In 1976, the U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned John Ashbery to write a poem for a touring exhibition to commemorate the nation’s 200th birthday called “America 1976: A Bicentennial Exhibition.” Not surprisingly, the resulting piece is one of Ashbery’s most self-consciously “American” works (standing alongside another magnificent poem, “The One Thing That Can Save America“).
“Pyrography” is a capacious, moving, elusive tribute to what Emerson (and Cavell) call “this new yet ever unapproachable America” — its history, its myths, its contradictions and enduring mysteries. The poem begins:
Out here on Cottage Grove it matters. The galloping
Wind balks at its shadow. The carriages
Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.
This is America calling:
The mirroring of state to state,
Of voice to voice on the wires,
The force of colloquial greetings like golden
Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.
Ashbery, true to form, is highly self-conscious about being asked to play Whitman — about the task of writing about “America” as a whole: he realizes that “if we were going / To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today, / It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details / So as to be able to include them.”
“Pyrography” insists that the story of the United States is found not in monuments or textbooks but in the everyday, our everyday: “maybe the feeble lakes and swamps / Of the back country will get plugged into the circuit / And not just the major events but the whole incredible / Mass of everything happening simultaneously and pairing off / Channeling itself into history.”
Not a bad thing to put on your reading list for this July 4th weekend — it even has a parade in it! Here’s the last stanza:
The parade is turning into our street.
My stars, the burnished uniforms and prismatic
Features of this instant belong here. The land
Is pulling away from the magic, glittering coastal towns
To an aforementioned rendezvous with August and December.
The hunch is it will always be this way,
The look, the way things first scared you
In the night light, and later turned out to be,
Yet still capable, all the same, of a narrow fidelity
To what you and they wanted to become:
No sighs like Russian music, only a vast unravelling
Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond
To these bare fields, built at today’s expense.
You can read the rest here. Happy July 4th!