In the fall of 2018, I travelled to Fayetteville to attend the second-ever Frank Stanford Literary Festival, held in honor of a wild, Arkansas poet who’s been dead 40 years. The only other time I’d visited Fayetteville was 10 years earlier when I’d attended the first-ever Frank Stanford Literary Festival. At that time, almost all Frank Stanford’s work was out of print. He was known only to a handful of writers and artists who kept his work alive by word-of-mouth and by posting some of it on the internet. The dedication of this handful, however, is hard to overstate. The 75 of us who attended came from all over the country. We stayed up all night in the Walker Community Room of the Fayetteville Public Library mixing whiskey and coffee, reading Stanford’s poems, and discussing the excesses of his life.
While many people still have not heard of Frank Stanford, he is more easily discoverable now. The enthusiasm of the first festival helped bring his poems back into print. Any bookstore with a decent poetry section should have one of his books—most likely What About This, the nearly 800-page collected works issued by Copper Canyon Press in 2015, and possibly Hidden Water, a collection of Stanford’s notes and letters published by Third Man Books, which is an offshoot of Jack White’s—formerly of The White Stripes—Third Man Records.
When I learned there would be a second Frank Stanford Literary Festival, I knew immediately I wanted to go back—this time not only to celebrate Frank Stanford, but also to gauge how the reception of his work has changed, and how times have changed.
If this is the first you’ve heard of Frank Stanford, imagine a rockstar, charismatic and tortured like Kurt Cobain, who happens to be a poet. Though largely unfamiliar to people outside the poetry world, Stanford is arguably the cult-hero of American poetry. In the four decades since his death, the lengths fans will go to read more, and learn more—not to mention the duty they feel to share him with others—continually renews his intrigue. Reading Stanford’s poems has caused people I’ve met to postpone graduate school to drive around Arkansas tracking down Stanford’s childhood teachers, and to propose marriage while staying in a hotel where Stanford once lived, and even to drive out to Subiaco Academy and sleep on the poet’s grave.
In part this is because Stanford’s biography reads more like a Southern myth than an actual life: He was born at the Emery Memorial Home for Unwed Mothers in Richton, Mississippi, in 1948 and adopted the next day by Dorothy Gildart, who raised him to believe he was descended from Southern gentry. When Frank was three, Dorothy married Albert Stanford, a successful civil engineer, who gave him his last name. Their union provided Frank a well-to-do upbringing in which he was often chauffeured in the family’s black Cadillac—an orphan and an aristocrat at once.
Seemingly, the person most aware of his myth-rich origins was Stanford himself. Though he’d intuited it earlier, he was 20 in 1968 when Dorothy admitted she’d adopted him. By then Emery Memorial had burned, along with its records, cancelling any hope Stanford had of finding his birth parents.
In light of his adoption, and perhaps noticing his slightly darker complexion and dark curly hair, he began to suspect he was of mixed race. People who knew him suggest how troubling this was for him, in the Arkansas of the late 1960s, to question his whiteness given the overt messages of white supremacy he’d received throughout childhood—and that he later disavowed. Even so, his friends and relatives agree: The revelation of his adoption shattered him. But while depression overtook him, his friends also remember him joking he could now invent himself however he wanted.
In his poetry, Stanford’s capacity for creative self-invention was seemingly limitless: Between 1971 and 1978 he published seven books of poems. The poet Lorenzo Thomas dubbed Stanford “The Swamprat Rimbaud.” Allen Ginsberg, when he stopped through Fayetteville in the early ’70s, wanted to hang out with Stanford when Stanford, already an acclaimed poet, was still an undergraduate at University of Arkansas.
With Ginsberg as his guest, Stanford invited Fayetteville’s literati over for a party in which he fired a shotgun through the ceiling in order to separate the real poets from the pretenders. After the pretenders fled, Stanford and Ginsberg, along with a few others, partied all night. This is according to Stanford’s friend Bill Willett, who was there, and who stayed, and who was tripping on mushrooms at the time.
Stanford’s poems were as wild as his life, and an overt aim of his poetry was to blur the two. This trait he shares with Bob Dylan. Like Dylan’s, Stanford’s origin-story becomes overtly mythic in lines such as: “I sing my flood song / I know my birth is a storm myth.”
Stanford’s most ambitious book, the one that places him in conversations with other visionary, outsider artists such as Henry Darger, is entitled, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The book is a 15,283-line epic poem of the Mississippi Delta told by a 12-year-old protagonist named Francis Gildart—a redneck Odysseus and poetic stand-in for Stanford himself. Stanford began composing this epic when barely a teenager. He published it in 1977 at age 28, the year before his suicide.
