Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Like Americans

(Bennington, 1945, by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma”
Moses, 1860-1961, American painter)

And so, we come to the end of our month-long celebration of the American experiment.

“I want no criticism of America at my table. The Americans criticize themselves more than enough,” said Winston Churchill (1874-1965), English statesman, writer, and historian.


I like Americans.
You may say what you will, they are the nicest people in the world.
They sleep with their windows open.
Their bathtubs are never dry.
They are not grown up yet. They still believe in Santa Claus.

They are terribly in earnest.
But they laugh at everything . . .

I like Americans.
They give the matches free . . .

I like Americans.
They are the only men in the world, the sight of whom in their shirt-sleeves is not rumpled, embryonic and agonizing . . .

I like Americans.
They carry such pretty umbrellas.
The Avenue de l’Opera on a rainy day is just an avenue on a rainy day.
But Fifth Avenue on a rainy day is an old-fashioned garden under a shower . . .

They are always rocking the boat.
I like Americans.
They either shoot the whole nickel, or give up the bones.
You may say what you will, they are the nicest people in the world.

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), American poet

Friday, July 30, 2010

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

(Raising the Flag at Ground Zero,
photograph taken just after 5 p.m. on
September 11, 2001, by Thomas E. Franklin,
American news photographer; this “Heroes
U.S.A.” postal stamp was issued in 2002)

“This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” wrote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) in his Four Essential Freedoms speech to Congress in 1941. “Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”


(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us: — as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come; — the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornwall, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

~ Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) American poet

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blowin’ in the Wind

(March for Peace at Arlington National Cemetery
on February 6, 1968, by John C. Goodwin, American
photographer; from left to right: unknown man,
Episcopal Rev. Roger Alling, Catholic Bishop James
Shannon, Lutheran Rev. Richard John Neuhaus in 2nd
row, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
carrying the Torah, and Rabbi Everett Gendler)

Blowin’ in the Wind became an unofficial anthem in the Sixties. Bob Dylan composed it one night in April, 1962, after a long discussion about civil rights, when in his mind “an idea flashed — ‘your silence betrays you,’” Anthony Scaduto wrote in Bob Dylan, an intimate biography.

“If Dylan’s answer is vague, his questions are clear and sharp, and the song admirably fulfills Yeats’ definition of sincere poetry: ‘It must have the perfections that escape analysis, the subtleties that have a new meaning every day, and it must have all this whether it be but a little song made out of a moment of dreamy indolence, or some great epic made out of the dreams of one poet and of a hundred generations whose hands were never weary of the sword.’”


How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

~ Bob Dylan, born 1941, American singer and songwriter

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven

(top: Elvis Presley, 1935-1977, and some fans;
bottom: Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886, at sixteen)

In America, anything is possible.


They call each other “E.” Elvis picks
wildflowers near the river and brings
them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.

In heaven Emily wears her hair long, sports
Levis and western blouses with rhinestones.
Elvis is lean again, wears baggy trousers

and T-shirts, a letterman’s jacket from Tupelo High.
They take long walks and often hold hands.
She prefers they remain just friends. Forever.

Emily’s poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.

Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
he will play guitar and sing “I Taste a Liquor
Never Brewed” to the tune of “Love Me Tender.”

Emily will clap and harmonize. Alone
in their cabins later, they’ll listen to the river
and nap. They will not think of Amherst

or Las Vegas. They know why God made them
roommates. It’s because America
was their hometown. It’s because

God is a thing without
feathers. It’s because
God wears blue suede shoes.

~ Hans Ostrom, born 1954, American poet, editor, and writer of short fiction

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


(Jackie Robinson baseball card issued by the Topps
chewing gum company in 1955)

“Late, late as it was, the arrival in the Majors of Jack Roosevelt Robinson [in 1947, when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers] was an extraordinary moment in American history,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti (1938-1989), seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball. “For the first time, a black American was on America’s most privileged version of a level playing field. He was there as an equal because of his skill, as those whites who preceded him had been and those blacks and whites who succeeded him would be. Merit will win, it was promised by baseball.”


