Occasional Poems for Independence Day

Free-wheeling behavior. What I want / when I want / how I want. Places to see, people to do, things to go. [Yes, I know that’s not quite the phrase ;)]

Do those comments describe independence?

Not quite.

Let’s try “Self Reliance”, an early idea on what a democratic republic nation should be–the ideals of ancient Greece, the best governance of ancient Rome. A pride in viewing everyone the same because we are the same. A willingness to stand up and be counted when it matters.

How about now? Are we describing independence?

Closer.

Independence Day

On the 4th of July America celebrates its beginnings and all the best that this country comes together to be. Yes, we have problems. Who doesn’t? We’re working on them. (Are you working on yours? Good. Haven’t got any? Think again.)

Writing for Independence Day
  1. Find the reason/purpose for writing.
  2. Identify the audience.
  3. Select the images to use. Seven?
  4. Subtract anything too maudlin. Strong memories defeat smarmy emotion.
  5. Determine the focus idea to convey.
  6. Use repetition and alliteration. Audiences listen for key words. Their minds chain the keys together to build sense.
  7. Figurative language works in performance only when it controls the entire text. Extended metaphors will carry more power than simple similes.
  8. Subtract anything too maudlin. Yes, again.
  9. Manipulate the line structure.
  10. Practice before performance.

To celebrate the USA’s Independence, I’ve gathered several poems that meet the requirements of the occasion. A wide-range of poetry, and the last one not even considered a poem by the majority. In looking at these poems, we can see directions for our own attempts to celebrate any patriotic occasion.

All the poems use tight construction through repetition, the time-honored rhetorical device when constructing any writing for performance.

Our first poems are the total spirit of what enables the independent spirit.

Walt Whitman:  Equality, Fraternity, Liberty

Whitman is one of the two great American poets who can be identified by the appearance of their poetic lines alone. Emily Dickinson is the other. Like the USofA, Whitman sprawls across the continent, celebrating all of us. Dickinson writes compact poems with introspective individuality.

Perhaps the most well-known of Whitman’s poems is his “I Hear America Singing”. Free verse with his signature catalog of details, it rejoices in the plain people who began turning America into the powerhouse of industry that it became in the 20th Century.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s Writing

How did Walt Whitman craft this poem? The method he used is called the catalog. He lists the series of workers and what they are doing. These are common people in common jobs, each one vibrant, each one essential for everyone to progress (a lesson we all learned about essential work during the pandemic).

Men and women. Old and young. Owner and worker. Tough work and fine work. Hard work and working at play. Morning, noon, night.

“The day what belongs to the day–at night the party”.

His first two lines present his purpose. He balances every other detail, either by twos or threes (the line about women presents three ages).

Whitman isn’t concerned with the length of the line. The stringencies of the computer screen alter the actual line lengths: the lines for the boatman and woodcutter and the women should stretch to their entire length rather than drop down.

Whitman gives us pure egalitarianism.

The everyday person, working hard to enjoy the harvest of his own hands—this is the person that 4th of July speeches should praise. Picnicking, jumping whole-heartedly into games, glorying in the fireworks—this is the poem to celebrate Independence Day.

Waldo Emerson: Pillars of Independence on the Colossus of the People

I am not a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Concord Hymn”, the usual read for Independence Day with its famous “shot heard round the world”, leaves me cold. His “A Nation’s Strength” stirs the feelings of pride in our country.

A Nation’s Strength

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Emerson’s Writing

Emerson writes a simple meter and a simple rhyme scheme (abab). His structure is a simple question and answer format: Is it this? Is it that? No, it is not what you expect. “Sinking sand” and “abiding rock” are allusions to the Bible.

The “red dust” of empires offers another allusion >> “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with the ashes picked up in the next stanza. Money, war, and pride cannot keep a nation strong.

What then? Only a nation’s people. Only those who stand for truth and honor. Only the brave who battle while others sleep.

Coming Up

While others applaud the nation or its elected leaders or its industry leaders, Whitman and Emerson both remind us that nations are nothing without their people standing strong.

These are our first two volleys in the four-post celebration of occasional poems on Independence. Return on July 5th for the next offerings.

Practice Occasional Poems

The summer months offer several opportunities to practice occasional poems. First Mother’s Day, now Father’s Day … and coming soon is Independence Day.

Occasional poems–meant to be read, not perused–usually are light on structural elements and heavy on powerful details and emotional points. Clever ideas–like a time progression–can resonate with our audience. The strongest time progression is Past > Present > Future.

Fathers, like our mothers, connect past to present to future. On the 5th, we had a close examination of a traditional poem by Robert Haydn—the famous “Winter Sundays”—and a free verse from Li Young Lee—“The Gift”.

Here are two more, without the involved examination. All four poems–just as the Mother’s Day poems–offer practice opportunities for new poets. Without concentrating on a complicated structure, we see powerful details. Those details create lingering memories for us.

Fathers Must Let Go of the Past to Give us our Present

Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective. Cecil Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.

This link comes from Genius.com and offers two annotated explanations.

Fathers Give Us the Future Because of What They Lost

Jan Beatty presents “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, a soft-sounding poem until we meet the strong voice of the first lines. The link connects to an archive of The Seattle Times, with a bit of information before and after to explain the father’s viewpoint.

We can hear Jan Beatty asking her father what work is like. How many children and teenagers have wondered the same thing? We see work as the money we earn and what independence that we think that money will give us. Instead, in the father’s hard voice, we get the harsh reality.