Here is one of Battlefield’s most often-quoted passages:
I think life is a dream
and what you dream I live
because none of you know what you want follow me
because I’m not going anywhere
I’ll just bleed so the stars can have something dark to shine in
look at my legs I am the Nijinsky of dreams
This short passage works not only to mythologize Stanford’s life, it also pulls the reader into that mythology: “what you dream I live.” Stanford’s early death, and the extraordinary details of his life, function to keep readers in the dream—incompleteness opening an evocative space for our imaginations. In the mid-2000s when I first read Stanford’s poems, I wondered if I’d come across an elaborate hoax. How else to explain my feeling that Huckleberry Finn himself had turned up in the ’70s in the Ozarks with a voice big and smart enough to sing about the South’s history, mystery, and trouble all at once?
In 1978 Stanford shot himself three times in the heart. His suicide occurred on the same day he returned to Fayetteville from New Orleans and found his wife, the painter Ginny Crouch, and his mistress, the poet C. D. Wright, waiting for him in the yard. In his absence, they had discovered his deceptions. Hours later, with Crouch and Wright still nearby, Stanford went into the bedroom and pulled a gun out from a bedside table, thereafter leaping into another strain of American mythos—the tortured prodigy, gone too soon. He left behind at least seven other manuscripts, completed or in process. Most enduringly, he left behind a group of friends, writers, and artists, who managed to keep his work alive, despite, and also because of, the lurid trauma of his death. One of these people was Lucinda Williams. Her song “Sweet Old World” is an elegy to Stanford.
On the evening of September 20, just before the start of the second festival, a group of us gathered outside the Fenix Art Collective on Fayetteville’s downtown square. It was a rainy Friday and besides us the street was mostly dead. Hands in pockets, we introduced ourselves, telling from where we’d come and how we’d arrived. In this way, the start of the second festival was nearly identical to the first.
When the conversation turned inevitably to how we’d each come into contact with Stanford’s work, I recalled how I’d been so taken with Battlefield that I interlibrary-loaned the hard-to-come-by manuscript to the community college where I was an adjunct instructor and, in four 100-page sessions, photocopied the whole thing so that I could stay up late reading it like a gospel. Back then, I felt Stanford’s was some previously inscrutable aesthetic I’d desired but thought did not exist. I wrote to the professor who had clued me in and reported that I had found “a poetry uncle.” It would have been more honest if I had called him a “poetry blood-brother.” The unique manner in which Stanford’s poems encourage this overreaching feeling of kinship is the best way I can explain how Stanford hooks readers.
As the doors were unlocked and we entered the gallery, the difference between past and present came into focus. In contrast to my photocopying anecdote, a grad student who had flown in from a northeastern university told me of the “perfect way” he’d begun to read Frank Stanford. “It was a Friday night,” he said. “And I was drunk in Barnes & Noble.”
Of course, it is extraordinary for any book, no matter where it’s bought, to launch one into literary tourism. But mostly this comment encouraged my fear that Stanford’s magic had been somehow subdued. The ever-increasing poshness of downtown Fayetteville further encouraged this fear. For years now, Fayetteville has been awash in university money and Walmart money, and, more recently, tech-money. It consistently is ranked a top-five place to live in the U.S., and property values reflect this. I was shocked to see new, 3-bedroom townhouses, not near campus, and not walkable to downtown, listed at $348,000.
Fayetteville is no longer the quirky backwater one imagines when reading Stanford’s poems. Coming into town, I’d idled past high-end boutiques and cafes with names like French Toast Revolution—shop after shop featuring the one-of-a-kind ubiquity one expects in Hudson, New York, Charlottesville, Virginia. Particularly in their abundance, these shops are jarring in Fayetteville.
An hour earlier, while I unpacked my suitcase in the living room of the friend of a friend, he told me that the house where Stanford shot himself is an Airbnb now. I couldn’t verify this—it seems actually either not true, or no longer true—but I include it here because it might as well be true. My point is that while it might still be a stretch to say Frank Stanford has gone mainstream—and it’s maybe not a stretch when one considers Jack White’s interest in Stanford, which parallels White’s interest in bringing older musicians such as Loretta Lynn to new audiences—it’s not a stretch at all to say Fayetteville, the town that nurtured him, sure has.
Inside the Fenix Art Collective the crowd grew until, like at the first festival, there were almost 80 of us sipping craft beers against a four-dollar suggested donation. A few minutes after 7:00, festival organizer Matthew Henriksen, himself a Stanford advocate and scholar, came to the front and stood beside a scrap-metal sculpture of a deer. The deer had dollar signs etched on its flank. “Welcome,” Henriksen said, “to the second ever Frank Stanford 5K and bake sale.” The room guffawed. A series of poets read their Frank Stanford-inspired poems. We were all soggy from rain.
