‘Merica Seen Through the Lens of the Global Poetic Imagination by Troy Casa
In a recent interview in Poet & Writers magazine, Editor Michael Weigers, when asked about the evolution of Copper Canyon Press over the years, jokingly stated that the lauded poetry publisher in years past had been indebted to ‘a lot of middle-aged, white, male Buddhists. There are a lot of middle-aged, white, male poets.’ [Michael Szczerban, P&W] And we can safely assume that the American poetic landscape is equally dotted by middle-aged, white and black, Feminists. This list of jingoistic stereotypes could go on ad infinitum, but the point is that American poetry, regardless of ethnic background, race, gender, political affiliation or MFA program, and the poems that we publish, consume and debate, may not have as much effect on social justice, reform, poverty, nor effect legal reforms, given the myopic pedagogy many American poets are all too often subjected. This does not discount the brilliant commentaries of John Beecher, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, Charles Bukowski or Brian Turner. Of course we write savvy political poetry, essays and satire, but Weigers’ confession illuminates a simple fact: we are too on the inside, too adorned with economic privilege relative to the balance of the world’s population, to present, through poetry, to offer an objective criticism that challenges our social and political thinking.
So, let’s look at what some International poets have said about the American social and political apparatus and reconsider, even if in hindsight, if they were somewhat prescient. This is a subjective, haphazard, and biased assortment. Don’t kill the messenger. I will offer some ideas, but it is ultimately up to the the reader to decide what the poet intended. Its mere inclusion here is testament to its ability to provoke thought.
Russian poet Andrey Voznesensky [1933-2010] visited the United States of America in the early sixties, and it had a profound impact on his work. His aborted work “About the Discovery of America” transformed into The Triangular Pear, and from this, “Still Introductory” abounds with enthusiasm, joy, curiosity and the restraint of poet in a foreign land:
Under the street’s fire hydrant my ears spin,
like a merry-go-round,
Your cheap goods from shopwindows were hung round my neck then.
But I searched for the soul,
and forgetting good manners rejected them.
(Voznesensky, p. 33)
This ambivalence towards American capitalism and our propensity for hoarding unnecessary amounts of stuff is still with us. We have entire TV series’ emblematic of this adverse psychological trauma inflicted on the American consumer with shows like Storage Wars, Hoarders, Pawn Stars and American Pickers. I like these shows—from the perspective of an antiquarian and lay scholar of the collectible book, but fifty years ago, some unknown Russian poet was able to sense our irrational exuberance about stuff.
From Pablo Neruda’s Song of Protest (first published in 1960 as Cancion de Gesta) I quote in full, ‘North American Friend’, to truncate or cut and splice it would not only be a disservice, but conveniently chop down all the trees in the forest.
North American Friend
by Pablo Neruda
Man from the north, North American,
industrial harvester of apples,
simple as a pine in a pine grove,
geographic spruce of Alaska,
Yankee of the villages and factories
with wife, responsibility and children,
fertile engineers who work
in the immutable jungle of numbers
or in the time machine of factories,
workers abroad, narrow and bent
over wheels and flames,
dissolute poets who have lost
Whitman’s faith in the human race,
I want what I love and hate
to remain clear in my words:
my only rebuke against you
is for the silence that says nothing:
we do not know what North Americans
meditate in their homes,
we understand the sweetness of the family,
but we also love the sudden blaze,
so that when things happen in this world
we want to share your learning
but we find that two or three people
close the North American doors
and only the “Voice of America” is heard
which is like listening to a lean chicken.
But the rest I celebrate here,
your feats of today and tomorrow
and I think that the delayed satellite
that you orbited at dawn
is healthy for the pride of all:
Why always be in first place?
In this contest for life
boasting has never fallen behind:
thus we can together go to the sun
and drink wine from the same jar.
We are Americans like you
we do not want to exclude you from anything,
but we want to conserve what is ours,
there is lots of space for our souls
we can live without trampling
and with underdeveloped sympathy
until with sincerity we speak
how far we have gone, face to face.
The world is changing and we don’t believe
that there must be a victory of bombs and swords.
On this base we will understand each other
without your suffering at all.
