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Celebrating The U.S., In Verse


If you've ever visited the Statue of Liberty, she's no doubt loomed large above you, but gaze at the statue's pedestal and you'll find Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus." 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.

Here to talk with us about poems that celebrate who we are is Tess Taylor. She's a poet and teaches writing at the University of California Berkley and she joins me from Berkley now. Welcome, Tess.


CORNISH: So when you think about Independence Day and America, is there a poem or poet that comes to mind?

TAYLOR: Well, it's interesting. We have a lot of iconic poems. One of them is, of course, that Emma Lazarus with her beautiful lifting the lamp beside the golden door and then there's Longfellow's listen my children and you shall hear the midnight ride of Paul Revere. And I think often of Whitman's I hear America singing the varied carols I hear and he praises all of these tradesman at their work and ends saying, each singing what belongs to him or her or no one else.

The day what belongs to the day, at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

CORNISH: And, I mean, is there really a lot of poetry devoted to American patriotism?

TAYLOR: It depends what you mean by patriotism. It's rather counterintuitive for poets to write in a sort of so-called patriotic way because it's the nature of good poetry to move towards mystery or uncertainty. If you say, I love America, you love America, maybe we're done and there's nothing to talk about. So for poets, a bigger tradition, I think, is the kind of poem that argues with America, that addresses America and in a way, that is our patriotism.

CORNISH: Give us an example of that.

TAYLOR: Well, a classic one is Allen Ginsberg's poem called "America" in which he says, America, I've given you all and now I'm nothing. America, $2.27 January 17th, 1956, I can't stand my own mind. America, when will we end the human war? And it's kind of a rant, almost a tirade. But what's really beautiful about it is his confidence that in being able to rant like this, he's actually belonging to America.

CORNISH: So, Tess Taylor, I can imagine that over time, this idea of what it means to be American obviously evolves, right, and especially when it comes to kind of the immigrant experience. And you flagged a poem for us called "Immigrant Picnic" which sort of speaks to this.

TAYLOR: Yeah. I liked this poem because, you know, so much about this day is about standing around at a barbeque or making a pie, these kind of joyful rituals. But, you know, even when we're doing that, we're thinking about how to belong to these larger ideas - freedom, independence, America. And I liked this poem because it seems to capture that dialogue that's going on within ourselves.

I'm just going to read the beginning for you here. "Immigrant Picnic" by Gregory Djanikian. It's 4th of July. The flags are painting the town. The plastic forks and knives are laid out like a parade and I'm grilling. I've got my apron. I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish. I've got a hat shaped like the state of Pennsylvania. I ask my father what's his pleasure and he says, hot dog, medium rare and then hamburger, sure.

What's the big difference, as if he's really asking. I put on hamburgers and hot dogs, slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas, uncap the condiments. The paper napkins are fluttering away like lost messages.

CORNISH: And it's interesting because he goes on to make jokes about the way his parents and relatives mix up American phrases, but then also to reminisce about pistachios and the Sinai, I mean, going back to his own background.

TAYLOR: Yes. He thinks about pistachios in the Sinai and then pecans in the south, the jumbled flavor of them suddenly in my mouth, wordless, confusing, crowding out everything else. So it's a poem about the way that, you know, we try to belong and the way that identity works for us.

CORNISH: Tess Taylor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TAYLOR: It's my pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: Tess Taylor is a poet and her book out next month is "The Forage House." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.