The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”) has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.
As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement. Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of of what they wrote, even after hearing it but once.
Look, I know it’s a marvel of classical Greek engineering,
but as an American. I think Jolly Green Giant and peas.
I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote. Although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”
For Emma, Forever Ago. David Bowie was thinking of her in his last work “Lazarus”
Honoring that lightning image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be—and besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and storm it with Telecasters, drums and bass.
To hear the audio piece, use the player that appears below.