Alicia Ostriker, “America”

America (from The Atlantic)
Alicia Ostriker

Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
In first grade when we learned to sing America

The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
And say the Pledge of Allegiance to America

We put our hands over our first-grade hearts
We felt proud to be part of America

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
Maybe I was right about America

School days school days dear old Golden Rule days
When we learned how to behave in America

What to wear how to smoke how to despise our parents
Who didn’t understand us or America

Only later understanding the Banner and the Beautiful
Lived on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering this land is two lands
One triumphant bully one hopeful America

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America

Comment:

1. Central to the poem is “School days school days dear old Golden Rule days.” It does not simply divide the poem into two – first grade innocence and the progression of adolescent turmoil into adult doubts. It also pushes one to go back to the dictionary to find finer distinctions in what one thought one knew.

From the first stanza: “our earnestness our sincerity.” Earnestness is more serious and solemn, less about the individual. “Sincerity” is more about an individual meaning what she says, does, thinks.

Singing, then, unites earnestness and sincerity seamlessly. Further, it unites the Beautiful and the Banner. America is complete, until one has to speak. When one speaks, the possibility of saying something like “America the Invisible” increases a hundredfold.

2. “Dear old Golden Rule days:” there is a third thing the invocation of “School days” does. Kant held the moral law and freedom were dependent on each other. You couldn’t conceive of one without the other. The moral law – the categorical imperative – was pretty much a secularized Golden Rule. The ultimate formulation of the categorical, treat other people as ends in themselves, is obviously more than “treat others the way you would like to be treated.” It seems to indicate that the diversity which is each other is worth sacrificing for.

3. With singing and saying past, our speaker recounts behaving. Rebellion and anger don’t come from a lack of value oftentimes. They come from taking values very seriously and having a difficult time with hypocrisy or the questioning of their sincerity, their earnestness.

But rebellion and anger could still be from a first grade vision of the world. There is no necessary understanding, just a feeling one isn’t understood. You have to see the Banner and the Beautiful are different to understand anything. This is tricky, but I think given that America the Beautiful is about the nation’s actual landscape, the speaker is saying the Beautiful is the land and people around us at any given moment. Not what we say America is, but that we sing what is right in front of us. The trouble with reading so much into “Beautiful” is that it makes “Banner” sound like classist jingoism. Despite “one triumphant bully” in the next line, nothing is so simple. After all, the Star-Spangled Banner is about hope. You need to speak the Pledge in order to see what the words mean or don’t mean.

Perhaps the confusion is the discovery of the two lands. There is triumph (too much triumph), there is hope. But being the judge of who is just and unjust isn’t really our speaker’s place, not in the abstract. When you see the problem, you actually stand somewhat like the Statue of Liberty, siding with hope and ready to take the Pledge.

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