I tried to find a poem for today, Independence Day, that was a celebratory ode to America, but to my surprise, found them all interlaced with a touch of criticism. From race relations to democracy failings, to questioning the American dream, poets are exempt from patriotic platitudes and as such, honest in appraisals of their country.
Even this sparkly description of 4th July fireworks from May Swenson (written in 1972) is a veiled criticism of America's foreign policies at the time - namely the Vietnam War and the Cold War. It uses language in a way that is two-sided: a wonderful description of watching fireworks on the surface, but also a violent depiction of war in which fireworks - the expression of national pride on the 4th - become an expression of death. Just look at some of the words used: 'ablaze', 'thuggish boom', 'dismembered', 'bulleted', 'suckswooped' (I can't help but think of a nuclear mushroom cloud here) - they are the words of destruction and death, bombs and explosions. The poem is also effective in conjuring the populace's attitude to the climate of the time, the fixating aspect of the threat of war, the bravura of war-mongering rhetoric, the collective consensus of 'we want more.' And the last line is particularly telling. A powerful poem, to say the least.
July 4th - May Swenson
Gradual bud and bloom and seedfall speeded up
are these mute explosions in slow motion.
From vertical shoots above the sea, the fire
flowers open, shedding their petals. Black waves,
turned more than moonwhite, pink ice, lightning blue,
echo our gasps of admiration as they crash
and hush. Another bush ablaze snicks straight up.
A gap like heartstop between the last vanished
particle and the thuggish boom. And the thuggish
boom repeats in stutters from sandhill hollows
in the shore. We want more. A twirling sun,
or dismembered chrysanthemum bulleted up, leisurely
bursts, in an instant timestreak is suckswooped
back to its core. And we want more: red giant,
white dwarf, black hole dense, invisible, all in one.