Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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Koch identifies a kind of “lifestyle history” as part of the American character, and though Americans surround themselves with references to the past, Koch suggests that this is merely commodity fetishism masquerading as an understanding of their literature and history and its importance to contemporary life. While his examples, designed for comic effect, might not seem familiar to the reader (who has probably never seen a blouse divided into squares with a picture of Edgar Allan Poe in each one), every reader is likely to be able to identify similar objects in American culture. Koch suggests that Americans seem to think that by wearing a T-shirt embossed with the image of a famous person they can take a shortcut to true knowledge and understanding. However, a certain malaise results from practicing blind reverence toward surface details of American history rather than attending to actual meanings. When the narrator smells the hair of the girl he is with, he gets a whiff of “the mould of [her] seaside resort hotel bedroom,” suggesting the moldiness of the lives that pass through historical resort locales as well.

Readers see very little of substance in any of the characters in the poem; thus the “You Were Wearing” title acts as an indicator of practically everything the narrator remembers about the young girl he may have met at the resort. While there is something of a nostalgic tone conveyed by the past-tense description of the happy details of this carefree summer holiday life, there is also the suggestion of lost opportunity: The boy and girl are so immersed in the images of the past they are expected to unreflectingly revere that they discover little about each other or about history, literature, or life. Koch’s poem thus acts as a caution to readers to not blindly accept what is alleged to be significant in the past but to dig toward more meaningful experiences of the past’s legacy. Everyone has been in crowds of half-alert people walking through national monument sites acting reverent because they are expected to do so. While Koch’s juxtaposition of important figures from American culture seems at first to detract from their importance, the final lesson of the poem is otherwise: It serves as an instruction to appreciate the significance of American cultural history, which, paradoxically, is the way people can best take possession of their own place within the culture and live lives that do not dote on icons of the past.

This is consistent with what Koch and the New York School poets are also attempting to do in poetry. Their forsaking of traditional poetic practices does not occur in a vacuum; rather, Koch is very conscious of literary history throughout his work. However, he suggests that the best way to honor the past is to live in the present. One is reminded that historical figures who are honored today were usually people who attempted to find new forms through which to convey the experiences of their own time. Blind reverence was not something that motivated Washington, Melville, or any of the other figures who appear in the poem. A true appreciation of the American national legacy demands that Americans live in their own moment, conscious of, but not trapped within, their own history.