The game of baseball is not a metaphor
and I know it’s not really life.
The chalky green diamond, the lovely
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes
multiplying around the cities
are only neat playing fields.
Their structure is not the frame
of history carved out of forest,
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young
pitcher through the innings, the line
of concentration between them,
that delicate filament is not
like the way you are helping me,
only it reminds me when I strain
for analogies, the way a rookie strains
for perfection, and the veteran,
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,
screaming at the Yankee slugger
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,
not even a slice of life
and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,
and coming off the field is hugged
and bottom-slapped by the sudden
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg,”
and the order of the ball game,
the firm structure with the mystery
of accidents always contained,
not the wild field we wander in,
where I’m trying to recite the rules,
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away

~ Gail Mazur, born 1937, American poet

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pantoum of the Great Depression

(Drought refugee from Polk, Missouri,
awaiting the opening of the orange-picking
season at Porterville, California, 1936
Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965, American

The decade of the Thirties was a time of economic crisis. Many countries suffered through a depression with years of jobless lines and overcrowded soup kitchens, and in places like Germany and Austria, uncontrollable hyper-inflation that rendered the currency useless. In response, the governments of seemingly stable nations abroad disintegrated into fascism or communism. In America, however, its democracy survived intact.

(A pantoum, or pantum, is a verse form composed of quatrains with internal rhyming and the repetition of lines according to an established pattern.)


Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don’t remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don’t remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the actual world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

~ Donald Justice (1925-2004), American poet

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Of History and Hope

(from The Migration Series, No. 58, 1941 by Jacob
Lawrence, American painter, 1917-2000)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” states the preamble to the Constitution.


We have memorized America

how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row —
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become —
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit — it isn’t there yet —
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

~ Miller Williams, born 1930, American poet and translator

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Jazz Fantasia

(Jazz at Montreux by Romare Bearden, 1911-1988,
American artist)

All over the world, jazz is recognized as a uniquely American art.

“First created by the descendants of African slaves, born of the blues in New Orleans, raised in Chicago and along the Mississippi, jazz has since visited hot Chicago and the cool West Coast, got run out of New York, spent April in Paris and a Night in Tunisia, and has even traveled to outer and inner space,” writes the American poet Kevin Young (born 1970), in his introduction to a collection of jazz poems.

“[J]azz was a sharp thorn in the sides of power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successfully ruled in my native land,” recalls Josef Škvorecký (born 1924), the Czech novelist and essayist who lived under both Nazi and Communist oppression of his country. He now resides in Canada.

“[T]he essence of this music, this ‘way of making music,’ is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an
élan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art, that may be felt, even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic.”


Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes,
sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,
moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a
racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang!
you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns,
tin cans — make two people fight on the top of a stairway
and scratch each other's eyes in a clinch tumbling down
the stairs.

Can the rough stuff . . . now a Mississippi steamboat pushes
up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo . . . and the green
lanterns calling to the high soft stars . . . a red moon rides
on the humps of the low river hills . . . go to it, O jazzmen.

~ Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), American poet and writer and biographer of Lincoln

Friday, July 23, 2010

Home on the Range

(Cutting Cattle on Mowroy’s Ranch, Salt River,
Arizona, 1912
, by Dane Coolidge, 1873-1940,
American photographer, writer and poet)

“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is,” wrote the poet Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).

From the beginning, the wide-open spaces of the American West have attracted homesteaders, ranchers, cowboys, and assorted freedom-seekers.

Many well-known traditional American songs celebrate their way of life. One of the most popular is a verse with a lilting melody that most believe to be a folk song, somehow created by anonymous composers around a campfire, perhaps.

But that story is not true. The words of
Home on the Range were written in 1872 by Dr. Brewster Higley (1823-1911), a Kansas physician, and set to music by Dan Kelley (1845-?), a Kansas fiddler. In Higley’s original version, which he called My Western Home, the singer longed for “Home! A home!” with “zephyrs so balmy and light, / That I would not exchange my home here to range / Forever in azure so bright.”

Very early on, the song quickly passed from farm to ranch to town, from Kansas to Colorado to California. A few words were changed along the way. We now sing of “a home on the range.”

To listen to the classic version by Gene Autrey (1907-1998), click on the link (you may have to cut and paste it):


Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Strange People

(Antelope petroglyph found in the American

The spirit of a nation is formed in great part by its history, its geography, and its myths. America’s mythology includes young George Washington’s encounter with the cherry tree, the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, and the mysterious creatures below.


The antelope are strange people . . . they are beautiful to look at, and yet they are tricky. We do not trust them. They appear and disappear; they are like shadows on the plains. Because of their great beauty, young men sometimes follow the antelope and are lost forever. Even if those foolish ones find themselves and return, they are never again right in their heads. ~ Pretty Shield, Medicine Woman of the Crows , transcribed and edited by Frank Linderman (1932)

All night I am the doe, breathing
his name in a frozen field,
the small mist of the word
drifting always before me.

And again he has heard it
and I have gone burning
to meet him, the jacklight
fills my eyes with blue fire;
the heart in my chest
explodes like a hot stone.

