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.
The greatness of our nation, then, may consist partly in its ability to thrive, to endure, and to evolve without certain marks of peoplehood. Indeed, a major, traditional American proposition has been that our greatness consists precisely in the fact that we are making it up as we go along—that we are perpetually in the process of devising ourselves as a people. An improvised, eclectic, synthesizing quality pervades our cultural products. This quality seems unmistakable in both the most glorious and the stupidest of our cultural manifestations—in the transcendent music of Charlie Parker and in the embarrassing dumbness of Super Bowl half-time shows. The improvisational, provisional spirit is in the poems of Wallace Stevens and in the denim pants of Levi Strauss.
To recognize such continuities should be to acknowledge that the alleged absence of memory is an illusion: cultural artifacts, high or low, successful or failed, shining or dismal, draw on recollection. The supposed American lack of historical sense is itself in part a national myth or delusion: the nobility of Parker's music and the half-time jumble are both acts of memory, as all cultural deeds must be.
Of course, the matter of degree varies: often, strength of memory is what gives works of art and political discourse alike the virtues of depth and reality. For example, in the great decades of American feature films, screenplays were written by writers who had set out to be poets, novelists, playwrights; their work drew on many centuries of cultural history and possibility. Even as purely cinematic a genius as Preston Sturges wrote first for the stage. Many unsatisfying contemporary screenplays, on the other hand, are written by people whose ambition has always been to write screenplays. These scripts draw for memory only on other movies, shortening the available span of undertone and overtone to decades, as opposed to centuries. To me, one reason that Francis Ford Coppola's GodfatherSchindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are impressive for their spectacle—the rousting of the Krakw ghetto, the Normandy landing—but thin and perfunctory in their historical understanding. What Schindler says about the Jews he might have saved and what Private Ryan says about his decision to stay with his comrades lack flesh. Re-creation is not memory but spectacle—and spectacle may stand for the body of the past but not its soul.
I'D like to present some poems that suggest a characteristically American form of memory, memory concentrated on certain themes: the fragility of community, the mystery of isolation, and a peculiar elegiac quality that is almost self-contradictory in its yearning toward a past that in one way seems forgotten and sealed off, yet in another way is determinant, powerfully haunting the present. Perhaps as a corollary to that double sense of the past, another aspect of the poems I have in mind is the defeat of reason—even the threat or presence of insanity.
Abraham Lincoln's evocative though amateur poem "My Childhood-Home I See Again" is explicitly grounded in memory [click here to listen to the poem]. The poem exhibits all the preoccupations I have suggested, especially a terrified fascination with madness. It begins with conventional nostalgia.
My childhood-home I see again,
And gladden with the view;
And still as mem'ries crowd my brain,
There's sadness in it too.
O memory! thou mid-way world
'Twixt Earth and Paradise,
Where things decayed, and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise.
In the poem Lincoln has returned after twenty years of absence to find everything he knew changed, in particular the people. His genius as a prose writer emerges in the directness of language here.
Young childhood grown, strong manhood grey,
And half of all are dead....
Till every sound appears a knell,
and every spot a grave.
Though the language gets tighter, the vague elegiac sentiment through the first third or so of the poem remains ordinary. Then a specific character is recalled, a figure through whom the poem enters unsettling, mysterious territory.
And here's an object of more dread,
Than ought the grave contains --
A human-form, with reason fled,
While wretched life remains.
Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright, —
A fortune-favored child —
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
A haggard mad-man wild.
The bizarre, harsh nature of the narrative comes through Lincoln's somewhat wooden verses, with plenty of emotional effect.
Poor Matthew! I have ne'er forgot
When first with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
And mother strove to kill;
And terror spread, and neighbours ran,
Your dang'rous strength to bind;
And soon a howling crazy man,
Your limbs were fast confined.
One ingredient in the horror here is that this is a communal matter: the neighbors, in what I take to be frontier Indiana or Illinois, not some impersonal authority or government, must run to cope with the uncanny violence. The madman's loss of reason reflects the terror of a loss of order or community in the fragile, tentative little society itself.
How then you writhed, and shrieked aloud,
Your bones and sinnews bared;
And fiendish on the gaping crowd,
With burning eye-balls glared.