As the readings went on, and as I stood—a white guy amongst the overwhelmingly white crowd—my feeling that we were all clinging to something grew stronger. For a moment I imagined us as thoughtful football fans, who, having learned so much about head trauma, must now consider the immorality of our fandom, but whisper inwardly, “Don’t take this thing away from me.”
Specifically, I wondered how we’d talk about what Bill Buford called in a 2000 New Yorker article Stanford’s “frenzy of philandering.” For his story, Buford had interviewed Wright, who reported that Stanford was involved with at least six women at the time of his death. He was “handsome as the sun,” she said, and also the greatest liar she had ever known.
This was difficult to square with the present. Throughout the festival, every once in a while, a speaker would marvel at something Stanford wrote or said—for example, his quip “I don’t believe in tame poetry. Poetry busts guts,”—and wonder: “Can you imagine if this guy had Twitter?”
But, if one imagines Stanford on social media, it seems obvious that he would have been called out and exorcized from the very community gathered in celebration of him that rainy weekend. I waited for someone to mention Stanford in conjunction with #MeToo, but it never happened.
This silence I found somewhat strange, given how all the new Stanford-related publication makes clear the lasting consequences Stanford’s lies, not to mention his death, had on those around him. Ginny Crouch, in an essay that appeared originally in 1994 in The New Orleans Review—and is anthologized in Constant Stranger, a collection of writing about Stanford, published in August 2018 by Foundlings Press—discusses how she dared not return to Fayetteville for 14 years after Stanford’s suicide, particularly because some in town had wondered, “if I had nothing to hide, why I took off right after the funeral.” Her description lays bare the misogyny of a culture that would whisper accusations against a young woman to explain the actions of her cheating, by then deceased, husband. Rereading her words now should give anyone pause over the complexity of appreciating Stanford’s poems without papering over the destructiveness of his life.
Stanford’s poems themselves are also problematic. Much of this owes to their sexualized, often violent depictions of women. New readers will find Stanford ogling “booties” that “dance in leotards,” and describing women’s breasts as “rabbits waiting to be dressed.”
They will also encounter an acute homophobia made more apparent by the previously unpublished work, one of which begins, “this poem is a faggot.” As Brody Parrish Craig, a participant in a panel discussion titled, “On the Bodily in Frank Stanford’s Poetry,” put it, “Sometimes Stanford makes me want to throw the book across the floor.” Craig, who is a Stanford-admirer, a poet, and also a co-founder of InTRANSitive, a group seeking to support the trans community in Arkansas, called it disheartening to find a supposedly progressive poet writing so pejoratively. “I read stuff like this and I think, Is Frank trying to fuck with me?” Craig said.
In addition to these overt problems, there are nuanced but immature ideas about race that manifest in lines like:
oh brother I am death and you are
sleep I am
black brother tell me I am that which I am I am sleep and you
one person getting up and going outside naked as a blue jay.
Read against Stanford’s biography, these lines allude to Stanford’s suspicion that he was of mixed-race. They suggest a young person struggling with what he called “the shittiness of white people to black people” in an interview, while also working to overcome the received racism with which he grew up. But, as is also exemplified in these lines, Stanford seems frequently to want to try on blackness as a costume he might exploit creatively. His appropriation of blackness is further evidenced and complicated by the main action of Battlefield in which the narrator joins a Freedom Ride and saves the day by catching a grenade aimed at black Civil Rights protesters.
Canese Jarboe, a poet who participated on the same panel discussion as Craig, told me afterwards in an email, “It’s plain to me that Stanford set out to address important issues like racial inequality in his work, but I can admit that I am sometimes perplexed by his approach.”
Whereas the 2008 festival was conducted mostly in the library and had an energized sense of literary and even civic-engagement, the 2018 panel discussions took place in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which, as churches tend to, imbued the goings-on with a blend of reverence, doubt, and ritual. Audience members were reminded, and forgot, and were reminded again of the relative immaturity of Stanford’s oeuvre. “Can you imagine if you were judged forever by what you wrote as an undergraduate?” one person asked. I wondered, however, if this question was the right one, given that there will never be any more of Stanford’s poems, and that, currently, we have not been spending very much time separating artists’ work from their lives.
At least one Arkansas native who I chatted with during a break felt the officially sanctioned discussions were too diplomatic. As she put it, the real question with regard to Frank Stanford has now become: “What are we gonna do with this motherfucker?”
