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.