Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-dnltx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-21T05:34:02.727Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

American Poetry and Private Real Property

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2012


This article examines the ways in which American poetic practice and thematics map a conception of private real property as it has developed uniquely on the North American continent. I explore how the Land Ordinance of 1790, the Preemption Act, the Homestead Act, and other land-use policies shaped a conception of the developing landscape as divisible into a vast agglomeration of private enterprises mediated primarily by the transfer of title deeds. The impact of private real property beliefs and practices, I argue, has shaped both the practice and the reception of American poetry (and other cultural products) for at least the last 150 years. I incorporate the insights of cultural geography – particularly the work of John B. Jackson, Carl Sauer, and Scott Freundschuh – to understand how the last century's building practices and the reorganization of the landscape, particularly in western metropolitan areas, find imaginative expression in poetry. Although mine is not a law-in-literature approach, I contend that modern/postmodern poetry operates in a way that depends on the very exchange values of the late capitalist property system it often critiques.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Consider the regular but limited radio poetry programs in the mid-century, the unremarked recordings of the late century, and the uneven popularity of author readings and spoken-word performances throughout, not to mention the difficulty of sustaining intentional collective literary enterprises such as the Black Arts Movement or Chicano poetry.

2 Ellen Eve Frank, expanding on Ruskin, claims for nineteenth-century poetry a function of cultural memory storage and shelter from the weather of change. Frank, Ellen Eve, Literary Architecture: Essays toward a Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 219–27Google Scholar.

3 Brinckerhoff, John, , Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 318Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., 102.

5 Conceptions of copyright, rooted in an eighteenth-century understanding of property rights and coded in US law since 1790, would make for a fascinating study of literature's role as a mediator between the perceptive domains of private individuals. Clearly, US copyright law, as originally envisioned, was intended for the public good, not the private, inasmuch as the owner/author was, after 14 years, compelled to relinquish ownership under a kind of automatic, intellectual eminent domain principle. Despite this, we have always treated modern poems as belonging to specific owner/authors. Land, unlike language and imagination, is of a fixed quantity. Although there are copyright speculators who have no hand in creation (for example music publishers), these are not the same as land speculators.

6 Duffy, Bernard, Poetry in America: Expression and Its Values in the Times of Bryant, Whitman, and Pound (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978), 6Google Scholar.

7 Meyer, Kinereth, “Landscape and Counter-landscape in the Poetry of William Cullen Bryant,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 48, 2 (Sept. 1993), 194211CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 198.

8 Jackson, 315.

9 Jackson elsewhere points out, somewhat contradictorily, that the history of American architecture to the present day has been marked by building methods that produced cheap, purposefully temporary dwellings suited to working families: box houses, log cabins, slab houses, shotgun shacks, even mobile homes. Colonial houses in the Tidewater, for example, were for the most part shoddy affairs that could be easily disassembled and moved to new plots when the tobacco farmer had worn out the land he occupied. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 145–47, Thomas Jefferson remarks that private buildings in the colony are, in the main, “of scantling and boards, plastered with lime … ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.” He further contends that an “unhappy prejudice prevails that houses of brick and stone are less wholesome than those of wood,” resulting in a temporary housing stock that bodes ill for the yeoman citizenry which Jefferson saw as necessarily rooted the land. One is reminded that Thoreau, two generations later and several states away, purchased his famous cabin from a local family in need of quick cash and then had it moved in pieces to Walden Pond, and that when he had concluded his experiment in self-sufficient living, he abandoned his abode.

10 One need not look far to find exceptions to this claim. Among poets, Robert Lowell, as rooted to a landscape at once historical and familial, springs to mind. So do poets such as Robert Frost, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, and Robert Bly, all of whom claim their occupations of a particular tract of ground as representing their relations to the social order.

11 Kees, Weldon, The Collected Poems, 3rd edn (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

12 Walter, E. V., Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 142Google Scholar.

13 This is partly why Foucault responds to Bachelard with his heterotopoanalysis, which attempts to shift the discussion outward to spaces of social deviance and public exclusion; that is, to the multidimensionality of shared property. Because the United States does not have a tradition of peasant farmers or aristocratic landowners, the populace tends toward the kind of historical mobility imagined by medieval Europe as chaotic, even sinful. For this reason, both Foucault's and Bachelard's conceptions of private real property are of only limited use to a discussion of the American experience.

14 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), xvii.

