The Statue of Liberty, the ‘Mending Wall,’ and the politicization of poetry

When the Statue of Liberty stretches out its arms to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses, it ought to have a few caveats, according to one Trump administration official.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told NPR on Tuesday that the American ethos involves rewarding strength.

NPR’s Rachel Martin asked, “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’ words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor,’ are also part of the American ethos?”

Cuccinelli responded, “They certainly are. Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

In 1883, American poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem that now rests on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”

The phrase has become a popular refrain in American culture, but according to Cuccinelli, its directive is too broad. So he warped Lady Liberty’s words to defend the Trump administration’s recent decision to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who are likely to rely on government aid such as food stamps or Medicaid.

But Lazarus didn’t simply forget to add a line about standing “on their own two feet,” and it’s doubtful that she meant her poem to become a political gimmick.

This isn’t the first time a Trump administration official has referenced the words of a classic poem to defend its position on immigration. In 2016, Vice President Mike Pence supported the construction of a border wall, saying, “good fences make good neighbors.”

“We’re going to put America first,” he began. “But you know, there’s an old saying in Indiana that good fences make good neighbors. And the way we can be good neighbors is with strong leadership in the United States as a start.”

In Robert Frost‘s “Mending Wall,” however, the phrase reads ironically; if you study the poem, good fences do not, in fact, make good neighbors. Though the phrase owes its origins not to Frost, but to folklore, Frost’s poem has influenced its modern meaning. “Mending Wall” ends, referring to the narrator’s neighbor: “He will not go behind his father’s saying,/ And he likes having thought of it so well/ He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'”

When Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors,” his words condemned unnecessary barriers; they didn’t support border walls, or any kind of wall for that matter. Since Pence was looking for a rationalization, though, he took the words as one anyway.

Why are politicians so captivated by creating literary justifications for their policies? The new U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo, might have an answer. When I spoke with her recently, Harjo told me that politicians don’t speak poetry because it would make too much sense. “Poetry goes through those rhetorical walls,” she said, adding:

“You notice, politicians don’t speak poetry. There’s a certain kind of political speech because it has a different end. At least my experience with poetry, it’s about opening up to what you didn’t know, opening up to hear what you couldn’t hear otherwise. It has to do with the language, with rhythm, with metaphor. Metaphor makes everything possible.”

Politicians may borrow or butcher poetry, but when they use it for their own ends, they will never understand a poem themselves. Misappropriating poetry for policy is almost always disingenuous. Why? Because politicians who do so are not trying to open up meaning, as Harjo says. They’re trying to couch it with flowery language, and by doing so, they build their own rhetorical walls.

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