Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

February 25, 2013

When my grandmother set sail for America with her family in the early 20th century, she was a young girl who spoke only Italian. When they landed at Ellis Island, they would have clearly seen the Statue on neighboring Liberty Island. Even if she could have read the famous words inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she wouldn’t have known anything about the woman who wrote them. Today, most of us are familiar with “The New Colossus,” but we still do not know much about its author. If you are curious about the life and times of the woman who wrote one of the most famous sonnets in history, a visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage to see their exhibit “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles” is in order.

I took the ferry from Jersey City to see the exhibit a couple of weeks ago. The Museum of Jewish Heritage is located in Battery Park City, a little oasis on Lower Manhattan’s west side with lovely views of the Hudson River. The Statue of Liberty figures prominently anywhere you look. As I walked along the promenade, the winter afternoon’s silvery sunlight lent a mystical feel to my excursion. I think my grandmother would have enjoyed going with me if she were still with us.

The exhibit has a well-lit and colorful, modern feel. Several panels in the beginning chronicle three generations of Emily’s ancestors in America. While she didn’t attend a formal school, Emma was very well read and educated, having access to her father’s extensive library. Several artifacts on display document Emma’s relationships, including letters to and from one of her mentors, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The middle of the exhibit includes a salon area to illustrate Emma’s friendship with Richard and Helena de Kay Gilder. Emma’s vibrant social life and the Gilder’s salon brought her in contact with writers, artists and actors.

Partitioned off to the right, a looping documentary is shown on a movie screen and shares “man-on-the-street” type interviews about the Statue of Liberty and immigration. The documentary also includes sections with historians and biographer Esther Shor. 

Emma was a successful literary author and poet in her day. Her writings span several genres, including drama, translation, novels, short stories, essays and poetry of course. She wrote regularly for American Hebrew and other periodicals.

When Emma learned about the Russian pogroms in the 1880s she began to write about the plight of Russian immigrants, speaking out vehemently against anti-Semitism. Despite derision from many corners, she was a staunch advocate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Emma succumbed to cancer in 1887 while her famous sonnet was not yet a part of the Statue. Her friends had her words installed in the statue’s pedestal in 1903, sixteen years after her death.

I once interviewed my grandmother about her experience as a first generation immigrant to the U.S. I would have enjoyed telling her what I learned about Emma and her work, and I think she would have been fascinated by Esther Schor's annotated and interactive version of Emma's famous sonnet. 

Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles is on display until March 10th. A walking tour of Emma Lazarus’ New York is also available on a free iPhone and Android app. The walking tour is narrated by Juliana Margulies and includes Meryl Streep’s stirring reading of “The New Colossus.”


Further reading and resources

Emma Lazarus’ New York walking tour app for iPhone and Android 

The poems of Emma Lazarus ebook 

Emma’s childhood and background 

Ralph Waldo Emerson as Mentor

Biography of Emma Lazarus by Esther Shor 

All Things Considered NPR interview with Esther Shor

Museum of Jewish Heritage 



Posted by: 
Giuliana Lonigro

National Poetry Month: Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson

April 29, 2012

This is the last day of April and, therefore, the final day of National Poetry Month for 2012. Today's poet: Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935).

Alice was born in New Orleans to middle class parents, her heritage a mixture of African American, white, Native American and Creole. She attended college — according to Wikipedia, less than 1% of Americans did so at the time — and went on to become a poet, essayist, diarist and activist. I chose this poem, “Sonnet,” because it’s about April.



By Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson

I had not thought of violets late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thought of violets meant florists' shops,
And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made — 
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.
And now — unwittingly, you've made me dream
Of violets, and my soul's forgotten gleam.


For more information about Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson:


Posted by: 
Michele Hush

National Poetry Month: Brenda Cardenas

April 23, 2012

It’s National Poetry Month and, thanks to wonderful iPhone apps from The Poetry Foundation and Poetry Daily, I’ve been reading heaps of work by poets who are new to me. Brenda Cárdenas is one of them. 

The Wisconsin-born poet, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explores her Mexican heritage in work that blends Spanish and even Aztec with English. This poem, for example, is titled “Zacuanpapalotls,” the Aztec word for Monarch butterflies — which, according to an ancient legend, are the reincarnated souls of the dead.



By Brenda Cárdenas

We are space between—
the black-orange blur
of a million Monarchs
on their two-generation migration
south to fir-crowned Michoacán
where tree trunks will sprout feathers,
a forest of paper-thin wings.