Then slung like a sack
in the back of his pickup,
I wipe the death scum
from my mouth, sit up laughing
and shriek in my speeding grave.

Safely shut in the garage,
when he sharpens his knife
and thinks to have me, like that,
I come toward him,
a lean gray witch
through the bullets that enter and dissolve.

I sit in his house
drinking coffee till dawn
and leave as frost reddens on hubcaps,
crawling back into my shadowy body.
All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.
Not with weapons, not with a kiss, not with a look.
Not even with his goodness.

If a man was never to lie to me. Never lie to me.
I swear I would never leave him.

~ Louise Erdrich, born 1954, American poet and novelist whose many works reflect her Ojibwa heritage

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New York

(Radiator Building, New York
by Georgia O’Keefe, 1887-1986,
American artist)

New York City has traditionally been the favorite landing place for both the immigrants from abroad and the internal migrants leaving their small towns for the promises of a big city. “I want to be a part of it / These vagabond shoes are longing to stray / right through the very heart of it, New York, New York,” sang Frank Sinatra (1915-1998).

New York City is also, for millions of people around the world, the place they think of when they picture America.


new york, madame,
is a monument to a city
it is
a gigantic pike
whose scales
bristled up stunned

and what used to be just smoke
found a fire that gave it birth

champagne foam
melted into metal
glass rivers
flowing upwards
and things you won’t tell to a priest
you reveal to a cabdriver

even time is sold out
when to the public’s “wow” and “shhh”
out of a black top hat
a tailed magician
is pulling new york out
by the ears of skyscrapers

~ Valzhyna Mort, American poet born 1981 in Minsk, Belarus; translated by Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Canticle of Jack Kerouac

(Amoskeag Canal in Manchester, New Hampshire,
situated north of Lowell on the Merrimac, or Merrimack,
River, by Charles Sheeler, 1883-1965, American painter)

The Industrial Revolution in America took place mainly in the mill towns of New England. Immigrants from all over the world flocked to work in the great brick buildings by the rivers. This was their entry into American society.

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a writer famous, even notorious, in the Fifties for his semi-autobiographical novel
On the Road. He was born and raised in one such town, Lowell, Massachusetts, at a time when the business of the mills was moving to the South and poverty was settling in. Like many of their neighbors, his parents were French-speaking Catholic immigrants with Breton roots, from Quebec. Kerouac’s first language was the joual of his parents’ heritage.



Far from the sea far from the sea
of Breton fishermen
the white clouds scudding
over Lowell
and the white birches the
bare white birches
along the blear night roads
flashing by in darkness
(where once he rode
in Pop’s old Plymouth)
And the birch-white face
of a Merrimac madonna
shadowed in streetlight
by Merrimac’s shroudy waters
— a leaf blown
upon sea wind
out of Brittany
over endless oceans


There is a garden in the memory of America
There is a nightbird in its memory
There is an andante cantabile
in a garden in the memory
of America
In a secret garden
in a private place
a song a melody
a nightsong echoing
in the memory of America
In the sound of a nightbird
outside a Lowell window
In the cry of kids
in tenement yards at night
In the deep sound
of a woman murmuring
a woman singing broken melody
in a shuttered room
in an old wood house
in Lowell
As the world cracks by
like a lost lumber truck
on a steep grade
in Kerouac America
The woman sits silent now
rocking backward
to Whistler’s Mother in Lowell
and all the tough old
Canuck mothers
and Jack’s Mémère
And they continue rocking

And may still on stormy nights show through
as a phantom after-image
on silent TV screens
a flickered after-image
that will not go away
in Moody Street
in Beaulieu Street
in ‘dirtstreet Sarah Avenue’
in Pawtucketville
And in the Church of St. Jean Baptiste

~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born 1919, American poet, painter and publisher

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Cities inside Us

(The Bay, New York, 1922 by Joseph Pennell, 1857-1926,
American artist and author)

Each of us may be a world unto himself, arriving from a different place, carrying a different past, but coming together in community.

“The supreme value in the American scale of values is goodness; human reliability, goodwill, devotion, helpfulness. Hence the American kindness which is so striking a feature to foreign visitors,” wrote the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). “Americans are ready to help, and happy to help. They are on equal terms of comradeship with everybody. And why? Simply because everybody is a human being. A fellowman. That’s enough for him to be supposed worthy of assistance and sympathy — sometimes of exceedingly thoughtful and generous attention. When you arrive in this country, you experience in this connection a strange, unforgettable sense of relief. You breathe more easily.”

