April 5 :: Louis Simpson’s “American Poetry”

A lot has been made / is still being made about the function of poetry.  American poetry, particularly, is a passion of mine and so I am continually attempting to define and redefine what exactly “American” poetry is.  Firstly, I think the label “American” can be problematic.  Admittedly, we are talking about U.S. American poetry, after all.  We never consider Neruda to be American, though he hails from South America.  I suppose it has everything to do with that “America” appears in our full name.  That, too, is semantically awkward.  Are the fifty States the only united states in all of all America (the western hemisphere)?  Are Hawaii and California united at all?  Not physically.  I suppose it’s all to do with philosophy and common interest.  Tell that to Michigan and Ohio on the final Saturday of any given college football season.  Or when jobs from the north go south in favor of cheaper labor and laxer restrictions.  United, indeed.

But for the sake of the discussion, American poetry is poetry from my home country, the U.S.A.   And there are a lot of poems, particularly throughout the modern and postmodern eras, that deal with this.  We write poems, but still constantly grapple with what it is we are writing.  Louis Simpson’s poem is not what I would consider to be a “great” poem, whatever that means.  (What does that mean?) But I think it’s a cool poem. I think it spells out a lot of what the concerns of our country were at the time of its publication — 1963.

The declarative opening line ends just in time to give us a sense of something important to come.  After all, there is little room to argue with “it must have”.  To say that somebody must have a stomach for something suggests that they must be able to endure. “He tried to be a surgeon, but he didn’t have the stomach for the blood.”  Here the stomach must be able to break down a handful of material goods essential to the mid-century lexicon: “Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.”  Flexibility, power, nuclear power, other worlds, other other worlds (or words).

The sentence stanza creates an extended metaphor that requires me to pause a moment and mention that none can mention the shark without me thinking of the near end of Annie Hall.  As they sit on an airplane, Annie and Alvy break up and Alvy says that a relationship is like a shark, it has to move forward or it dies.  “What we have here is a dead shark,” he finally admits.  Is this relevant to the reading of Simpson’s poem?  Maybe not.  The shoe in the shark’s stomach seems more like Jaws than Annie Hall, and I admire its ferocity.  “Eat the whole damn thing, American poetry, clothes and all.”

The final two lines are excellent examples of antithesis:  the shark swimming through the desert suggests that though the poems are sharks, they cannot be too comfortable in their natural habitats.  And though the words are certainly in human language, the best it can do is to strive for “cries that are almost human”.   In some ways, Simpson answers nothing.  Not that he has to.  Why should he?  He only enters into the register his own idea of what American poetry can be.  I don’t know, maybe it is a great poem after all.

American Poetry

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim from miles through the desert
Uttering cries that almost human.

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