So I’m having one of those days, a rainy kind of day though it’s perfectly sunny and I find myself in Iowa City, Iowa where although it’s very hot, the cheer factor of an excellent American midwestern university town is extant, palpable, almost in every street and shop. This is a small city that people generally like. With it’s famous Writer’s Workshop, performing arts center, International Writing Program, theater scene, excellent music venues, it beats many bigger cities when it comes to having or sustaining what used to be called “cultural life” but which I think we should now call “imperatives.” Citizens should have access to clean water, safe streets, health care, adequate housing, educational opportunities, recreation, and of course, whatever it is we mean by poetry. As Walt Whitman would say, the states themselves are the greatest poem. Places and people are sacred compositions. We forget this at our peril. And this is why it’s a rainy day. Rain is coming down on the public squares, those rich places of imagination, and perhaps this is more evident to me in the little burgh of Iowa City than it is in my current hometown of Syracuse, NY. Syracuse is a “rust belt town” and her people have been fighting for civic life and human dignity for years. In Iowa City one could always take certain standards—decencies—for granted. But no longer. Not anymore.
I won’t say Iowa City is dying. But the town is in trouble despite a host of upscale new restaurants and shiny aluminum skinned high-rise condominiums. The governing class in Des Moines has ruthlessly pursued policies that relocate resources from the public interest—“the commons”—assuring the top 1 % gets “breaks”—which in a rich agricultural state means the freedom to no longer support cultural treasures. It’s a cycle of cynicism and pork—the little people get less and less; the elites get plenty. In Iowa this means abandoning a century of support for excellence in public education. The current Governor and State Legislature have been strangling the state’s universities for over 20 years.
This is what makes visiting Iowa City so interesting. The town’s not dying in the manner of Syracuse. But a casual walk across the University of Iowa’s campus reveals an institution which doesn’t have a functioning art museum nearly ten years after a devastating flood. The art department’s old buildings (with the Horatian chestnut, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est” carved above the door) stand in ruins. The school’s treasured art collection still resides in other cities. The university’s board of trustees has recently praised the university for postponing a new museum and instead, continuing to investigate the matter. The board of trustees is an embarrassment.
Locals know the town is in trouble. Despite the influx of upscale restaurants and tony coffee joints and new mini-skyscrapers the town’s biggest industry, education itself, is starting to starve.
The best book on how states like Iowa “got here” is Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
The sun is out but it’s a rainy day.
One thinks of Rolf Jacobsen’s poem: “The Age of the Great Symphonies” here translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly:
The age of the great symphonies
Is over now.
The symphonies rose toward heaven with real magnificence—
Sunlit clouds with thunder
Over the brilliant centuries.
Cumulus under blue skies. Coriolanus.
Now they are coming back down again in the form of rain,
A banded, stone-colored rain on all the wave lengths,
Covering the earth like a wet overcoat, a sack of noise.
Now they are coming back down from the sky,
They bounce of the skyscrapers like electric hail
And seep down into farmers living rooms
And roll over the suburbs and brick-oceans
As immortal sound.
A rain of sound,
“You millions of this earth, embrace”
So as to deaden screams
Every day, every day
On this earth which is thirsty and takes them back into