Maritain traveled frequently to North America and lectured at the Universities of Toronto, Notre Dame, and Princeton, among others. He also helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece
Through the eye and through the ear.

It’s loud inside us, in here, and when we speak
In the outside world

We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm

Does not reach out
In place of the tongue.

~ Alberto Álvaro Ríos, born 1952, American writer of poetry and prose

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Two Guitars

(The Chair by Julio Rosario del Valle,
1922-2008, American painter and sculptor
from Puerto Rico)

This poem plays one of many variations on the American melody.


Two guitars were left in a room all alone
They sat on different corners of the parlor
In this solitude they started talking to each other
My strings are tight and full of tears
The man who plays me has no heart
I have seen it leave out of his mouth
I have seen it melt out of his eyes
It dives Two Guitars into the pores of the earth
When they squeeze me tight I bring
Down the angels who live off the chorus
The trios singing loosen organs
With melodious screwdrivers
Sentiment comes off the hinges
Because a song is a mountain put into
Words and landscape is the feeling that
Enters something so big in the harmony
We are always in danger of blowing up
With passion
The other guitar:
In 1944 New York
When the Trio Los Panchos started
With Mexican & Puerto Rican birds
I am the one that one of them held
Tight like a woman
Their throats gardenia gardens
An airport for dreams
I've been in theaters and cabarets
I played in an apartment on 102nd street
After a baptism pregnant with women
The men flirted and were offered
Chicken soup
Echoes came out of hallways as if from caves
Someone is opening the door now
The two guitars hushed and there was a
Resonance in the air like what is left by
The last chord of a bolero.

~ Victor Hernández Cruz, born 1949, American poet from Puerto Rico

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sailing to America

(Map by Jasper Johns, born 1930, American painter)

From far-off climes, it’s easy to mistake Hollywood movies for documentary films.

(Alexandria, 1956)

The rugs had been rolled up and islands of them
Floated in the centers of every room,
And now, on the bare wood floors,
My sister and I were skimming among them
In the boats we’d made from newspaper,
Sheets of them pinned to each other,
Dhows, gondolas, clippers, arks.
There was a mule outside on the street
Braying under a load of figs, though mostly
There was quiet, a wind from the desert
Was putting the city to sleep,
But we were too far adrift, the air
Was scurfy and wet, the currents tricking
Our bows against reef and coral
And hulls shearing under the weight of cargo.
“Ahoy and belay!” I called to my sister,
“Avast, avast!” she yelled back from her rigging,
And neither of us knew what we were saying
But the words came to us as from a movie,
Cinemascopic, American. “Richard Widmark,”
I said. “Clark Gable, Bogie,” she said,
“Yo-ho-ho.” We had passed Cyprus
And now there was Crete or Sardinia
Maybe something larger further off.
The horizon was everywhere I turned,
The waters were becoming turgid,
They were roiling, weeks had passed.
“America, America, land-ho!” I yelled directionless.
“Gibraltar,” my sister said, “Heave to,”
And signaling a right, her arm straight out,
She turned and bravely set our course
North-by-northwest for the New World.
Did we arrive? Years later, yes.
By plane, suddenly. With suitcases
And something as hazy as a future.
The November sun was pale and far off,
The air was colder than we’d ever felt,
And already these were wonders to us
As much as snow would be or evergreens,
And it would take me a long time
Before I’d ever remember
Boats made of paper, islands of wool,
And my sister’s voice, as in a fog,
Calling out the hazards,
Leading me on, getting us there.

~ Gregory Djanikian, American poet born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1949, of Armenian parents

Friday, July 16, 2010


(St. Brendan of Ireland, 484?-557?, and his monks in a
Bantry boat; according to legend, they traveled west
from the edge of the known world in quest of the Isle
of the Blessed)

In times past, before easy travel and modern communications, taking leave of one’s homeland was often an occasion of great sorrow. In Ireland, beginning with the era of mass migration caused by the deadly Potato Famine that started in 1845, folks would hold an “American wake” for the people sailing for America. There would be food and drink and song, but it was mainly an evening of tears. Everyone knew they would never see their loved ones again. It was as if they were already dead. “’Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide,” mourns the grieving singer in Danny Boy.

Now, travel is fast and comfortable and messages are sent with a click, but migration can still provoke anxiety.


We've packed our bags, we're set to fly
no one knows where, the maps won't do.
We're crossing the ocean's nihilistic blue
with an unborn infant's opal eye.

It has the clarity of earth and sky
seen from a spacecraft, once removed,
as through an amniotic lens, that groove-
lessness of space, the last star by.

