HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE AMERICA?
In honor of July 4th, independence from the Brits, corn dogs, Coors Light, no taxation without representation, jazz, baseball, the Civil Rights movement(s), comic books, the Kennedys, Richard Nixon, Bruce Springsteen, Ernest Hemingway, hip hop—here are your TOP FIVE GREATEST AMERICA POEMS, according to yours truly.
Mistakes were made. We’re absolutely imperfect, We struggle with the choices our enormity and diversity afford us. The poems I’ve chosen acknowledge the flaws in our fabric; some celebrate the good things, too. Like BORN IN THE USA, these freewheelin’ five talk about what makes America America—war, the environment, shopping, among other things. They expose the incongruency between what our patriotism says and what it looks like in practice.
Okay, I’ll say it. I love America. I think these poets do, too, each in a different way, each with a unique perspective. But, like anything we love, sometimes we hate it. Sometimes we worry about it. Sometimes we don’t even want to be with it anymore. It’s complicated. One thing all these poems have in common is a question—not how much do you love America, but how, and how can you?
1. Tony Hoagland’s “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” is a stab at the heart of American materialism, exposing the snake under the rock, not to mix my metaphors. But Hoagland stabs using his favorite weapon: dark comedy.
2. Gary Snyder's "Control Burn" goes out to the Native American populations we erased/relegated to reservations in the name of manifest destiny! It seems especially relevant in light of the fires that have been tearing their way through Colorado in the past few weeks. This poem does not hit you over the head with its point—Snyder, straightforward, clean, and simple, marks the difference between how we deal with our environment and how the peoples who populated America before us did. There is a wistful and a teacherly wisdom at work here. And a quiet, controlled anger and sadness that elegantly mirrors the poem’s literal burn. Snyder’s last word/line here encompasses so much—the thousands of years before America became “America.”
3. HOWL. The Classic. Required Reading For Every American. Pretty Much Says It All.
4. Brian Turner, U.S. Army vet turned award-winning poet, writes about missing home, and being haunted by it, in “Cole’s Guitar.” He uses a listing technique similar to that of HOWL, portraying the American landscape he yearns for and simultaneously terrifies him.
5. Newly crowned U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, 46, was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. She is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993. Her poems have to do with memory, race, and trying to make sense of what it means to be an American in a contemporary America and a new south. I highly recommend Dan Gioia’s audio discussion of Tretheway’s work. Click here to check out "Pastoral."
And I can’t resist. A little snippet from Walt Whitman’s all-inclusive, ecstatic vision of America would be appropriate to close us out. You can’t talk about America without talking about Walt Whitman:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
--From “I Hear America Singing”
I HOPE YOU HAD A RIGHTEOUS 4TH, COMPLETE WITH GRILLING, DANGEROUS WATER SPORTS, AND MATCHING AMERICAN FLAG BIKINIS.
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