more faith in our ability to hear the better angels of our nature than any of our leaders, before or since.  May we make him glad of that faith.

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome.

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

It’s a powerful speech: you can read the rest of it here, if you like.  What touches me most deeply is how profoundly American it is—for all that my country has to be ashamed of in the racism that Dr. King and the civil rights movement confronted, we can also be proud that we are a country that had raised up the banners King looked to as ideals.  When he says (in his more famous speech) that his dream is “deeply rooted in the American dream”, he’s being fully honest.  He was a man who believed in the freedoms this country guarantees to its citizens (however much we break that promise).  He was a man who was convinced in part by our nation’s history that a group of people dedicated to the right cause could never be defeated, not for good.  When America’s founding documents promised him the equality, opportunity, and liberty he had been denied, he didn’t see it as a cruel joke, but rather as an inherent element at the core of the American identity, which would one day have to win out over ignorance and cruelty and injustice.  His America could no more prevent the new birth of freedom than a child can stop itself from growing into an adult—it is carved into our destiny as a people.

I’m disappointed at the places where progress remains slow, and angry that justice still lies wounded in the streets for too many people.  But the message of this day is that Dr. King was right about us.  We have come farther today than we had in 1964.  We had come farther by then than we had by 1861.  This wasn’t inevitable—it took people to work and act and risk and sometimes give up their lives.  All of them committed themselves knowing that the final victory was far off.  So it is for us.  May we work and act and risk—yes, perhaps even our safety, our very lives, when necessary—for justice.  That city of freedom may still be a ways off, but I feel like we’re getting close enough to hear them singing, and it makes me want to run these last few miles.