American Poetry

by Louis Simpson

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.

Notes on the Poem

With just a few striking words and images, Louis Simpson's brief but pointed poem "American Poetry", from his 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection "The Owner of the House", evinces much. Let's take a closer look. The opening line ... "Whatever it is, it must have" gets down to business most crisply ... or does it? It would seem that whatever it is, if it has "[a] stomach that can digest", it must be a living creature, correct? But then, you learn that the actually more elusive "it" must be able to digest "Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems" and as swiftly as things got under way here, you now must change your tack completely to understand what is under discussion. "It" is much broader - both verging on mechanical and brutal if it can gobble the ingredients of industry, but also nebulous and sensitive if it is also consuming the stuff of poetry. Simpson takes us next to the strength and menace of the shark, juxtaposed with the vulnerability of the image of the shoe and the imagined sound of pitiable cries. What is Simpson saying about the capacity of a society and its individuals to balance ("stomach", perhaps?) both the harshness of business and industry, and those things that feed the soul.

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