And begged, and swore, and wept, and prayed,
With maniac laughter joined —
How fearful are the signs displayed,
By pangs that kill the mind!
This violent, unhappy memory, perhaps traumatic for the rural community and pretty clearly so for the poet, is succeeded by a different memory of Matthew, in some ways sweeter, in other ways even more disturbing. In an act of memory reminiscent of Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," but more stressful and charged, Lincoln recalls the insane man, incarcerated, singing at night.
And when at length, tho' drear and long,
Time soothed your fiercer woes —
How plaintively your mournful song,
Upon the still night rose.
I've heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
Far-distant, sweet, and lone;
The funeral dirge it ever seemed
Of reason dead and gone.
This is a powerful attraction and a powerful ambivalence. The funeral dirge of reason dead and gone may be a frightening idea, but the dirge of that isolated figure also has a strange magnetism for Lincoln, who goes off from the community to hear it in solitude.
To drink its strains, I've stole away,
All silently and still,
Ere yet the rising god of day
Had streaked the Eastern hill.
Air held his breath; the trees all still
Seem'd sorr'wing angels round.
Their swelling tears in dew-drops fell
Upon the list'ning ground.
Wordsworth's solitary reaper sings in a rustic setting in the context of rich, suggestive cultural possibilities and meanings, which the poet lists. Lincoln's Matthew sings in a pure, grief-stricken suspension of meaning itself.
In the poem's last two stanzas Lincoln returns to the idea that this community and this story were part of his home. It is as if in the sudden change of attention at the end the poet is expressing fear or ambivalence about what he has written.
And now away to seek some scene
Less painful than the last —
With less of horror mingled in
The present and the past.
The very spot where grew the bread
That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
And feel I'm part of thee!
The poem's last words, "And feel I'm part of thee," are striking, echoing the association between the poet and the poem's strange, deranged central figure. Even the scene that is supposed to have "less of horror" mingled in, the field of childhood memory, involves a disturbing sense that the poet's identity is both one with the field that grew the bread that formed his bones and strange to it, even while it is underfoot.
The poet's connection with the field is elemental and personal rather than historical—this is not the field of any national military glory, or the field any poet sang, or the field of any ancestral meaning, because the human meaning of it is recent, and also perhaps tenuous. It is not quite, or is only just becoming, a cultural field, with a people who recall its stories.
The very structural jaggedness of Lincoln's poem suggests a form of memory that is at once hallowing, or nostalgic, and nightmarish. Memory in "My Childhood-Home I See Again" is in some ways futile, because the past is either buried—"every spot a grave"—or incomprehensible, like the demented figure who takes over the poem in defiance of its sentimental title and conventional framework.
Lincoln's poem is a shadowy forerunner of the sentence that opens a section of William Carlos Williams's Spring and All: "The pure products of America go crazy." The modernist Williams, too, describes a past that is somehow both lost and haunting. But Lincoln had a forerunner as well. The nineteenth-century gothic haunting in "My Childhood-Home I See Again" resembles in some ways the haunting in a famous poem by the eighteenth-century American poet Philip Freneau.
FRENEAU could be called the first poet of the United States of America. At the College of New Jersey, in Princeton, he and his roommate, James Madison, wrote a commencement ode that changed in successive drafts from royalist to revolutionary. Freneau fought in the Revolution and wrote as a journalist and an editorial supporter of Thomas Jefferson. It is striking that the best-known poem by this Enlightenment, revolutionary figure is a Romantic work that entails a ghost from the past.
Freneau's poem "The Indian Burying Ground" meditates on the notion that Indians were buried in a seated position, and imagines a successful return from death to lost scenes. As in Lincoln's poem, conventional elegy yields to something uncanny.
The posture that we give the dead
Points out the soul's eternal sleep.
Not so the ancients of these lands —
The Indian, when from his life released,
Again is seated with his friends,
And shares again the joyous feast.
His imaged birds, and painted bowl,
And venison, for a journey dressed,
Bespeak the nature of the soul,
Activity, that knows no rest.
His bow, for action ready bent,
And arrows, with a head of stone,
Can only mean that life is spent,
And not the old ideas gone.
