Like Cranes on the Wing
Two American poems written in the late 1800s, when considered side by side, perhaps serve to prefigure contemporary polarization in these “United” States. The first of these is famous, though its author is not. An occasional sonnet, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” was published in 1883; in 1903, it was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
Lazarus wrote the poem, after a bit of convincing apparently, as a donation to an auction of art and literary works, the purpose of which was to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue. “The New Colossus” was the only entry read at the auction’s opening, but it was not read or displayed at the opening of the statue in 1886. Thanks to the efforts of Lazarus’s friend, Georgina Schuyler, a plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Neither French law professor and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, who is generally credited with the idea for a monument, nor the young sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, who ran with the idea and created the statue, intended that it serve as a beacon of welcome to all comers; rather, the monument was intended to serve as a memorial to U.S. independence. Though not a great poem, “The New Colossus” demonstrates just how much a poem can matter. Arguably, its presence changed the statue’s purpose from one merely honoring a nation’s independence to one contributing to the mythos of our country the image of the United States as a place of welcome, of opportunity and compassion. The gates to this nation, the poem insists, will be forever guarded by a “mighty woman with a torch . . . .”
A poet with a much greater contemporary reputation than Emma Lazarus (though he is largely unknown today), Thomas Bailey Aldrich, found the sentiment expressed by “The New Colossus” both dangerous and foolhardy. In his now infamous, though infrequently anthologized poem “The Unguarded Gate,” published in 1895, Aldrich expressed viewpoints that were prevalent during the late 19th century—nativist, even xenophobic notions that have been with us from the nation’s beginnings. In 1753—more than 20 years before the American Revolution—Benjamin Franklin worried that heavy German immigration into Pennsylvania would leave the English colonists there unable to preserve their language or government. In the early years of the American Republic, the Federalist Party of George Washington and John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to limit immigrants’ influence in American politics. In the 1850s, it seemed entirely possible that anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, instead of the antislavery Republicans, would become the Democrats’ main rivals within America’s two-party political system. It should, therefore, come as no surprise to see such ideas represented in these lines from Aldrich’s poem:
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates
Neither should it come as a shock that the latter years of the 19th century brought with it such anti-immigrant laws as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1882.
What interests me particularly is how the speaker of the Aldrich poem sees the gates to my country as unguarded, while the speaker of the Lazarus poem sees them, instead, as well-guarded. It is, of course, a matter of perspective, of what one imagines. As a first generation American, one whose parents were allowed passage through these gates, I have a great interest in all of this. I struggle with the idea of exclusion, of borders and immigration, of political and social permeability. This was driven home, several weeks ago, as I spent spring break at a friend’s lake house in Virginia, tentatively assembling the manuscript that I hope will emerge as my third published book of poetry. Inevitably, the process of constructing a larger coherent narrative out of individual poems written toward a book reveals to the writer certain themes that have become subconscious fixations. It was a minor revelation to see that passage and permeability, as well as a consideration of the pluses and minuses associated with the choices one makes in relationship to these notions, revealed themselves as themes in poem after poem. In “Spiritual Poetry: Nine Gates,” Jane Hirshfield identifies various poems that represent, for her, nine gateways “into spiritual life.” For me, every poem I read or write provides such a portal. Poems are gateways to the imagination, and for me it is the imaginative act that keeps hope and possibility alive. Consider this poem by Japanese Zen monk Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831):
The night is fresh and cool,
It is the poem’s final gesture, the freedom the speaker finds to imagine himself as something other, something quite different, that makes this one of my favorite poems. It was the same powerful act of imagining that made it possible for my parents to forge new lives in a sometimes hostile foreign environment. In Ryokan’s poem, that staff in the second line might be used either as support or as a cudgel, and both sorts of assistance were required by my parents as they made their way through the gate and into the pine trees that “are full of poems,” into a new country pregnant with many gateways to spirituality, gateways that would have been unavailable to them in the place from which they had escaped, Communist Romania.
I have always had an active imagination. As a child, I loved losing myself in books. In elementary school, I’d daydream a lot; I’d sometimes look around the room and imagine myself melting down all of the metal objects—the trash can, the pencil sharpener, the globe, the bracket that held the American flag to the wall—and casting bullets from them, bullets I’d use in a war against evil-doers who dared to oppress me or the people I loved. It was imagination that provided my gateway into poetry and into the spiritual life, and it is imagination that makes this world bearable for me. Even when I poke my head through the membrane of a wrong-minded poem like “The Unguarded Gate,” I can make of it a holy place. Should I walk through the entrance to the gated community in Florida where Trayvon Martin recently lost his life—mostly because he looked like he didn’t belong on the side of the border he occupied—, should I bring my imagination to bear, I can make of it a church. I can even make a spiritual place of the dehumanizing nursing home where my mother slowly dies in the irrational world of her own imagination; even that place is full of poems. “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French writer, poet and aviator. If we can make of rock a place of the spirit, we can certainly make the same of human beings. The Statue of Liberty was cast from melted copper. In 1886, it was the tallest structure in New York. It was a new colossus indeed, a powerful bullet. Imagine the “wild motley throng” and how their own imaginations must have taken hold when the mighty woman with the mild eyes came into view. The world surely became a church then, and the immigrants all became priests, rabbis and goddesses; the prayers they said all were poems, and the gates of that safe harbor, well-guarded so as to allow no interference from the Aldriches within, opened in answer to those supplications. Like cranes on the wing, the poets and poems came floating in.
|No. 11 - Spring 2013
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