The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

“In California” consists of six unrhymed stanzas of four lines each, with irregular line lengths, in which the speaker reflects on his geographical and historical situation. Louis Simpson, though born in Jamaica, settled in New York City in 1940—hence, the reference to his protagonist’s “New York face” in line 2 of the poem. He begins the poem on the California coast (“the dream coast”), having come from New York and finding himself among business and outdoor types (“realtors/ And tennis-players”). He feels out of place on this western edge of the nation. What he has seen, and how he feels, has left him with a “dark preoccupation.”

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The second stanza recalls the westward movement, the “epical clatter” (line 5) of the pioneers making their way through Tennessee and Ohio, toward where the speaker stands, reflecting on the music and spirit (“Voices and banjos”) of their quest to settle the new land. Then, heaven regarded this westward advance favorably. Now, the “angel in the gate” (line 8) above the Western coast witnesses the “dream” unfolding, not becoming involved in human affairs.

Stanza 3 opens with an address to Walt Whitman, who celebrated the American pioneering spirit in the nineteenth century and wrote exuberantly of the westward expansion. The “King and the Duke” (line 10) are characters in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); these clownish charlatans call themselves the Duke of Bilgewater and King Looy the Seventeen of France. The poet tells Whitman to step down from his poetic promontory overlooking the march west and join the fictional King and Duke on their journey down the Mississippi with Huck Finn and the escaped black, Jim. Placing the great poet of the American dream with two charlatans suggests that the speaker sees the epic voice mocked by the reality of what the dream has become: a collection of realtors and tennis players and rows of sailboats in a marina facing Alcatraz Island with its notorious (but defunct) federal penitentiary. Here, he says, the pioneers should turn back.

Still addressing Whitman, the speaker in the fourth stanza continues to explain why he believes the pioneer spirit of early America has vanished: “We” have lost the capacity—courage, intellectual scope, vision—to “bear/ The starsthose infinite spaces” (line 14). Capitulate, he tells Whitman; give up the mountain from which the American dream was envisioned. It will be parceled up and sold for tract homes as the valley has been. This thought reminds the poet of past civilizations that have died: Babylon and Tenochtitlan. Those cities were but precursors to what the poet sees around him, a dying empire.

In the final stanza, the poet realizes that the human spirit can neither “turn” nor “stay”; it must be ever in motion. The American pioneer has been stopped at the western gate, has fallen into a materialistic sleep, and has lost the spirit to surge onward. The poet’s final lines separate the somnolent populace from the pioneering spirit itself, which the poet sees in a final vision as a train of “great cloud-wagons” advancing beyond the Rock, the Marina, and the subdivided valley. Its spiritual pioneers continue “dreaming of a Pacific.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

The poem’s structure combines convention with free form. A quick glance reveals evenly spaced and numbered stanzas, each line begun with a capital letter, each stanza consisting of exactly four lines. On closer examination, however, the form opens: The lines do not rhyme, have no regular length, and lack conventional metric form. The poet clearly wants phrasing to determine line length and keeps the rhythms near natural speech. The regular stanzaic structures provide secure parameters in which the reflective spirit can move back and forth geographically and historically. Visually, the poem advances evenly and surely, while the emotions stir in phrasal eddies.

Attention is thereby divided between conventional structure and the poet’s voice and mood, between ideas and conventional techniques. By fencing the open linear form with regular stanzas, the poet exactly suits his mood and theme, which dwell on the abandonment of an ideal, of a defunct dream that could not—or did not—hold up under the advance of the pioneer spirit.

The poem’s allusions give symbolic weight to the poet’s argument. California, its realtors, yacht clubs, and subdivisions, all symbolize the failure of the dream, a vulgar distortion of the epic vision of which Walt Whitman sang and which he symbolizes here. The poet’s vision sweeps over thousands of years of history, with specific allusions to Babylon and the ancient Aztec city. In this way, the poet’s ideas do not fade in a welter of abstract concepts. Despite the generalized diction—phrases such as “the fabulous raft” and “those infinite spaces” are characteristic of the poem as a whole—the pictures that emerge from the language and the allusions are sufficiently clear. The poet’s ideas are sustained by suggestion rather than by graphic detail, by allusion rather than by vivid imagery. Though “epical clatter” (line 5) is alluded to, one does not hear it in the “Voices and banjos,” nor does one smell the “incense” or see very distinctly the “angel in the gate.” If Babylon “astonished Herodotus,” one does not see his astonishment, but one feels the weight of the ideas nevertheless, because the voice of the poet brings the reader into his vision with his allusions, moods, and rhythms.

One feels from the start that one is hearing the reflections of a somewhat demoralized witness to a sad reality—that one is overhearing him. He assumes that someone is listening, absorbing his mood as his phrases carry the poem along: “Here I am, troubling the dream coast.” His mysterious voice awakens a desire to know, to follow along, listening to the echoes of his despair reverberate through history as he sweeps the reader along toward his final apotheosis. His commanding tone reinforces this march forward: “Turn round the wagons here,” he says, then, “We cannot turn or stay,” and if the poem tells more than it shows, the final vision nevertheless leaves the reader with a majestic image of “great cloud-wagons” floating beyond the dying land where the poet is left with his “dark preoccupation.”

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Themes