It doesn’t take extraordinary insight to see the poet’s role in any culture includes documenting collective experiences and revealing to fellow citizens what is invisible. I don’t intend to burrow here into Shelley’s concept of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but it’s true that, though an American audience is understandably distrustful of poems with soapbox stances, we poets carry the power of moral persuasion and share values of imagination and reflection that might be useful to the people among whom we live. Otherwise, why bother?
Before I tumble too far down a rabbit hole, I’d like to share this startling poem by Sarah Gambito. It opens her book Delivered, published in 2008:
Gambito was born in 1973, just a few years after her parents arrived here from the Philippines. Equipped with this information, I take the poem’s speaker to be Gambito’s stand-in, and the “you” she addresses to be us, or “We the people.” The poem’s speaker countervails the vulnerable sense of self I see represented in the bulk of American poetry written in the last fifty years. Most American poets avoid pronouns like the collective “you” and royal “we” because we’re skeptical of authority, especially our own. We already inhabit society’s fringe and fear accusations of grandiosity or grandstanding. But Gambito’s success here depends upon that “you” pronoun and a grandiose stance. For a woman straddling vastly different cultures (family and country), she must speak boldly, even aggressively, in order to be taken seriously. My hypothesis is this: the civic poem is making a comeback, and in recent years, several first- and second-generation American poets like Gambito have been leading the way because they’re more likely than established (or “homegrown”) poets to assume a civic role. Why? Maybe immigrant poets don’t take their American citizenship for granted. Perhaps also they are importing attitudes from cultures in which poetry has more civic currency and carries more authority.
More specifically I’m curious about the plural and collective “you” Gambito uses in “Immigration.” That pronoun invites her readers—an American audience—to participate in the poem’s drama and to feel complicit in the situation provoking the speaker’s insistent tone. “Am I frightening you?” Gambito asks at the poem’s turning point. Then, as if she knows she has rendered us speechless, she promptly answers her own question. “I’m frightening you. // Good and good and good and good.” “Immigration” isn’t an intimate poem or a poem addressed to an audience of poets. It’s a comeuppance for an established American citizenry. Gambito publicly challenges all of us by holding our noses up to our own fear and silence, our history and memory, and the key grammatical element is her use of the collective pronoun, “you.”
As a contrast to Gambito’s poem, let’s take a look at the first few lines of Matthew Zapruder’s “Poem for Americans”:
Here, Zapruder addresses us even more directly than Gambito does, as his title points to those of us who identify as “American.” In spite of the inviting title, the speaker feels skittish about his role as an authority, and the entire first sentence works to undermine it. Zapruder’s no fool. He may be the most relevant poet of his generation because he grasps better than his peers the pulse of American feeling. In these eight short lines, he’s winking at us; the title is something of a joke, as Zapruder already knows his fellow citizens are disenchanted with poetry and furthermore too distracted by technology and other trappings of contemporary life to pay attention. By the fourth line, whatever authority he had mustered becomes “hollow with desire.” Zapruder’s readers fully understand his intentions a moment later when he cuts an elevated, almost televangelistic pitch, “American brothers and sisters / let us look up” with the comic “from our screens.” (Now there’s a killer line break.)
Gambito’s “Immigration” showcases a speaker who demands to be recognized as an authority. There’s no sense of ruse when she begins, “So what if I don’t love you.” It’s difficult to tell at this point if the poem is a private or public communication. For all we know, the speaker is addressing a parent or ex-lover. The fourth line signals for sure that we are being addressed, when our mother, grandmother, and great grandmother are depicted as “bitches in front of a trashcan.” Gambito’s surprising shift in diction here establishes for good the poem’s tone and situation. Zapruder, though he maintains a civic stance throughout “Poem for Americans,” is more wary of his authority and therefore carries no hope of holding us accountable for supporting the status quo. Another way of comparing the two approaches is this: Gambito, possibly because she was born into an immigrant family, can more easily see America from the outside looking in, whereas Zapruder stands on the inside looking out, as confirmed in the next sentence of his poem:
The suggestion in this passage, an authentically sad one, is that the American speaking in Zapruder’s poem feels enclosed by the privileges of his citizenship, even “condemned” by them. He is wise enough to acknowledge the subjects of American power abroad (in a place like Pakistan, for instance) but believes his only opportunity to speak with one of those subjects will come within the context of filing a complaint about the performance of his smart phone. Of the two poems, it’s easy to see Gambito’s speaker is more comfortable with her own authority.
