Fourth of July Poems
Patriotic. From the Greek word patēr, for father, denotes Love of Fatherland. It’s elemental. I loved my dad. He taught me to transfer some of that love to my country. He was a veteran. He is buried in Ft. Logan cemetery in Colorado. He lived to raise a family, but many of the other tombstones honor the bumper sticker that says, “All gave some, but some gave all. Never forget that freedom isn’t free.” He instilled a love of country inside of me and so this is a second installment of trying to honor him.
Love offers us multiple meanings. It can get confusing because in English the word Love stands for everything. I can love my wife and I can love tacos. Would I say “I love my wife as much as I love tacos.” Well, it is plausible, but if those words came out of my mouth on our anniversary, my wife might not understand…Doghouse much? Well, I do have a low filter. Thus, I’ve tried to figure out this word love, so I don’t sleep with Fido as often.
This is a cursory exploration of the word love from the Greek language that speaks to the word patriotic.
Eros. A middle school boy discovers this as if it is brand-new every generation. Overwhelming epiphany. Girls. The same creatures that had cooties last year and interrupted your conversations about toy cars and farting, suddenly have an appeal. I’m borrowing from a comedian, but from that epiphany to the grave, people get excited. Do they love the other person? That is a mixed bag of emotions, but the Greeks called that version of love eros, giving us words like erotic.
Agape is another version of the word love. This speaks to a different version of love that has less to do with emotion and more to do with actions. To keep this blog from going too long suffice it to say that when you choose certain actions, devoid of emotion, you are choosing to love that situation or activity. “I love golf.” Now golf may give you warm and fuzzy emotions, but you also have to choose to buy the clubs, pay the fees, and take time out of your day to play golf. All of those are choices and actions. Agape is the “Put your money where your mouth is” version of the word love.
Phileo is another nuance to the word love. It speaks to a deep affection for a person, perhaps a family member, that drives us to act in a certain way. We want their approval. We want to prove loyalty. Philadelphia comes directly from this Greek word as the “City of Brotherly Love.” This is the sentiment that gives us the word Patriotic. I love my dad. We love our fathers. We love our family. That spills over into we love our country.
Yes, our current rhetoric is at an extreme, and it doesn't seem like much love is in the mix. However, you have to understand that in the scope of how societies are formed, we live in a complex civilization. Ancient Egypt. Ancient Rome. Ancient Mayans. U.S.A. They all share the fact that with advanced farming techniques, food security and luxury each civilization at this level has allowed the society to make people specialize.
Before that mechanism, you had to be patriotic in the fact that you had to show loyalty to the family and the tribe. One of the last vestiges, in Europe, of that ideal was the Scottish Highlands Clan system of government. People still celebrate this level of loyalty by preserving certain weaving patterns into a certain plaid for kilts.
Why does that level of loyalty matter today? Well, families love each other and families don’t always see eye to eye. That part isn’t important. What is important, is the sentiment of Patria, which for a country means that out of our love for country we seek to defend the ideals. On this Fourth of July, we don’t all see eye to eye, but part of the emotion driving our arguments is that we all love our country and want the best for it.
When it comes to the U.S.A., when we come to defend, no matter what our walk, we are defending the freedoms that are unique. Freedom of Speech. There are others, but hey, this is a blog about poetry, and poets are champions of free speech. So these ten poems, offer a brief description of their sentiment. This offers you a glimpse into the different ways people express their hope and love of country. Enjoy your Fourth of July.
Old Ironsides- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
This poem is revered as an honored and loved political action to stop the scrapping of American History. They were going to decommission the U.S.S. Constitution, a ship that had become legendary because it was one of the first ships ever built for the fledgling US Navy. History is important. It reminds us all of our struggles to overcome. When Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the young poet, read of plans to dismantle the ship for scrap, he wrote this poem to celebrate its life and legacy. The poem was published and spread. People protested and the ship was saved.
At the base of our republic is this love of country and the chance to disagree with things to make it a better place to live. This poem demonstrates the power of words to change the course of political actions. It is a poem of witness that inspired other people to act.
Immigrants in Our Own Land- Jimmy Santiago Baca
This poem expresses the word love in that it speaks up for an ideal and hope that has lost its intent, driving people to despair.
This speaks to a different issue than dismantling a ship. It shows the arc of hope, struggle and despair, when the American Dream gets rigged in favor other other groups. The dream is there. It still works. It's just that generations of people believed they were coming to Disneyland where the rivers flowed with Kool-aid. The hope is that hamburgers and French fries fall out of the sky like rain.
This poem speaks to harsh reality that when certain immigrants arrive, the job isn't there. The housing isn't there. They eventually realize that some of the de facto rules of our republic work the same as the old country where they couldn't eat. Some people stop dreaming, and this poem documents that fact.
Paul Revere’s Ride - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Bard of the Republic. Before we wrote things down, rulers needed people to get the message out that the leader was great and that everything is going great because we are strongest, and smartest. Oh, and that our leader is good looking. OK, so maybe they don't have to be good looking. That came later with the modern era of politics when Nixon lost to Kennedy due to a make-up and a lighting malfunction. In any case, before societies wrote things down to serve these functions, people were bards. The dabbled in history, music and story-telling. They were paid by wealthy patrons, so it served their interests to not talk about the patrons wart on their nose, or the gout that made them groan and smell bad.
