Articles - October 2012

Tired, poor, huddled, gentrified (PoemTalk #58)

Bernadette Mayer, 'The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty'

Bernadette Mayer, Emma Lazarus, Lady Liberty

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Most of us who have read Bernadette Mayer's poem, “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty,” encountered it in Andrei Codrescu's anthology American Poetry since 1970: Up Late (1987), where it was joined by her “Laundry & School Epigrams” (written in the same spirit) and eight of her other poems. PennSound’s recording of “The Tragic Condition” comes from an Ear Inn reading that took place in October of 1988. 

For this episode of PoemTalk, Al Filreis convened Anne Waldman, Julia Bloch, and Katie Price to talk about this poem and Mayer’s approach to tragic conditions generally. <--break- />

As we note from the start, the poem’s subtitle is “A Collaboration with Emma Lazarus” and it begins by appropriating lines 10 through 14 of the famous Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus” — lines spoken by the giant statue, the “Mother of Exiles” that now stands in the harbor of New York, Mayer’s own beloved wretched town. Here is Lazarus, the appropriated lines in italics:

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

PoemTalk this time was experted engineered by Chris Martin, produced by Al Filreis, co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, the Kelly Writers House and the Poetry Foundation — and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.