Our Mexica cocooned
in the membranes de la Madre Tierra
say we are reborn zacuanpapalotls,
mariposas negras y anaranjadas
in whose sweep the dead whisper.

We are between—
the flicker of a chameleon’s tail
that turns his desert-blue backbone
to jade or pink sand,
the snake-skinned fraternal twins
of solstice and equinox.

The ashen dawn, silvering dusk,
la oración as it leaves the lips,
the tug from sleep,
the glide into dreams
that husk out mestizo memory. 

We are —
one life passing through the prism
of all others, gathering color and song,
cempazuchil and drum
to leave a rhythm scattered on the wind,
dust tinting the tips of fingers
as we slip into our new light.


Learn more about Brenda Cárdenas:

Posted by: 
Michele Hush

Celebrating National Poetry Month: Sharon Olds

April 23, 2011

Sharon Olds has a soft voice that somewhat masks the power of her words. The Poetry Foundation describes her as "known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events." The poem she recites in this brief video, "I go back to May, 1937," is a stunning example of her artistry.

The poem below, "Voices," begins with an everyday event — a pocket-call from a cell phone — and ends with thoughts of eternity. It is dedicated to Lucille Clifton, another great American poet who died in 2010.

by Sharon Olds

                (for Lucille)

Our voices race to the towers, and up beyond
the atmosphere, to the satellite,
slowly turning, then back down
to another tower, and cell. Quincy,
Toi, Honoree, Sarah, Dorianne,
Galway. When Athena Elizalex calls,
I tell her I'm missing Lucille's dresses,
and her shoes, and Elizabeth says "And she would say,
"Damn! I do look good!'"  After we
hang up, her phone calls me again
from inside her jacket, in the grocery store
with her elder son, eleven, I cannot                       
hear the words, just part of the matter
of the dialogue, it's about sugar, I am
in her pocket like a spirit. Then I dream it —
looking at an illuminated city
from a hill, at night, and suddenly
the lights go out — like all the stars
gone out.  "Well, if there is great sex
in heaven," we used to say, "or even just
sex, or one kiss, what's wrong
with that?!"  Then I'm dreaming a map of the globe, with
bright pinpoints all over it —
in the States, the Caribbean, Latin America,
in Europe, and in Africa —
everywhere a poem of hers is being
read.  Small comfort.  Not small
to the girl who curled against the wall around the core
of her soul, keeping it alive, with long
labor, then unfolded into the hard truths, the
lucid beauty, of her song.



Posted by: 
Michele Hush

It's Poem in Your Pocket Day!

April 14, 2011

April 14 is Poem in Your Pocket day, when we are all encouraged to read poems, share poems, listen to poems and, of course, carry a poem or two in our pockets. The tradition started in New York City in 2002 as a way to encourage schoolchildren to read, write and enjoy poetry. This year's events include a Poetweet Twitter contest, a poetry slam in Bryant Park and more. In 2009 the Academy of American Poets incorporated Poem in Your Pocket day into its celebrations during National Poetry Month. The Academy's website has a selection of poems about pockets and lots of other ways to celebrate the day.

We're kicking things off here with three short poems. Fittingly, the first is about pockets — an excerpt from a children's book by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon. Two others are by Emily Dickinson, who is said to have had a poem in her pocket at all times.

A Sock Is a Pocket for Your Toes [excerpt]
by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon

A sock is a pocket for your toes,

a vase is a pocket
for a rose.

A pocket for a chicken
is a coop,

and a bowl is a pocket full of soup--

A bowl is a pocket spilling soup.


Hope is the thing with feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Our share of night to bear
by Emily Dickinson

Our share of night to bear,
Our share of morning,
Our blank in bliss to fill,
Our blank in scorning.

Here a star, and there a star,
Some lose their way.
Here a mist, and there a mist,
Afterwards - day!

Posted by: 
Michele Hush

Celebrating National Poetry Month: Wislawa Szymborska

April 7, 2011

Wislawa Szymborska is the Poet Laureate of Poland and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her collection Here (© 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is so wonderful that several times while reading it I wanted to jump out of my chair and...continue jumping.

A Hard Life with Memory
by Wislawa Szymborska
(translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)

I'm a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don't,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She's got no problem when I sleep.
The day's a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I'm always younger.
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me.

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today's sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her.
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

Posted by: 
Michele Hush

Celebrating National Poetry Month: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

April 4, 2011

April is National Poetry month, and to celebrate we'll be posting works by contemporary women poets. Today we kick things off with the poem Challenger by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.