The U.S.A. is no different, and there is a long tradition of poets celebrating the dreams of the republic. Paul Revere encapsulated the American spirit of pluck, rebellion and overcoming of the odds at all costs. Even though we have the written word, we are embedded in tradition with a poet being part of the inauguration. The bard is alive and well, celebrating how strong and smart we are as citizens of this country.
I Hear America, Singing – Walt Whitman
With borrowed techniques, his “Song” sings in celebration of opportunities in America. The poem expresses how these different opportunities come from various jobs. Even though so much of modern rhetoric speaks to the dark side of the aftermath of the Civil War, Whitman was known to be a fan of Abraham Lincoln. Although they never met, when Lincoln was assassinated, Whitman wrote many poems in honor the the game changing leader. Poets write about the positive and negative. Whitman gave voice to the hope people could find in the country. He also gave voice to the sad tragedy of losing a great leader. There always seems to be somebody celebrating the possibilities in the unique American experiment, and someone highlighting the failures in the experiment. Both are needed.
The New Colossus Emma Lazarus
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she/ With silent lips.
The Statue of Liberty comes to life with personification. With 14 lines, it gives you the feeling of a sonnet. Ancient form, but the formality offers and echo that “we are as good as you, Shakespeare" Emma takes that one step further, however in voicing the American ideal of caring for the indigent and immigrant of the world. This poem creates hope and is one of many messages, since 1776, of America being the ultimate land of opportunity where you can start with nothing and achieve greatness. Many have done just that, and this holiday celebrates that sentiment.
I am Waiting- Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Poets point to holes in the wall when everyone else is calling it perfect. Out of instinct, and even out of patria, some poets need to point to the holes in the system as a matter of witness and hope that the world will be better. Dante’s Inferno pointed to the holes in the Italian system, by putting politicians of his day in levels of hell as the source of evil. Pretty harsh. We are doing the same thing at the moment.
Lawrence simplifies the commentary, even offering a glimmer of hope. We only wait, when we think something could change. I don’t wait for a flight that’s been cancelled with the grand sentiment that the airline will magically say “Oh! Never mind….” We wait for a better day in our country, because we know better is possible. Sometimes the poet is just trying to be the flashlight. If you stumble on something in the dark, you will keep stumbling until you bring a light. For many poets, their role with patria is simply to bring a flashlight, hoping we can at least stop stubbing our toes on the darkest parts of the room called, America.
Learning to Love America -Shirley Geok-Lin Lim
“because it has no pure products”
America is a land of immigrants. Like a rushing river, America is awash with people from other places that come for a better life. That speaks to an entirely different perspective on patriotic. If you are child of a divorce, can you love a new step-father? If your father died and your mother remarried, can you love a new step-father? Sometimes we notice and sometimes we don’t that especially since Ellis Island, people have putting the pain of their lives in another country (due to poverty, war or other reasons) and coming to America to learn to love a new place. There is pain and hope, wrapped into the same experience.
America- Claude McKay
“…I will confess/I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.”
Part of the Harlem renaissance, McKay uses a strict sonnet form. Like Emma Lazarus, sometimes, when American poets use formal forms, it is like we are the kid yelling, “I’m just as good as you are!” to the whole world.
That same sentiment works internally to the country as well. Even though we say that we celebrate immigration and diversity, there is an Orwellian reality (Animal Farm- 1945) that screams, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
That has driven the marginalized people in our country to prove, through the arts, that we are all equal. That still drives the arts today. In the spirit of Claude McKay using a strict sonnet form, Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Obama’s presidential portrait. He takes on classical painting forms and themes, putting African Americans in the context of that conversation. We all love “this cultured hell that tests my youth.”
Fourth of July at Santa Ynez – John Haines
Like McKay and others, this poem offers a look into the diversity of how America lives, although we love it from different perspectives. This poem is devoid of flags and fireworks. It speaks to the Native American experience. It can be confusing to be American. Although Native Americans have a rich tradition of Navajo Code-talkers, and tribal members going into battle for the U.S.A. after being forced onto reservations, they still ache for their land and traditions. They stand stalwart, not just for the patria that was forced on them by Europeans but for the deeper, tribal, family patria where they love their family. They have done their best to adopt the new child called America, but, like with other things, it has been hit or miss.
I, Too- Langston Hughes
“I am the darker brother.”
This wraps up the original point of patriotic. Coming from phileo speaking of brotherly love, and the Quakers that established Pennsylvania with Philadelphia, we must embrace our brothers (and sisters). I love America. We all love America. It is a republic with an ideal. We must love our brothers in the spirit of Ancient Greece that offered us the model for our government. For that to happen we need to take in the sentiment of Langston Hughes. “I am the darker brother.” We need to extract that word brother and put our own adjective in front of the sentence.
“I am the lonely brother.”
“I am the skinny brother.”
“I am the obese brother.”
“I am the video game playing brother with no job….”
You choose. Just choose Patria. Love your brother. Lover your father. Love your country.