President Obama gave in his farewell speech a unifying label for all Americans –that of “citizen.” This perhaps is in sharp contrast to that idealistic Obama of many years ago in a convention speech exclaiming there are no blue states or red states but only the United States of America. Yet under its “united” moniker we Americans are often swirling in a soup of contrasts: Republicans vs. Democrats; whites vs. blacks; immigrants vs. native-born; young vs. old, etc. As the administration of the first black President who cut his political teeth on community organizing transitions to that of a wealthy, white real estate tycoon there is no mistaking the heightened sense of anxiety both here and abroad in these uncertain, complex times. Yet I’m reminded that the American poet Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, would remain unfazed. Instead I think he would see these events actually in line with a longstanding American memory and what he learned of the American psyche in reading American poetry. In his essay “Poetry and American Memory”, Pinsky writes
…the greatness of American culture is its ability to make it up as it goes along taking disparate elements and synthesizing resulting in such cultural products that range from the improvisational transcendent jazz of Charlie Parker to the embarrassing, dumbness of a Super Bowl halftime show. To recognize such continuities should be to acknowledge that the alleged absence of memory is an illusion: cultural artifacts, high or low, successful or failed, shining or dismal, draw on recollection. The supposed American lack of historical sense is itself in part a national myth or delusion: the nobility of Parker’s music and the half-time jumble are both acts of memory, as all cultural deeds must be.
Pinsky points out the characteristically American forms of memory concentrated on such themes as
the fragility of community, the mystery of isolation, and a peculiar elegiac quality that is almost self-contradictory in its yearning toward a past that in one way seems forgotten and sealed off, yet in another way is determinant, powerfully haunting the present.
As in the past, the arts are ever that much more essential to America not only as drivers of its outstanding creativity and innovation, but also to shore and strengthen our cultural identity as “Citizens.”