EMMA LAZARUS AND THE POLITICS OF POETRY
by James C. Henderson
Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, in their book, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, say that the sonnet is a poetic form that features “one strong opening statement of eight lines” and then poses an “emotional or intellectual question” that is resolved by the last six lines of the poem. This is a major reason why, the authors say, the sonnet has endured in popularity since its invention in the 13th century. This is why I think poetry itself has endured: it provides a form in which to present, wrestle with, and resolve emotional and intellectual questions. This is why it makes a perfect place to discuss politics.
Poetry, however, is not often used to discuss politics–it resides in the lyric of personal not public expression of how the poet feels and relates to a non-political environment that is timeless and universal, not topical and specific. I don’t know why this should be because poetry is of the moment and poets react to elections and taxes as much as they do to truth and beauty, even if they don’t recognize it in their art. Nothing is more personal than if you have enough to eat, a job, or if the nation goes to war in your name, but poets shy away from voicing an opinion on these matters. Maybe it is because they think politics and economics are baser instincts, beneath them, and not fit subjects for poetry. Poets also prefer to examine how truth and beauty affects them in the abstract after the fact, to consider how events affect them rather than see themselves affecting events, as recipients of experience rather than agents of change
It is true that policy involves practical matters of dollars and cents, physical security, our health and well-being–the mundane–and poetry is a reflective art form, very often designed to place meaning on the emotional aftermath of experience and to elevate it to a lofty place beyond space and time. This is a valid and valuable function–I most often write in this mode–but the opposite is also true: poetry is of the moment, perpetually in the act of creation, of becoming. Politics relies, in the main, on methods to preserve the status quo. While poetry’s modus operandi is the personal, it is insistent on freshness and on the breaking of new ground; politics is intent on compromise and the maintenance of power. Poetry threatens business as usual with its mystic power to transform, for wearing its open and willing heart on its sleeve. That is perhaps why its euphoric nature has translated as a means of working out a personal dilemma rather than a public dilemma. Because poetry relegates itself in this way, it is not sought out by politicians as counsel or judge, who are most grateful, I’m sure, that poets don’t weigh into the important issues of the day because poetry has great power to move and inform as a champion for humanity versus institutional systems. Poets thus leave the field to those who think there is no place for humanity in politics.
Poets all over the world need to come together to avoid the pragmatic immediacy of politics in favor of a more refined subjectivity, to stop playing to the stereotype of poetry, causing poetry to be seen as esoteric and sophisticated, at worst self-indulgent, naive, and trivial. Maybe poets feel incompetent in politics, that it is a game with rules so labyrinthine and prosaic that it is not worth their time and talent, or maybe they feel uncomfortable with its tribalism, its rationalized, hard-hearted view of the world. Politicians, on the other hand, have clearly not eschewed emotion. If you pay attention to the current political rethoric, you will recognize that they are selling candidates and policies on nothing but emotion: patriotism, anger, greed, and fear. Feeling is all for politicians–everything is personal to them–some even stating that facts don’t matter as long as their position sets right in their hearts. While discounting poetry’s significance in politics, it has not stopped politicians from using it to deliver some of our most memorable political statements. From the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama, their authors recognizing poetry’s power to persuade. Poets, however, have largely abrogated their role as a persuader in politics and have thereby refused poetry its a place in the possible resolutions that could be offered in its lines. It could work toward making public policy more humane; it could advocate for changes in public policy that would benefit the people instead of the public policy we have now that benefits only those who have already benefited from it.
It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. I understand it is difficult to remain in the poetic moment, the sphere of sensitivity, when hammering out the details of a deal behind closed doors in a room figuratively filled with smoke and literally filled with egos motivated not by the aesthetics of poesy but by highly-honed and firmly-held self-interests. But why shouldn’t we make policy decisions based on a discussion of emotional and intellectual questions as well as those posed by and for political expediency? Why can’t we campaign and govern in poetry? When done well, poetry can do more than move the soul–it can shape good public policy.