We are not going to exploit your petroleum,
we will not intervene with customs,
we will not sell electrical energy
to North American villages:
we are peaceful people who can
be content with the little we earn,
we do not want to submit anyone
to coveting the circumstances of others.
We respect Lincoln’s space
and Paul Robeson’s clear conscience.
We learned to love with Charlie Chaplin
(although his power was evilly rewarded).
And so many things, the geography
that unites us in the desired land,
everything tells me to say once again
that we are all sailing in the same boat:
it could sink with pride:
let us load it with bread and apples,
let us load it with Blacks and Whites,
with understanding and hopes.
[Neruda, pp. 100-102]
The Nerudian neophyte could easily disregard the message of this poem as the quackery of some South American Trotsky-inspired revolutionary, and quickly characterize it as anti-American. Those familiar with the Nobel Laureate’s style and modus operandi are probably trying to find someone in the café with whom they can do a high five. The critic could easily contend that Neruda has incorrectly portrayed this other America as the red-headed step-child of her northern neighbor, and that the mutually exclusive economic engines and cultural imperatives simply reflect a difference in ideologies—one Marx foretold.
Neruda is just too coy—through his feigned misunderstanding of American cultural values he simultaneously challenges us to rethink these moral behaviors and all the while invites America to a wedding of humanistic beliefs, seemingly held worldwide. It’s a paean to man’s greatness, his weaknesses, his triumphs and peccadillos, to see them as part of the cosmic party. Hey, America, pull up a chair, we start drinking at nine. What Neruda isn’t saying: your isolationist, arrogant, colonizing attitude does not represent all Americans, so, before you embarrass yourself any further, before you alienate an ally or two, or three, I give you this feedback—you have time to reconsider both past and future transgressions. Just get in the boat with your brothers and grab a paddle; the dinghy you have built might not weather the storm.
Fifty odd years ago, Neruda Eight-Miled us—you know—when Eminem—flipped the tables on Papa Doc—by rapping the list of his own life’s biographical missteps—rendering his competitor speechless, humbled at Eminem’s ability to publicly self-efface himself. In ‘North American Friend’, the poet didn’t challenge North Americans to a fist fight; he undressed before the warrior and sang him a song.
Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) spent a considerable amount of his brief time on earth, incarcerated or in exile, for a variety of politically motivated and perceived blasphemous improprieties by his government. His work is personal, visceral and stems from the deeply emotional and psychological wounds that accompany post-traumatic events like prison, torture and the isolation from one’s family. Hikmet, a fairly outspoken and active Communist, was denied an American Visa in 1959. And while his political commitments and associated activity might engender some bias towards American culture, when reading Hikmet’s oeuvre, I always feel that his compassion, sense of justice, and downright heartfelt love for his fellow man shines through. In his poem, ‘Since I Was Thrown Inside’, written in 1947, Hikmet, through reflection, foreshadows the next great conflict:
The year I was thrown inside,
the second world war hadn’t started yet,
the ovens at Dachau weren’t lit,
the atom bomb hadn’t dropped on Hiroshima
Time flowed like the blood of a child whose throat’s been slit.
Then that chapter officially ended,
and now the U.S. dollar speaks of a third.
[Kaminsky and Harris, p. 125]
To what specifically Hikmet refers in the last line is uncertain. The penultimate line in that stanza speaks volumes: the last chapter has not been written, and Hikmet sees the United States as responsible for the next ensuing bloodbath in the book of civilization.
Hikmet was likely reacting to the Truman Doctrine,
The Truman Doctrine arose from a speech delivered by President Truman before a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. The immediate cause for the speech was a recent announcement by the British Government that, as of March 31, it would no longer provide military and economic assistance to the Greek Government in its civil war against the Greek Communist Party. Truman asked Congress to support the Greek Government against the Communists. He also asked Congress to provide assistance for Turkey, since that nation, too, had previously been dependent on British aid.
