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The Americanness of American Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 1989

England, as all the world knows, has poets. America has American poets.

Why is this? I pose the question shyly, hesitantly, and out of nothing more than an amiable curiosity—certainly not in any aggressive spirit, being cheerfully at home in both countries and a native of neither. Why did American poets, till recently, think it mattered so enormously where they were born or raised: in a word, that they were American? Ezra Pound’s remark in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1921) about having been “born in a half-savage country, out of date” is so famous it takes an effort of mind to recall that (strictly speaking) no one even notices where he was born. Why should he care, then—or expect others to care? Pound was raised in Philadelphia, as it happens, which to my casual eye is not even halfway savage; and he refrains from mentioning that, perhaps in the desperate hope we may remember he was born in faraway Idaho. Gertrude Stein, a resident of Paris, thumped the same old national drum, but this time the patriotic end of it: “It has always seemed to me a rare privilege,” she once remarked,

that of being an American—a real American, and yet whose tradition it has scarcely taken sixty years to create.

It may indeed be a privilege to be an American, in this century. But rare? And in the introduction to his anthology American Poetry (1969), Donald Hall, an American who knows Europe well, insists in equally implausible vein that being an American poet is quite unlike being a poet anywhere else—and here one can be sure that the implied contrast is European. There is always something “strange,” he argues, about American poets: their relation to their native land, or lack of it, is somehow singular—instancing “Emily Dickinson in her solitary room” (how about Emily Brontë in hers?), Walt Whitman as a bearded nurse in the American Civil War (easily more humdrum, surely, than the private life of Algernon Charles Swinburne), and Wallace Stevens in his insurance office. And what, one asks incredulously, is so strange about working in an insurance office? Poetry, Hall darkly concludes, is an un-American activity. And the myth runs wider. William Carlos Williams died in 1963 believing he had devised a distinctively American meter, and to the end of his life seems to have thought of nationality as the natural place to start any literary argument. He always excluded English writers “automatically” from his early poetic influences, he once wrote—as if it matters more that they were English than that they were writers; and when T.S. Eliot told about his own early life at Harvard in Poetry Chicago (September 1946), the same national emphasis is there: the literary scene in America, so he says, was “a total blank,” Harvard men in those pre-1914 days reading only “English poets of the 90s.” There is an obstinate consistency about all this. In the century or so between the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855 and the death of Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Theodore Roethke in 1963—the classic century, we may say, of American poetry—that poetry was nation-obsessed even when it was not openly nationalistic. By now everything looks different, to be sure, the 1960’s having efficiently internationalized the culture of the Western world. But in earlier generations you could not just be a poet in America. You had to be an American poet.

Why? To minds congregated on the Eastern seaboard of the Atlantic Ocean, that national obsession looks like the ecstasy of a collective hysteria. Any European reading Donald Hall’s roll call of American oddbirds is bound to hear it with a sense of mounting incredulity. What in the world is so strange about it all? Shelley was easily more gentlemanly, easily more eccentric, than Edgar Allan Poe, whom Hall calls a Southern gentleman; the Bronte sisters lived in a confined domestic circle much like Emily Dickinson’s; and if there are no bearded nurses in the British poetic tradition, there is Alexander Pope, a dwarf with a bent spine far more grotesque than Whitman. (Why, in any case, should a nurse not wear a beard, if male?) And as for office workers like Wallace Stevens, there has long been a sprinkling of desk-slaves in the British tradition: Peter Porter, for example, started his working life in London as one, writing poems in his spare time. At a guess, Donald Hall is the least paranoid of men. But there is something predictably paranoid about calling poetry an un-American activity, as if fearful of some native hostility not plainly there. As seen from Europe, which perhaps has more exacting standards in eccentricity, American poets look so far from strange as to seem in their private lives a trifle ordinary. Carlos Williams was a hardworking local doctor in New Jersey who lived a lifetime in the same provincial place, delivering as many babies (as he used to say) as poems; Wallace Stevens is only odd in the imagination of those who are determined to see him so, walking to work in Hartford, Connecticut, devising poems as he went, and dictating them to an office secretary when he got there. In a late letter (July 17, 1947), he remarks he has only just noticed people might think there was anything remotely queer about “writing poetry and being in business at the same time”— complaining, justly enough, that the critic often “types the business man.” And he is right. Surely there is nothing very queer, in fact, about writing a poem in an office. Many a European poet, what is more, would envy Americans their easy, well-paid posts as writers on campus or in the Library of Congress: the British laureate, after all—and there is only one of them at a time—is paid an annual pittance of just over a hundred dollars that barely keeps him in milk. The successful American poet, moreover, like Robert Frost, can face adoring crowds of worshipers, mainly youthful—an experience British poets are so little exposed to that they sometimes emigrate to North America in order to savor it. Frost spoke at President Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, an honored guest: British poets, by contrast, have no noticeable place in coronations. And so on. . . . What is all this about America not appreciating poets? What civilization in all history, one might challengingly ask, has ever rewarded them better?


