Alicia Ostriker on the History of Poetry in the City
Drew University’s poet-in-residence reflects on Emma Lazarus’ memorable sonnet.
April 2016 – Today, you can find shelves upon shelves of urban poetry in your local library, but it wasn’t always that way. What’s more, poetry exploring the beauty and complexity of city life has distinctly American roots.
Drew University’s Distinguished Poet-in-Residence Alicia Ostriker made these points and others during a campus talk about the relationship between poets and cities on April 20. Her address was the centerpiece of Drew’s Merrill Maguire Skaggs Lecture Series, named after the late Baldwin Professor of Humanities and dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and endowed in her memory.
Ostriker, an award-winning poet and critic with 15 published volumes of poetry to her name, further noted links between the history of urban poetry and America’s history as a nation of immigrants. She tied her themes together by telling the story of the famous Emma Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The privileged, wealthy Lazarus changed the meaning of the statue—originally given as a gift to America by the French to celebrate both nations’ free republics—after she was invited to submit a poem to be used to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal, Ostriker said. A friend suggested to her that the poem could “offer hope to the flood of destitute and despised Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe.”
The immortal words of Lazarus’ poem, which include the oft-quoted “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” helped shape the world’s view of the Statue of Liberty—and America—as a beacon of equality and welcome for all.
As Ostriker concluded: “Not bad for one sonnet.”
Throughout her talk, Ostriker explored the place of urban poetry in history, which she said was nonexistent until the mid-19th century. At first only referenced in poems for its dirty, underbelly qualities, the city eventually assumed more complex role in poetry after notable verses from Walt Whitman and later, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, among others.
Ostriker also touched on her own writing process—“It is important that I never decide to write such-and-such a poem. The poems find me, they haunt me, they make demands, they come knocking”—and discussed the role New York City has played in her life and work.
At the end of the talk, she read snippets from her upcoming volume of poetry, titled “Waiting for the Light,” which is expected to be published next winter. Afterward, she talked to attendees and signed books at a reception in the Ehinger Center’s 1867 Lounge.