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O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

Poetry and American Memory

Illustration by Gary Kelley


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"

by Robert Pinsky

(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.
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Can Poetry Matter?", by Dana Gioia (May, 1991)
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.

"A New American Poet," by Edward Garnett (August, 1915)
This essay on Robert Frost by a noted English editor and critic accompanied the first group of Frost's poems to appear in The Atlantic Monthly.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Soundings: Robert Frost, "The Wood-Pile," (February 3, 1999)
Peter Davison, Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin each read Frost's poem aloud. With an introduction by Peter Davison.

Web Citation: "Democratic Vistas," (February, 1999)
A look at Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project.

Soundings: W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916," (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems.

"Robert Frost in The Atlantic Monthly," by Peter Davison (April 1996)
Here are Frost's first three poems to appear in The Atlantic -- "Birches," "The Road Not Taken," and "The Sound of Trees" -- and one that got away, with readings by Peter Davison recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound.

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 Godfather movies seem like great works is their persuasive imagining of the Sicilian and immigrant past, a historically layered underpinning. In contrast, Steven Spielberg's films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are impressive for their spectacle -- the rousting of the Kraków 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.

audioear picture Hear Robert Pinsky read this poem (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

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 agéd 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,
not unfamiliar:
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 armé 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.

Continued...

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


Robert Pinsky is poet laureate of the United States.

Illustrations by Gary Kelley.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Poetry and American Memory - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 60-70.