American Poetics

I wanted to write a short thought this week on the nature of poetry in the national experience of America.

It seems that much of what we call “American poetry” is either of a sentimental nationalism (a mixture of patriotism and Protestantism) or a lucid nature-love. Our own “Star-Spangled Banner” is a good example of the first class and much of Whitman or Emerson an equally good example of the latter.

The poetry that has been written by Americans that critiques their society has often been so critical that it has scarcely been recognized as “American” by most, though I think this is a mistake. Part of what really has distinguished America from other nations is a strand of harsh critique going back to our very founding. Of course we have tasted of mindless patriotism, but that we hold in common with many other nations. It is our capacity for change on the basis of some sort of agreed values that has distinguished us from others if anything has.

Of course, the agreeing and the changing are two different processes, and both of them are difficult. When the agreeing has not occurred, violence has come between the two. We could not agree in 1860, so we fell into war. We could not agree in the 1960s, and so we fell into social unrest. But in the end, in all cases, change was reached after disagreement, though it were in the dust of someone’s else’s defeat. Sometimes that defeat was violent; sometimes it meant that a new generation simply aged into society’s institutions while the older faded away.

At every point of our upheavals, we have had poets speaking. And some of our greatest poetic moments have come from our politicians. For all the disdain given to the political class in America (it is an American past-time to begrudge their leaders), sometimes they have given us some remarkable rhetoric in exchange for our support.

And it is this political rhetoric that I wish to dwell upon briefly, for it contains some of the most poetic parts of our past. The founding fathers served America, of course, by taking action and laying the foundations of the nation. But their longest-lasting legacy was in the documents they penned. The Constitution has been for Americans the sole arbitrator in political affairs, grievances, and controversies. And the Declaration has been the poetic root of our principles and values, from generation to generation. In it is the idea that we could have a nation founded on a simple notion: freedom. And a freedom based on an equality that implied justice and mutual responsibility.

Since our founding, it has been the expansion of the circle of freedom that has characterized our passing years. Now, we hope to include all in the sphere of freedom, whatever that may mean. And it is not easy to know what that means, and so we have had to work it out painfully. And that working out has been done much in our poetic rhetoric.

One of the best examples of this rhetoric can be seen in Abraham Lincoln. I class him among the greatest American poets, if not, in some respects, the greatest. I don’t know if any individual has ever managed to express better than he exactly what America was and is and could be. In our darkest hour, he managed to articulate a vision of the country that not only looked back to our founding principles, but looked ahead to our potential. Yet he was a remarkable realist: there is little sentimentalism in his words, but they are still bright. Hope is best received when given with the sometimes bitter pill of truth: you know you aren’t being lied to. In other words, I trust his vision because it isn’t saccharine but it also isn’t merely sour – it tastes like the world is, a mix of ideals and disappointments, of sacrifice and success.

Let me compare the words of two American poets (not to be unfair to one of them) and I will simply state what I prefer best. Here are some familiar lyrics:

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife,
When valiantly for man's avail
Men lavished precious life.1

Compared to this rhetoric:

… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The latter is, at least to me, a far superior expression, even poetically, of something like the same reality. Go back and read carefully (though it is so familiar) the words of that short address. It almost perfectly contains our past, present (at that point), and future all in one. And that is what a national poet should do.

  1. From 'America the Beautiful,' by Katharine Lee Bates. []

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