The compact phrase "Activity, that knows no rest" is in its own way as anti-elegiac and unsentimental as the realistic phrases in Lincoln's poem. Then Freneau turns to "an agd elm," "beneath whose far-projecting shade.... The children of the forest played!" His landscape, of course, contains trees that might have been seen by Indian children who never saw a European. A sense of fearful guilt toward the displaced people leads Freneau to a striking, memorable vision.
There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Sheba, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there.
By midnight moons, o'er moistening dews,
In habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!
The dignity and spookiness of this picture are appealing.
Freneau's final stanza, in a key related to Lincoln's poem, makes explicit the issue of reason and delusion.
And long shall timorous fancy see
The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And Reason's self shall bow the knee
To shadows and delusions here.
Also as in Lincoln, the connection with the landscape is at once eerily overwhelming and as fragile as the Reason that bends its knee to Freneau's shade "In habit for the chase arrayed"—Reason that for Lincoln was "dead and gone" in the plaintive, insane dirge that he eagerly "drinks" in memory. Reason's hold on the landscape is tenuous and haunted.
In relation to the displaced culture, Freneau and his reader are like the Portuguese invaders in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Brazil, January 1, 1502."
... the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
no lovers' walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home —
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L'Homme arm or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself --
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.
The march of empire, colonization, and obliteration has made the raped and dispossessed people simultaneously haunting and unattainable, a violent emblem of the past as unrecoverable yet operative, and vaguely shaming.
Reason is dismayed or humbled in these poems by an implied quandary: How can memory do its cultural work in the absence of continuity? Is the cultural relation to the land too thin and haunting, perhaps even too guilt-ridden or problematic, to suffice? This question, I think, underlies the mysterious power of Phillips Brooks's hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
O little town of Bethlehem!
How still we see thee lie,
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The Everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
What gives these lines their mysterious charge is buried memory; Brooks, best known for his famous sermon on the Civil War dead, wrote his Christmas carol when, after the war, many little towns of the North and the South were unnaturally silent, because so many of the young men were gone. "The hopes and fears of all the years" involve the Republic itself, and in that context the town's "deep and dreamless sleep," beneath the silent stars, is the more unsettling precisely because it is dreamless, and therefore deathlike. The hopes and fears are related to the dreamless sleep because the memory of the war dead, however implicit or suppressed, depends for its meaning upon the unknown course of the country, the still-unrevealed significance of its history.
Illustrations by Gary Kelley.
Robert Hayden's mid-century poem "Frederick Douglass" strives for a visionary comprehension of that history, in a rhetorical effort that is all the more moving for Hayden's own situation as a black American artist of a generation that endured a range of peculiar slights, pressures, and isolation. Hayden writes of the ex-slave and moral champion,
When it is finally Ours, this freedom, this liberty,
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly Instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered.
The all but utopian reach of this social vision is nearly like that of science fiction: the memory of historical reality is both highlighted and transcended by a hyperbolically long view into the future.
Another twentieth-century African-American poet, Sterling Brown, takes a different, perhaps more artful route to a similar goal. In "Harlem Happiness," Brown borrows the urban idyll of romantic Hollywood movies, the glow around Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that transforms the cops and storekeepers nearby. Brown adapts that idyll and daringly transforms it with the street vocabulary of American ethnic categories. In his visionary otherworld, so unlike Hayden's lofty one, Brown absorbs "dago" and "Mick" into the magic realm where all the world loves lovers, as though race were another grace note of local color for the happy pair.
I think there is in this the stuff for many lyrics: --
A dago fruit stand at three A.M.; the wop
asleep, his woman
Knitting a tiny garment, laughing when we
Flashing a smile from white teeth, then weighing
out the grapes,
Grapes large as plums, and tart and sweet as —
well we know the lady
And purplish red and firm, quite as this
lady's lips are....
We laughed, all three when she awoke her
swarthy, snoring Pietro
To make us change, which we, rich paupers,
left to help the garment.
We swaggered off; while they two stared, and
laughed in understanding,
And thanked us lovers who brought back an
old Etrurian springtide.
