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An Analysis of Louis Simpson's Classic: "American Poetry"
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001; copyright 2003.
A poem is like a silver mine. Silver does not usually sit on the top of the earth to be grabbed by any prospector. The miner needs to dig, excavate, and search for precious metal. Poetry requires the reader to do the same.
Simpson's poem, at first glance, does not fit into a prosodic format, nor does it seem to be overtly metrical. It is hard to say whether Simpson consciously or subconsciously used metrics. After scansion one can see that the poem has no dominant meter, yet is uses extensive spondee, or dually stressed syllables.
The first line begins with the dually stressed "Whatever" that is used to awaken the reader abruptly. He is ordering the reader to listen.
Simpson then goes on to stress "it". Not only does he grab the reader's attention, but he drags the reader into an instant conflict over the definition of "it".
The second line then calms down into a couple iambs that mirror the backing up of the tide before a big wave. The reader is hit with a line that begins with two consecutive trochees or stressed/unstressed syllables. Like the opening spondee, the use of trochee slams the reader with a returning wave, then quietly ends the line with two quiet words "moons" and "poems".
The reader thinks that the attack is over until Simpson hits with another line of full trochee. The storm hits again, the reader feels thrown about. It takes a natural disaster to open the readers mind, this is what he is trying to do with the mixture of hard hitting spondee, trochee, and the soft natural sound of iamb.
He quietly ends the poem with two lines primarily consisting of iamb. these two lines end the conflict of "it's" definition. Simpson has elevated the reader, then calmly points to the answer, like one showing another the valley from the mountaintop.
One of the most powerful weapons a poet has is that of metaphor. Metre is only the beginning of the Silver mine. The use of metaphor in the poem helps to further the search. If meter is the beginning of the mining process, metaphor is the machine used to dredge through the rock into the precious metal.
Simpson uses one main metaphor in his poem. He compares "it" with a shark that contains a shoe and swims through deserts with almost human cries. The title of the poem leads the reader to believe that "it" is poetry. So how does poetry compare to a shark? Does it make a difference that the poetry is American?
Simpson opens his poem by stating that American poetry has to have a stomach that can digest American ideals. Rubber, coal, and uranium portray capitilistic industrialism. Industrialism is not primarily American. Yet, in 1963 when Simpson wrote his poem strong industrial states where the backbone of the American economy.
Simpson is concerned that romantic poetry in a heavy industrialized location does not hold any common ground for the people who have been working year after year on the assembly line. He felt that humanity was taking a drastic change in it perception of reality based upon this worldview.
Simpson shows how he believes poetry has to remain in both worlds, that of industrialism and that of the soul. He tells the reader how an American poem should be able to digest industrialism, yet its stomach should be able to digest softer foods, the nutritional greens that maintain poetry's diet; "moons" and "poems".
He then enters the shark metaphor. Simpson tells the reader that poetry needs to have a bite, it needs to be dangerous and inventive in an everchanging environment, if it is going to continue as an artform.
He wants the reader to be aware that poetry is still alive and human.