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Poems for America

Poems for America

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Poems for America

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298 pages
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Nov 1, 2007


An inspiring anthology that celebrates our nation with more than one hundred of the greatest poems ever written about the landscapes, institutions, and transforming events of America.

This remarkable volume commemorates our country's struggles and triumphs with poems chronicling the American experience in all its vastness, from the late seventeenth century through the present day. Alongside poems about New York, Florida, and California are descriptions of railroads, amusement parks, hotels, and road trips; scenes of rural and western life; vivid descriptions of our grandest cities; and poems that illuminate the complexity of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history, such as slavery and the oppression of Native Americans. Taken together, these poems -- whether voices of celebration or dissent -- honor the astonishing and enduring spirit of our nation.

Here are classics such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and "Paul Revere's Ride"; works by American masters, including Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, and Elizabeth Bishop; and lesser-known gems by important American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway's "I Like Americans" and Henry David Thoreau's "Our Country." Also featured are poems by contemporary talents, including Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, and Sherman Alexie. A timeless volume that traces the history of the United States through verse, Poems for America is essential for poetry lovers and for anyone who appreciates the rich and fascinating story of our nation.
Nov 1, 2007

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Poems for America - Scribner



I came to America when I was six months old. My parents had left Romania for Israel and then Canada, where I was born, arriving finally in the United States. As a child I could not understand why they had abandoned their home country for one where they knew no one and could not speak the native language. One day I asked my father about what life had been like in Romania. It was terrible there, he said. I could tell that he didn’t want to say much else. Neither did my mother. They became American citizens the year they were eligible to do so, grateful for the opportunities and freedom they found in their adopted country.

Although for most of my life I have taken patriotism for granted—one of the many privileges of being American—while working on this project, I repeatedly thought about it. For me, patriotism resonates most deeply when I consider the American art and music and literature so essential to my enjoyment of life. Poetry has been especially important, and as I compiled the selections for this anthology, I was again astonished by the range of verse the United States has produced.

Our poetry is defined by daring and diversity, virtues that have historically defined the nation itself. In the early nineteenth century, the poetry of America left the visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville exceedingly unimpressed, though optimistic about its future. I readily admit that the Americans have no poets, he wrote in Democracy in America. Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States. He asserted that Americans preferred achieving greater wealth to indulging in literary and artistic pursuits. A love of wealth, he wrote, was to be traced, as either a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do; this gives to all their passions a sort of family likeness and soon renders the survey of them exceedingly wearisome.

Tocqueville’s assessment of our materialism and garrulous patriotic zeal was astute (and would seem to hold true, nearly two hundred years later), but if he were to revisit the United States today, it’s likely that he would appreciate the scope of our nation’s poets, whose dazzling experiments and innovations resist categorization. A survey of American poetry reveals a prodigious array of visions, rhythms, voices, and stylistic feats. From Walt Whitman’s soaring arias to the elegant, mysterious musings of Wallace Stevens, the broken-down cries of John Berryman, and the casual ebullience of Frank O’Hara, our poets have established traditions and then consistently shattered and reinvented them. Yet the ecstasy conveyed in American poetry has been a constant, reflecting the country’s vast and energetic spirit. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem, Whitman wrote in his preface to Leaves of Grass.

When our country has experienced profound turmoil, poets have provided words to edify and console us. This was especially true in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. In Poems for America, none of the selections address the ineffable horror of September 11, but in a subtle way, William Matthews’ brief poem Why We Are Truly a Nation, written years before that tragedy occurred, can be read as a response to it: Because we rage inside, he writes. Because grief unites us.

A number of poems in this volume chronicle our nation’s history through moving personal narratives of domestic duties, church-going, farm work, urban travels, and wartime anxieties. They offer vivid scenes of American life, from the seventeenth century (beginning with Anne Bradstreet’s Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House July 10, 1666. Copied Out of a Loose Paper) through the late twentieth century (Sherman Alexie’s At the Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School). Of course, this history-via-poetry is subjective and therefore incomplete. As the poet Hayden Carruth lamented in the foreword to his twentieth-century poetry anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us, An anthology at best is a system of compromises, because its field of interest is inevitably too big to be encompassed by its physical limits.

In seeking poetry that captured quintessentially American experiences, I was led on occasion to poems that may not be representative of a poet’s work as a whole, but that convey some distinctive American quality. This produced an unexpected mix of classics—such as John Greenleaf Whittier’s Barbara Frietchie and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn—and lesser-known works by poets such as Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams.

