Suggestion — April 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon

( 5 of 10 )


Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape” can teach us something about the fundamental import of language. Charming and didactic, the poem asks what it means when language is allowed to be unreliable. What, it wonders, happens to culture then?

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say —
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth century.

. . .

Frankfurters, frankfurters sizzle on the steel
where the hot-dog-man leans —
nothing else on the counter
but the usual two machines,
the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty,
I face him in between.
A black boy comes along, looks at the hot dogs, goes on walking.

I watch the man as he stands and pours
in the familiar shape
bright purple in the one marked ORANGE
orange in the one marked GRAPE,
the grape drink in the machine marked ORANGE
and orange drink in the GRAPE.
Just the one word large and clear, unmistakable, on each machine.

I ask him: How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? —
How can they write and believe what they’re writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE — ?
. . .

He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be white and black  women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don’t do.

On a corner in East Harlem
garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
misery, withered hope,
a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.

Rukeyser’s overt educational intention here may evoke a reflex uneasiness among some poetry lovers. When a work of art aims directly at “the public welfare,” the first objection concerns the proper motive of art. What is it art for? Beauty or truth? Entertainment or character building? Is Painting X worth looking at because of its subtle color, its ugliness, its idealism, its truth-telling, or because of its conversation with the history of aesthetics? Is the essence of art the unique expression of individuality, or of a cultural condition? When art is evaluated or loved for its “utility,” its ethical benefits, artists and intellectuals object that it has been demeaned, commodified, and oversimplified. The civic bureaucracy, meanwhile, argues that art is just not verifiable enough in its beneficence. But if we said that elementary-school playgrounds, with their monkey bars and swing sets, were intended to build hand–eye coordination and balance, would that make playgrounds oppressive, or less fun?

Rukeyser’s poem delivers its crucial idea in brief and forceful form, and although poems need no motive of instruction to justify themselves, hers accomplishes its mission memorably. The American who has read it will never take as given the duplicitous, inaccurate language that surrounds us commercially and politically in the way that Rukeyser’s speaker does. She urges us instead to see the corruption of language as it should be seen: as an ethical betrayal, as nothing less than an existential insult, one with snowballing consequences. Orange for grape, grape for orange — such a commonplace misrepresentation may seem trivial alongside fibs about weapons of mass destruction, yet it can lead into the valleys and mountains of bad faith. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” provides anyone who has encountered it with a correlative, a reference point by which to recognize how certain worldly forces (in this case, indifference) anesthetize our language and thereby steal our reality.

Obviously, poems in a curriculum may usefully complicate and contradict one another. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” addresses the ethics of language and the need for trustworthy speech. Against Rukeyser’s urgent formulation of that truth, one might, in our imaginary curriculum, counterpose Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which asserts the superiority of silence and nature to scholarly language and ideas. In Whitman’s poem, two kinds of learning are opposed to each other, and the speaker advocates playing hooky:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” represents a streak of anti-intellectualism that is a familiar part of the American tradition of self-sufficiency and independence. The natural man, claims the poem, has little need for arid recitations of classroom knowledge. Rather, as Emerson suggested, it is the true work of each American to go outside and forge her own original relationship with the universe. Whitman’s lyric embodies that American narrative.

Is it so hard to believe that only twenty poems, commonly possessed and mutually valued, could make a difference in American culture? Our skepticism is founded in our ingrained impression of poetry as anemic, difficult, and obscure. We believe that, like other kinds of “high” art, poems must be force-fed to people; that poems are prissy, refined, cerebral, rhymed; that they are a kind of test devised to separate the bumpkins from the aesthetes. At bottom, such a prejudice, pervasive as it is, imagines that culture is a side dish on the meal of economic realism, an innocuous auxiliary to our lives.

To underestimate the appeal of art is to underestimate not only poetry but also human nature. Our hunger for myth, story, and design is very deep. I hold these poems’ truths to be self-evident. If we are not in love with poems, the problem may be that we are not teaching the right poems. Yet ignorance of and wariness about art gets passed on virally, from teacher to student. After a few generations of such exile, poetry will come to be viewed as a stuffy neighborhood of large houses with locked doors, where no one wants to spend any time.

’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf). He teaches at the University of Houston, and through the organization The Five Powers of Poetry.

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