Saturday, April 06, 2013

The New Colossus

The Los Angeles Review of Books discusses the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

From the piece...

WHEN I TELL PEOPLE that I am writing my first poetry column for the Los Angeles Review of Books about the poem that is on the base of the Statue of Liberty, they often look at me quizzically, as if they only kind of know what I am talking about. They may be thinking, “Did I know there was a poem on the Statue of Liberty?” or, better yet, “Yes, I know there is a poem there, but I can’t remember how it goes or who it is by.” In order to put an end to the awkward silence that often follows, I sometimes say, “You know: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, et cetera, et cetera,’” at which point some people nod happily along and in unison with “et cetera” precisely because, if they know the poem at all, this is exactly where their knowledge of the lines ends.

In fact, it turns out that almost no one knows the entire poem that adorns the statue’s pedestal, and very few people have ever heard of the poet who wrote it. In this column — the first of what I hope will be many to come, each about a single poem, often a poem that we think we know but don’t really know — I will immerse you in the stories that poems tell, stories about their own making, about the world from which they came and the world in which they continue to exist, stories about what we as readers have done with them over time. In the case of “The New Colossus” — the formally stunning, politically subversive, yet oddly forgettable poem that Emma Lazarus composed in November 1883 and that was engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 — this story take us from ancient Greece to Hurricane Sandy, from US anti-immigrant legislation to the crimes committed against Russian Jews at the end of the 19th century, from the challenges faced by a woman poet who wrote for a very public audience to the other, silent monument that displays these lines.

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