David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 6): “To Elsie”

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I so distrust the platitude that America is a classless society, with all the inaccuracy of that term as shorthand for the fairy tale of equality. The great battle between the classes is not only the collision of upper versus lower, but more often, most concussively, it takes place where the upper-middle class meets the middle, or where the middle does the same to the class just below it. It’s not just white nationalists that voted for Donald Trump, it’s middle class whites who earn over $50K per year who resist economic incursions upward from classes just below, especially from people who are non-white—African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, among others.

All that came to my mind on Election Day when I found myself with my son at a neighborhood bar after midnight. Watching the late returns I was having to double my effort to combat the emotion that we were experiencing a spasmodic shift, in which my own atoms were being reoriented in a freakish Orwellian mishmash.

What I felt, in addition to shock and disgust, was something oddly, surprisingly, reassuring. Here was the foe—racist zealots, class warriors, xenophobes, vulgar nativists, autocrats, nepotists—in plain view in the guise of President-elect Donald Trump. I actually think Donald Trump the political phenomenon looks like one of a kind to me. His children and lieutenants are goons, no doubt, and would probably poison one another if given the chance. But all my other adversaries—supply siders, anti-taxers, social safety-net barbarians, plus the mean-spirited, the curmudgeons, the spiteful who I would normally glorify as pessimists, or even cynics, but who just seem to be grubby and sour—are getting the new president wrong or hiding under their desks.

Members in good standing of the modern Republican Party, including their shock troops at the NRA, KKK, and FOX News, including every single Trump supporter who just voted alongside the squad of racists fomenting against Muslim-Americans and Hispanic immigrants and black protestors, who voted alongside white nationalists and anti-Semites, comprise either the most alarming, dangerous organization in American life or are merely a gang of—to bastardize the terms of two historical epochs—Vichy Apparatchiks.

Now the battle is joined. I will prosecute my part of it as a writer till the last dog dies, especially after hearing from my old Politico adversary, Republican Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio elected official, who said without a sense of historical irony that the President-elect’s new chief of staff’s main responsibility is “to make the trains run on time.” I think Mr. Blackwell may not remember that this phrase echoes Mussolini’s fascism. But, in my heart, I know better.

In this spirit I went looking for what I believe America is—a nation that accepts strangers, encourages assimilation, is open-minded, invests in science and medicine, extols invention, competition, artistic creativity, and the rule of law, and, in short, is a land of opportunity—and a poem that has shaped a sense that America’s imagination comes from the Jeffersonian dirt of democracy. What I offer you is William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie—

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags—succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum—
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent—
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor’s family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

The suffering that the compromised Elsie epitomizes is both the suffering of the forgotten and the suffering of those who have forgotten her, like the doctor and his family, who have turned away from folk tradition. By extolling the glory of the primitive Williams is raising the specter of those who live below his own professional middle class milieu. Do we have to ask now, who are these people? They are people who are “so desolate / so hemmed round” that they struggle financially just enough to be ashamed about it but keep silent about the humiliation as a form of protection. All the data the government tabulates and reports each day about unemployment, income, and GDP, all the hourly updates on the stock market, the Dow Jones and Nikkei averages, do not capture what is happening in homes where these people are living close to the ground—

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

—and must live paycheck to paycheck in a continual state of economic danger, financial uncertainty, and cash-poor insecurity. I was reading about the emotional, not to mention financial toll on the lives of people with little net worth to draw on last spring in Neal Gabler’s “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class Americans,” published in the May issue of the Atlantic. Gabler points to recent studies that show “the inflation-adjusted net worth of the typical [American] household, one at the median point of wealth distribution, was $87,992 in 2003. By 2013, it had declined to $54,500, a 38 percent drop. And though the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 certainly contributed to the drop, the decline for the lower quintiles began long before the recession—as early as the mid-1980s.” In other words—

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

goldenrod

While earlier generations, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, spread prosperity and flattened, for a time, long-standing economic political hostilities, the 2000s have, says Gabler, democratized financial insecurity across class and racial lines.

With the US economy now demanding high skilled workers in an era with an excess supply of unskilled workers—20 million of whom are unemployed—and with the public education system not keeping up with the rapid changes in technology and globalization for an individual like Elsie with her “broken//brain,” people can get deeply frustrated. They seek populist approaches on both the left (income redistribution) and the right (better trade deals). Add to that a disturbing suspicion among whites about the growth of minorities and their growing presence and role in American society—made most visible by the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

The election of Donald Trump is a sign that white voters especially are looking for a simplistic, populist, nativist agenda from the federal government. As many post-election assessments have noted, the Brexit movement in England and similar ultranationalist gains in Austria, Hungary, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe have trended in this direction too. Historically, however, voting for extremes in economic policies worsens financial insecurity for the very people who are most at risk of getting pushed down another wrung of the class ladder. Namely, the Trump voter.

Enter Dr. Williams. “To Elsie” argues that people need to feel they are advancing in their lives. But Elsie can never have that confidence. Therefore the “pure products of America” went “crazy” two Tuesdays ago. Williams offers that middle class people like him need to reacquaint themselves with the primitive—if by primitive we may infer those whose wages have stalled or decreased, who can’t save for their children’s college or their own retirement, who live on costly credit lines, who always feel they are merely months away from losing everything with one bad break, a job loss, an illness, or worse. “To Elsie” has long shaped this American story. If William Carlos Williams is correct, we must now rise to the defense so that it does not “destroy us.”

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This is part six of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1,  234, and 5. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →