What's American About American Poetry?
by Billy Collins
I was especially surprised to discover how steeped many of my poems were in the American idiom, because for years I had consciously avoided using fad dialects or making references to contemporary culture. I knew that a phrase such as "frequent flyer," "hatch-back," or "Jello shot" would in time make a poem sound dated and thus could drastically shorten its shelf life. "Shelf life" is probably another example. I had tried to favor a more universal vocabulary, not a purely elemental diction of "rock," "cloud," "sky," and "tree," but a diction that leaned in that direction and was reluctant to allow in the linguistic news of the day. Ezra Pound put it most succinctly when he defined poetry as "the news that stays new." And I admired Mary Oliver's advice regarding a poet's notion of an audience: "...write for a stranger born in a distant country hundreds of years from now." I wanted to include that stranger of the future in my audience, and I did not want him to have to consult a footnote for "Wonder Bread" or "Big Mac."
America, of course, is greater than the sum of its idioms, but if you selected a few poets from an international pool and asked them about the relationship of their poetry to their nationality, most would place their mother tongue at the center of their responses. Czeslaw Milosz might cite the expressive possibilities of Polish; Yannis Ritsos might discuss the feel of writing in demotic Greek. But American poets can claim no exclusive, nationalistic rights to a mother tongue, for the language they write in is shared by the rest of the English-speaking world, which at this time is the most rapidly expanding language community in the world.
So where does American-ness lie for a writer if not in his native tongue? D.H. Lawrence opens his seminal Studies in Classic American Literature by putting that question in the form of a challenge: "Where is this new bird called the true American? Show us the homunculus of the new era. Go on, show us him. Because all that is visible to the naked European eye, in America, is a sort of miscreant European." I find it odd that Lawrence calls the European eye "naked," for, if anything, compared to the bookish lenses covering the European eye, the American eye was the naked one; and the first poet to look at America with that naked eye -- and, indeed, to appear naked before us -- was Walt Whitman.
Lawrence recognized Whitman as the pioneer of a new American literature. He called him "the greatest and the first and the only American teacher ... the first white aboriginal" though in the same breath he mocks Whitman's universal gesturing and accuses him of bogus sympathy. Surely, Whitman was the first poet to try to get his arms around the continent so as to hold the lumberjack and the secretary and the Eskimo in one loving cosmic embrace. A Long Islander and a New Yorker, he refused to define himself as regional the way some American poets and ever more American novelists have done ever since. But the true aboriginal stroke was Whitman's breaking loose from the iambic collar of traditional English poetry. Leaves of Grass moves to the cadence of the Bible, not the British iambic two-step. The long poem was such a radical departure from customary meter and form that it triggered a critical debate as to whether it was really poetry, a debate which should have ended when one professor observed, "If this is not poetry, it is something greater than poetry."
Strangely, it took a long time for anyone to follow Whitman's liberating lead. As Lawrence put it, "Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman." Eventually, American poetry caught up with Whitman but not until his century had run out. By the early 1920s when Lawrence was making his assessments, many of the now canonical modernist poems were appearing, and whatever else defined their veerings away from convention, their freedom from the box of the stanza and the harness of the iambic was the most common evidence of their experimentations.
These days, of course, "free verse" is not the exciting license it once was; more often than not, it is simply an excuse to produce untidy, flat-footed poems, an excuse in no way limited to poets in America. The more powerful, more difficult, yet abiding lesson of Whitman lies in his outrageousness. The audacity of lines like "It is time to explain myself -- let us stand" and "I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world" make possible Ginsberg's "American, I am putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" and with some added coyness, Frank O'Hara's "ah lunch! I think I am going crazy." Whitman's fearless, unheard-of voice shattered the glass of European gentility and eventually emboldened later generations of American poets to speak out in wilder tones.
If a writer is the sum of his or her influences, then my own poems are unavoidably the result of my exposure to the sounds and styles of both British and American poetry. I even find myself playing one diction off against another, usually for ironic effect. But more specifically, in thinking about myself as an "American poet," and thus committing the dangerous act of auto-literary criticism, I find that a number of my poems seem determined to establish an American rootedness distinct from European influence. "American Sonnet," for example, is a rejection of the Italian and English sonnet models in favor of the American postcard which, like the sonnet, limits expression to a confined space and, in addition, combines the verbal on one side with the pictorial on the other. Like the traditional love sonnet, the traveler's postcard has acquired its own ritualized conventions. The poem opens with an uncharacteristic "we," as if I were speaking for all American poets.
We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
We write on the back of a waterfall or lake,
We locate an adjective for weather.
and hide the wish that we were where you are,
A slice of this faraway place, a width of white beach,
and you will toss on the table this reversible display;
The ironic literary play of the first part of the poem gives way to a small drama of separation, distance, and longing. The poem tries, but of course fails, to mix irony and emotion with such equality as to achieve a perfectly ambiguous tone.
Another poem titled "Consolation" pretends to celebrate the pleasures of spending the summer at home in the States rather than embarking on the traditional European holiday. "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy," the poem opens; then goes on to express the ease of staying put on native soil, cruising "these local, familiar streets,/ fully grasping the meaning of every road sign and billboard/and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots." "Instead of slouching in a cafe ignorant of the word for ice," the speaker prefers "the coffee shop and the waitress known as Dot" where he will not have to have his photograph taken with the owner or figure out the exchange rate when the bill arrives. For him, "It is enough to climb back into the car/as if it were the great car of English itself/and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off/ down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna." The poem is a mock-rejection of literary Euro-centricism delivered by a speaker whose modest tastes echo the sweet provincialism of the Wallace Shawn character in the film My Dinner with Andre.
"Lines Written Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey," as the title implies, provides another example of this process of "Americanization," as Wordworth's famous autobiographical lyric is imported into the speaker's American, and again, domestic, life.
I was here before, a long time ago,
The fellow may be gazing
or he could be moping through the shadows
But the feeling is always the same:
Something is always missing --
The sky was a deeper, more dimensional blue,
From our chairs we have watched
We have heard the poets long dead
We have listened to their dismay,
And when we put down the book at last,
we will be schooled enough to know
Something will be missing
the glossy gardenia drooping
Nothing will be as it was
The revisionist speaker's disenchantment with the Romantic theme of loss is evident in his lumping together all the complaining poets of the 19th century, both English and German. The domestication of this pattern of loss begins with the homely images of the garden hose and the match. Time is compressed from an autobiographical span to a few hours between lunch and dinner, and the dated landscape of "promontory," "haycock," and "copse" is compressed into an ordinary room-scape with its drooping flower and strewing of shoes and socks. Romantic agony is reduced to reader fatigue. The Golden Age lies irretrievably behind us in an earlier part of the afternoon.
What makes poetry American can be measured in the kind of steps it makes away from the poetry of the "Old World" as the schoolbooks used to say. Poetry can also be American because of its idioms, its landscape, its irreverence toward the European past, its audacious egotism, its ironic stances, its freedom of fixed cadences, but most of all because of its immense variety. This last quality -- its democratic expansiveness and inclusiveness -- was best expressed in a short poem by Louis Simpson, who, for the moment, deserves to have the last word on the subject.
Whatever it is, it must have
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
Note: "American Sonnet" and "Consolation" appear in Billy Collins's Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House, 2001). "American Poetry" is from At the End of the Open Road. Copyright © 1963.
Reprinted by permission of Louis Simpson.