We have set out to live and die
into the interstices of a new
nowhere to be or be returning to

(a little like an infant's airborne cry).
We've set our sights on nothing left to lose
and made of loss itself a lullaby.

~ Todd Hearon, American poet and playwright

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The New Colossus

(The Steerage, 1907 by Alfred Stieglitz,
1864-1946, American photographer)

The symbolism of the Statue of Liberty is two-fold. Since the beginning, the torch has sent out its light to inspire liberty in the rest of the world. The students demonstrating at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 carried a replica of the statue to reflect that message.

The Statue of Liberty acquired an additional meaning when officials attached a plaque on the inner walls of the pedestal in 1903, engraved with the words of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet. (She had written it in 1883.) The light of the torch also serves as a beacon welcoming newcomers into the country.


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

~ Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), American poet

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Last Time I Saw Paris

(The Statue of Liberty being assembled
in Paris before transport to America)

Today is Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. It marks the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 with the storming of the notorious prison-fortress in Paris.

In 1865, a group of Frenchmen hired the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) to create a monument to honor the close relationship between France and America on the occasion of the upcoming centennial of the Declaration of Independence. “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” to call it by its official name, is an enduring symbol of that friendship.

France provided critical moral and financial support to the Americans in their revolution against King George. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) served in the Continental army directly under General George Washington as one of his most trusted aides. Washington came to view him like a son.

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote what is still one of the best portraits of the United States in its pursuit of democracy and equality. In
Democracy in America, published in 1835, Tocqueville recorded astute observations about America and Americans as he traveled across town and country.

The poem below is a song composed in the days immediately after the fall of Paris on June 14, 1940, when German tanks rumbled past the Arc de Triomphe. Tin Pan Alley responded with these poignant words.

(In the intervening years, in peace time, the song has been transformed into a romantic memory of a visit to the City of Light, when love was young. That's how Dean Martin, 1917-1995, sang it.)


The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café.
The last time I saw Paris, her trees were dressed for spring,
And lovers walked beneath those trees and birds found songs to sing.
I dodged the same old taxicabs that I had dodged for years.
The chorus of their squeaky horns was music to my ears.

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.
I'll think of happy hours, and people who shared them,
Old women, selling flowers, in markets at dawn,
Children who applauded Punch and Judy in the park,
And those who danced at night and kept our Paris bright.

~ Oscar Hammerstein, II (1895-1960), American lyricist, and Jerome Kern (1885-1945), American composer

(A personal note: I was born in Paris. July 14 has always been a special date on my calendar. My day began with the beautiful chansons of Edith Piaf and her compatriots, and will end with some delicious French wine and cheese shared with my American husband. C’est si bon.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


(Official Program - Woman Suffrage Procession, or parade, in Washington on March 13, 1913, by American artist Benjamin Dale; inspired by many images of the medieval woman warrior Joan of Arc, 1412?-1431, going into battle on her steed)

American women finally won the right to vote in all elections when Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution ninety years ago next month, on August 18, 1920.

The first legal vote cast by a woman had taken place in 1756, under British rule, but it was an anomaly. That year, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, the town’s wealthiest landlord and taxpayer died. Captain Josiah Taft left no male heirs of adult age. Mindful of the principle of “no taxation without representation” and facing the important question of support for the French and Indian Wars, the open town meeting allowed his widow, Lydia Chapin Taft, to vote on behalf of the estate.

In the years following, the women’s cause moved slowly, step by step. Some jurisdictions allowed women to vote in limited local elections. Others would grant them suffrage, only to rescind it later.

The women persevered. As they spoke out for the abolition of slavery, so too did they argue for women’s suffrage.

One of the “most unique and interesting speeches” of the Women’s Convention held in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. Marius Robinson wrote about her speech that day in an issue of the
Anti-Slavery Bugle. She spoke with humor and even some sarcasm: “The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have women’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”


Said Mr. Jones in Nineteen-Ten:
“Women, subject yourselves to men.”
Nineteen-Eleven heard him quote:
“They rule the world without the vote.”
By Nineteen-Twelve, he would submit
“When all the women wanted it.”
By Nineteen-Thirteen, looking glum,
He said that it was bound to come.
This year I heard him say with pride:
“No reasons on the other side!’
By Nineteen-Fifteen, he’ll insist
He’s always been a suffragist.
And what is really stranger, too,
He’ll think that what he says is true.

~ Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942), American poet

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lincoln, the Man of the People

(The Lincoln Memorial by Daniel Chester
French, 1850-1931)

“I am naturally anti-slavery,” President Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”


Up from the log cabin to the Capitol,
One fire was on his spirit, one resolve —
To send the keen ax to the root of wrong,
Clearing a free way for the feet of God,
The yes of conscience testing every stroke,
To make his deed the measure of a man.
He built the rail-pile as he built the State,
Pouring his splendid strength through every blow:
The grip that swung the ax in Illinois
Was on the pen that set a people free.