To such questions, which are not rhetorical, the best answers may not come from an outsider. The arts, along with sport, are arguably the last bastion of fervid nationalism in the United States—at least until quite recent years. A foreigner may criticize almost anything more easily than literature. You do not have to be an American to revile the foreign or domestic policies of the United States, at least in the right company; and one can lecture across the land in a European accent on most topics of national or international concern to sympathetic, even enthusiastic audiences. But not, in a foreign accent, on American literature. Condemn the U.S. deficit, by all means, the way Americans eat or dress, or their behavior in the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf. They will love it. But no European had better try lecturing on Faulkner, Frost, or Hemingway in the United States. I have seen American audiences turn pale with fury when a European offers even the most favorable account of the imposing American literary achievement since Leaves of Grass. An Italian professor of American literature once told me in near-faultless English and with tears in her eyes that though she could teach such things in an Italian university, and did, no learned conference in the United States would take her views about Hawthorne or Melville seriously, simply because she was not an American. And when Geoffrey Moore, British editor of the Penguin Book of Modern American Verse (1954), addressed an international audience on certain qualitative differences between the British and American poetic traditions, the indignation of learned Americans in his audience was boundless—for all that his first academic appointment had been in the United States and his account in no way disparaging of the American achievement. In a word, there is a national problem about American poetry, albeit a diminishing problem: less acute than a century ago, it is true, even half a century ago. But still there.

Paranoia classicly secretes a sense of inferiority, and many an American poet has spoken of his awed anxiety-of-influence before the tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats. Wallace Stevens never set foot in Europe, and once justified his aversion as a fear of being “ossified by the stare of an Englishman” (Aug. 25, 1950)—even if, as he put it in another letter, America left one eternally hungry for the sight of European treasures, being itself no more than “a hamlet among elm trees and farms” on a vast scale, full of the sort of people who are content with emptiness (June 25, 1945). Pound and Eliot, when they emigrated, gave no comfort to those who chose to stay at home. William Carlos Williams in his Autobiography (1951) tells how, when he first read The Waste Land in Criterion in 1922, he decided as a young man that Eliot’s poem gave him no place to stand and left no room for “anything I stood for”; and the admission is at once defiant and disarming. “We were so weakly based,” he wrote to Robert Lowell (March 11, 1952), “so uncertain of everything”; and the search for a place to stand and a national certainty was his appointed poetic task for 40 years. “One has to bow down finally,” he remarked in a last interview, published in the Paris Review in 1964, a year after his death; and what one bows down to, as a poet, is either “the English” or “the American.” In a word, he believed to his dying day that the poet’s choice in style and meter was above all else a choice of nationhood.

