by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Emma Lazarus, the author of this poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, was born in New York City of Sephardic Jewish parents in 1849. In 1883 (in despair over the bloody massacre of Jews living in Russia, forcing many to flee for their lives and come to America) she wrote "The New Colossus." It was first used to raise funds for the construction of the statue with the full title of "Liberty Enlightening the World."
"The brazen giant of Greek fame" was no doubt the Colossus of Rhodes, a statue to the sun god Helios, one of the seven wonders of the world. According to popular legend, it straddled the harbor at Rhodes in the Aegean, with ships passing between its legs, but it was actually on a promontory overlooking the harbor. (Among colossuses of later times, there's the Great Buddha at Kamakura, Japan, and two colossal figures of Christ in South America.)
People today have mixed reactions when they read this old chestnut of a poem, especially when they get to the part italicized above. Lazarus wrote her stirring sonnet when America was young and the continent still full of great empty fertile spaces. Today one wonders how many Americans would like to change the opening lines to read "Don't give me your tired, you poor, your huddled masses...." What verses might be forthcoming if we were to call for a completely revised version of her poem to be inscribed on the statue?
With surging over-population putting enormous pressures on all nations of the world, with huge battles over immigration in all the western democracies from Germany to France and Italy to England and the U.S., our own doors are not nearly as open as they used to be, with much more stringent qualifications and exclusions. (It takes a year and a half to get your first appointment with an immigration officer, after you have succeeded in filling-out an application that would strain the literacy of many Americans.)
Someday there may be a world without national borders, given the transmigration of cultures which is the inevitable result of the electronic revolution, with Internet, e-mail, fax, the cell-phone, and multi-national corporations having little respect for national boundaries. And while political boundaries still exist, human borders don't, so that we have mass culture "in transit" between countries like the U.S. and Mexico (See Gomez-Pena's prescient book, First World Border.)
But until then, what about a new Statue of Liberty on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to herald our new age? The original statue cost $800,000. Our new colossal figure might be made for a billion, give or take a Silicon millionaire or two. Perhaps some newspaper or tv station would like to undertake the campaign?
I would envision a new colossus exactly as large as the original in New York harbor, standing a full 305 feet above the water, facing outward to the Pacific basin and making San Francisco the symbolic western gateway to America. (What better way to remain a "world-class" city?)
I would also envision myriad poets and sculptors and architects proposing their visions for such a new colossus, with everything from old-fashioned rhymed verse to rap poetry, from conventional figurative sculpture to post-modern abstraction and "site-specific" conceptual art.
But what might be the message of a new poem to be inscribed on it? And what gesture would the new statue be making? Would it have raised fists in a defensive stance, or even carry an automatic weapon ready to shoot? Or should it still extend welcoming arms to the hordes of new immigrants yearning to be free from various tyrannies and eternal poverty? (The parallels with the 1880s are striking.)
And would the figure of the new statue be male or female or unisex, black or white or brown, to truly represent our 21st-century ethnicity?
And might we further enlighten the world by calling it a Statue of Liberty & Equality?
Such, such are the joys, the inspiring opportunities, and the poetic possibilities in such a colossal vision.
Publications Available at http://www.citylights.com:
MY RIVERS; SELECTED POEMS
A FAR ROCKAWAY
OF THE HEART ( 101 NEW POEMS)
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