Then, once beyond their light, a step beyond
their pearly smiling
We tasted grapes and tasted lips, and
laughed at sleepy Harlem,
And when the huge Mick cop stomped by,
a'swingin' of his billy
You nodded to him gaily, and I kissed you
with him looking,
Beneath the swinging light that weakly fought
against the mist
That settled on Eighth Avenue, and curled
around the houses.
And he grinned too and understood the wisdom
of our madness.
That night at least the world was ours to spend,
nor were we misers,
Ah, Morningside with Maytime awhispering
in the foliage!
Alone, atop the city,—the tramps were still in shelter —
And moralizing lights that peered up from the
Seemed soft as our two cigarette ends burning
And careless as the jade stars that winked upon
There's a brilliant irony and a flaunting of irony here, a mingled unreality and reality, the memory of the movies permeating the scene like the memory of the love lyrics that the lover quotes later in the poem. Brown's poem is as visionary as Hayden's poem on Frederick Douglass, yet it is also an actual memory as well as a dream.
Hayden's vision of the future involves a tremendously delayed healing or resolution, an alleviation of the ghost-ridden, suppressive memory that I find in the imaginations of Lincoln, Freneau, and Brooks. Brown's vision of one privileged night, a few hours bracketed from reality, gets its energy from all the suppressed memory of racism in American history. Brown writes,
And then I madly quoted lyrics from old kindred masters,
Who wrote of you, unknowing you, for far more lucky me --
with remembered lines of Robert Herrick or Shakespeare (let's suppose) available as part of the fragile, cinematic evening. Like all the poems I have quoted, "Harlem Happiness" raises the question of what cultural memories are available and germane to actual American experience. I associate the poem with works that point toward a sharper, more candid form of American historical memory. What might that form of national memory someday be like?
The modern poem that takes up this question most vigorously, pointedly, and directly may be the section of William Carlos Williams's Spring and Allthat has come to be called "To Elsie" [click here to listen to the poem].
The pure products of America
go crazy --
mountain folk from Kentucky
or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and
valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
and promiscuity between
devil-may-care men who have taken
out of sheer lust of adventure --
and young slatterns, bathed
from Monday to Saturday
to be tricked out that night
from imaginations which have no
peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt
sheer rags—succumbing without
save numbed terror
under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum --
which they cannot express --
unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood
will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder
that she'll be rescued by an
reared by the state and
sent out at fifteen to work in
house in the suburbs --
some doctor's family, some Elsie --
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us --
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Here both the craving and the terror of memory find bold expression in a specifically and indeed assertively American context. One admirable quality of Williams's poem is its confident manifestation in language of the American culture it questions: from the expression "go crazy" in its opening lines to the final note of "no one to drive the car," this poem embodies American manners, and by implication American culture. The word "car," at the end of a poem so dark in its presentation of the national culture, is like a palliative. (The word also reminds me of how Williams welcomes modern, industrial cultural experience into poetry by describing the landscape as it looks from a car, as in "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital" and "The Young Housewife.")
Even the way the poet inserts himself into the narrative frame, "some hard-pressed / house in the suburbs—/ some doctor's family, some Elsie—," so notably without bardic grandiosity, constitutes another instance of American manners. Like his use of the word "car," Williams's calm inclusion of his middle-class, ordinary household implies a hopeful normality, counterbalancing the despair and degradation of the poem's beginning and its final words—the envisioned triumph of madness over culture.
For in Williams's poem the failure of memory, the absence of peasant traditions or some adequate substitute for them, does entail a triumph of madness as complete as the dark of Lincoln's poor Matthew, the land becoming to us nothing more than "an excrement of some sky." If the landscape is not haunted, Williams implies, then it is a meaningless excrement, frustrating the hunger of the imagination, and we are "degraded prisoners," like Lincoln's staring, writhing, and cursing character.
The poem's action of remembering Elsie, trying to trace the stream of her personal and extended history, is accompanied by tributary acts of memory: recalling the geology of New Jersey and the Appalachians, recalling Indian blood and the nearly theatrical language of "tricked out with gauds," recalling the adventure of railroading and plant names like viburnum and choke-cherry, recalling the imagination itself and its need to be fed. The action of all these poems—Lincoln's elegy, Freneau's meditation, Brooks's hymn, Hayden's tribute to Douglass, Brown's poem—might be described as the effort to remember in order to maintain sanity.
