Here are five poems that won’t be heard at Donald Trump’s inauguration, but perhaps should be. Five poems about America written across the span of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, five poems that seem particularly meaningful now.
The first, ‘Let America be America again’, is by Langston Hughes, one of the great figures of twentieth century American literature, and a titan of the Harlem Renaissance, much of whose work was, as it is in this poem, unpicking the idea of America as utopia and as reality.
Claude McKay was another great figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and his poem, ‘America’, also expresses the bittersweetness of being American.
In ‘The Old South Meeting House’, January Gill O’Neill looks upon the bricks and pews and memories encased in one of Boston’s most important churches, and historically one of the most significant spaces for public debate, to contemplate, in a very different way to Hughes and McKay, the fractures and contradictions of America.
Michelle Boisseau’s ‘The fury that breaks’, speaks to a rage that is both personal and political, necessary and disquieting.
The final poem is perhaps my favourite. A compressed gem from James Baldwin, better known as an essayist and novelist, but a wonderful poet too; a poem untitled but which in 15 lines embodies a lifetime of yearning, fear, despair, hope and possibilities.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free’.
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
First published in Esquire magazine in 1936; taken from the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Knopf/Vintage)
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
First published in 1921 in Liberator.
Old South Meeting House
January Gill O’Neill
Commissioned by the Academy of American Poets, and published in 2016 on its website, Poems & Poets.
The Fury that Breaks
The fury that breaks a grown-up into kids,
a kid into scattered birds
and a bird into limp eggs,
the fury of the poor
takes one part oil to two parts vinegar.
The fury that breaks a tree into leaves,
a leaf into deranged flowers
and a flower into wilting telescopes,
the fury of the poor
gushes two rivers against a hundred seas.
The fury that breaks the true into doubts,
doubt into three matching arches
and the arch into instant tombs,
the fury of the poor
draws a sharpening stone against two knives.
The fury that breaks the soul into bodies,
the body into warped organs,
and the organ into eight doctrines,
the fury of the poor
burns with one fire in two thousand craters.
Published in Poetry magazine, 2013