m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

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

Illustration 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,
    this beautiful
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
            approached her,

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
            murky distance

Seemed soft as our two cigarette ends burning
            slowly, dimly,

And careless as the jade stars that winked upon
            our gladness....

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?

T HE 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].

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

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

The pure products of America
go crazy --
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure --

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags -- succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum --
which they cannot express --

unless it be that marriage
perhaps
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
agent --
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs --

some doctor's family, some Elsie --
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us --
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
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.

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

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

When to the desert, the dirt,
comes water

comes money

to get off the shitdirt
land and move to the city

whence you

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

rich enough

to return you
refused to return

The West you made

was never unstoried, never
artless

Excrement of the sky our rage inherits

there was no gift
outright         we 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.

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

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

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 García Márquez 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.

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


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 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 4; page 60-70.