The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Claribel Alegría’s “The American Way of Life” is a nonstanzaic, 206-line poem about the poet-speaker’s visit to three American states: California, Pennsylvania, and New York. The speaker, who does not live in the United States, had visited America once before, but so long ago that she “nearly forgot” what the country and its people were like. The poem offers commentary on several aspects of American life and ends with the speaker’s personification of America as a “bitch” who “chews up” minorities as if they were “Chiclets.” The American way of life, the poet predicts, will be destroyed.

The poem opens as the speaker is “swallowed” by the state of California’s “hypnotic tangle/ of freeways” viewed from an airplane. An escort who drives the speaker from the airport asks if the speaker has forgotten “the American way of life?” The speaker visits “the Sanctuary,” where she is “presented” to her “‘compatriots’” who come to America without papers (“the ‘eternally undocumented’”). These “undocumented” people are “transparent” as “they slide through Mission Heights” or work as servants in a wealthy San Francisco Bay area neighborhood. After work, the immigrants gather together in “unsafe” houses, or houses where they can be found, to watch Americans riding in pleasure boats around the island of Alcatraz. The speaker’s escort explains that “three hundred undocumented”...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The American Way of Life” is a didactic narrative poem. The poet describes particular personal experiences that lead her to her revelation that the American way of living is doomed. Alegría persistently alludes to the Bible, beginning with a reference to the battle of Jericho, from the Book of Joshua. Santa Barbara, California, beaches are referred to as “Edenic,” and the word “Bethlehem” is punned in line 103. Finally, the poet’s vision of the destruction of the American way of life draws heavily on the Book of Revelation (17:6 and 6:13), because New York City reminds the speaker of the whore of Babylon as well as Babylon itself.

As with most of the poems in the collection Woman of the River, the poet uses short lines and iambic meter. The varying line lengths (usually one to three feet, but occasionally even a five-foot line) contribute to the drama of the poem. The lines of the poem are sparsely punctuated, and most of them are end-stopped—the sense of the words is found in the line.

Alegría is expert at presenting brief, strong images, and images in “The American Way of Life” are no exception. The reader moves quickly from an aerial view of San Francisco Bay to the bell tower on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, to “the chained gates of Bethlehem Steel” in East Los Angeles to young skateboarders the speaker watches from the sidewalks of New York. In this poem, Alegría presents her...

(The entire section is 485 words.)