Williams speaks of the "pure" products of America; what they appear to be pure of is history. He envisions a terrifying temporal isolation or silence that recalls the final state of Lincoln's poor madman. Part of Williams's undertaking as a writer was to supply a kind of history that would be American: memory that was not "pure" in this sense of unreflected isolation. In this matter of memory and also in the matter of language, Williams has considerable affinity with the work of a poet with whom he is too often contrasted, without acknowledgment of their similarities—Robert Frost. In "The Gift Outright," a poem I have always found unsatisfying, Frost speaks of peoplehood as an attainment, and a fait accompli.
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
There is an element in these lines that springs more from rhetoric than from historical memory: the project is celebrated and summarized but not embodied. Though the poem is itself part of shared memory, because of the indelible image of Frost reading it at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, it lacks reality. With a "we" that is not quite plausible, Frost skillfully, even brilliantly, glosses over a host of difficult questions about American history and identity. Or so I feel, and my feeling is captured in "Legacy," by the contemporary poet Frank Bidart [click here to listen to the poem]. Bidart brings Williams's "To Elsie" into collision with Frost's "The Gift Outright"; however, the story he tells is not the story of the two poems he alludes to but that of an American family and its history.
When to the desert, the dirt,
to get off the shitdirt
land and move to the city
direct the work of those who now
work the land you still own
My grandparents left home for the American
desert to escape
poverty, or the family who said You are
the son who shall become a priest
After Spain became
Franco's, at last
to return you
refused to return
The West you made
was never unstoried, never
Excrement of the sky our rage inherits
there was no gift
outrighwe were never the land's
This poem gives an account of the United States as "never unstoried, never/artless," though the country, in its haunting, may have pretended, as perhaps "The Gift Outright" pretends, that it replaced Europe with a kind of tabula rasa. The country was never pure, Bidart indicates: Lincoln's Matthew had a past as surely as did Freneau's tree. By remembering the European past and recalling a severe, de-sentimentalized account of the process of becoming American, Bidart gives a portrait of the United States in which the people are the opposite in spirit of anything like a Bildungsbürgertum. But by that act of memory, and by choosing to remember both Frost's poem and Williams's in his allusive concluding phrases, Bidart contributes with a bold directness to the project of American memory.
P ERHAPS the most profound poetic contribution to that project is Robert Frost's poem "Directive," which presents the undertaking of American memory as dire and frightening as well as arduous [click here to listen to the poem]. The memory in the poem rests partly on the fact that in New England every year thousands of acres revert from farmland to forest; the past is revealed in stone walls that one comes upon in the woods, and in fading, overgrown cellar holes.
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry --
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put up a sign CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
In this poem Frost suggests that our destiny as a people may lie in the difficult action of historical recovery—and that the source of wholeness is in memory. Here the past is presented as a mysterious spiritual reality: attainable not through the spectacle of re-creation but through a journey. History is a quest, not a diorama. His challenge here should be inspiring. The project of shaping ourselves as a people, his poem implies, has only begun. "Beyond confusion," our cultural work still lies ahead of us.
"Directive" should be part of American memory because it is a lyric about the fragile, heroic enterprise of remembering. Who will remember the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence? That familiar question must be amplified. Who will remember the poems of Emily Dickinson and the films of Buster Keaton, the music of Charlie Parker and the prose of Mark Twain? Who will remember that Gabriel Garca Mrquez said that the best novel ever written about Latin America is The Hamlet, by William Faulkner? Or if this sketchy beginning of a catalogue merely suggests my personal, idiosyncratic canon, then put it this way: Who will remember the great work of memory itself, that basic human task? Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.
"Legacy," by Frank Bidart, used by permission of the author. Excerpt from "Brazil, January 1, 1502," by Elizabeth Bishop, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Excerpt from "Harlem Happiness," by Sterling A. Brown, reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. "Directive" and excerpt from "The Gift Outright," by Robert Frost, reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company and the Estate of Robert Frost. Excerpt from "Frederick Douglass," by Robert Hayden, reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. "To Elsie," by William Carlos Williams, reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.