[Poetry Friday] Mother of Exiles – Emma’s Poem – An Independence Day Special

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Myra here.

I am happy to be joining the Poetry Friday community once more – and this week, on quite a special occasion as it is the 4th of July! Happy Independence Day, America! We had a chance to experience the fireworks and the festivities when we were in Las Vegas with family back in 2012. And it was such a wonderful experience, with free concerts happening in the Old Strip and so many other exciting things going on in the city. I am sure that there would be a lot more on this by other Poetry Friday enthusiasts if you visit Heidi Mordhorst’s roundup at My Juicy Little Universe.

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In keeping with today’s special event, here is a beautiful picturebook that celebrates the Voice of the Statue of Liberty in Emma’s Poem. 

Emma was born in 1849 to a very wealthy family in New York City. Her entire world revolved around a network of people with the same kind of privilege and status: “people who had plenty of everything.” Emma’s visit to Ward’s Island in New York Harbor tilted her reality as she came in contact with the poorest of the poor who fled their home countries seeking refuge.

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Most people in her privileged circle back in the 1880s believed that a fine lady like her should not mingle with the destitute. In fact, most of the wealthy people believed that these “ragged and poor” people would soon be the ruin of the country. Despite this, Emma continued to help out the immigrants by teaching them English, get training for jobs and even made friends with them. She also advocated for immigrants’ rights and wrote feelingly in newspapers and in her poems about how they would be able to give back to the country with people’s help and support .

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When news spread about a giant statue being constructed in France as a gift of friendship for the United States, people rallied to raise funds to build the large pedestal for the statue to stand on:

To raise money,

many well-known American writers

such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman

were asked to write something.

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Emma was asked to create a poem.

The whole collection would be sold

to help pay for the statue’s pedestal.

Emma thought long and hard about what she would write about. As she considered what the giant woman would say to the immigrants arriving in the New York Harbor, the ones “arriving hungry and in rags,” her poem “The New Colossus” was born and became a symbol of all that the Mother of Exiles stood for.

I had a chance to visit Ellis Island during my visit back in 2012. This photo was taken by my husband and I edited it to include the famous last lines of her poem.

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The famous songwriter Irving Berlin also set these famous lines to music and became the unofficial anthem for the Land of the Free, all thanks to a woman with a compassionate heart, Emma Lazarus.

Here are a few of our photographs of the Mother of Exiles, otherwise known as the Statue of Liberty. Happy Independence Day!

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Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser and paintings by Claire A. Nivola. Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010. Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

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13 Comments on [Poetry Friday] Mother of Exiles – Emma’s Poem – An Independence Day Special

  1. Irene Latham // July 4, 2014 at 7:54 pm // Reply

    I love the story behind the poem… it’s one all my kids have had to memorize for school, which, while I hate it when poetry becomes a source of stress and anxiety, at least it’s a good poem! Thank you for sharing, and hope you have a great day!

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  2. I love sharing this book with my students, Myra – for it enriches their understanding of the poem so much more. Thanks for sharing this today!

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  3. What a perfect post for today. I read this book with my son. We appreciated that she was able to deeply empathize with people so unlike herself in a time when that was considered socially unacceptable.

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  4. I don’t know about this book, although I know the story, Myra. What a lovely post for Independence Day here. My students studied immigration one year, and visited NYC & Ellis Island. Wonderful experience for all of us. Thank you!

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  5. Wow, Myra, I’d never heard of this book, nor was I aware of the poem itself. I had no idea that the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” was from this. And I vaguely remember having heard about the raising of money for the pedestal. Thank you so much! Checking it from the library right now! 😀

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  6. Such an appropriate post for today. It makes me think about the continuing immigration issues we have now. Thank you for introducing me to Emma’s Poem!

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  7. Such an appropriate post for today. It makes me reflect on our immigration issues today. Thank you for introducing me to Emma’s Poem!

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  8. I would love to see the entire collection that was written as a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty. Thanks for sharing this story, poem, and song, Myra!

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  9. It looks like a terrific book. Beautiful photos, Myra.

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  10. How generous of you to focus on this book today, Myra. The illustrations are lovely, and such a powerful poem– I only wish more modern day Americans would take it to heart.

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  11. Julie Larios // July 5, 2014 at 8:57 am // Reply

    I had never heard the poem set to Irving Berlin’s music – what a treat! I still think this is what is has always been best about America – its open-armed and generous invitation to the world’s poor and oppressed to come and find a better life here. I hope we can live up to Emma’s Poem in the future. Thanks for posting about the book, Myra.

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  12. Hello, Myra–

    As a young adult I spend time every weekend on Liberty Island (long story), and like fireworks, the sight of Lady Liberty welcoming all comers with her lamp never gets tired for me. I’m glad to know of a book which connects Emma Lazarus to the statue that stands for liberty and justice FOR ALL.

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  13. Hi, Myra. What a perfect poem for the July 4 holiday. I always return to the poem’s vision of America as a place of equal rights for all — I hope it’s something our leaders continue to aspire to.

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