That all the new Stanford-related publication might lead paradoxically to the collective forgetting of Frank Stanford seems one possibility. What About This, the head-scratchingly noncommittal title of the collected poems, almost foreshadows this scenario. Upon finding such an ambivalent title attached to such a large volume, new readers might answer: What about it? This seems especially possible in a time of cultural molting, when many are seeking new relationships with the past, new conversations with each other, and new vocabularies for exploring these things. With regard to the complexity of Stanford, it seems plausible to throw up one’s hands in the same way the collection’s editor Michael Wiegers and Copper Canyon Press seemed to when conferring that title.
This possibility was glimpsable in the festival’s readiness to uplift other visionary outsiders—a collective what about this? The current work of Lost Roads Press, the press Stanford founded with Wright in the mid-’70s, was highlighted for its efforts to recover the poems of Besmir Brigham, another idiosyncratic Arkansas poet, who was a recluse somewhat in the vein of Emily Dickinson, and who, also somewhat like Dickinson, developed her own style of punctuation. Some festival attendees were even more restless, asking each other in the line by the coffee station, have you read Joseph Ceravolo? What about Robert Thomas? What about Daniil Kharms?
To some extent this is inevitable. Murray Shugars, an English professor at Alcorn State University who wrote his dissertation on Stanford, discussed how interest in little-known writers “creates and sustains discourse communities.” His co-panelist Amish Trivedi agreed. Part of the initial appeal of Stanford’s work Trivedi said, was “getting to talk to other cool people who had also discovered it.” All of this suggests the pull toward recovering nearly-lost artists is as much about the people doing the recovering as it is about the art itself. It also suggests the engagement Stanford’s poems encourage could be transferred elsewhere.
After the festival, I asked Henriksen if there would be another gathering in 2028. “Who the heck knows,” he said. He didn’t think so. But then again, he hadn’t thought there would be a 2018 festival until he received a decade’s worth of emails from people clamoring for a sequel.
Henriksen was more optimistic about the future of reading Frank Stanford.
“It’s so much better now,” he said. “We’ve gotten more away from the bullshit. Ten years ago, so few facts about Frank were available.” Henriksen pointed to aspects of Stanford’s biography that are now more widely known: He had been diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic and sought treatment for alcoholism. Henriksen pointed out that Stanford’s work can now, in a more concrete way than before, be considered through the lens of mental illness.
Also, contrary to speculation that Stanford had given up poetry by the time he died, the Stanford archives, opened at Yale University in 2008, have helped researchers learn that Stanford remained involved with poetry until he died. Two of his later manuscripts, You and Crib Death, reveal him to be increasingly macabre, while also displaying his poetic growth. Henriksen quoted lines from Stanford’s 1978 poem “Terrorism,” in which he writes: “I am / Going to take it all out, in one motion, / The way you taught me to clean a fish… / And I will work that dark loose / From the backbone with my thumb.”
“Yes, they’re dark and death-obsessed. But you see the images starting to speak more,” Henriksen said. “His lines become more lucid. And then, of course, he’s gone.”
In Henriksen’s view, new information will help new readers put aside the rockstar-poet myth and embrace more authentically the complexities of Stanford’s poetry.
But this is something that has been hoped about Stanford since the time of his death. After Stanford’s suicide, the brief biography that accompanied some early printings of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You ended with the phrase, “Finally there is the work.” In What About This, Michael Wiegers reprints this phrase in wistful font as an epigram above his editor’s note.
In my view, however, this is a wish for a distinction between person and poem that Stanford never had and that he ensures readers will never have either. His last poems depict him playing card games with death, staging shooting matches with death, and being chauffeured by death in a black Cadillac. “All I am is a song sung by the dead and I know it all of my days,” he writes in Battlefield. It’s undeniable that these images foretell a death that actually occurs. What Brody Parrish Craig termed the “violent materiality” of Stanford’s poems cannot be divorced from the violence Stanford did against his own body. The journalist Bill Donahue, in a 2015 Men’s Journal article, summed this up aptly, if blithely, calling Stanford’s suicide his “last poem, written in blood.”
So, what about this?
At the conclusion of the panel discussions, I raised my hand and asked from the audience: “What does it mean to read Frank Stanford in 2018?” I asked because I really didn’t know the answer. The panelists didn’t know either. Jarboe finally said, “I don’t know what Frank Stanford can show us about the present moment. We just have to keep grappling, I guess.”
