inspired leaders and inspiring poetry

The Evening of Inspired Leaders was successful, not only because it helped Mass Poetry raise much-needed funding, but because it was such an enjoyable event. The audience included poetry devotees as well as those with a more casual interest in verse. And some of those more casual attendees spoke afterward about being moved to tears by certain poems. The array of leaders included a rock star, a former poet laureate, a Celtics legend, a master chef, a NPR talk show host, and best-selling authors, all of whom read poems that were especially meaningful to them. The poets ranged from Yeats, Whitman and Langston Hughes to contemporary poets like Mary Oliver, Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges, and Billy Collins.

Michael Brown, CEO and co-founder of City Year, the organization that focuses on addressing the dropout crisis in US schools, read “The New Colossus,” a poem by Emma Lazarus. The sonnet is engraved on a brass plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Many people remember the last lines of that poem, which express the ideal of America as a welcoming land:  “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . .” Brown’s reading of it brought the audience to their feet in rousing applause.

Here is a video of that reading.

On “The New Colossus,” By Emma Lazarus
Michael Brown
Mass Poetry – An Evening of Inspired Leaders
The Huntington Theater
Boston, MA
December 7, 2015

In 1865, in honor of the upcoming U.S. centennial celebration, a French intellectual, hoping to inspire greater democracy in his own country, proposed that France gift the United States with a magnificent statue celebrating American independence, the concept of liberty, and the friendship between France and the United States.

A French sculptor, FrédéricAuguste Bartholdi, agreed to design it, and the government of France agreed to pay for it – with a catch: the people of the U.S. would have to pay for – and build – the enormous pedestal that the statue would be set on.

The pedestal would cost more than $200,000 – a tremendous sum at the time. It would need 20-foot walls, and was to be the largest concrete structure of its day.  A seven-year fundraising effort ensued in the US.

And poetry was marshaled to support the cause.

In 1883, it was announced that an art exhibition and auction would be held to raise funds for the pedestal. Emma Lazarus was invited to contribute a poem. A poet and writer, Lazarus was a woman of Portuguese Jewish ancestry. She had a passion to help Russian Jews, facing pogroms and persecution, immigrate to the US.

Her poem, which was read at the exhibition, compared the Statute of Liberty to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Only the "New Colossus," as she called it – rather than a symbol of victory in war – was to be a beacon of welcome to the world's poor and oppressed.

Fundraising remained arduous, and the pedestal almost didn’t get built.  It wasn't ready when Lady Liberty arrived – in pieces – in New York harbor.   The torch, an arm, and the crown were exhibited to help raise money – and the rest of the lay in storage for a year until the last funds were finally raised, largely with donations of under a dollar.

When the statue was dedicated in 1886, a million people came out to celebrate.

But Lazarus’s poem, which was not mentioned at the dedication, was largely forgotten, and she died a year later at just 38 years old.

But years later, a friend of Emma Lazarus found a copy of The New Colossus in a book of works from the pedestal fundraiser. She led an effort to have it inscribed in bronze on a plaque on the statue’s pedestal. In 1903, 17 years after Emma Lazarus’ death, her friend succeeded.

Ever since, as we all know, the poem has played a critical role in our collective understanding of America as a nation of – and open to – immigrants. Indeed, it can be said that The New Colossus is a sonnet that re-imaged America and changed the world.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift to us, inspired by our values. But the pedestal – its very foundation – was and is our responsibility. It represents our nation’s values.  And bolted to it is Emma Lazarus’ poem. It is up to every generation to ensure that "the New Colossus" is on always firm footing – ready today to welcome the Dreamer – who is already an American in every way but one – or the desperate Syrian family seeking safety, opportunity and mercy on our shore.

For all of these reasons, I am pleased to read tonight “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

“The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus

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!"

And here is more about the evening, including many photos of the readers and attendees.