What does it mean to be a great American poet? The phrase (great American poet/great American novelist) has often confused me. Partly because it is said so casually, without explanation. Which makes me think, have I missed something? Because I do need some type of explanation.
Does the title pertain solely to the writer’s nationality? Or does the content of the work have to portray “American-ness?” Or both?
But what does it mean to be American? Maybe that is the part that confounds me so.
In Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time, Mignon Fogarty states:
“American is the only single word we have to refer to ‘a citizen of the United States of America’ (USican?), but technically, an American is ‘any-one who lives in North America, Central America, or South America'” (p 14).
Fogarty suggests we continue to use the term since no other one exists, ending the section with “feel free to feel guilty” and urging us to follow in the very “American” tradition of taking what does not belong to us.
Goodreads.com created a list that named 100 of the great American novels. According to that list, out of 100 titles only 10 of the authors were female and only 4 authors were not Caucasian. More precisely, 3 of those authors were African American and 1 was Hispanic.
From this, I take it that whatever it is that justifies the label “Great American” comes from a generally Caucasian, male perspective.
My inquiry of this phrase started when, at a party, someone asked me what I was currently working on. I related that I had just started working on a novel, and received in response, what I assumed to be a joke, “Is it going to be the next great American novel?”
Now, I automatically thought, No. Duh. For one thing, I am a Hispanic female writer, a point of view that is very much alive in my work. And more specifically, I am writing about the Dominican-American lifestyle of a young woman from the South Bronx. I don’t see myself fitting anywhere within Goodreads’ top 100 list.
But then I thought about the question again and was confused by it and disturbed by my own response. What did the person mean when he asked that question? My idea of what is American and his idea of what is American are most likely very different. But what makes my definition any less valid than his? Furthermore, why did I automatically think that my definition was less valid? Why was I so scared to ask the questioner (a Caucasian male) to explain himself?
These questions arose once more when I attended an event at The New School. The New School hosted a reading with John Ashbery who read from his book Quick Question. The poet was introduced by Robert Polito who once or twice called the guest reader a great American poet.
Furthermore, Polito introduced the ASHLAB project:
“an ongoing sequence of classes that involves a digital mapping of John Ashbery’s Hudson, NY house via his work – and the reverse: a digital mapping of his work via that Hudson house. Students work on various projects – annotating objects in the house, such as paintings, curios, architecture, and mementos; anthologizing and annotating poems according to various subjects and themes, such as music or childhood; and defining and mapping routes through both the house and the work, Ashbery’s poetry as well as his prose… How is it possible, this course asks, to archive and map the interiors of (arguably) America’s most important and influential living poet, John Ashbery?”
So I was immediately excited to hear the poet read and see if I can discern what makes his poetry so “great American.”
Overall, Ashbery’s poetry is beautify complex, but I did not get a sense of “American-ness” until I heard the following words:
“Somewhere in America, there is a naked person. Somewhere in America, adoring legions, blush in the sunset, crimson matter and matter still. Somewhere in America, someone is trying to figure out how to pay for this, bouncing a ball off a wooden strut. Somewhere in America, the lonely enchanted eye each other on a bus. It goes down Woodrow Wilson Avenue. Somewhere in America, it says ‘You must die. You know too much.'”
Without a doubt, Ashbery produces lovely lines that portray America’s sense of everyday life from a sort of cynical point of view. But I still think that America is too broad a term to be used confidently. It scares me to see writers using it in a way that automatically excludes other cultures and experiences. I can only ever speak of my America.
My America is Dominican superintendents singing badly to Juan Luis Guerra as the paint the halls. My America is tired mothers coming home from their 9 to 5’s with bags full of groceries in each hand. My America is being in college and looking at your classmates, wondering if they think you’re only there because of affirmative action. My America is crowded train rides and coffee shops.
Are the great American poets my great American poets? Or the great American poets of others?
Maybe we should work towards expanding the definition of America, move away from the traditional and recognize that it means something different to everyone. Isn’t that the point of America, this melting pot of a country?