In a way, this essay is a response to many critics who have taken pleasure in pointing out how narrowly focused and self-serving American literature is and how often it fails to engage in communal or worldly themes. At the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival, Jhumpa Lahiri, Xioaolu Guo, and Jonathan Franzen expressed grim concern over America’s role in the “homogenization of global culture” and complained about “the shameful [. . .] lack of energy” Americans invest into translation. Their comments echo a sentiment aired by Nobel Prize for Literature judge Horace Engdahl, who quipped in 2008 that American writers are “too insular” and “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Closer to home, American critic Mark Edmundson claimed in Harper’s Magazine last year that American poets lack boldness and ambition, stating, “At a time when collective issues—communal issues, political issues—are pressing, our poets have become even more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn [. . .] writing as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom.”
Those critical judgments are at least partly true. Our commitment to literary translation is impoverished, and yes, our art and literature are inextricably tied to America’s imperialistic ambitions. But that same criticism also ignores a vast amount of literature produced by writers born after 1965—Generation X and the early Millennials—who dare to tackle broad cultural themes such as war, racism, poverty, and environmental ruin. Edmundson’s essay, titled “Poetry Slam: The Decline of American Verse,” is laughably narrow in this regard; most of the poets he examines were born in the 1930s or 1940s. (The youngest poet he mentions is Tony Hoagland, born in 1953.) Furthermore, such criticism fails to account for America’s cultural richness and vibrancy—and a deep crop of younger first- and second-generation American poets already writing the kind of civically engaged poems Engdahl, Edmundson, and others cry for.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over thirteen percent of our population was born abroad. This figure is almost double what it was in 1990. I believe we’re at the beginning of a sustained trend in our literature, as these new citizens learn to bridge vast cultural and linguistic divides in order to speak with authority about American culture and its influence. A small sample of poets who fit this category include second-generation poets such as Tina Chang (China) and Tarfia Faizullah (Bangladesh), and first-generation poets like Fady Joudah (Palestine), Ilya Kaminsky (Ukraine), Amy Quan Barry and Ocean Vuong (Vietnam), and Javier Zamora (El Salvador). Of course, many homegrown Generation X and Millennial poets also craft poems with provocative civic themes. Natasha Trethewey, Jill McDonough, Terrance Hayes, Nick Lantz, Camille Dungy, Brian Turner, and Juliana Spahr are just a few that come to mind. Even though they are among the most talented and civic-minded poets writing today, they rarely address us as confidently or vigorously as Gambito does in “Immigration,” by calling us out collectively, by speaking from on high. For some reason, we younger poets avoid pronouns like the collective “you” and royal “we,” and when we do use them, we offer our readers more escape routes and qualifications and general nebulousness; often those poems are written in the loose grip of irony or satire.
I speculate that we’ve arrived at this situation because we’ve followed too closely the baby-boomer generation of poets who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s. That generation eschewed grand-scale civic poetry because they distrusted authority. Study the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, or Watergate, and one quickly understands why this choice must have felt more like an imperative. It makes sense that Generation X and Millennial poets would initially borrow the same imperative and pursue the poetics of confessionalism, the New York School, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, among others.
I’m not trying to make any value judgments about one kind of poetry over another, but I find it peculiar and unsettling that, in spite of American poetry’s innovative methods and vast aesthetic range, there’s a gaping silence in such an important part of its bandwidth, the frequency from which we might reach the broadest audience of citizens. It seems fairly obvious that we avoid bold civic stances because we fear the possible consequence of alienating readers; but how healthy is our nation’s poetry if we don’t approach the page believing that anything—any stance, point of view, vocal range, or tonal register—is possible? Sometimes I wonder if our shortcoming in this area explains why a wider audience for American poetry hasn’t materialized.
Edmundson’s essay manages to make one salient point: he identifies Allen Ginsberg as a model civic poet, someone whose poetry “never fails to deliver a vision of how it is for him and for all of us.” No doubt Ginsberg wrote with unabashed authority. His poem “America” makes especially daring claims such as, “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” “America when will we end the human war?” and “I’m addressing you. / Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time magazine?” Ginsberg is so comfortable with his own authority that he’ll even indulge in verbal acts of prophecy. If a concerted push toward civically engaged poems is indeed on the horizon, we would do well to brush up on our Ginsberg.
