CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (29): Emma Lazarus and Liberty Lighting the World … “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

Emma Lazarus, 1849 – 1887

In a letter to Emma Lazarus about Alide, an episode of Goethe’s Life. the Russian novelist Turgenev wrote  “An author who writes as you do is not a pupil in art anymore; he is not far from being himself a master.”

 “Emma Lazarus is a new name to us in American poetry, but ‘Admetus’ is not the work of a ‘prentice-hand’; few recent volumes of verse compare favorably with the spirit and musical expression of these genuine effusions of Emma Lazarus.” The Boston Transcript, c 1871

“What Emma Lazarus might have accomplished, had she been spared, it is idle and even ungrateful to speculate. What she did accomplish has real and peculiar significance. It is the privilege of a favored few that every fact and circumstance of their individuality shall add lustre and value to what they achieve. To be born a Jewess was a distinction to Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race.” Josephine Lazarus, Emma’s elder sister who gather her poems together and published them in two volumes, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 1881

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus

EMMA LAZARUS, poet, writer and activist, was by all accounts shy and she died at thirty-nine years, much too young. Nonetheless she accomplished a lot in addition to that for which she is most well-known, The New Colossus, the sonnet that is on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) in New York Harbor, having been installed there in 1903.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas. The J. Clarence Davies Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas. The J. Clarence Davies Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

“The copper statue, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, was built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886. It was a gift to the United States from the people of France. The statue is of a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess, who bears a torch and a ]a tablet evoking the law upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue is an icon of freedom and of the United States, and was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad.” [Wikipedia]

In fact Lady Liberty greeted my own father and maternal grandparents and their children as they entered the harbor just as she probably did for the families of those reading here today. Their children and grandchildren learned the poem by heart in school. I suspect the majority of us took the ideals expressed as our own.

The bronze plaque inscribed with Emma Lazarus' poem, The New Colassus.

The bronze plaque inscribed with Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus.

A hymn to America, the “Mother of Exiles,” The New Colossus, was written to raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

The New Colossus – 1883

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus

Emma came from a large Sephardic-Ashkenazi family, the father’s side from Germany and the mother’s side from Portugal. Her maternal great-grandmother was also a poet.  Emma’s first book of poems was published by her father when she was fourteen and apparently showed much promise. She continued to write poetry and eventually wrote a five-act play, a novel and a short-story as well.  She was a linguist, editing and translating works from the German, notably those of Goethe and Heinrich Heine. She wrote fourteen essays entitled Letters to the Hebrews. She was a forerunner in advocating a Jewish homeland, predating Theodore Herzi. She was friends with and an admirer of the American political economist, Henry George, who was instrumental in the birth of several reform movements of the Progressive Era. Essentially, George believed that workers should own the value of what they create, while the land should be held in common. Ralph Waldo Emerson was both friend and mentor.

Emma Lazarus received many posthumous awards. The Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award is sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society (New York and Massachusetts) and P.S. 268 in Brooklyn is named for her.

Life and Art

Not while the fever of the blood is strong,
The heart throbs loud, the eyes are veiled, no less
With passion than with tears, the Muse shall bless
The poet-sould to help and soothe with song.
Not then she bids his trembling lips express
The aching gladness, the voluptuous pain.
Life is his poem then; flesh, sense, and brain
One full-stringed lyre attuned to happiness.
But when the dream is done, the pulses fail,
The day’s illusion, with the day’s sun set,
He, lonely in the twilight, sees the pale
Divine Consoler, featured like Regret,
Enter and clasp his hand and kiss his brow.
Then his lips ope to sing–as mine do now.

– Emma Lazarus

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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE POETS (26): May Sarton … when poet becomes woman, “Sisters, My Sisters”

May Sarton (1912-1995), American poet, memoirist and novelist

May Sarton (1912-1995), American poet, memoirist and novelist

“The creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes. Under all the superficial praise of the “creative” is the desire to kill. It is the old war between the mystic and the nonmystic, a war to the death.”  May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Eleanore Marie Sarton – nom de plume, May Sarton – was born in Ghent in Belgium to an English portrait-artist and interior-designer mother, Mabel Eleanor Elwes, and George Alfred Leon Sarton, a chemist and historian renown as the father of science history.

When the German invasion of Belgium began in August 1914 the family escaped to Mabel Sarton’s mother’s home in Ipswich, England. From there they traveled to America and settled in Boston so George Sarton could teach at Harvard University. May came from a family of gentle nonconformists and her maternal grandfather was among the original Fabians.