15 Ibid., xxvii.

16 For a trenchant study of the small-scale “landscape” of the still life see Costello, Bonnie, Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

17 Siegfried Giedion identifies George Snow as the originator of the building method, although Walker Field bestows this distinction on Augustine Taylor. Paul Sprague agrees with Giedion but dates the first balloon-framed building to 1832. Ted Cavanagh finds evidence of balloon framing as early as 1804 along the Mississippi River. In any event, the practice was well established by the late 1850s, when William E. Bell described the balloon frame in his construction manual.

18 Field, Walker, “A Reexamination into the Invention of the Balloon Frame,” Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians, 2, 4 (Oct. 1942), 329CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 26.

19 An investigation of how Williams, in this poem and numerous others (e.g. “The Widow's Lament in Springtime,” “The Young Housewife,” “The Poor,” “Proletarian Portrait,” “Dedication for a Plot of Ground”), encodes domestic and political gender roles in his evocations of “place” is worth pursuing.

20 Lambert, Craig, “Image and the Arc of Feeling,” Harvard Magazine, 103, 3 (Jan.–Feb. 2001), 3943Google Scholar, 39.

21 Oppen, George, Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 32Google Scholar.

22 Perhaps synecdoche is more accurate. After all, nothing quite symbolizes the American Dream, defined by private ownership of land, like the grass lawn.

23 James Dougherty discusses at some length Whitman's use of the “panorama” in a different, more literal, sense of the word. See Dougherty, James, Whitman and the Citizen's Eye (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

24 Even a poet as scrupulous to tread lightly on the soil, always ready to challenge the capital property relations implied in the circulation of American poetry, as Gary Snyder occasionally turns the imaginatively experienced terrain into a private reserve: “The little cabin – one room – / walled in glass / Meadows and snowfields, hundreds of peaks. / We lay in our sleeping bags / talking half the night / … / You down the snowfield / … / Me back to my mountain and far, far, west.”

25 Dougherty, 163.

26 Burke, Kenneth, “Policy Made Personal,” in Bloom, Harold, ed., Walt Whitman (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 2760Google Scholar, 27.

27 Ibid., 30.

28 If a field does not look like a field, is it a field? If a poem does not look like a poem …? In 1855–56 A. W. Von Schmidt, under contract with the US government, was sent to survey the Owens Valley of California, establishing townships and sections, and recording his work on plat sheets. For some hundreds of years the Paiutes, incipient agriculturalists, had been irrigating “fields” of native plants, digging their canals so that they conformed not to the rectilinear models of Euro-American canals, which went straight from here to there, but to the lay of the land, so that gravity and topography could work the water to the right places. Near Baker Creek, close to what is now Big Pine, Steward indicates many small “creeks” and “dry ravines,” which upon closer inspection turn out to be an extensive complex of manmade irrigation ditches. Von Schmidt, however, literally could not see the meandering “creeks” as the canals that they were. See Lawton, Harry W., et al. , “Agriculture among the Paiute of Owens Valley,” Journal of California Anthropology, 3, 1 (1976), 1351Google Scholar.

29 Ryden, Kent C., Mapping the Invisible Landscape (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Ibid., 37.

31 The one exception that springs to mind is Robert Frost, whose poems have become American public property. Readers visit them like tourists at a “living-history” farm.

32 Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006), 13Google Scholar.

33 Kogl, Alexandra, Strange Places: The Political Potentials and Perils of Everyday Places (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), 7994Google Scholar.

34 O'Hara, Frank, The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), xGoogle Scholar.

35 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), 123Google Scholar.

36 On the other hand, the parkway, such as the one that linked Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles in 1940. In following the topological contours of the Arroyo Seco, or “dry gulch,” the Pasadena Freeway seems like an almost “natural” way of going out and going home, a modern version of the dirt wagon trail it once was. The Merritt Parkway, begun in the 1930s to link metropolitan New York to Fairfield County, Connecticut, struck users as so consonant with the rural landscape that families picnicked in the grass between lanes.

37 Freundschuh, Scott, and Egenhofer, Max, “Human Conceptions of Space: Implications for GIS,” Transactions in GIS, 2 (1997), 361–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Schiff, Stephen, “Big Poetry,” New Yorker, 14 July 1997, 6067Google Scholar.

39 Costello, Bonnie, “Art and Erosion,” Contemporary Literature, 33, 2 (Summer 1992), 373–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 374.

40 Ibid., 375.