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Poetry and Fine Art Friday: The Great American Poem

Posted by Sherry on 8/10/2007 in --August, Birthdays, Poets and poetry |

What this country needs is a great poem. John Brown’s Body was a step in the right direction. I’ve read it once, and I’m reading it again. But it’s too long to do what I mean. You can’t thrill people in 300 pages. The limit is about 300 words. Kipling’s “Recessional” really did something to England when it was published. It helped them through a bad time. Let me know if you find any great poems lying around.
Herbert Hoover, b. August 10, 1874

So, what is The Great American Poem, or who is the Great American Poet? Sandburg and Frost, I think, are too much tied to one area of the country, Sandburg to Chicago and the Midwest and Frost to New England. Emily Dickinson is too detailed and sometimes obscure. The British nowadays might not want to put Kipling in such a grand position, might prefer Yeats or Eliot or even Tennyson, but Kipling is inspirational.

Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old–
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe–
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard–
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard–
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

So Herbert Hoover and I are taking nominations for the quintessential American poem, a poem that captures the American spirit and inspires us to live up to what is best about the United States of America. Maybe if we’re trying to mirror Kipling’s British poem, we should call it the Great American Hymn. Any suggestions?

As for art, I’m not sure who the Great American Artist is either. But I nominate Norman Rockwell. His best work is both inspirational and challenging. This one’s called “Saying Grace.”

Saying Grace


3 Comments

  • Steve says:

    I immediately had the following poem come to mind (though I had not thought about it for years). This seems, to me, to embody much of what is unique about the American spirit. It’s by Edgar A Guest.

    It Couldn’t Be Done

    Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
    But he with a chuckle replied
    That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
    Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
    So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
    On his face. If he worried he hid it.
    He started to sing as he tackled the thing
    That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

    Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
    At least no one ever has done it”;
    But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
    And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
    With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
    Without any doubting or quiddit,
    He started to sing as he tackled the thing
    That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

    There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
    There are thousands to prophesy failure;
    There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
    The dangers that wait to assail you.
    But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
    Just take off your coat and go to it;
    Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
    That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.”

  • Manders says:

    Maybe “Song of Myself”, which would be telling. 🙂 Or the obvious “Star-Spangled Banner”; Key *did* originally write it without music. “The Waste Land” is pretty epic, but too depressing, and Eliot barely counts as an American poet, anyway.

  • […] love Kipling. I’ve posted poems by Kipling: Recessional, By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, L’envoi (When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted). And, of […]

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