That said, “Howl” and “America” were published almost sixty years ago, while Sarah Gambito, Ilya Kaminsky, and several other young poets with roots abroad are already making inroads in this direction—if only we’ll pay attention. I believe Kaminsky has written Generation X’s most vital civic poem to date. Look at how his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” measures up to Ginsberg’s authoritative power:
These are striking lines from someone who arrived here with his family just twenty years ago. In interviews, Kaminsky says he would not recommend immigration to anyone because it “breaks lives.” He once publicly compared America to the Roman Empire. Further, he agrees with Engdahl’s criticism of our literature, stating, “Engdahl deserves our thanks for telling us the truth. Perhaps some of us will listen, who knows?”
Here’s the key: listen to the pronouns Kaminsky uses even as he criticizes America in his rhetoric and in his poem: we, our, us. His willingness to implicate himself in the triumphs and flaws of our country’s project make him a great civic poet. “We Lived Happily During the War” is a watershed poem because Kaminsky ascends the podium and addresses us without any hesitation or verbal irony.
I’d like to make one more point, which is more hunch than careful observation. While researching these poets whom we have adopted (and who have adopted us), I noticed their civic-minded stances aren’t restricted to their poems. Kaminsky once volunteered as a law clerk at the National Immigration Law Center and, more recently, at Bay Area Legal Aid, where he helped the homeless solve their legal difficulties. Gambito co-founded Kundiman and edits CURA, a publishing initiative committed to integrating the arts and social justice. Fady Joudah ministers to the sick and needy for Doctors Without Borders. In New York City, Javier Zamora volunteers his time teaching poetry to grammar school students. Who do we Americans think we are? These poets have traveled a long way to show us.
Perhaps, in addition to shilling our books or trying to become the first American poet with 50,000 Twitter followers, we ought to attempt writing poems that call out to the neighbors and strangers with whom we share buses and grocery lines and church pews. What might we accomplish if we devoted more energy to civic enterprises in our verses and our lives? Or wrote poems using the collective “you” or royal “we” in order to enlighten and enchant a people, to document contemporary life and hold us all accountable for our complicity in communal, even national, events? My own background probably makes me the worst kind of person to champion these causes, so I’ll let the words of Sarah Gambito bring this essay to a close. She recently stated on the Poetry Society of America website:
DAVID RODERICK's first book, Blue Colonial, won the APR/Honickman Prize and was published jointly by American Poetry Review and Copper Canyon Press. The book led to fellowships at the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Following the book’s publication, Roderick was named the recipient of the 2007-2008 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. Shenandoah awarded Roderick its annual James Boatwright III Prize for a sequence of poems from his second collection, The Americans. A larger sample of poems won the 2012 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, selected by Phillis Levin, Vijay Seshadri, and Elizabeth Spires. Since completing his MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, Roderick has taught creative writing and literature classes at Stanford, the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He currently teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Roderick’s alter-ego hosts The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show. He lives in Greensboro with his wife, the poet Rachel Richardson, and their two daughters.
Edmundson, Mark. “Poetry Slam: The Decline of American Verse.” Harper’s September 2013: pp. 61-68.
Flood, Alison. “Writers Attack ‘Overrated’ Anglo-American Literature at Jaipur Fesitval.” The Guardian 20 Jan. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/20/writers-attack-overrated-american-literature-jaipur-festival>.
Gambito, Sarah. Delivered. New York: Persea, 2009. p. 3.
---. “Q & A: American Poetry.” Poetry Society of America. <http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroad/qa_american_poetry/page_17/>.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956. pp. 39-43.
Kaminsky, Ilya. “We Lived Happily During the War.” From the Fishouse. <http://www.fishousepoems.org/?p=1617>.
---. Interview by Ming Di. Poetry East West. 10 June 2012. <http://poetryeastwest.com/2012/06/10/an-interview-with-ilya-kaminsky/>.
---. “Red, White & Blue.” Poetry Society of America. <https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/red_white_blue_poets_on_politics/ilya_kaminsky/>.
McGrath, Charles. “Lost in Translation? A Swede’s Snub of U.S. Lit.” New York Times 4 Oct. 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/weekinreview/05mcgrath.html?_r=0>.
Zapruder, Matthew. Sun Bear. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2014. pp. 67-69.
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