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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

My eighth grade year was the Bicentennial year, and to celebrate our class put on a play. Our ever-enthusiastic music teacher Mrs. Enright put together a musical revue of U.S. history. The only part of the play I remember was singing the give-me-your-tired-your-poor portion of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus.” I can still sing it today, every note and every word. I thought it was beautiful then and I still do, the way the song builds to that grand last line: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (You can hear it here.)

 

We’ve come a long way from the golden door. These days I’d be singing, “I lift my lamp beside the silver cage.” Or as a host on Fox News put it, “walls made of chain link fences.”

 

I spent the afternoon driving around looking for chain link fences to post a bunch of poems, quotes and song lyrics I hadn’t used from the last go-round with a hot-button immigration issue. Surprising how many facilities use chain link fence and in how many different ways. None of the fences I found, obviously, are as horrifying as the ones in the news.

 

I’ll post my pictures without much comment.

 

On the fence enclosing a high school football stadium I left the poem mentioned above, Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” which is the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

poem is to the left of “Field is Closed” sign

 

The line “Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me” is lovely to sing when you know the melody.

 

On the fence of a dog park I left excerpts from “home” by Warsaw Shire

 

Warsan Shire is a British-Somali poet. You can hear her read the poem in its entirety here.

 

On the fence of an abandoned loading area for a big retail store I left Seamus Heaney’s “Mint.”

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poem is above blue trash

 

“Like the discarded ones we turned against

Because we’d failed them by our disregard.”

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On the fence surrounding the tennis courts of a local park I left words from Pope Francis.

poem is in center of picture and fence

 

The Pope delivered these words back in 2013 on the isle of Lampedusa which 166 African immigrants had drowned trying to reach.

 

On the fence surrounding a cemetery I left a portion of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

 

Johnson wrote the song in 1900 in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Listen here.)

 

On the fence of a school for disabled children I left William Stafford’s “Experiments.”

 

“I whine . . ./ when the wind carries what is out there/ too near the room where my comfort is.”

 

Finally, I left a selection from the gospel of Matthew on the fence surrounding a country club golf course.

poem is between trees on a pole

 

Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous of all asylum seekers.

 

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poem is on red post in foreground

poem is on red post in foreground

A Note to the Alien on Earth

by Miller Williams

 

Here, in the interest of time, some words to work with,

assuming you’re pretending to be a man

or woman and understand English. If this should find you,

know that I’m glad to help any way I can.

 

A letter beginning “Dear Friend” is not from a friend.

A “free gift” is redundant and not free.

A teenager is sex with skin around it.

The one word used as much as “I” is “me.”

 

People who are politically correct,

which means never offending by what they say,

will lie about other things, too. Be careful with them.

And people insulting groups of people may

 

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

What you say is not what anyone hears.

Be wary of one who is always or never sad.

And try to be patient with us. It looks bad,

but we’ve only had a few hundred thousand years.

 

 

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If the overload of cruelty and carnage in the world makes you want to hide in a shed with a year’s worth of canned goods and rom-coms, Miller Williams is here to coax you out. With his gentle humor and folksy wisdom, Williams tells us that yeah, we’ve got trouble, but nothing that a little patience and understanding can’t make right.

 

For sure this isn’t poetry to set the world on fire, and for sure his ribbing doesn’t address the very worst of modern American problems. He limits his catalogue of our ills to the culture of marketing and politics of division–but just relax for a moment and enjoy. As mothers of teenagers love to tell mothers of toddlers, little problems can be a relief sometimes from much worse ones.

 

Here, in the interests of time, begins his Spark notes on the human race. Because the poem begins and ends with a mention of time, I posted the poem near a clock tower in a northern Michigan resort town.

 

I love this explanation of one of our most salient traits:

 

people insulting groups of people may

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

 

And all of us who enjoy standing on the soapbox now and then should heed this line:

 

What you say is not what anyone hears.

 

Miller Williams is turning into a regular feature here on Poem Elf. (Link here and here for past posts.) I love his lack of pretension, his sweetness, his habit of looking things square in the eye and speaking plainly. He’s a modern day Will Rogers. Others have described him as “the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.” (Quote from the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Williams.)

 

(The other thing I love about Miller Williams is that he’s the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Her sublime “Are You Alright” has been playing in my head since I dropped my youngest off at college a few weeks ago. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, listen here.)

 

I’ve already written a bio of Williams in an earlier post, so I’ll just copy and paste:

 

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930.  His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas.  Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science.  He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology.  Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby.  There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.

Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford.  Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.

 

 

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As a rule, Poem Elf works in secret, but today I made an exception.  In broad daylight I handed the Walt Whitman election poem to campaigners outside my local precinct. I was nervous, but there was no need to be.

 

I had expected more crowds and more last-minute campaigning, but outside the high school where I voted, only four people, representing one amendment and one candidate, approached voters.  Just as they started their pitch (Are you voting today?/ Here, have a pen), I asked if I could give them something instead. They seemed pleasantly surprised.  Don’t know if they’ll actually read the poem, but they liked the idea that the poem celebrated our electoral process.

 

Once inside, I watched a woman rocking a 4-week old baby step out of line to calm her newborn.  When she got her baby to sleep (I wish I had taken a picture of that face, those pink little lips settled, the sweet eyelids relaxed), she resumed her wait to vote. “How do you like getting up at 3 in the morning?” one of the precinct workers asked her.  She smiled but her bleary eyes answered best.

 

Then in came an old friend, a woman of great grace and fortitude who is facing serious illness. As she waited in line, she leaned against the door at times to rest. Exhausted and in pain, she was nonetheless eager to vote on the issue most important to her.

 

Two beautiful women, both voting in spite of hardship.  I didn’t need Whitman’s poem to admire their resolve, but his words did make their participation in the democratic process more poignant to me.   

 

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Expressing gratitude we risk platitudes and cliché, but I can’t help myself on this election day.  Voting is a marvelous and wondrous event!  Divisions and partisanship have filled our airwaves, mailboxes, answering machines and possibly our thoughts for months now and I’m wondering, couldn’t we all just hold hands for one minute and sing a Coke commercial or something, maybe sway or cry at the same youtube video or break bread together or fail to notice other people’s bad personal odors or offensive views, just something to remind ourselves that we may be opposition today, but we are enemies never, and countrymen first.

How about a poem to do all that, a Walt Whitman poem (no Levis allowed) to celebrate our “powerfulest scene and show.”

If I get up my nerve I may hand “Election Day” to anyone who shoves a flyer in my face at the polling station.  I’ll report back tomorrow.

Election Day, November, 1884

 

by Walt Whitman

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and
show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor
your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic
geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor
Mississippi’s stream:
–This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still
small voice vibrating–America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the
quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–
Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the
peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
–Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify–while the heart
pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

 


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