~ Edwin Markham (1852-1940), American poet

Sunday, July 11, 2010


(Am I Not a Man and a Brother — a medallion produced
by Josiah Wedgwood, 1730-1795, English potter)

On July 4, 1776, the thirteen United States of America asserted their unanimous Declaration of Independence with these momentous words in the second sentence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With this act, America institutionalized for the first time the foundational principle of liberty, that all men are created equal. In a paradox of history, it was Great Britain, which fought a bloody war to keep its hold on these thirteen colonies, that was the first nation to put an end to slavery.

The British struggle against slavery, begun earlier in the eighteenth century, was a long and hard battle fought in the chambers of Parliament, where its members felt the influence of the people.

In 1787, the British Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade adopted as its motto, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The next year, the potter Josiah Wedgwood produced a medallion featuring those words surrounding a bas relief depiction of an African slave shackled in chains.

This image became the emblem of the country’s anti-slavery movement and was found everywhere, in the thousands, on women’s jewelry, on men’s cufflinks and pipes, and on household items like tea caddies and needlework samplers.

The British parliament finally abolished the slave trade in 1807 and the practice of slavery in 1833 in countries under its rule.

President Lincoln abolished slavery in America with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, fought in part over the evil of slavery.


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, —
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

~ Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), American poet and novelist whose works examined the lives of blacks in America before and after slavery; both his parents had been slaves

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shiloh: A Requiem

(Shiloh Church painted by Capt. A. M. Connett, 24th
Indiana Volunteer Infantry, a participant at the
battle at Shiloh)

One of the fiercest battles of the Civil War took place on April 6-7, 1862, at Shiloh, Tennessee. Nearly 24,000 volunteer soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured there. The Union forces managed to hold the battlefield but the war continued for another three terrible and bloody years.

The battlefield was named for the small wooden-log church of Shiloh or “place of peace” built there in 1853.

Melville published this poem in 1866.

(April 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the fields in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh —
The church, so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foeman mingled there —
Foeman at morn, but friends at eve —
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

~ Herman Melville (1819-1891), American poet and novelist, known especially for the great classic Moby-Dick and his novella Billy Budd

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shine, Republic

(Stump Speaking by George Caleb Bingham, 1811-1879,
American painter)

“[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” ~ Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863


The quality of these trees, green height; of the sky, shining; of water, a clear flow; of the rock, hardness
And reticence: each is noble in its quality. The love of freedom has been the quality of Western man.

There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord, its dangerous beauty binding three ages
Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have eclipsed but have never quenched it.

For the Greeks the love of beauty, for Rome of ruling; for the present age the passionate love of discovery;
But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man.

And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.
You did not say “en masse,” you said “independence.” But we cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.

Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry, and often requires blood for its fuel.
You will tame it against it burn too clearly, you will hood it like a kept hawk, you will perch it on the wrist of Caesar.

But keep the tradition, conserve the forms, the observances, keep the spot sore. Be great, carve deep your heel-marks.
The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge their love of freedom with contempt of luxury.

~ Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), American poet

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

(interior of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island)

In August, 1790, President George Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He later wrote to Moses Seixas, the warden of its congregation, reaffirming the religious freedom that made it possible for the members to practice their faith:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.... May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

He wrote these words more than a year before Congress ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, with its first amendment to the constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The first Jews had arrived in Rhode Island in 1658, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Many had Spanish and Portuguese roots. Here they found a colony with a tradition of religious tolerance. They met in private homes until they dedicated their first house of worship in 1763. This synagogue is now the oldest surviving one in North America.

Longfellow wrote this poem the summer of 1852, after he walked among the gravestones of the Touro cemetery.


How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,
While underneath such leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Washington Monument at Night

(March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1858-1909,
American painter)

The price of freedom is steep.

In the eighteenth century, wars were waged in campaigns during the spring, summer and early autumn. Because it was impossible to fight battles under the brutally frigid conditions of winter, armies would hold their ground by going into encampment during the “severe season.”

The winter of 1777-1778 was the darkest period for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. They had settled into winter quarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

By February, the situation had become so dire that General Washington wrote to Governor Clinton: "For some days past there has been little less than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week without any kind of flesh [meat], and the rest three or four days." The men were wet and cold from the snow, their clothes and blankets in tatters, their shoes so destroyed that they wrapped their feet in rags. But, “naked and starving as they are,” said Washington, “we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.”



