Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 4Topic 1
Focus On Poetry About Immigration
Raise A New Torch

The Immigrants

In the 1880s, America was beginning to feel the effects of the greatest wave of immigration in its history. Millions of people-- many of them impoverished peasants from Eastern and Southern Europe--were pouring into the country, most of them through the port of New York. The Statue of Liberty--dedicated in 1886-- seemed like a giant beacon in the harbor, welcoming them to the land of freedom. For those who actually visited the statue, there was a poem to read, inscribed on its base. Written by a New Yorker named Emma Lazarus, it included these now-famous lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

In this activity, you will have the chance to write your own poetic welcome to America. You won't need much to do it--just a pen, a piece of paper, and your imagination. But then again, for a poet, that's everything.

Think About Immigration Yesterday And Today

You'd have to be living in a cave not to notice it: America is the land of the immigrant. As in Emma Lazarus's time, the United States is once again experiencing a great wave of immigration. Of course, there are many differences between the immigration of Lazarus' day and our own. Today, most immigrants do not come from Europe; they come from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Most come by jet, not ship. And many choose to move directly to the suburbs, especially the ones who have a little money when they arrive. But as the French--who gave us the Statue of Liberty--say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The immigrants coming today- -like those of 100 years ago--come to America for the same reasons: freedom and opportunity, for themselves and their children

In writing your "welcome to America" poem, you have a choice: you can update Emma Lazarus' poem or you can create an entirely new one.

Come Up With Ideas

Before writing your poem, think about what you want to say. What does America mean to you? What do you think is special about our country? You also might want to talk to others: family, friends, neighbors. Or talk to some immigrants. Ask what America means to them. You might try these questions: What did they think of America before they came? What do they think of America now? Have their hopes and dreams come true? Or has America been a disappointment?
Write Your Poem

There is nothing difficult or mysterious about writing poetry. Your poem can be long or short. It can tell a story or describe a scene or discuss an idea. It doesn't have to rhyme unless you want it to. You can even put it to music.

The type of poem you write is up to you, of course. But here are some things to think about:

You might want to try using a persona for your poem. A persona is a character you take on as a writer. For instance, maybe you want to write the poem from the viewpoint of an immigrant.

Also, you have to decide what voice you want to write in: first person ("I"), second person ("you"), or third person ("he, she, they"). Lazarus' poem is written in the second person because it is addressing another person: "Give me YOUR tired..." Second person is very immediate. Other poems use "I." The famous New York poet Walt Whitman was fond of using "first person." First person is very personal. (To read some of Whitman's poems, go to www.poets.org, which also includes the works of many other poets.) A poem in the third person is one that talks of other people and has no personal voice like Whitman's. Most poems--like most stories--are written in this form. Third person is probably best if you want to show the big picture.

Finally, think about the descriptions you use. Lazarus, for example, used the words "wretched refuse" to describe immigrants. Did she mean they were garbage? Not exactly. She meant to say they were unwanted, like garbage. Remember, she was addressing her poem-- in second person--to the rulers of Europe who didn't want these people. The language she uses is strong, but it is meant to send a message.

Display Your Poem

Once you have written your poem about immigration today, you might want to think about putting it up somewhere: a class or school bulletin board. Or, maybe, you might want to put it up in a public building. Other places to display poetry are newspapers, magazines like Stone Soup (a poetry magazine for kids), or the Internet.