Bad Poetry and Bad Politics

In response to a reporter, acting chief of citizenship and immigration Ken Cuccinelli revised the Emma Lazarus poem carved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As a refresher, here’s the pertinent section from the original text:

“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

from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

And here is the updated Cuccinelli version:

Give me your tired, your poor
Who can stand on their own two feet
And who will not become a public charge.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting chief of citizenship and immigration

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

Cuccinelli is rewriting poetry in an effort to justify the latest immigration policy from the Trump administration. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: if you aren’t one hundred percent self-sufficient and independent, go away.

It’s bad policy and bad poetry.

Ken Cuccinelli, not a poet.

What’s next for Cuccinelli, I wonder? He could revise Langston Hughes’s iconic poem “Let America Be America Again.” All he has to do is edit out a few inconvenient stanzas to make the poem read as a rallying cry for the MAGA crowd.

Perhaps he’ll rewrite Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” with scenes of stock market tycoons and Big Pharma opioid pushers contemplating Top 40 pop tunes. He could swap out Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” with Tucker Carlson’s incessant squawk and reinterpret Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” as an aspirational poem for refugee children being held in squalid conditions at the southern border. Sing, children, sing!

Really, the possibilities are staggering.

Poetry reveals truth with powerful imagery and beautiful language. We should be listening to poets and reading poetry. It will make us better—more empathetic, more aware, more compassionate. And there are plenty of contemporary poets penning stanzas of truth. Read them. Buy their collections. Share their words. Try Rebecca Morgan Frank’s stunning and distinctly American collection Sometimes We Are All Living in a Foreign Country. Or, pick up Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic for a wide and wonderful view of the natural world. Or head over to YouTube and watch Crystal Valentine perform “I Am Black Before Woman in February.”

We need more poetry and we need more poets, but we don’t need men like Ken Cuccinelli delivering bad policy and bad poetry to our nation. The words Cuccinelli delivers are unpoetic and un-American. We can and should drown him out with a better message.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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