First Hispanic poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera signals a new direction for US literature

Juan Felipe Herrera. © UC-Riverside

It was recently announced that Juan Felipe Herrera is to be the first Hispanic Poet Laureate of the US. If this passed you by, sit up and take note – this is an auspicious moment. The son of immigrant farm workers, Herrera’s work reflects a commitment to working class causes as well as to explorations of what it means to be an American of Mexican origin.

This concern means that Herrera has also been engaged in re-thinking what it means to be American. Take these lines from “Are You Doing the New Amerikan Thing?”:

Are you doing that new Amerikan Thing?
Sweet thing, handsome thing, that thing about coming out, all the
way out
About telling her, her telling him, telling us, telling them that we
Must kill the revolutionary soul, because it was a magical thing
A momentary thing, a thing outside of time, a sixties thing, a sacred
thing
A brown beret thing, a grassroot thing, a loud thing, a spontaneous
thing

The poem is in the American grain: its form, its breathy line structure, its emphasis on spontaneity most obviously recall Whitman and Ginsberg, particularly the latter’s poem America. Like Ginsberg, Herrera harnesses the quotidian, and deploys repetition.

Ginsberg’s poem is an aggressive first person catalogue of charges against, and interrogations of, America itself:

America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?

Allen Ginsberg in 1975. Michiel Hendryckx, CC BY-SA

But Herrera’s questioning is directed towards the people of America. As such it represents an attempt to establish community across time and space: the revolutionary consciousness transcends any particular cause; it must not be quashed, the poetic voice suggests.

The poem is dedicated to “all movement, ex-movement and anti-movement affiliates”, in reference to the movimiento, the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Herrera came of age. As the poem, and that dedication reveal, Herrera’s writing does not uphold a strict cultural nationalism. The scope is broader.

Herrera generally focuses on trans-American themes, seeing his work as an opportunity to think about “the complex of my identities as Chicano, Latino, mestizo, Indian, American”. James H Billington, the Librarian of Congress, was correct, then, to suggest that Herrera is a poet who illuminates “our larger American identity”.

Changing America

And this is an important time to be foregrounding the question of that larger identity. With immigration a hot topic in the States, it is salient to note that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Hart-Celler Immigration Act. This abolished the quota system instigated by the restrictive 1924 Johnson-Reed Act and set in its place a policy of attracting families and skilled labour from abroad.

The effect on the population of the United States has been well documented. On the occasion of the 1990 census, William O Henry observed in an oft-cited Time Magazine piece, Beyond the Melting Pot:

Someday soon, surely much sooner than most people who filled out their Census forms last week realize, white Americans will become a minority group.

Henry’s phrasing seemed designed to deliberately invoke the words of that famous immigrant to the US: J Hector St. John de Crévecœur, whose Letters from an American Farmer (1782) is sometimes (problematically) described as the first work of American literature.

While Crévecœur answered his famous question “what then is the American, this new man” with the claim that “[he] is either a European or a descendent of a European”, Henry pointed out that if current trends continue:

By 2056 the ‘average’ US resident, as defined by Census statistics, will trace his or her descent to Asia, Africa, the Hispanic World, the Pacific Islands, Arabia – almost anywhere but white Europe.

And Henry’s assertions seem to have been borne out: according to the 2013 American Community Survey the immigrant population of the country stands at almost 41.4 million, or 13%, while the proportion of the world’s international migrants living in the US is just over 20% (the population of the US is about 4.45% of the world’s total). As the writer Shirley Geok-Lin Lim has observed, the US in the late 20th century shifted from being a “white majority nation to a multiethnic nation of minorities”.

Since “Latino and Hispanic” is the largest of those ethnic minorities, great symbolic importance will be attached to Herrera’s appointment. And rightly so.

But it is just as important to have a poet laureate who refuses to be tied to any particular subject position, language, or artistic form (Herrera performs his work, too), and who understands that a poem is “a way to attain a life without boundaries”.