- Fortunate Son: Stevens, Frost, and My Introduction to American Poetry
WHENEVER MY FATHER would sing one of the endless number of Persian folk songs he knew by heart, his tone-deafness was such that I would immediately slip a Prince cassette into the tape deck to drown out his voice. But during the times when he would forgo his forays into apartment karaoke in favor of impromptu recitations of the poems of Hafez, Saadi, and Rumi (which often occurred while he was weightlifting in the middle of our living room), I could not have been more rapt an audience were I to have been at the Six Gallery the night Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl.”
There is an easy answer for why my father’s spoken-word performances happened as often as they did: those poems had sustained him in the years after he had fled Iran and begun to create a new life in America. In other words, my introduction to poetry was through a man who believed it was capable of keeping alive a world that had been otherwise completely lost to him. Hafez, Saadi, and Rumi (or, as my father liked to say, the other Holy Trinity) were the keepers of a joyous, imaginative, free-spirited Middle Eastern flame that neither the SAVAK nor, later, the Ayatollah could douse with their devastating mixtures of autocratic brutality, intellectual fascism, and spiritual cruelty. Poetry had, not to put too fine a point on it, been instrumental in maintaining my father’s optimism during some of the most difficult years of his life.
Fast forward fifteen years to the bookstore at UC Santa Barbara, where, in between classes one afternoon, I read a selection of Wallace Stevens’ and Robert Frost’s poetry while thumbing through a literary anthology whose title I can no longer recall. In the time it took me to finish the bottle of water I had purchased a few minutes earlier, I had experienced my Beatles-on-The-Ed-Sullivan-Show moment. I was, in short, converted.
While my father’s love of his favorite Middle Eastern poets first gave me the sense that poetry was capable of sustaining a relationship to a no-longer-accessible landscape, what I found in Stevens and Frost gave me something else. They were the first poets whose work helped me make sense of the world I was actively inhabiting. Their work enabled me to critically navigate an America whose mystery, beauty, terror, pathology, [End Page 123] and mythos often seemed much too complex to even grapple with, and more importantly, gave me a profound sense of what it meant to be an inheritor of and a participant in the national experience.
All of which is a long way of explaining why two of the handful of poems I have ever committed to memory are “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” They represent, as far as I’m concerned, the Alpha and Omega of the American Psyche.
Perhaps only The Great Gatsby is “Disillusionment’s” equal in warning one away from the materialistic siren’s call that is the American Dream, as the housewives in the poem, their sterile nightgowns mimicking the white robes worn by patients in a hospital or an asylum, are trapped in the presumably large houses they have long dreamed of residing within. Stevens’ listing of the stylistic variations these women have chosen to reject in favor of the plain white nightgowns—“green / Or purple with green rings, / Or green with yellow rings, / Or yellow with blue rings”—reinforce the overall sense of imaginative lack so often present in a culture forever succumbing to its homogenizing impulse (CPP 52). Indeed, lack is the overriding quality of the America described in the poem: these houses lack husbands, children, love, food, conversation, sex, warmth. Even Betty Draper thinks the world these women inhabit is an awfully dispiriting place.
However, for all my avowed love of “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” it is a poem that represents the direction I did not want to take in my own poetry. There are other, better writers who have successfully devoted their careers to...