The American Brand

My talented and savvy cousin Bob says I ought to think about my brand. He’s an artist and artisan, and part of his business ( is rebranding companies. He suggests “That New York poet.”

It’s too hard to think about defining myself, performing myself, so instead I start thinking about women with instantly recognizable brands: Lady Gaga, Madonna. Condoleeza Rice? What about poets? Sharon Olds? Jorie Graham? How about Billy Collins? He’s one of the most popular poets in the U.S. What is his brand?

I slip into thinking about art in general, and then the American brand in the arts. Historically some American artists have had a huge influence in the world. I think of Walt Whitman, of Isadora Duncan, of Jackson Pollack. Of the beats. Walt Whitman: the broad-brimmed hat, the open road, the oracular free verse, the inclusiveness. Isadora Duncan: the bare feet and flowing garments. Jackson Pollack, the poured paint. Collectively, the brand is Liberty. Liberation from meter and respectability, from shoes and corsets, from brushes and perspective. No coincidence that the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, broken chains at her feet, is our enduring logo.

The literary and social critic Philip Rahv looked at American writers and defined them as either palefaces or redskins, according to how they dealt with experience. Emily Dickinson, Henry James, T.S. Eliot: palefaces. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman: redskins. The American brand abroad is definitely redskin.

(A complexity is that both abroad and at home, African-Americans are a specific vector and creator of the American brand: banana dance, jazz in the 20s, Roll Over Beethoven and Good Golly Miss Molly, moonwalk. In art they are seen as quintessentially “nature” and “freedom” (what a paradox!)—raw versus cooked. This is a stereotype, of course—even in the fields they are most stereotypically known for, dance and music, African- American step dancers, dance moves, bands, may swing but can be choreographed and performed with astounding discipline and precision.)

It must be that President Obama wants to refresh the American brand, renew the contagion of liberty. As his predecessor President Bush may have wished to do, with maybe a different definition of liberty. But Liberty Enlightening the World has a book and a lamp, not a drone and an assault rifle.

Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Poetics, Prose