The choice had its paradoxes. To choose the poverty of Europe, like Pound and Eliot, was to sell out: to stay at home in the material prosperity of America, like Williams and Stevens, was to feel dedicated, even faintly martyred. When Carlos Williams died in 1963, a few months before President Kennedy, he died in the illusion that he had invented a strictly American meter: “the variable foot—the division of a line according to a new method that would be satisfactory to an American.” That remark now has a strong period flavor. I do not suppose any poet working in America today sees himself as nationally committed to one sort of line-scansion rather than another. In the age of intercontinental jets and instant media-messages bounced off satellites, the claim looks fantastic even as a proposal, let alone as a boast. How could there now be a British meter—or an American? It would be imitated, if even halfway promising, from the moment it was announced. But the Williams view is much like the Whitman view, after all. Whitman saw himself as throwing off the shackles of European meter when he sang Democracy in free verse—even if much of Leaves of Grass reminds one now, metrically speaking, of that very British book, the King James version of the Bible.


The claim to poetic Americanness involved, more profoundly, a claim to a separate linguistic tradition.

That claim has a long history. In 1789 Noah Webster, in his Dissertations on the English Language, thought the separation of the American language from the English “necessary and unavoidable.” Twenty years later and more, in a famous letter of August 1813, Thomas Jefferson demanded “new words, new phrases,” as well as “the transfer of old words to new objects”—Jefferson evidently understood the Arbitrariness of the Sign—as something plainly required by “the new circumstances under which we are placed,” meaning nationhood. But Webster and Jefferson, it is now clear, were mistaken prophets. So was H.L. Mencken, who in the preface to The American Language (1919) assumed there were already two great and diverging dialects of English, and that “one dialect, in the long run, will defeat and absorb the other.” He was wrong on both counts. The speech of the two nations did not diverge, as he imagined. They have converged. And they have converged not by domination, as he predicted, but by the gentle osmosis of a longstanding amity. Ordinary experience teaches that the elderly on either side of the Atlantic preserve usages more nationally distinct than the young.

The Atlantic does not, in any thoroughgoing sense, divide two languages, though it is often difficult—even impossible— to persuade continental Europeans that it is so. Modest differences of spelling apart, and a small (and diminishing) range of verbal and syntactical usages, Britons and Americans do not nowadays write distinct languages, whether in poetry or elsewhere, and the Atlantic Ocean is a relatively minor linguistic divider. “Perhaps I am unconsciously bilingual,” T.S. Eliot once remarked dryly on receiving a dictionary of the American language. He was right to be derisive. In matters of pronunciation, the dialects of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Glasgow are easily more remote from Standard British than is Standard American. That truth needs to be more widely understood. I am often told by Continentals that they would prefer to study at a British rather than at an American university, in order to immerse themselves in one kind of English rather than another, and usually to fail to convince them that those differences are simply too minor to count: too minor, certainly, to turn down the golden chance of a visit to the United States. English is English: compared with German, Spanish, Italian, and even French, it is remarkably homogeneous the world over—so homogeneous that it is doubtful if any two dialects of English are mutually unintelligible in any radical sense. A foreigner’s grasp of the language would have to be very advanced before any local or national differences began to matter. A British academic, to his amusement, was once asked at an international summer-school to translate a page of Henry James into British, and after a few minutes’ reading had the good luck to hit on the word “rowboat,” which he obligingly anglicized for his continental audience into “rowing-boat.”

Let us hope they were impressed. But the triviality of the case is after all representative. Native readers of English seldom have linguistic difficulties with poems from the other side of the ocean, or novels either—merely a delighted sense of an occasional difference. When I first read Raymond Chandler’s novels, which was before I ever visited the United States, I had no difficulty in guessing that a davenport is something like a settee in North America—and not, as in England, an antique writing-desk—if only because Chandler’s characters kept sitting on them. It would be an unusual poem by Robert Frost—though a far-from-unusual poem by Robert Burns—that presented linguistic difficulties to an English reader that were nationally based; and when I first read Leaves of Grass, I only knew it was American because Whitman himself kept telling me that it was.

The Atlantic looks big on maps. It figures largely in daily headlines. But it is nothing like the biggest dialect-divider in English that there is.


