American poetry owes as much to the incantations of Native Americans and the songs of African slaves, as it does to the likes of Whitman, Dickinson, Williams and Frost. What distinguishes American poetry in my mind's imagination is its inclusiveness, its rich layering of voices and its incessant re-working of traditions. American poetry is a new and a very old thing at once; it has yet to be invented and is as ancient as the sonnet. In what other medium could a gay Cuban American physician like me— the child of non-English-speaking immigrants, and the product of a profession at the cutting edge of some of our most powerful, mind-boggling technologies—find such welcome opportunity for full expression? Ultimately, American poetry (like any poetry) is a universal language through which all people— black and white and Latino and Asian, heterosexual and gay, Jewish and Christian and Moslem and agnostic, female and male— can be engaged in the most important discourse known to humankind, that of the nature of empathy itself.
I consider myself an American poet precisely because I am a mutt, a mongrel, a kind of happy monster, born in New Jersey but conceived in Cuba and Italy, at once devoutly Catholic and flamingly queer, a Harvard-educated physician who prescribes Nuyorican poetry along with pills, who educates about HIV in Spanish and writes villanelles in English. I am an American poet who reads T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, and Derek Walcott and Eavan Boland and Thom Gunn, with just as much pleasure as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; American poets are at their best when they are questioning, or enlarging, the boundaries and borders that would try to define or contain us too facilely. Sometimes I am downright ungainly, or too sentimental, or too stridently political; I suppose I am like this trying-to-be-free nation that made my very existence possible and now wonders what to do with me. Even as I sit down to write this response to the question "What is American about American poetry?" I must question my own authority: I know the true answer lies in the sum of many answers to the same question, in an unending conversation between Marilyn Hacker and Robert Pinsky, or between Thylias Moss and Richard Howard, or Yusef Komunyakaa and Martín Espada and Hayden Carruth, or Julia Alvarez and Mary Oliver and Louise Glück.
I consider myself fortunate to be an American poet, because despite the efforts to censor me there always exists in this country the ideal of free speech; condom ads on TV and access to clean needles to prevent AIDS, or life-saving medicines for the afflicted in Cuba or Iraq, such unspeakable possibilities take shape in the poem that cannot be squelched. Despite the efforts to keep out the immigrants, or to exploit the weak, there always exists here in the U.S.A. the ideal of freedom; my family's voyage to America, the struggle for equal rights for gay and lesbian people, begin in the poem I will write tomorrow. I am fortunate because my tradition of American poetry includes undaunted activists like Ginsberg and indefatigable healers like Williams. I only hope that the future of American poetry can live up to their courageous examples, where the politics of poetry itself can be put aside (the small-minded debates around formalism vs. free verse, for example, or the entirely fabricated notion of "political correctness") in the new millennium, when empathy,as made comprehensible through our great poems, is no longer what we have all been striving for, but joyously already have, writ plain and clear and pure on our pounding hearts.
What's American About American Form?
American poetic form, like America itself, is inclusively democratic and hence full of delicious paradoxes and unresolvable arguments. American form harkens back furthest to the incantations of Native Americans and the songs of African slaves, which have been handed down over the generations and which have expression today in the work of Adrian Louis, Joy Harjo, Thylias Moss, Diane Glancy and Yusef Komunyakaa; such modes of expression predate, of course, those verse forms received from British and other European poetries that were for so long considered the traditional bedrock of American verse, those iambs and rhymes manifest in the work of early American poets (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anne Bradstreet) and later on in the work of Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill, to the current moment, in that of practitioners such as Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, Hayden Carruth, and Rachel Hadas. Despite their different personal and aesthetic histories, no one would question whether any of those poets is more American than the others. That is because the ends of their work, like their most fundamental origins, are the same. We recognize all as uniquely American because of the universalizing quality of the varied forms they employ, which ultimately makes empathy out of the very act of perceiving, be it in the familiar sound of the heartbeat, in the intoxicating plunge between stanzas, or in the luxuriant discursiveness of narrative.
What is so distinctly American about any of these poets, a quality perhaps most evident in the four quintessential American poets—Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg—is that they all use form and structure to create meaning from language that is not entirely contained in the words themselves. Meaning here springs out of the unsaid, the gesture, the reflected glance, the rhyme, the enjambed line-break, the iamb—it is a connection between poet and reader that is by definition empathic, in that it resists explanation and yet is utterly understood. Dickinson's brilliant reworking of received forms (borrowed from church hymnals as much as from William Shakespeare) stretched space iambs and quatrains into infinite spaces of reflection on themes of mortality, human suffering, and desire—her dashes are the beginning of the empathetic imagination, inviting the reader to be present at the moment of revelation, a participant in the process of creation, as is only possible in America, a country ever in search of its beginnings. Whitman, whose imagining of form more explicitly enacts that same impulse to reach out, in lines long enough to stretch across the same vast and expanding nation, into the consciousness of his far-flung readers, was similarly engaged in the question of empathy—though his poems take shape so differently on the page. Williams, another great innovator in the use of form, laid bare the mysteriousness of perception itself, at a moment when American technological know-how seemed capable of explaining everything about us, reducing empathy almost to the level of its physiologic foundations—of seeing, of sensing, of tasting, of feeling. Just when it seemed American form had been pushed to its limits, Ginsberg set it all on fire and left the old building screaming at the top of his lungs. These four poets—each in their own ways mystics, hedonists, healers, activists—give voice to the empathic imagination, a mind that is requisitely American by virtue of our nation's diversity and our resulting demand to comprehend one another's humanity. Only a multiplicity of forms, which together must be considered American, could begin to take on such a daunting task.
It is not surprising that these four poets are also representative in every way of our equally varied identities as Americans. Male and female, queer and straight, Jewish and Christian and atheist, white and nonwhite, mono and multilingual—they are as diverse as Americans today. The pressures that these identities exert against the chosen forms of these poets are similar to those faced by American poets writing today, and make for an interesting and rich field of investigations. Speaking for myself, I suppose I am present at a number of intersections between form and identity: as a bilingual Latino who writes villanelles, I wonder at my efforts to try to make English sound more like my beloved, inherently musical Spanish, reclaiming the songs of my gypsy minstrel ancestors; as a gay man who writes sonnets, I flex muscles of my own desire against the walls of that heterosexualized "narrow room"; as a physician who incorporates medicalese in blank verse, I thrill to reanimating this language/vernacular with the human heartbeat it too often suppresses. The forms I choose are not themselves a political expression, as some still mired in the tired old debate of "free verse versus form" might contend; rather, I view these structures as opportunities for amplifying what I can say with mere words, for layering my language with possibilities for empathy. Because what is a foreign language but another way to say the things you already knew; or homosexuality, but another joyous expression of human love; or healing itself, but another path toward empathy.