Some Important Themes In American Poetry [Adapted from Thematic Guide to American Poetry by Allan Burns]


Civilisation

The poets of America have always had an uneasy relationship with American civilisation as a whole. On the one hand, they extolled ideas like freedom, democracy, opportunity, prosperity, and ingenuity; on the other, they showed their disgust at American materialism, vulgarity, greed, corruption, hypocrisy, and imperialism. Thus, poems in both praise and blame for America are numerous and critical of the world falling short of its promises. Some may like a more “realistic” assessment of human limitation and the drawbacks of other civilizations, past and present; but the poets themselves, quite rightly, allow little time for self-congratulation, while self-improvement remains a possibility. Walt Whitman, often seen as the great celebrant of American democracy, freedom, and diversity, may sometimes be quite acerbic about America’s shortcomings, his disillusionment, sharpened by the very intensity of his love and hope for the nation. Whitman often felt an acute gap between the ideal of America and reality that could be seen in the political situation of the 1850s.

Family Relations

The dark side of family relations is yet another major concern of American poets. Lyric poetry, both intimate and subjective, was rarely brought to bear on the volatile theme of family relations, at least before the rise of the “confessional” mode in American poetry in the mid-twentieth century. Confessional poetry, associated in particular with the works of W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, has introduced new autobiographical candour and intensity to American poetry. Poems about sex, divorce, alcoholism and madness suddenly became quite fashionable. A new freedom of subject matter reflected and contributed to larger shifts in American culture in the late fifties and sixties. It became possible for the mainstream poets—even those only marginally associated with confessional verse—to write candidly about family life.

The Individual and Society

In America, where individuals and expressions of individualism are highly valued, writers tend to side with the individual against the traditional, conformist, and legal pressures exerted by society. Just like in the case of fiction, American poetry too tended to side with the individual against the norms of society. The tendency is writ large in the work of perhaps our most eccentrically individual major poet, Emily Dickinson. Her poems like “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “Much Madness is divinest Sense” celebrate the private life of the individual and scorn the values of society. Dickinson inverts traditional values that would promote the latter at the expense of the former. She likens public existence to a frog croaking “To an admiring Bog!” The poem celebrates the private and authentic life of the individual, whose values and creative abilities need not be cheapened by publicity, politics, or self-promotion. “Much Madness,” examines how individuality is not necessarily safe from society’s values but can be taken by society for madness—and dealt with accordingly.

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Another example can be cited of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) that depicts the complex tension between a neurotic individual and the high society he finds simultaneously attractive and repulsive. J. Alfred Prufrock, the name of a furniture dealer in Eliot’s home city of St. Louis, sounds like an unlikely name to be yoked to a love song, and indeed, his song is hardly conventional or straightforward. Eliot prefaces it with an epigraph drawn from Dante’s Inferno, in which the damned soul of Guido da Montefeltro addresses Dante, saying he would not speak except that he knows no one returns to the surface world from Hell. The opening line of the poem invites an unspecified “you” to “go then” to an unspecified destination. The “you” may be understood as the reader of this confiding and depressing poem (although it could also be taken to indicate another figure in the poem or, perhaps, some part of Prufrock’s own fractured personality; the anxious Prufrock does not clarify whom, exactly, he means). The poem as a whole is an exercise in self-revelation cast in the form of a dramatic monologue.

Life and Death

American poets have grappled with various fundamental aspects of life and death, the transience of life, how to conduct one’s life in the face of death’s inevitability, the meaning or meaninglessness of life, the difficulty of fathoming one’s own mortality, and the possibility of an afterlife and so on. Since every generation must face life and death, none of these aspects ever become dated, although specific ideas and emphases do evolve over time. The relative triumph of democracy over class privilege has, for instance, made the old idea of death as an equalizer—a favourite notion of aristocratic ages—less compelling as the years have passed, while at the same time poets, for reasons speculated on below, have tended to find the most universal expression of these themes not in the lives, struggles, and deaths of humans bound by civilisation but rather in those of the denizens of the natural world. Philip Freneau issued the nation’s first significant poetic statement on the themes of life and death in the form of an apostrophe to a flower. Freneau’s “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786) begins by noting the kinds of death that are unlikely for the flower: it grows in a hidden retreat and is therefore safe from feet that crush and hands that pluck. Freneau conceives of nature as a benevolent entity; he personifies it as a kind of caretaker or gardener that not only planted the honeysuckle far from human settlements but also continues to supply it with shade and water. Even in these idyllic circumstances, however, the honeysuckle’s days are numbered. In Freneau’s idealizing eyes, early, unspoiled America may be a kind of new Eden, but as he points out, even the flowers of the original Eden decayed after the fall. The poem’s philosophical weight resides in the final stanza. For Freneau, the problem the flower brings into focus is that the inevitability of death seems to call into question the value of life.

