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  • Contemporary U.S. Poetry and Its Nationalisms
  • Juliana Spahr (bio)


Just weeks after September 11, 2001, Charlotte Beers, a prominent adwoman often associated with the J. Walter Thompson agency, was hired by the U.S. State Department as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. Among her projects was the publication of an essay collection to be distributed by U.S. embassies called Writers on America: Fifteen Reflections. This publication is an unusual example of old-fashioned, government-sponsored literary propaganda. It could not be distributed within the U.S. because of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids domestic distribution of propaganda materials intended for foreign audiences by the State Department.1 It features fifteen American writers, among them poets laureate Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, writing about and celebrating being an American. George Clack, executive editor of the publication, states in his introduction that the [End Page 684] publication "could illuminate in an interesting way certain America values—freedom, diversity, democracy—that may not be well understood in all parts of the world." With obvious nationalism, the writers featured in Writers on America promote U.S. freedoms. And much of the work omits the negative role that the U.S. government plays in the lives of its citizens and does not reference the hugely detrimental impact that the U.S. government has had on the lives of citizens of other nations. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, for instance, writes: "Everything was possible in the United States—this was not just a rumor, it was true. He [her father] might not grow rich overnight, but he could sell insurance, import colorful gifts from around the world, start little stores, become a journalist. He could do anything."

Writers on America is just one example of the George W. Bush administration's peculiar interest in literature. In this article, I will tell the story of this interest through the genre of poetry, affirming T. S. Eliot's claim that "no art is more stubbornly national than poetry" (8). This story will be full of oxymoronic synergies between nationalism and privatization, the same oxymoron that so defines contemporary capitalism. It will note how the Bush administration returned most of the National Endowment for the Arts funding that was cut during the Clinton years and the NEA's partnership with the Boeing Company. And it will focus on the special synergy between the Bush administration and the Poetry Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded during the reign of Bush. I will also tell a related story about poetry's resistance, which I will locate in the movement poetries of the 1960s and 1970s and the development within the U.S. of a poetry in English that uses other languages, a formal gesture that I read as contesting poetry's frequent nationalism. As I tell these stories, I rely upon work by Steve Evans, George Yúdice, Mark McGurl, and Pascale Casanova, all theorists who mix close reading with a sort of sociological formalism indebted to Pierre Bourdieu and others. Among the assumptions upon which this article rests is the belief that nationalist U.S. poems are more likely to be well-crafted, English-only explorations of the emotional life of first-world citizens than the obvious explorations [End Page 685] of American freedom that make up Writers on America or rousing supports of various wars.

While I will be arguing that there is an intensification of interest in literature's possible nationalism during the Bush years, it is not that the U.S. has completely dismissed the idea that literature and other arts are useful tools in nationalism. During the cold war, the Central Intelligence Agency established and funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which published magazines, held cultural events, and provided funds to numerous writers and artists so as to disseminate their work in Western Europe.2 But it is also worth noticing that there is an aura of belatedness and also a lack of interest that shows up again and again in any direct relationship between the U.S. government and the arts. The U.S. government tends to do less direct funding of the arts in comparison to European...


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