‘American Poetry’ introduces the fourth section of Louis Simpson’s one of the best-known collections, At the End of the Open Road. Simpson won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection in 1964. This poem is specifically about a broad and vague topic, poetry. Simpson talks particularly about the wide array of poems written by a diverse range of American poets. Though he opts for a vast topic, he spares only six lines to describe the topic. However, he captures the nature of American poems within a few lines by using surprising figurative language.
Explore American Poetry
‘American Poetry’ by Louis Simpson invests life into poetry and portrays it as a gigantic creature able to devour a great number of subjects.
This piece begins with a god-like description of poetry in America. Simpson invests the idea with the ability to digest several topics. These include rubber, coal, uranium, moons, and most importantly, other poems. In the next stanza, the speaker talks about the range of this creature. It has the ability to reach distant regions. Besides, it aptly portrays human aspirations, pains, and hopes.
You can read the full poem here.
Whatever it is, it must have
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
The first stanza of ‘American Poetry’ begins with a vague statement. Simpson’s persona could not find the right words to describe what American poetry is. He is not sure about its nature or its range. However, he somehow finds it appropriate to describe it as a living entity.
According to him, it has a stomach like human beings. Humans can digest edible things and exert the unwelcome elements out of the body. In the case of poetry, it digests everything literally. He refers to a number of items that poetry can digest very easily.
Symbolically, each term projects something else. For instance, the term “uranium” refers to the abuse of nuclear weapons and their impact on humankind. In contrast, the term “moons” signals romanticism. In simple terms, American poets wrote on a number of topics ranging from creation to destruction, industrialization to naturalization.
Like the shark it contains a shoe.
Uttering cries that are almost human.
The second stanza begins with a shocking metaphor. Simpson compares American poetry to a shark. It hints at the fierce poetic language used by Americans. Their fearlessness in the face of inhumane authority is hinted at by this metaphor.
Right next, Simpson says that poetry contains a shoe. The next line clarifies why the poet has used the term. As poetry has to swim for miles or walk into arid regions, it needs some sort of protection. Here, the “shoe” symbolizes the timelessness of American poetry. It does not wear out in adverse conditions.
In the second line of this section, Simpson compares the desert to a sea metaphorically. This incongruous comparison reveals the poet’s unique ability to observe nature. He can find similarities between the distant ideas quite easily.
In the last line, the speaker describes how American poets capture humankind’s suffering, hinted at by the term “cries.” Their poems voice the cries of the downtrodden.
Simpson’s ‘American Poetry’ is written in free-verse. It means there is a regular rhyme scheme or meter. The poet does not use any internal rhyming as such. Hence, the text sounds a bit prosaic while reading. Besides, there are a total of two tercets (stanzas consisting of three lines). Simpson uses the third-person narrative technique to present his ideas. His persona describes the nature of poetry and refers to the idea as a living entity.
Readers can find the use of the following literary devices in ‘American Poetry’.
- Enjambment: Simpson uses this device in the first three lines. It forces readers to go through the lines to understand the idea. Besides, it also occurs in the last two lines.
- Personification: In the first stanza, “poetry” is personified. According to the speaker, it has a stomach and can digest different items.
- Asyndeton: It occurs in the line, “Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.”
- Simile: It occurs in “Like the shark it contains a shoe.” Here, “poetry” is compared to a shark.
Louis Simpson’s poem ‘American Poetry’ is about the nature and range of the poems written by great American poets. In this poem, he captures the wide array of topics that are displayed through their poems.
The poem was first published in At the End of the Open Road in 1963. This book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1964.
The following poems are similar to Louis Simpson’s poem ‘American Poetry’. Explore more Louis Simpson poems.
- ‘Poetry’ by Marianne Moore — In this short poem, Moore talks about her feelings about poetry.
- ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ by Amanda Gorman — This poem is about American Life, the tragedies, and the hope of the nation.
- ‘American Sonnet’ by Billy Collins — This piece describes what a sonnet is and its role in contemporary society.
You can also read about the best 20th-century American poets.