My American Caesura

I’ve been thinking a lot about America lately. Obviously, this line of contemplation may not strike anyone as particularly surprising given the many instances of national upheaval (is that too mild a word?) we’ve all been living through. Events such as the siege on the Capitol, a historically contentious election, economic distress, the global plague, and disunity regarding the advancement of racial and social justice have, I’m sure, compelled many to take stock of what or who America currently is. But, perhaps more poignantly, some of us may be asking, as I am: who and what do we as Americans need to become in the months and years ahead to mitigate both the current disasters and systemic issues we face as a country and as citizens?

Ok, enough political talk, or at least this sort of political talk. Instead of bleating on and on, I’m going to try framing these “big” questions I’ve been asking about national identity and citizenship within my own life circumstances in a bit more personal way. Hopefully making this pivot will prevent my post from sounding like another distraught news segment on NPR, allowing it instead to feel a little more honest, a bit more vulnerable.

Most of my reflections on the future shape and shade of my citizenship in the United States stem from feelings of anticipation and anxiety about the immediate future. Right now, I’m awaiting answers from several PhD programs in English. Last semester seems to have passed by in a haze for me as I spent most free time feverishly revising letters of intent, frantically researching potential graduate advisors, and endlessly refining a writing sample. But now, even though bursts of nervous butterflies fill my chest whenever I receive an email, I’ve begun to think with a bit more urgency about what I’ve declared to these various universities regarding my ambitions for graduate study.

In my letters of intent, I pitched myself to programs as a promising Americanist of late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature. But what does “being an Americanist” even mean? What kind of “Americanist” should I aim to become? More broadly, what kinds of literary Americanists could America actually benefit from? I should clarify that here I’m less concerned with sub-field, period, or specialty within Americanist scholarship. Rather, I’m asking something more like, “What sort of academic disposition or motivation could aid in repairing the issues in front of the nation? Condemnatory Americanists? Reparatory Americanists? Comparative Americanists? Should Americanists even involve these sorts of concerns in their work?”

Now of course, I’m aware that many may not consider fields like advanced literary studies, American studies, or the humanities broadly as “essential occupations” for the country or as the key profession in remedying national problems. I’m also aware that some Americanists might argue that term or title of “Americanist” does not and should not imply any sense of being in service to the political, social, or economic troubles of country or region itself. Yet I also recognize that many might fall on the opposite side of this dynamic, feeling instead that more direct forms of advocacy and public service should become more central to the work and motivations of any Americanist (or scholars of any national, linguistic, or ethnic tradition for that matter). Here too I recognize that I’m wading into deeper water, for the question of balancing advocacy with the study of aesthetics and art, of embedding public service into professional intellectualism and academics, is an urgent conversation among many in the humanities right now.

But side-stepping these bigger questions again, I nevertheless feel that the occupation of literary studies has become essential for me, specifically in remedying those personal aspects of national identity crises which I described earlier. Literature has yielded certain affordances for my life, certain ways of seeing, thinking, behaving, and believing that have aided me greatly in grappling with questions about the kind of scholar I hope to become (if all goes well with these pesky applications), as well as the kind of citizen I want to be.

Now, for the remainder of this post, I’ll briefly elaborate one example of a literary affordance I’ve recently leaned on in order to better inspect and interrogate my own citizenship in the United States. My example centers around this potentially odd question that floated into my head after witnessing the terrible events at the Capitol building: what literary form could I use to explain or interpret what I’ve just watched unfold? Answer: the caesura.

The caesura, or the metrical pause or break in a verse where one phrase ends, and another phrase begins, is a fascinating poetic device, one that perhaps is the most fundamental and ancient of all poetic forms.[i] However, while a caesura’s presence signals the natural and expected shifts in a poem’s meter or structure, its placement within the poem can also trigger fascinating breakages or alterations to poetic meaning. Thus, while a caesura is both expected, predictable, and even inherent to a piece of poetry, a caesura’s placement can also arrive at unexpected moments within a poem, thereby triggering dramatic alterations in its interpretation and implications.

It is the dualism within the caesura’s breaking, pausing, and shifting of rhythm and meaning that, I feel, explains the term’s utilization in describing moments of cultural, political, or general history.[ii] In fact, combining the poetic features of the caesura with its cultural or historical context was what first prompted me to consider it as an appropriate term to employ as I’ve tried to comprehend what, to me, was both an unprecedented and predictable shift away from any assumptions or idealizations about the perennial security or integrity of American democracy. We’ve all experienced a rupture within our shared poem of America, a rupture that, on the one hand, completely alters the meaning of what our nation and national identity is or will be, while on the other hand is simply par for the course, deeply embedded within the structure and substance of America itself. Indeed, this rupture, a national caesura was what, to me, was so powerfully expressed—literarily and literally—in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.” [iii]

“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us

but what stands before us.”

Gorman’s poem manifests to each citizen what it means to live in a caesura, to inhabit it, look upon it . . . and then to pass through, moving into whatever phase of our national poem “stands before” each individual citizen.

Employing the caesura as a personal lens has helped to both expand and sharpen my interrogation of citizenship, as well as my goal of studying American literature and culture in graduate school and beyond. Though more caesurae are sure to continue punctuating our national and personal lives, I hope to become both the type of Americanist who thoughtfully critiques and celebrates the ebbs and flows of American culture and thought as well as the type of citizen who acts as a co-poet alongside other citizens, fostering greater cooperation and harmony within the nation and the world.

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

[i] “caesura.” Merriam-Webster online dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/caesura.

[ii] Philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe characterizes the turbulent history of the twentieth century as “the caesura in the middle” of world history, referencing specific events like WWI and WWII, the Armenian genocide, the Soviet Revolution, etc (see Lacoue-Labarthe, La Fiction du Politique: Heidegger, l’art et la politique, 1987).

[iii] https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/01/amanda-gormans-inauguration-poem-the-hill-we-climb/.

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