The stone goes straight.
A lean swimmer dives into night sky,
Into half-moon mist.


Two trees are coal black.
This is a great white ghost between.
It is cool to look at,
Strong men, strong women, come here.


Eight years is a long time
To be fighting all the time.


The republic is a dream.
Nothing happens unless first a dream.


The wind bit hard at Valley Forge one Christmas.
Soldiers tied rags on their feet.
Red footprints wrote on the snow . . .
. . . and stone shoots into stars here
. . . into half-moon mist tonight.


Tongues wrangled dark at a man.
He buttoned his overcoat and stood alone.
In a snowstorm, red hollyberries, thoughts, he stood alone.


Women said: He is lonely
. . . fighting . . . fighting . . . eight years . . .


The name of an iron man goes over the world.
It takes a long time to forget an iron man.


. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .

~ Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), American poet and writer and biographer of Lincoln

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Concord Hymn

(The Minute Man by Daniel Chester French,
1850-1931, in Concord, Massachusetts)

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this poem in 1836 for the dedication of the obelisk at Concord. This monument was erected to commemorate the first battle of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The statue of the minute man was placed there later, in 1875.


By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist, poet and philosopher

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Midnight Ride of Raul Revere

(The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood,
1891-1942, American artist)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote a series of narrative poems that helped form the mythology of America: “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

Paul Revere (1734-1818) was a Boston silversmith. His revolutionary fervor was clearly evident before the War of Independence. He took part in the Boston Tea Party of 1770 protesting the British tax on tea. He made the provocative engraving of the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, in which British soldiers shot and killed five civilians. He was also part of a network that gathered information on the movements of the British soldiers.

He did not become famous until many years after his death, with the 1863 publication of Longfellow’s stirring poem of his midnight ride. It is one of the twenty-two “Tales of a Wayside Inn.” (Located in Sudbury, Massachusetts, the inn is still open for service.)

Because of this poem, many people have the mistaken notion that Revere was the only rider that night. At least forty other men also set out on the roads and byways to warn the people that “The Regulars are out!” That’s how they referred to the British soldiers — after all, they were still British themselves. Revere never made it to Concord. Before he could get there, he was arrested and brought back to Lexington, where he was released without his horse.


Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower, as a signal light, —
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

. . . .

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

. . . .

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, —
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Listen to the People

(The Avenue in the Rain by
Childe Hassam, 1859-1935,
American impressionist

This drama in verse was published in LIFE magazine in 1941, in anticipation of its broadcast over national radio on July 4. It appeared in the Defense Issue, whose content, including many of the advertisements and fashion stories, prepared the readers for the war clouds drifting across the ocean. It was five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.


This is Independence Day,
Fourth of July, the day we mean to keep,
Whatever happens and whatever falls
Out of a sky grown strange;
This is firecracker day for sunburnt kids,
The day of the parade
Slambanging down the street.
Listen to the parade!
There’s J. K. Burney’s float,
Red-white-and-blue crepe-paper on the wheels,
The Fire Department and the local Grange,
There are the pretty girls with their hair curled
Who represent the Thirteen Colonies,
The Spirit of East Greenwich, Betsy Ross,
Democracy, or just some pretty girls.
There are the veterans and the Legion Post
(Their feet are going to hurt when they get home),
The band, the flag, the band, the usual crowd,
Good-humored, watching, hot,
Silent a second as the flag goes by,
Kidding the local cop and eating popsicles,
Jack Brown and Rosie Shapiro and Dan Shay,
Paul Bunchick and the Greek who runs the Greek’s,
The black-eyes children out of Sicily,
The girls who giggle and the boys who push,
All of them there and all of them a nation.
And, afterwards,
There’ll be ice-cream and fireworks and a speech
By Somebody the Honorable Who,
The lovers will pair off in the kind dark
And Tessie Jones, our honor-graduate,
Will read the declaration.
That’s how it is. It’s always been that way.
That’s our Fourth of July, through war and peace,
That’s our Fourth of July.

And a lean farmer on a stony farm
Came home from mowing, buttoned up his shirt
And walked ten miles to town,
Musket in hand.
He didn’t know the sky was falling down
And, it may be, he didn’t know so much.
But people oughtn’t to be pushed around
By kings or any such.
A workman in the city dropped his tools.
An ordinary, small-town kind of man
Found himself standing in the April sun,
One of a ragged line
Against the skilled professionals of war,
The matchless infantry who could not fail,
Not for the profit, not to conquer worlds,
Not for the pomp or the heroic tale
But first, and principally, since he was sore,
They could do things in quite a lot of places.
They shouldn’t do them here, in Lexington.