For the last few months, I’ve attempted some of this grappling. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Rather than make impossible distinctions between the person and the poems, my hope is that Frank Stanford allows readers to engage in a more nuanced conversation about toxic masculinity that gets beyond the dichotomy of either demonizing Stanford for his sins or demonizing readers who would ignore them. To this end, I keep coming back to something Stanford’s friend Bill Willett spoke about—that is, how Stanford’s mother consistently called him her “chosen child.” Apparently, Stanford long interpreted this merely as a term of endearment. “Like night and day,” Willett said of the difference in Stanford after learning the literal meaning of “chosen child.” To Willett, who is currently working on publishing a Stanford biography, this also explains partially Stanford’s lechery: “Subconsciously, he felt he’d been rejected by his birth mother, and that he’d been rejected by Dorothy when she revealed his adoption to him. Not that this makes it okay, but I think you can see, with all the sleeping around, he’s hedging his bets against getting rejected again.”
Now that I am a parent and newly 40, I am increasingly inclined to see Stanford not as a poetry uncle, but as a chosen child—one who gains in extraordinary fashion the wounding, adult knowledge that things are not what they seem. Valiantly if imperfectly, I see him questioning over and over again, his sense of self and also his whiteness. This is part of what makes the speakers of his poems so endearing as they go about exploring “the strange country of childhood / like a dragonfly on a dog-chain,” and so devastating when he writes in his poem “Lies”: “I don’t know my past / like the back of my hand / I have forgotten what flag I fly.”
In a letter included in Hidden Water that Stanford sent to the poet Alan Dugan, he discusses Francis Gildart, the protagonist of Battlefield, writing: “The character is endowed with the gift of second sight at birth. What would seem to most a blessing is, in fact, a curse. To expiate that curse, he sets out in a raft, alone and bound, and lets the river carry him where it may. He is constantly in pain.” Stanford might as well be talking about himself. The self-mythologizing intrinsic to his poetry has also become a curse. For readers, this implies that if we can’t unravel Stanford it is because no matter how much he writes, no matter how much he drinks or sleeps around, he can’t unravel himself.
Not only can’t we unravel poem from person from myth, nor should we attempt this unravelling. By the time we are drunk on Frank Stanford, we are already at the root-spring of a foundational, national dream of rurality. We are already skinny-dipping with what lives there: a purely American, violent and vulnerable, sexy and decrepit, masculine self. This is not something to ignore. Rather, it brings up questions we should try to answer. Questions such as: What if the magic of Stanford’s poems is inextricable from trauma inflicted on others? How do we handle this realization once we’ve already become a poet’s fans, and once his work has already inspired our own? Is cognitive dissonance required, or is there space for thinking about this complexity that does not encourage complicity?
In the incompleteness of Stanford’s oeuvre, there is ultimately an opportunity to consider how we construct ourselves as readers. This means we might also ask the extent to which Frank Stanford’s myth and poems, in their casting about for identity, self-knowledge, and love, implicate us? We might acknowledge that we, and many people we know, cast about similarly. In the wake of #MeToo, aren’t the lasting repercussions of this casting-about that with which we’ve been reckoning? I want to believe that facing these questions could allow readers to imagine the reconciliation and healing Stanford never got around to. We might do this imagining not only to preserve his legacy but to imagine new paths for ourselves.
This is because even if everyone stopped reading Frank Stanford, we couldn’t stop reading Frank Stanford. We’ve practically co-authored him by now. He’s like a song you swear you’ve never heard but already know how to hum. We live his dream. In this context, the most relevant question becomes: What about us?
Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours.
It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris.
So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways?
— Janet Potter
Edan Lepucki: Literature doesn’t often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn’t even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day — it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen’s Trouble, and I’m looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
Sonya Chung: My excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to.
More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know — late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film — as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never.
Nick Moran: Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis — natural, spontaneous — but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception — involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I’ve tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It’s been over two years since I read Origins, but I’m still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there’s nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages.
Hannah Gersen: Several years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems — it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain — you get a little thrill from seeing him.
Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it — actually, probably one night — but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend.
Elizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that — I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young — “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” — that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write — write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major.
In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art.
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Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel The Suitors. His journalism has appeared in many publications, from L.A. Weekly to Men’s Vogue to the New York Times Magazine.Someone sent me a copy of Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan, which I picked up casually and proceeded to read in, I think, two sittings. Really fierce, spare, terrific writing. Also, I spent a few months writing about the poet Frank Stanford, which gave me a good excuse to read and re-read The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford’s 15,283-line epic poem about – among other things – race, death, dreams, Hank Williams, Sonny Liston and the moon. It was once nearly impossible to find, but not anymore. One more epic: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow. A floating dictator, globalization and myriad other forms of sorcery, humor so dark it glows.More from A Year in Reading 2007