The Poem

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Last Updated on May 25, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Paul Zimmer’s “The Eisenhower Years” consists of four stanzas of varying length, unrhymed and of irregular meter, that offer a socially representative picture of the author’s poetic persona, Zimmer, over the course of a typical day in his young adult life during the 1950’s. Although this period, mostly under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a halcyon time of national prosperity in the United States, in the view of many it was also a period of cultural blandness and conformity, and of ignorance and complacency with regard to such continuing social ills as racism and misuse of U.S. power abroad. In this light, Zimmer instills the poem with a cautionary tenor—one that it introduces as early as the opening line, if only on the personal level of its protagonist—as Zimmer, “Flunked out and laid-off,” puts in a seemingly typical day working at his father’s shoe store, “Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.”

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The inherent if unacknowledged pain of the speaker’s directionless and dependent life is underscored by the substance of his work: “the feet of old women,” which “groan and rub/ Their hacked up corns together.” The women come “in agony” to the speaker, who in the reductio ad absurdum of his life, “talks to the feet,/ Reassures and fits them.”

The sense of the speaker’s aimlessness mounts in the second stanza as he returns home from work habitually to check the mail for the ironic “greetings from his draft board”—the wait for the draft notice and the military service itself composing one long rite of passage for the era’s young men, one that threatened easy or directionless lives, not with the sacrifices of war but with the imposition of greater social obligations, beyond their easy comfort. The speaker idles away the time after supper listening to music, drinking cheap wine, smoking cigarettes, and reading a best-selling novel. This spiritual indolence continues into the third stanza’s evening, when the speaker simply “goes” to bars to do, apparently, no more than drink large quantities of beer. He ends up, “in the wee hours,” alone, braced against a lamppost, a little disheveled, with a cigarette “stuck to his lips,” the stuck cigarette seemingly emblematic of the stuck nature of his behaviors and life.

In the final stanza, the poet finally comments explicitly on the speaker and the routine, vacuous world he inhabits. As he leans against the lamppost, “All of complacent America/ Spreads around him in the night.” The night and America are a “void” in which for Zimmer all that moves are “the feet of old women,/ Twitching and shuffling in pain.” His response to finding himself in this void is to sigh and drag on his cigarette, exhaling “through his nostrils” in an almost dismissive posture of hopeless deflation. The poet offers his deepest insight into the speaker, and the strongest commentary on him, in the poem’s closing lines:

He knows nothing and feels little.He has never been anywhereAnd fears where he is going.

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Last Updated on May 25, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

The personal immediacy of Paul Zimmer’s poems, particularly “The Eisenhower Years” and the other “Zimmer” poems, serves largely to make the poet himself the subject of his poetry. In characteristic twentieth century fashion, however, “The Eisenhower Years,” as do the other “Zimmer” poems, plays with such narrative and poetic elements as voice, persona, narrator identity, and uncertain distinctions between poet and the poetic voice in a poem. Through the poetic persona of “Zimmer,” the poet draws direct attention to these issues, when they are otherwise, often, only implicit considerations. “Zimmer” may be a purely fictitious character, but the persona’s name and the seemingly biographical continuities with non-“Zimmer” poems cloud that understanding. In another “Zimmer” poem, “Zimmer in Grade School” (1983), the poet, or his persona, states, “Even now/ When I hide behind elaborate mask/ It is always known that I am Zimmer.” The poet purposely obscures the fictional nature of the “Zimmer” persona, which can lead the reader to understand the “Zimmer” poems as being simply autobiographical.

An analysis of narrative voice in “The Eisenhower Years” leads to a different understanding. It is only in the final stanza that the voice analytically distances itself from Zimmer. The judgment of U.S., and by inclusion, Zimmer’s, complacency, and of the poet’s ignorance and emotional numbness, might exhibit no more than an impersonal, though editorializing, omniscient narrator; however, the “Zimmer” poems, in toto, reveal a very close identity between the poet and the narrative voice of his poems. Indeed, some of the “Zimmer” poems, as in “Zimmer in Grade School,” are written in the first person. Consequently, one might understand the voice of the narrator in “The Eisenhower Years” as that of an older Zimmer reflecting on his younger self and making characteristically harsh judgments.

The title of the poem places its retrospective character in a broader social context, as do further strains in the poem: the use of plain, even vernacular, diction, and reference to popular culture. The plain language and prosaic syntactical structures provide narrative accessibility. That “Zimmer” is, in the vernacular, “Flunked out and laid-off” signals his membership in an ever-expanding middle class during “The Eisenhower Years,” one in which his father might yet own a shoe store to provide a safety net of aimless employment.

The popular culture and popular images of the era easily evoke the texture of the times. The speaker waits for his draft notice during an affluent period of peace. He listens to Dave Brubeck, a white jazz musician whose popularity helped increase the acceptance of jazz among the white middle class. Zimmer drinks Thunderbird, a cheap wine commonly chosen by barely employed young people with little experience or sophistication. He drinks Stroh’s as well, a popular middle-American beer, in multiple pitchers, refined pleasure not being the object. He also smokes Chesterfields, a famous brand of cigarette during the era. Still, unlike young men of later eras, the speaker dresses properly, wearing a tie and an emblematic fedora hat.

Before going out for the evening, the speaker casually “lays out” with James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), a powerful novel of the time about a, perhaps, complacent United States in the days before World War II. From Here to Eternity portrays often-petty and rudderless lives as they are subsumed in a great national drama. No such immediate national drama awaits Zimmer and his United States, but history reveals that multiple national dramas—the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the rise of the 1960’s counterculture—would ultimately challenge the complacency of “The Eisenhower Years.” In the meantime, however, the speaker leans against a lamppost, his tie “loosened” and his hat “pushed back on his head,” dragging from his cigarette and exhaling from his nose with a sigh. The image suggests much of the era, including images from almost any film noir, a popular film genre of the 1950’s in which directionless young men with no great understanding of their lives are often led astray, to their own destruction.

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Themes