A case in point of a poem that has greatly influenced public policy is the poem written by Emma Lazarus entitled, “The New Colossus.” It is a sonnet written as part of an effort to raise funds to build a pedestal for a really big statue the people of France were giving to the United States as a gift to commemorate the American Revolution. One hundred and fifty-one feet tall (305 feet tall with the eventual pedestal), it was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. The statue, a robed female figure of copper representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, was entitled, La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty Enlightening the World. Today we know her as the Statue of Liberty, and she is a symbol to all who enter the Harbor of New York City that America welcomes immigrants to its shores.
It was not intended to be so. America sought to use it as a symbol of republicanism, not the party but the form of government, the idea that civic participation was the heart of a representative democracy. It had little or nothing to do with immigration except that Bartholdi placed his statue on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor because he knew, if located there, everyone passing in and out of the harbor would see it. It wasn’t until Emma Lazarus wrote her now famous poem that the Statue of Liberty became associated with immigration. Emma Lazarus’s poem shaped the way we see the Statue of Liberty and, in turn, the way many Americans view immigration policy.
THE NEW COLOSSUS
by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I life my lamp beside the golden door!”
When first asked to write a poem to help the fundraising effort for the statue’s pedestal, Emma Lazarus declined, saying she could not write a poem about a statue. But when she saw the statue not as a cold, copper edifice, but as a metaphor of motherhood, her poem, “The New Colossus,” was born. “The New Colossus” is a Petrarchan sonnet of 14 lines in which the first eight lines (the octave) pose the emotional and intellectual question—what to do with all those people around the world who seek to emigrate from horrendous, untenable environmental, economic, or political conditions—and the last six lines (the sestet) pose the resolution to the problem—send them, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to me, to America.
As I write these lines, I hear shrieks of horror rising from many Americans across the nation, deriding Emma Lazarus’s poetic sentiments, claiming with conviction that more immigrants coming to America will hasten the ruin of the country, citing possible violence, diminishing resources and, questioning the motivations of immigrants themselves, the fairness of immigration. I, on the other hand, have always thought of the sentiment voiced by the Statue of Liberty to be the single most important ideal that makes America great—that we accept to our shores anyone seeking to be free or seeking to build a better life. I have always loved this poem. Growing up, I thought the poem was not only a great poem about America’s immigration policy–I thought was America’s immigration policy. It is not, however, I have come to realize, America’s immigration policy. It was once, though, when America needed people to populate its vast and stolen western wilderness from the 18th century until immigration quotas were instituted in the 1920s.
Beyond its basic humanity, Emma Lazarus’s poem resonates with me because it addresses the global conflict between the haves and the have-nots and comes down on the side of the have-nots. This line from her poem rings especially true to me: “Keep, ancient lands (read here the aristocracy of the ruling class of Old Europe) your storied pomp (your self-righteous and self-aggrandizing view of your own self-importance).” Maybe I love the poem because, living under austerity programs of the rich, I feel an immigrant in my own land, one of the “wretched refuse of [our] teeming shore.”
It is not surprising Emma Lazarus was a socialist. She did considerable work in New York City with Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. She did not see the nation as a republic in abstract, but saw it as its people. She did not celebrate the prosperity of the nation but celebrated how that prosperity could be shared with people, how it could ease the plight of the people and how immigrants could enhance the prosperity of the nation. She came from a wealthy family, but she did not espouse sacrifice for those less fortunate. She saw the emotional side of immigration, how it affects the lives of real people, and her poem has become, because of her political sentiment in poetry, exemplifying the graciousness that poetry possesses not only for the self but for society. Her poem perfectly encapsulates what America stands for.
“The New Colossus” was not the only poem written for the pedestal fundraiser. Mark Twain, James Russell Lowell, and others contributed work, but Emma’s was the only poem read at The Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition held in 1883. It was only read once, then it slipped into obscurity until 1903 when a bronze plaque inscribed with the poem was mounted on a wall inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus did not see her poem immortalized in this way. She died in 1887, at the age of 39, likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. She is buried in Beth-Olom Cemetery in Brooklyn. Her poem continues to inspire immigration policy. It continues to do so because it sets right in our hearts.