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The New Colossus (The Power of a Poem)

Poetry has power.

The Bible is a long collection of poems. Even though much of it appears to be written somewhat in a prosaic form–it is broken down into verses, much like the seemingly endless epics of the ancient world. And Proverbs? Pure poetry. Psalms? Poetry. Exodus 15, the Song of Miriam and Moses? Song of Solomon? Bitch, please. This isn’t just some idle pastime. Then ask any Muslim; the Quran is one long, rhythmic, rhyme of God-recited poem. And between the Bible, the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (the Gospels), and the Quran–you have a collection of poems that darn near fueled every movement of modern, recorded history of mankind.

Here in America, the inspiration of this nation is carried on the back of a little known poem entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry“. (By the way, that wasn’t misspelled)  You may not know the poem, but every red-blooded American knows the first stanza. Go ahead, take a look

Then there are the two most beautiful, most defining sentences ever written about and for Americans–the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble–which guides and states what this nation is all about (or supposed to be), as wonderfully worded as they are, as poweful as their meaning, as enduring as their purpose, as memorable as they are, and as easily as they flow from the tongue… I would strongly argue that they read like a poem:

The Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident

That all men are created equal

That they are endowed by their Creator

Certain inalieable rights

That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

–Thomas Jefferson

The Preamble

We the People of the United States

In order to form a more perfect union

Establish justice

Insure domestic tranquility

Provide for common defense

Promote the general warfare

and secure the blessings of liberty

To ourselves and our posterity

Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

–Senator Gouveneur Morris

Poets may not seem to be in a very lucrative field of work. As an English major at my alma mater, I once mentioned to my mother that I might try and become a poet–she laughed. but some of the most influential writers we read and quote today were poets. Monarchs and Generals alike of yesteryear valued poets. Most wealthy families of ancient times employed or commissioned poets. Even in America, each U.S. President appoints a Poet Laureate–the offical Poet of the nation–a highly prestigious post for any academic, and many state governors appoint their state’s Poet Laureate. Sure, you don’t make much money–but long after some random millionaire is dead and gone, people will remember and live by the words of a poet.

Statue-of-Liberty-Chains31Which brings me to the purpose of today’s entry. The Statue of Liberty (interesting bio, by the way–make sure to watch it) was brought to America to symbolize the Republic and as a symbol of America’s independence. However, an art fund that took part in raising money to construct the foundation of the statue–which was a gift to America from France–a Jewish poet named Emma Lazarus, born to Portuguese immigrants, donated a poem to be read at a fundraiser. It was well-loved but soon forgotten about until a decade after her death, when the poem was engraved and placed at the pedastal of the statue until 1986 when it was removed. The poem, entitled “The New Colossus”, was named for one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Greek Colossus of Rhodes. Lazarus’s poem was an ode to the Statue, which stood taller than the original Colossus, but welcomed ships at the harbor to the “twin cities” (New York and Brooklyn were known at the time, since they were originally two separate cities)–as well as the poor immigrants aboard those ships.


Our nation’s leaders argued and fought over what would be on the Statue of Liberty. She was originally to bear a broken chain, symbolizing the end of slavery–but no one wanted a national symbol to be abolitionist. She was to wear a hat given to emancipated Roman slaves, but they didn’t want that either and chose to give her a halo/crown symbolizing the seven seas. Then there was the tablet she holds in her left hand–and they chose to simply inscribe the date “July IV MDCCLXXVI”, the date of our independence. The artist, a supporter of Abolition, decided to keep the chain, but half-hid it under her robe and placed it at her feet where it could not be seen from afar. Despite what our Congress intended the Statue to represent, the inscription on the plaque and the fact that the Statue was the first piece of America new immigrants would see, the Statue of Liberty for over a century has represented immigration and America’s willingness to receive them. This is a nation of poor, lowly and downtrodden immigrants. Together we make a rich and powerful nation stronger than the original Colossus ever was. And we are held together by the lyrics of a poet’s work.


The New Colossus

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 a 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 lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

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