Poetry and American Memory

The poet laureate reflects on what makes the American people "a people"—and what our poetry can teach us about the "fragile, heroic enterprise of remembering."

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

WHO do we Americans think we are? This is a cultural question, and it is worth asking: many of the great issues in American public life are ultimately cultural issues. The relation of the well-off to the poor; the meaning and the future of race and ethnicity; the degree to and manner in which we share responsibility for the aged, the sick, the needy; even our mission and place among the world's nations: all these depend on our sense of ourselves as a people -- that is, as a cultural reality. In other words, these social issues depend on how we remember ourselves.
Though the United States assuredly is a great nation, the question remains open whether we are a great people or are still engaged in the undertaking of becoming a great people. A people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory. That fact is possibly clearer in our land than in one where people tend to look more like one another than we do. My purpose in this essay is a kind of experiment in memory: to seek a vision of our future in the poetry of our past, finding some examples of American poetry's relation to the evolution of American memory.

Part of our peculiar claim to greatness as a nation rests on the fact that we have done without many elements that might be thought of as the marks of a great people, among them a myth of origin. Americans have been suckled by no wolf, sired by no Trojan fleeing Troy; they are not descended from the sun or from dragon's teeth sown in the earth, not chosen by a god or descended from Olympian trysts with mortal maidens, not descended from any totem animal or enchanted soil or ancient race. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passionately determined that the young American nation develop a distinct culture for its people, wrote "Paul Revere's Ride" in a conscious effort to supply such a myth -- and with some success: I can testify that many Americans, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have much of the poem by heart.

Memory need not be mythical, of course. Our founding by intellectually inclined planters and merchants gave us great national documents. The question about those documents -- or about our defense of democracy in the Second World War or our jazz or our feature films or our technology -- is How are they related to people, or to us as a people? How do we remember the accomplishments of our nation? What is American memory?

In many countries, certainly in Europe, shared national memory has a reality in the naming of public squares and boulevards by dates. The equivalent for us would be if the Fourth of July were one term in a vocabulary of dates with civic emotional meaning, rather than unique. (There are not likely to be boulevards named for December 7 or November 22.) In such countries the name of a month -- August, October, July -- can have tremendous political and emotional resonance. It is hard to think of an American poem with a title parallel to William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916." The closest I can come is "Days of 1964," by James Merrill, arguably the most European of our recent poets. In fact Merrill's title is an allusion to the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy.

When those planters and merchants, formerly loyal to the British monarchy, founded a nation, its people were even then various in origin. The nation developed with a relative scarcity of unifying folk culture -- a single web of rhymes, songs, peasant tales, and superstitions passed down by grandparents. What we lacked in unity of that kind we made up for with richness and variety. The nation thrived amid that variety, and it thrived also in the absence of a monolithic cultural elite: no royal court in the capital city -- and, indeed, no capital city that was also the capital of finance or glamour, of learning or technology. Instead different cities, from coast to coast, vied and continue to vie for those distinctions. No social group has quite succeeded in establishing itself as the unifying central inheritor of fine art or music. The American families that aspire to such a role often fade into the foundations or endowments that bear their names.

The racial division inherited from slavery is the largest and most egregious embodiment of a more general fact about us: that we continue to improvise our nature as a single people. Thus it is not only in the imaginations of great African-American creators such as Duke Ellington and W.E.B. DuBois but also in magnetic artifacts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Gone With the Wind that the cultural inventions "black" and "white" become a great, central metonymy for a larger national undertaking -- the project of making ourselves.

A contrast may illuminate what I mean by American memory. In a fascinating 1998 essay, "Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Science," Gerald Holton, a professor of physics who writes on the history of science, describes the significant social class of Bildungsbürgertum-- that portion of the bourgeoisie whose capital consisted of their education. The political and economic realms were feeble, so social power derived largely from the cultural realm. This seems to me the opposite of the American situation, not because we have no catalogue of thinkers, artists, and scientists equivalent to a European roster -- of course we have -- but because the memory of their accomplishments has not been the source of our unity.

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