Some of the most harrowing and beautiful poems about the American experience have been written by African-American poets. In this volume, the evolution of African-American poetry can be traced, from what the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks described in A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing as the cautious imitations of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, to the burning braveries of George Moses Horton, the hard and heady incense of Claude McKay, and the pioneering geniality and blackness-warmth of Langston Hughes. Over time, poetry by African-Americans developed into work that italicizes black identity, black solidarity, black self-possession and self-address, wrote Brooks. Such progress is evident in her own poetry, and in the work of poets like Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and many others not included here.

Although experiences of racism, deprivation, and exclusion are described throughout this collection—they are a fact of American existence—many of the poems express jubilation and nostalgia. It is a noble country where we dwell, declares Thoreau in Our Country. He goes on: Look nearer,—know the lineaments of each face,—/ Learn the far-travelled race, and find here met/ The so long gathering congress of the world! Or in Richard Wilbur’s lovely and intimate Wellfleet: The House: The sea strokes up to fashion dune and beach / In strew by strew, and year by hundred years. / One is at home here. Nowhere in ocean’s reach / Can time have any foreignness or fears.

Other poets offer more complicated perspectives of America, and eloquently acknowledge that the task of honoring this country is not an easy one. Their apprehension is often overcome by feelings of tenderness and pride. War and secrecy / make writing America / a twistsome thing, writes Edward Sanders in his poem Introduction, which serves as this anthology’s Afterword. He admits to having shaken his head thousands of times with the ghastly sudden knowledge / of this and that. Yet he concludes the poem by asking how many thousands more / have I smiled at the millions / who have made my nation a marvel.

Here, then, is a journey through more than three hundred years of this marvel.

Carmela Ciuraru

New York City

Here Follows Some Verses

upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666.

Copied Out of a Loose Paper

In silent night when rest I took

For sorrow near I did not look

I wakened was with thund’ring noise

And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.

That fearful sound of Fire! and Fire!

Let no man know is my desire.

I, starting up, the light did spy,

And to my God my heart did cry

To strengthen me in my distress

And not to leave me succorless.

Then, coming out, beheld a space

The flame consume my dwelling place.

And when I could no longer look,

I blest His name that gave and took,

That laid my goods now in the dust.

Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.

It was His own, it was not mine,

Far be it that I should repine;

He might of all justly bereft

But yet sufficient for us left.

When by the ruins oft I past

My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,

And here and there the places spy

Where oft I sat and long did lie:

Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,

There lay that store I counted best.

My pleasant things in ashes lie,

And them behold no more shall I.

Under thy roof no guest shall sit,

Nor at thy table eat a bit.

No pleasant tale shall e’er be told,

Nor things recounted done of old.

No candle e’er shall shine in thee,

Nor bridegroom’s voice e’er heard shall be.

In silence ever shall thou lie,

Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.

Then straight I ’gin my heart to chide,

And did thy wealth on earth abide?

Didst fix thy hope on mold’ring dust?

The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?

Raise up thy thoughts above the sky

That dunghill mists away may fly.

Thou hast an house on high erect,

Framed by that mighty Architect,

With glory richly furnished,

Stands permanent though this be fled.

It’s purchased and paid for too

By Him who hath enough to do.

A price so vast as is unknown

Yet by His gift is made thine own;

There’s wealth enough, I need no more,

Farewell, my pelf, farewell my store.

The world no longer let me love,

My hope and treasure lies above.

—Anne Bradstreet

The Indian Burying Ground

In spite of all the learned have said,

I still my old opinion keep;

The posture, that we give the dead,

Points out the soul’s eternal sleep.

Not so the ancients of these lands—

The Indian, when from life released,

Again is seated with his friends,

And shares again the joyous feast.

His imaged birds, and painted bowl,

And venison, for a journey dressed,

Bespeak the nature of the soul,

ACTIVITY, that knows no rest.

His bow, for action ready bent,

And arrows, with a head of stone,

Can only mean that life is spent,

And not the old ideas gone.

Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way,

No fraud upon the dead commit—

Observe the swelling turf, and say

They do not lie, but here they sit.

Here still a lofty rock remains,

On which the curious eye may trace

(Now wasted, half, by wearing rains)

The fancies of a ruder race.

Here still an aged elm aspires,

Beneath whose far-projecting shade

(And which the shepherd still admires)

The children of the forest played!

There oft a restless Indian queen

(Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)

And many a barbarous form is seen

To chide the man that lingers there.

By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews,

In habit for the chase arrayed,

The hunter still the deer pursues,

The hunter and the deer, a shade!

And long shall timorous fancy see

The painted chief, and pointed spear,

And Reason’s self shall bow the knee

To shadows and delusions here.

—Philip Freneau

To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal

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