As for meter, there are no national meters peculiar to America or to Britain, and it may be strongly doubted if there ever were—at least for long. In an introduction to his Complete Poems (1949), “The figure a poem makes,” Robert Frost briskly remarked that there are virtually only two meters in the language nowadays—”strict iambic and loose iambic”— the latter admitting extra unaccented syllables. Frost himself, as he knew, used both. Consider his “Good Hours”:

. . . Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave,
At ten o’clock of a winter eve,

where the last line is loose and the first lines strict, apart from the unremarkable inversion of the very first foot in “Over.” (I am making the probable assumption here that “slumbering” is to be read as only two syllables). Frost might have added that this sort of thing has been going on in literary English in serious contexts at least since Coleridge’s “Christabel”—and in light verse for even longer:

. . . There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

These are loose iambics, in Frost’s terms. Coleridge wrote them in 1797—98, though he did not publish “Christabel” till 1816, by which time it had been metrically imitated by both Byron and Sir Walter Scott, who had heard the poem recited or seen it in manuscript. It heads an enormous shift in 19th-century English toward the license of the additional weak syllable. Pound, Eliot, and Frost are among the multitudinous heirs of that tradition: but there is nothing national about it. By the time Pound settled in England in 1908, the tyranny of the iambic was already a dead letter, except in his own imagination. If there was ever a chance of evolving meters in English peculiar to a single nation, that chance, in an age of instant communication, had already been irretrievably lost.


Why, then, did American poets of the classic age talk about themselves and their national origins so much?

It may be said that British poets talk about themselves, too, at least since the Romantics. But in the full, uninhibited sense I am here concerned with, that is not really true. Wordsworth wrote (but did not publish) a poem of epic length about himself, to be sure, eventually called The Prelude. But he seems to have thought of it as no more than a preliminary to a great philosophic poem about the nature of perception; and when Tennyson allowed In Memoriam to appear in the same year as The Prelude, in 1850, after profound hesitation, he could plead that the poem is far more than personal, being above all an act of homage to a dead friend. Keats once remarked in a celebrated letter of October 1818 that the poetical character “has no self—it is every thing and nothing,” since it lives in the “gusto” of all the world has to give. Byron hid himself under elaborate masks like Don Juan; and 20th-century British poets in the Byronic tradition, like W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, and Philip Larkin, have set near-insuperable barriers between the reader and themselves, devising personae to baffle any betraying hint of self-revelation.

All that is utterly different from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which John Berryman once defiantly called “the greatest poem so far written by an American.” It is certainly the most characteristic. It might have been written, one feels, in order to confirm Donald Hall’s suspicion that American poets are strange: what could be stranger, after all, than going on about oneself for hundreds of lines without revealing any serious autobiographical information? Whitman’s song is not in the least like The Prelude that appeared five years before. It is also less open to the charge of conceit than Wordsworth, since he is clearly imputing virtue to a nation rather than to himself, and the reader is happy to applaud that virtue. In fact it is precisely himself that Whitman is not interested in. He is interested, rather, in being an American. And the doubts the theme of his poem reasonably raises, to be candid, are not about his conceit but about whether being an American is quite as interesting as all that. An Oxford professor, John Bayley, has perceptively remarked in a recent review of Robert Lowell that “all Lowell’s poems are specifically about being a Lowell”—the Oxford professor being evidently uncertain, as anyone outside Boston might be, as to whether being a Lowell is quite as interesting as all that—and he muses that one can hardly imagine “the scion of a distinguished English family using that family now as a basis for poetic composition.” Exactly so. No doubt it means a good deal in New England to be a Lowell. But on the only occasion I ever met Robert Lowell, he talked about his family and nothing else; and his poems and prose works alike, if not literally about nothing else, seldom fail to mention or imply something specifically tribal or personal. Almost any Lowell poem might be subtitled “Song of myself and my relatives.” The sixth Baron Byron, though of noble lineage, never behaved like that, and to the British eye the concern of American poets of the classic age with family and lineage looks little short of astounding. William Carlos Williams once wrote a whole book about his mother, which no British poet one can easily think of has done, although William Empson once wrote a remarkable short poem, “To an old lady,” about his. Even Eliot, an American in London hungering for roots, wrote a poem called “East Coker” (1940) simply because that is the name of a village in Somerset his forebears left in the 17th century. “In my beginning is my end. . . .”

