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Emma Lazarus and the Politics of Poetry

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” that 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. I believe this is because so many think that there is no place for emotion in politics, especially in the formation of policy. Policy involves practical matters of dollars and cents, physical security, our health and well-being. Poetry is seen as a reflective art form, one designed to evaluate the emotional aftermath of experience, to place meaning on what has already happened rather than to participate in the moment. It has a reputation for self-indulgence, a means of working out a personal dilemma, not a dilemma of a society or a nation. In the fray of politics, poetry is considered well intentioned but too delicate, at worst, trivial.

This is a failing of poets, more American than world poets, who have dropped politics from their poetry, avoiding its pragmatic immediacy in favor of a more refined subjectivity. Politicians, on the other hand, have clearly not eschewed emotion. If you pay attention to the current political campaigns, you will recognize they are selling candidates and their policies on nothing but emotion: patriotism, anger, and fear. Some of our most memorable political statements have been delivered emotionally, using poetic language. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Gettysburg Address, to the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama, their authors recognizing poetry’s power to persuade. Poetry has largely abrogated its role as a persuader in politics and refused it a place to discuss emotional and intellectual questions and possible resolutions that could be offered in its lines.

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 lofty rhetoric, when hammering out the details of a deal behind closed doors in a room filled figuratively with smoke and literally with egos motivated not by the aesthetics of poesy but by highly-honed and firmly-held

self-interests. But why should make policy decisions based more on the discussion of emotional and intellectual questions in poetry rather than relying solely on political expediency? When done well, poetry can shape good policy.

A case in point of a poem that has been greatly influenced 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 Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. The statue, a robed female figure of copper representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, was called, Liberty Enlightening the World. Today, we know her as The Statue of Liberty, and she is a symbol to all that 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. 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’ poem shaped the way we see the Statue of Liberty and, in turn, the way many Americans view immigration policy.


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 of 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, presents the problem—the need for immigration around the world—and the last six lines, the sestet, 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 coming from conservatives across at 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 diminishing resources and, ironically, fairness. 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—we accept to our shores anyone seeking to be free. 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 it was America’s immigration policy. It is not, however, trust me on this, America’s immigration policy. It was once, though, when America needed people to populate its vast wilderness from the 17th century until immigration quotas were instituted in the 1920s.

Beyond its basic humanity, Emma Lazarus’s poem resonates with me as an Occupier because it raises the global conflict between the haves and the have-nots and comes down on the side of the have-nots. This line rings true to me: “Keep, ancient lands (read here the aristocracy of the 1%, like 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, under the austerity programs of the 1%, I feel an immigrant in my our land, one of the “wretched refuse of [our] teeming shore.” Maybe it is because, when we Occupiers occupied parks and plazas in the fall of 2011, the police sent the (literally) “homeless, tempest-tost to [us].” They did this to burden and to discredit us, but we did not turn out these people. Instead, we said they were us, and accepted them as who they are—members of the 99%. We didn’t lift our “lamp beside the golden door.” If we had the city would have a passed a regulation outlawing it—but we fed and sheltered them as best as we slept outside in the cold.

It is not surprising Emma Lazarus was a socialist. I hear more shrieks of horror from conservatives. She did a lot of 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. She came from a wealthy family, but did not espouse austerity for those less fortunate. She saw the emotional side of immigration, how it affect the lives of real people, and her poem has become, because of her political sentiment in poetry, the perfect encapsulation of 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 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. Her poem continues to inspire.