Writing about America is frustratingly hard and stupidly easy, impossible to get right and impossible to avoid. If you're writing in the U.S. about anything outside yourself, you're writing about the U.S. and it probably makes you a little crazy.
It's a big, messy country, and some poets have managed to write big, messy poems about it; I reread Ginsberg's "America" every July 4th and, though stylistically and temporally removed from me, the poem feels right. It's on the long list of things that I could never have written but really wish I had.
I tend to go the other direction, toward the small and contained, and so I'm always thrilled to find models. This poem by Rich Smith, from an old issue of New Ohio Review (Spring 2016), is probably another piece I couldn't have written, but it has intelligence and empathy in it that manage to both inspire and bemuse. Though so much shorter and tighter, it might say just as much about this country as anything else you're likely to read today.
THE MOST AMERICAN THING I'VE EVER SEEN
A man in a rented Mickey Mouse suit
stands on Santa Monica Pier, ready to be photographed
with tourists. Years of sun and industry have damaged
his Mickey Mouse ears, weakened the fabric
so much they won’t stand stiff on their own.
He has to hold them up with his cartoon pillow hands.
But he also has to wave at people to advertise his trade.
So he waves. But then his ears flop over.
So he reaches up to right them, to hold them up
until he feels the need to wave again,
which he does. But then his ears flop over.
So he reaches up to right his ears again
until he feels the need to wave. Which he does,
with his foot.