For Hikmet, born in Greece, U.S. intervention by way of economic support stung threefold: his sense of pride from national birthright, his adopted country and his allegiance to the Communist party. Years later, another American politician, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, during a 1951 Congressional address let his lack of bonhomie and unbridled nationalism inspire Hikmet’s “23 Sentlik Askere Dair”
How do you propose to get it? Do you want to get it through the cooperation of Turkey where the men in the ranks get 23 cents a month the first year and 32 cents the second year, or do you want to get an American division and equip it and send it over to Turkey which would cost you 10 times as much?
Dulles’ economic bravado, military elitism and lack of common decency towards his fellow man was simply too much for Hikmet to stomach. Naturally, the poet responded:
… Mr. Dulles
(by 23 cents for each I mean)
they will sell you 35 men of this sort,
for the monthly rent of a room in Istanbul
or 85.6 for the price of a pair of shoes
but there’s a problem, Mr. Dulles,
they forgot to mention, I fear,
the soldier that they sell you, for 23 cents each,
existed, even before wearing your uniform,
existed, without the automatic rifle,
existed, as a human being,
You might find it strange but,
he existed, even before your country was given a name,
he existed, busy with his daily grind.
For example, Mr. Dulles,
when there was nothing at the site of New York City,
he built up lead domes
high as the sky
deep and sumptuous,
his hands embroidered the silk like the gardens of Bursa,
he carved the marble easy as weaving a carpet.
and from one bank of the rivers to the other,
he threw 40-arched bridges
like a rainbow,
there’s more Mr. Dulles,
when the meaning of those words was unclear in your language,
words like injustice
he fought against injustices
and for his liberty and his freedom
you see it’s cheap but has problems too,
don’t be surprised
if tomorrow they cost you too much
these soldiers, worth 23 cents each,
my nation I mean, my poor, brave and hardworking nation,
the Turkish nation, great as all the nations of the world.
Nazim Hikmet has reason to be upset after living a life of persecution. He vents his spleen again, not letting the United States simply tap-out, in “A Sad State of Freedom”;
You love your country
as the nearest, most precious thing to you.
But one day, for example,
they may endorse it over to America,
and you, too, with your great freedom-
you have the freedom to become an air-base.
You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being-
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged.
I think Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the LGBT push and other contemporary social protest movements are still responding to this critique.
In September, 2014, Jordanian-British journalist and poet Amjad Nasser was prevented from entering in to the United States for a scheduled reading at New York University. His poem, “An Attempt at a Poem for New York” is here seriously redacted, but I encourage you to explore its palpable vitriol fused with a bit of sensational journalism, ponder its witty teaching moments:
But before what happened had happened - I mean, before those towers were turned into twin lifts to the apocalypse, sundering the world into two worlds: one world of sand, one world of water –
Truth is, I’ve never been to America. Like everyone else, it’s entered my bloodstream in films, in dreams, and in wars… and, battered by its coruscating caterwauling metallic machines
its riverfulls of blood, its deserts of drought, I’ve been left with just the dregs of two real emotions: Love, and Hate.
But after what happened had happened - I mean after 9/11 after the year of those two false prophets and their sham Satanic conjurings…
…So, the city will be spared, at least for the present,
yet another mocking masterpiece in verse
sounding off about its stuckup uptight tightarsed complacencies…
Fanfare. Endgame. Curtains.
– But, hold on, maybe I can come up with another attempt at an ending: Maybe, if New York wants to know why what happened has happened, we should all remember that proverb: what goes around comes around.
Poets are sent to earth to unmask hypocrisy, catch someone selling a Ponzi scheme, reveal wayward moral behaviors and still convince us to love, regardless. Certainly, American poets have written vociferous attacks of Stalin, Mao, Allende, Idi Amin, Mussolini, Assad and a whole cast of barbaric characters. I cannot comment on the efficacy of such efforts, although I suspect on quite a preponderance of instances, the readership is mostly comprised of native English speakers, not an illiterate farmer or child being tortured in some remote African village. This disconnect, a dialogue with those that already look, think and speak like us, is politically incestuous. It serves to assuage our personal guilt in an apologetic disguise for the indiscretions and machinations of our government. Therefore, we must find better ways to subject ourselves to the global village in an effort to demonstrate that we share in the political struggle to protect their natural resources and the battles to secure their basic human rights.
The world is probably wondering why they keep sending us letters offering us advice, and we never write them back.