“Perhaps every true poem is a dialogue with God … when we are able to write a poem we become for a few hours part of Creation itself.” May Sarton in The Practice of Two Crafts, Christian Science Monitor (1974)

51ryhQbcxtL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_May Sarton’s parents did not belong to any church but she seemed to feel that her parent’s views were not inconsistent with those of the Unitarian Church.

Interviewed in The World in 1987, she told Michael Finley, “My father and mother believed that, though Jesus was not God, he was a mighty leader, and the spirit of Jesus, the logos of him, is the worship of God and the spirit of man.

“At the age of ten May was introduced to the Unitarian church by her neighborhood friend Barbara Runkle, whose family attended the First Parish in Cambridge. May was impressed by the minister, Samuel McChord Crothers, whose sermons she thought “full of quiet wisdom.” One sermon in particular, she recalled in her memoir At Seventy, 1984, “made a great impression on me—and really marked me for life. I can hear him saying, ‘Go into the inner chamber of your soul—and shut the door.’ The slight pause after ‘soul’ did it. A revelation to the child who heard it and who never has forgotten it.” The Encyclopedia of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

May began writing early and her first poems – sonnets – were published in Poetry magazine in 1930. Her other love was theatre and she abandoned a scholarship to Vassar to study theatre and to eventually found  a theatre company. However, in I Knew a Phoenix, Sketches for an Autobiography she wrote that when her first collection was published she focused on writing and “never looked back.”

Her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears Mermaids Singing is considered a “coming out” book and her work was then labeled lesbian and featured in women’s studies classes. She regretted the label seeing it as limiting, which it is.  May Sarton wrote about the experiences, fears and other emotions that are part of being human. Journal of Solitude, for example, is a meditation on aging and the changes aging brings to life, on solitude ( a frequent theme in her work), on love affairs and creativity. May Sarton’s true gifts are poetry and memoir and not to be missed. Her novels – as she knew and admitted – were good but not top-notch.

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”  May Sarton, Journey of Solitude

The following poem, Sisters, My Sisters, is one of May Sarton’s most well know poems. She reads it herself in this video. It was originally published in Kenyon Review in 1943 and is in Selected Poems of May Sarton.

If you are reading this in email, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view it.

cover57866-medium“Nous que voulions poser, image ineffaceable
Comme un delta divin notre main sur le sable”
– Anna de Noaille

Dorothy Wordsworth, dying, did not want to read,
“I am too busy with my own feelings,” she said.

And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout

Are strange monsters who renounce the measure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.

Dickinson, Rossetti, Sappho — they all know it,
Something is lost, strained, unforgiven in the poet.

She abducts from life or like George Sand
Suffers from mortality in an immortal hand,

Loves too much, spends a whole life to discover
She was born a good grandmother, not a good lover.

Too powerful for men: Madame de Stael. Too sensitive:
Madame de Sevigne, who burned where she meant to give

Delicate as that burden was and so supremely lovely,
It was too heavy for her daughter, much too heavy.

Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation
Did any one succeed or learn to fuse emotion

– May Sarton, excerpt from Selected Poems of May Sarton (recommended)

***

“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
― May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude 

© portrait, Don Cadoret; poem, Sarton estate

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (24): Julia Alvarez, The Woman I Kept to Myself

Dominican-American Julia Alvarez (b. 1950), novelist, essayist, poet, educator, a prominent critically and commercially successful literary Latina

Dominican-American Julia Alvarez (b. 1950), novelist, essayist, poet, educator, a prominent critically and commercially successful Latina

“Even I, childless one, intend to write
New Yorker fiction in the Cheever style
but all my stories tell where I came from.”
Family Tree

It’s always a special pleasure to explore the work of those who dance on the hyphen, who don’t quite fit here or there and have to make something new out of their life circumstance. Unique qualities of clarity and color seem to come from the richness inspired by bilingual skills and from that uncomfortable hyphenated place with its singular view. It leads as it must for any observant person to the rigorous exploration of the human condition and of cultural and gender-based stereotypes.

” … definitely, still, there is a glass ceiling in terms of female novelists. If we have a female character, she might be engaging in something monumental but she’s also changing the diapers and doing the cooking, still doing things which get it called a woman’s novel. You know, a man’s novel is universal; a woman’s novel is for women.”

UnknownFrom the hyphen the Dominican-American Julia Alvarez birthed her first gift to us, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin Books, 1991), a semi-autobiographical young adult work followed three years later with In the Time of  the Butterflies (Algonquin Books, 1994). The first book gave us the immigrant experience. The second established Julia as a writer who wanted to go a step beyond to bring to light and bare witness to the events – tragic, liberating and inspiring – of las hermanas Mirabal (the sisters Mirabal), known as Las Miraposas, the Butterflies. They were four sisters at the heart of the fight against the rule of the Dominican despot, Rafael Leonidas Truillo. He had three of the four sisters murdered along with some 50,000 other Dominicans and Haitians.