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Love and Sex

Walt Whitman introduced a new frankness of subject matter into American poetry. Even today, the sexual candour of some of his poems can surprise, shock, and even outrage certain readers. From the “Song of Myself”, to the poems celebrating heterosexual love entitled “Children of Adam”, to the homoeroticism explicit in Calamus and implicit in some of the Civil War poems and elsewhere, to such cosmic love poems that seem to embrace all of humanity as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “The Sleepers,” Whitman defied all the prudish, puritanical conventions of early American culture. Even Emerson, who claimed that limitation was the only sin, advised him to tone down the sexual content of his work—but Whitman refused. Whereas a conservative strain of Western thought has always treated the body and sex with suspicion, Whitman unabashedly celebrates both. “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers”, included in the “Children of Adam section of Leaves of Grass, illustrates the forthrightness with which Whitman approached these “taboo” subjects, “singing the phallus, / Singing the song of procreation”. The transparent metaphor of the title refers to repressed sexual energy that Whitman’s tumbling, turbulent poem seeks, symbolically, to release. Throughout the poem, Whitman associates sexual love with nature, which for him, as a modern and a romantic, is something more fundamental than laws, religions, and mores, all of which are seen as human constructs that attempt to channel and control natural impulses.

Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “nature” as all matter (as opposed to spirit); in common sense, it is a matter not altered by human activity. A leaf would seem to be part of nature in both senses, whereas a chair or an automobile would be part of it in the first sense but not in the second. In the modern world, however, the leaf may be eaten by acid rain and coated with pesticides. The distinction Emerson draws has come, increasingly, to be one of the relative degrees rather than of absolute kinds. Few things in the world have not been altered by human activity, and with each passing year, there is less of nature—on this planet at least—in Emerson’s common sense. The history of the United States is largely a record of how nature in this common sense has been converted into human commodities. The Puritans viewed the virgin land as, in the words of their chronicler William Bradford, hideous and desolate wilderness, full of dangerous creatures and infernal savages. Their early assault on the land was, as they viewed it, both the work of God and a matter of self-preservation. Once the settlers established a foothold, however, they began to view the land not so much as an enemy but as something to be exploited for economic gain. The settlers soon came to be amazed at the abundance of nature in America: tracts of virgin forest and wildlife populations seemed inexhaustible in their plenitude. American poetry has—as much as American industry—depended upon nature as a resource, but with the important difference that poems do not transform or exhaust natural objects. Natural images and symbols abound in their poetry, but relatively few of the poems that employ them are principally concerned with nature itself as a theme. The more typical procedure has been to use a natural image as an illustration of something else, as Philip Freneau does in poems like “The Wild Honey Suckle” and“On Observing a Large Red-Streak Apple.”

The Idea of Self

Some of the most innovative and vital poetry in America, starting with the publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), took an inward turn and began scrutinizing the self. Whitman’s idea that the self could serve as an adequate theme of poetry was confirmed— independently— by Emily Dickinson, whose hermitical habits made her own being an ideal subject for her work. It was almost as if modern American poetry took its cue directly from the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, published just one year before Leaves of Grass: “be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you,” Thoreau advised, arguing that “it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.” William Wordsworth, often taken to be the father of modern poetry in English; but it was Wordsworth, more than any other poet in English, who confirmed and inspired these trends. Walt Whitman followed the advice of Thoreau, the prophecy of Tocqueville, and the example of Wordsworth—with a vengeance—in his “Song of Myself”.

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Time and Change

In the works of some representative American poets, such as Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and A. R. Ammons, the theme of time and change seem to haunt virtually every line. Poems have long addressed themselves to the problems of mutability and loss – in fact, such phenomena are the virtual wellsprings of poetry. The way American poets have handled these themes, however, says something important not only about the protean nature of our world but also about America itself and the character of modern thought. As a tale such as Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle” strongly implies, American civilisation, throughout its history, has been irremediably dynamic and prone to change quite dramatically, even within a single generation. The pace of American westward expansion and technological development has challenged and practically defied the powers of individual imagination.

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