He looked around and saw his neighbors’ faces. . . .

~ Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), American poet, novelist and short story writer, especially famous for the narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” and the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Poetry, both spoken and sung, has played its part in nurturing the spirit of a nation. In America, two songs composed by George M. Cohan (1878-1942) were so powerful in this regard that the U.S. Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1937 for helping the country’s morale during World War I.

The first song inspired the troops that were preparing to cross the Atlantic in 1917 to join the U.S. allies in World War I.


So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware.
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back
Till it’s over over there.

The second song reminded the country, soldiers and civilians, what the fight was all about.


You’re a grand old flag,
You’re a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev’ry heart beats true
’Neath the Red, White and Blue
Where there’s never a boast or brag.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot.
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

But Cohan is best known for another song with a patriotic theme, the title song of a 1942 film starring James Cagney (1899-1986) in his most joyful and exuberant role.

To see Cagney’s wonderful performance singing and dancing this song, click on this link (you may have to cut and paste it):


I'm the kid that's all the candy.
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
I'm glad I am,

So's Uncle Sam.

I'm a real live Yankee Doodle,
Made my name and fame and boodle,
Just like Mister Doodle did
By riding on a pony.
I love to listen to the Dixie strain,
I long to see the girl I left behind me;
That ain't a josh,
She's a Yankee, by gosh!

Oh, say can you see —

Anything about a Yankee that's a phony?

Little Johnny Jones,
The jockey from the U.S.A.

Will ride the pony Yankee Doodle
English derby day.

Jonesy’s broken records
Ev’ry track at ev’ry meet.

So Yankee Doodle’s gonna be the boy
They have to beat.

Sportsmen of the British Isles
Who’ve followed his career,
Have offered Johnny anything
To keep him over here.

But all the money
In the Bank of England couldn’t pay
Enough to keep young Johnny Jones away
From old Broadway.

If you want to take a tip,
The surest of sure things —

Have your houses mortgaged,
Hock your watches,
Pawn your rings.

And put it all on Yankee Doodle,
Johnny Jones is up!

I’m gonna give America
The English derby cup!

He’s gonna give America
The English derby cup.

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle do or die,
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam,
Born on the Fourth of July.
I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart,
She’s my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies.
I am the Yankee Doodle boy.

He’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle do or die,
A real live nephew of his Uncle Sam,
Born on the Fourth of July.
He’s got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart,
She’s his Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee Doodle came to London,
Just to ride the ponies.
He is the Yankee Doodle boy.

Yankee Doodle came to London,
Just to ride the ponies.
He is the Yankee Doodle boy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Common Sense

Common Sense, published in 1776, was Thomas Paine’s polemic that gave momentum to the revolution for independence from Great Britain. A radical English pamphleteer, Paine (1737-1809) was also influential in France, where a revolution would break out in 1789.


Kings and aristocrats
Britons may relish,
But to Americans
Monarchs are hellish,
Draining our competence,
Warring forever!
Let us use common sense
Now, and endeavor
Not to conciliate
(Since we’re their betters),
But to set up our state
Free of the fetters
Forged in another land.
Strike the blow, Brother!
Britain’s our Motherland?
Up the Wall, Mother!

~ Maurice Sagoff (1910-1998) American poet, from Shrink-Lit: Seventy of the world’s towering classics cut down to size

Thursday, July 1, 2010

At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border

(Garden and fountain at the International Peace Garden)

July marks its first days with the sights and sounds of fireworks and parades celebrating America. This will be our theme this month.

We begin with a verse that takes note of the friendship between America and its neighbor to the north. It is Canada’s national day today, celebrating the founding of the nation.

On July 1, 1867, the British colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined the Province of Canada (Quebec and Ontario) to create "one Dominion under the name of Canada." The term "dominion" came from Psalm 72:8, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth." This Biblical verse also inspired Canada's Latin motto,
A Mari usque ad Mare, or "From Sea to Sea."

It was not until 1871, with the entry of British Columbia on the Pacific Ocean, that the motto reflected reality. Some fussy people would put that date even later, to 1949, when Newfoundland, on the Atlantic Ocean, became the tenth province of Canada.

Canada now comprises ten provinces and three territories in the north, including the Yukon. The name of this national holiday was changed from Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982.

In 1932, the United States and Canada established a garden on a piece of land between the province of Manitoba and the state of North Dakota. This garden straddles the 49th parallel, which marks the longest undefended border in the world.


This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

~ William Stafford (1914-1993), American poet