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It’s not surprising that Julia Alvarez chose to write about Las Mariposas. She was born in New York in 1950 when her parents first attempted to establish themselves in the U.S., but she lived her early years in the Dominican Republic. She lived there until she was ten years old when her family was forced to leave the country after Julia’s father participated in a failed attempt to overthrow Truillo.

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I think that one of the reasons I began as a poet, and poetry was my first love, in English, was because … I especially like cadenced, rhymed poetry, and poetry in English was a way of still speaking Spanish. Because it made language more musical, more cadenced…rhyme, of course, because every other word in Spanish rhymes with an “a” or an “o” ending, so there was a way in which, to me, English poetry was a way to speak Spanish in English.

Over the past twenty-five years, Julia Alvarez prolific pen has poured out fiction for adults and young adults, collections of essays and, of course, poetry.  The Woman I Kept to Myself (Algonquin, 2004) is a collection in which she explores her life from the perspective of middle age …

We learn through what we love to love the world —
which might be all that we are here to do.
Meditation

There are seventy-five poems, each composed of three ten-line stanzas, a consistency that has inspired some mixed reviews. I find this style rather sophisticated and it lends cohesiveness to the work, which is certainly a celebration of the quotidian. Sometimes the conclusions are what is to be expected … nothing exciting, just life as usual; something accepted, not fought against. There’s a certain virtue in that.

We make our art
out of ourselves and what we make makes us.
Tom

© 2016, Jamie Dedes; portrait is from Julia’s Amazon page.

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (23): Gwendolyn Brooks, Journalist, Poet, Living in the along …

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“Live not for Battles Won.
Live not for The-End-of-the-Song.
Live in the along.”
Report from Part One

There is so much about Gwendolyn Brooks and her work that is remarkable and goes beyond the awards and acknowledgements, though these are many and prestigious and often firsts for her gender and race.

In 1968 Gwendolyn Brooks was named Poet Laureate of Illinois. In 1985, she was the first Black woman appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, known then as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Frost Medal, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but within a few weeks of her birth her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, her true roots and the source material for her poetry. She lived in Chicago until her death in December 2000. According to the family and friends who surrounded her at the end, she died as she lived with pencil in hand.

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“But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.
Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side streets.
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darknesss not a word did they say.”
Old Marrieds

Gwendolyn’s first poem was published in a children’s magazine when she was thirteen years old. By the time she was sixteen 75 poems were published. Her first collection, A Street In Bronzville, was published in 1945. She never completed college because she saw herself as a poet and not a scholar. Maybe this is one reason why her poetry is so unselfconscious and down-to-earth.  There’s no posturing. It’s real and readable.  She experimented with many poetic forms and is known for her innovations to the sonnet. She seems to have invented a few forms of her own. Though her subject matter is serious and always compassionate and practical, often compellingly spiritual, she can – and often is – funny, even Suessian on occasion.

In writing of a particular time, place and people – as a journalist poet (a phrase she coined) – she not only chronicled the soul and lives of a people, she captured the essence of the eternals – the follies, the challenges, the good, the loving and the enduring – in the human condition, in the human soul … “To be in love,” she wrote, “is to touch things with a lighter hand.”

Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.
Annie Allen

Was she a student of Eastern mystics or Meister Eckhart? I rather doubt it. What we have here is a good woman writing from the perspective of her own sacred space, her refined intelligence and her acute observation and imagination. She certainly also writes out of the deep love she has for her people, the exploration of the complexities of being Black in America, and her rootedness and familiarity with the South Side of Chicago. I unreservedly recommend Gwendolyn Brooks for the sheer pleasure of her poetry, for some more understanding of the Black experience in America if you are not Black, for a connection with your roots if you are Black, for your understanding of your own soul and for your education as a poet.  If you haven’t met her yet, do so as soon as you can. A good place to start is with The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks from the American Poetry Project. It has a fine introduction by Elizabeth Alexander.

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John, Who Is Poor
Give him a berry, boys, when you may
And, girls, some mint when you can
And do not ask when his hunger will end
Nor yet when it began
(From Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956)

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We Real Cool

“We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.”

― Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, Journalist Poet, reads We Real Cool (If you are viewing this post from an email, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to see it.)

“She was learning to love moments. To love moments for themselves.”
Gwendolyn Brooks

© 2016, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; poems, Gwendolyn Brooks  estate; photograph of “Winnie” stone is in the public domain