Week 384: Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, by Louis Simpson

This poem by the American poet Louis Simpson (1923-2012) seems to be primarily about disillusionment with the American way of life, though it ends on a note of apparent hope. I really like it for its lyricism, but am aware that as an English reader I am almost certainly missing some of its cultural nuances. For one thing, I am not even sure exactly what the ‘American dream’ is. Opening your own fast-food joint? Getting a cameo role in The Simpsons? Coming over here, marrying one of our princes and carting him off to Canada? Whatever it is, the poet clearly feels that it has led his people down the wrong road, and that the nation they were promised has become lost in a rising tide of uncaring consumerism: ‘The Open Road goes to the used-car lot’, and only poets stop to read inscriptions. But then there is a change of mood that seems to stem from a feeling of being released from the burden of expectation: ‘All that grave weight of America/Cancelled’. The last line, ‘Dances like Italy, imagining red’, is a resounding one but I have to confess I don’t understand it. Why Italy? Why red? Sorry, Louis Simpson, but I need a bit of help with this one. Still think it’s a fine poem though.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.

‘Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

‘Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
Colossal snows,
And the light above the street is sick to death.

‘As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.’

‘I am here’, he answered.
‘It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?

I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.’
Then, vastly amused – ‘Why do you reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.’
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing …

Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Official scenarios,
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
American dreams.

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.

All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and the roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there…

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Louis Simpson

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