An associate professor of English at Cornell University, where she teaches poetry to undergraduates and graduate students in the Creative Writing Program and also teaches in Cornell's Prison Education Program, she is the author of several collections of poetry including 2009's Open Interval.


by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

pretty's just armor
something else

to wear like a dress or a name
not magic like skin

apparel apparent apparently
repellant pretty
don't draw

flies like
honey we just pretend

it does skin is

what draws you don't
believe me

just think skin flick

the winter sky
is not a skin you
might fly right


past it but pretty   
makes an atmosphere
it's hard to get back in

one hitch one weak

O ring and you are that
white                    dense
puff of pinkish smoke

too thick for cloud
trailers swerving off in opposite
directions someone not
coming home you believed
lifting off you were

bound somewhere boundless
you will never be that

pretty again


Posted by: 
Michele Hush

Women's History Month Profile: Gwendolyn Brooks

March 24, 2010

It is safe to say that poetry was Gwendolyn Brooks’ true native language. Her first poem, Eventide, was published in American Childhood magazine when she was just 13. She published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, at age 28.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, she spent almost all of her life in Chicago, and that city’s people, especially its African American citizens, shaped and infused her work.

The excellent biography on the Poetry Foundation’s website quotes an interview she did with Contemporary Literature magazine. She said, “I want to write poems that will be non-compromising. I don’t want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful…”

And she did. She chronicled poverty and discrimination and she wrote movingly of those who had settled for dead-end lives. Her most famous poem, We Real Cool, with its be-bop beat, talks about the hopelessness of the choices some young men make.

We Real Cool
The pool players.
Seven at the golden shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Click here to listen to a recording of Gwendolyn Brooks discussing and reading We Real Cool.)

In the late 1960s, when she wrote frequently about the sometimes violent struggle for racial equality in poems like Riot, some criticized her as too “angry.” But critic Janet Overmeyer had it right when, in an article about Gwendolyn Brooks in the Christian Science Monitor, she said her “particular, outstanding genius is her unsentimental regard and respect for all human beings…from her poet’s craft bursts a whole gallery of wholly alive persons, preening, squabbling, loving, weeping.”


That humanity is what I love most about the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. You can feel her strength of spirit shine through in poems like this one:

Speech to the Young : Speech to the Progress-Toward
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
"even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Gwendolyn Brooks, who always lived in the along, was extremely prolific, writing hundreds of poems, numerous collections of poetry, an autobiography, a novel and several books of prose. It is a testament to her talent that she is one of the few modern poets to be celebrated in her lifetime.

By age 30 she had won a Guggenheim fellowship, been named one of “10 young women to watch” by Mademoiselle magazine and become a fellow in the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She became the first African American to win the Pulitzer prize in 1950, was named Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and became Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. In 1994 she was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as a Jefferson Lecturer, the federal government’s highest humanities award. The honors and awards continued until her death in 2000.

Click here to learn more about Gwendolyn Brooks, read about her life and sample a selection of her poems on the Poetry Foundation’s website.


Posted by: 
Michele Hush

March Poetry of the Month

Something that I've found poets love to write about is, well, writing poetry. I haven't found this to be common in fiction or creative non-fiction, but I've read a handful of poems by published authors, unpublished authors, and new writers about writing poems. It's an interesting thing, because you get to see the internal dialogue and communication that goes on in the writer's head. A fellow classmate in my high school creative writing class once wrote a poem all about how she didn't want to be writing a poem at that time. She listed other things she wanted to be doing. Poetry is a glimpse into someone's mind, and since it's usually shorter than an essay or a work of fiction, it's like a mini-blurb of one thought in a person's lifetime of thinking billions of things. Below is a poem by Jennifer Rizzi, talking to her reader about the poem she is writing. She dares the reader to look for a deeper meaning. Her voice is edgy and challenging in this piece and that makes it all the more exciting. So experience this piece of writing about writing as our cynical poet communicates what she has to say. ~Sarah Stapperfenne, QueenofTyrus@gmail.com Creative Writing, Ithaca College The Cynical Poet Jennifer Rizzi I know what you want from me. I can picture you poring over this poem, Searching for a message. You're subconsciously seeking some far-reaching Truth About Life You're eager to suck the milk from my pen and my mind. You're putting me to the test. I can tell you won't be impressed With bunch of words that rhyme the best Or sound good when strung together In endless Succession. You know you can just turn on the radio for that. Click the link below to continue reading The Cynical Poet

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