That poem disturbs in that it shows how powerfully Eliot, too, valued the principle of lineage—what Theodore Roethke in his notes once memorably called “the terrible energy of the dead.” In 1942, as Lowell tells in his 1965 obituary of Eliot, they stood together on a busy street corner in Harvard waiting for the lights to change; and Eliot suddenly turned to the 25-year-old Lowell and said: “Don’t you loathe being compared with your relatives?” adding emphatically “I do.” No doubt a return to Harvard brings on such experiences. In fact, one of Eliot’s reasons for leaving New England for England seems to have been to escape the lineage-trap to which American poets in that age were easy victims. But “East Coker” suggests that Eliot never really escaped it. Lowell, whose honest answer to Eliot’s question might have been “No, not at all,” compares himself with his relatives till the cows come home; and in our only conversation he talked at length about his father’s total and deliberate ignorance, as a naval officer, of an ancient university called Harvard situated just across the Charles River from their home in Boston. Interesting, in a way. But not exactly the most interesting thing one might have talked about; and one sensed in that conversation with Lowell, as in the poems themselves, an airless, self-lacerating consciousness unready to look at the world around it in Keatsian gusto or indeed at all, unready to see anything outside the tribe as possessing more than an alien and unassimilable significance. The poetic tradition that stretches from Whitman to Robert Lowell is a highly introverted and endogamous tradition: it starts with itself, as a subject, or with its tribe or nation, and seldom gets much further. Frost’s “Birches” is not really about birches: it is about Frost being the sort of person who does not swing on them and who wishes he might.

Berryman once called Eliot’s doctrine of poetic impersonality “perverse and valuable.” That doctrine was voiced long ago in “Tradition and the individual talent” (1919), and Berryman may have meant no more than that it is valuable to be told that poetry can be extra-personal at all. This is what Eliot said:

Poetry . . . is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

The implications of all that are wide-ranging—not least in the invigoratingly snobbish implication that not everyone has emotions worth talking about, and that Eliot himself does. That implication, though perhaps faintly disagreeable, may after all be accurate, and it would be over-delicate to shy away from it merely because it is disagreeable. It may also be right. Not everyone has emotions worth escaping from: Eliot, as recent biographers have plainly shown, was a tragic figure, and did. But his stance is also highly American. The American poet of that age was proud in his possession of notable emotion—highly conscious of being special, whether as an individual, like Eliot, or as a member of a family, like Lowell, or as a citizen of an emergent nation like Whitman. Escaping from all that into a world of things, or events, or great ideas, which Eliot proposed, can indeed look perverse, as Berryman remarked, in the sense of wildly unexpected. And for just that reason, valuable.

Somehow or other, external reality does not look as interesting to the American poet as it does to a European. That calls for some explanation. I do not know that we should neglect the obvious; and one explanation, to be blunt, is that it looks less interesting because it is so. Pound once remarked that America was “very like what England would be with the two hundred most interesting people removed.” That is a cry from the heart—the heart of Philadelphia. Most literary Americans in the past century have been suburbanites, all too conscious of leading lives heavily cushioned from events.

  How are we to write
The Russian novel in America
As long as life goes so unterribly?

as Frost memorably asked in “New Hampshire.” It is a good question, as rhetorical questions go, and Frost’s dilemma is real. Nor can a surburban civilization like the American, strikingly successful as it is in its own terms, sensibly invite chaos, plague, or famine just to give its poets bigger things to write about. It is when you have little else to worry about, I suspect, that you worry about self, family, and national identity. That is in no way a matter for national shame or national regret. A bountiful land has fed its people, housed them handsomely, rewarded its heroes and poets. But at some cost, it must be said, to those who seek or dream a kingdom of the stars.


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