The short lines, staccato hard, give us a painful truth–“same thing again. / Nothing more. Nothing less. … All this other stuff you’re looking for — / It ain’t there. / Work is work.”

Once we’re past those sharp words, those of us who have worked years will laugh—and then nod, realizing the truth the father gives his daughter..

Look again at Beatty’s title. Through those words “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, unspoken is the father’s wish and the child’s realization of how to escape such toil and pursue the career that will create happiness in the slavery of work for $$$.

That gift of the future dream, the gift of MORE than the humdrum work world, is the greatest gift our fathers can give to us.

Practice Occasional Poems

Both poems offer memories, just as did Haydn’s and Lee’s poems. In searching for a subject to practice your occasional poems, look into your memory. The details that create your strong memory strongly will transfer to the page and to your audience.

Coming Up

On the 25th, we are past Father’s Day and looking toward the next big occasion of the summer months >> Independence Day.

Join us.

Poems for Father’s Day

June Celebrates Fathers

Father and Son (free stock image from Wiki Commons)

The day that we honor our fathers rapidly approaches. It’s a perfect opportunity to write poems for Father’s Day.

As practicing poets, we might thing that writing poems for our fathers is easy. That is, we think that until we crack open the laptop, fire up a Word app, then realize we can only think of pablum.

We don’t want to give our fathers bland, tasteless, emotionless words.

Unlike Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world. Unfortunately, most of those poems are line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards. Or cutesy little poems trying for loud laughter.

Occasional poems should awaken the mind and tug at the heartstrings.

Avoiding the overblown and the cutesy are the two pitfalls for all Occasional Poems, most especially for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We need our poems to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.

Father’s Day offers another barrier that we stumble against. We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for our dads.

We should.

Yet tossing in emotion after emotion never works. Both Mom and Dad deserve truth instead of watery pathos.

Reminder

We have three chief reasons to practice our poetic craft with occasional poems for all**.

1] Keep to audience requirements. Who are we writing for? Ourselves? Nyah. It’s the fathers we wish to honor.

2] Keep to the 4 Requirements of Song. Remember those? Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. Heartfelt Message. Clear Communication.

3] Keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems swimming in the universal current.

(**Occasional Poems for All. That’s a book, isn’t it? Filled with all the trite, complacent pathos we could want. Let’s not fall back on this or on greeting cards.)

How can we achieve truth in our Poems for Father’s Day?

Consider the role that your father plays in your life. Look to the character archetypes to determine which role we want to celebrate. From there, we ask “What does that role require?” Once we know that answer, we find specific images (especially a dominant image) to represent the role.

Two Views of Fathers

Fathers as Protectors

Robert Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his appreciation to his father for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.

Here is Those Winter Sundays, on Poetry Foundation

Look at the harsh reality of the first stanza: blueblack cold, “cracked hands that ached from labor.” Strong alliterative B’s and the hard K sound of the C’s emphasize those winter Sundays when everyone else is sleeping, everyone else is free from work, and everyone else snuggles just a little deeper under the bedcovers–because someone else will do the hard thing … just as Haydn’s father did.

The second stanza presents the frozen reality of the world–from the weather, from the difficult emotions between father and son as the son challenges that the father wants … because the father sees his world and doesn’t want that world for his son.

The father drove out the cold of the weather … and the world by giving his son the ability to do more than that hard labor that cracked the father’s hands. And his son can go into the world with newly polished good shoes, putting a shiny clean face on his future … because of his father’s “austere and lonely offices”.

We have fourteen lines in this poem–5 in the first stanza, 4 in the center, 5 in the last. A hidebound traditionalist wouldn’t call this poem a sonnet because it breaks the common sonnet structures. Yet what does a sonnet do? It presents an argument, provides evidence, then through a Volta (a turning viewpoint) it reaches a truth.

Haydn argues that his father loves him–even though the house was filled with “chronic angers”. He gives several details as evidence. Then, in the last two lines (where Shakespeare always turned his Volta to achieve his truth) Haydn gives the rhetorical question “What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

The question is rhetorical because we know the answer. None of us know about “love’s austere and lonely offices”, not until we have years between event and emotion, years to reflect on what actually occurred, and the wiser understanding of those years to see.

Fathers Teach Lingering Lessons

Li Young Lee, who had an example of a Mother’s Day poem, also presents his father’s love in a rather oblique way, via Lee’s relationship with his wife. Find “The Gift” here on Poetry Foundation.

The poem opens with Lee’s memory: his father draws out a splinter, distracting his son with a story. The second stanza gives us the details of his father’s love: “his voice … a well of / dark water”, his hands “two measures of tenderness / laid against my face”, and “flames of discipline” similar to Haydn’s father with the “chronic angers”.

In the third stanza, Lee moves us from past to present. He invites us into the poem as well as he moves from the literal “planting something in a boy’s palm” to the figurative, for Lee’s father did plant something in his son–the ability to be tender when a necessary hurt must occur. He reinforces this with the repetition of details from the first two stanzas. The “silver tear” is the “well of dark water” as well as the tears on the little boy’s face as he confronts a painful splinter and its withdrawal. The “tiny flame” is the memory of those “flames of discipline”, reduced by time.

Using his father’s technique, he performs the same splinter withdrawal. Then Lee shows us his mark–humor mixed with memory … “Metal that will bury me” and “Little Assassin”, the extremes of childish thought. And he charges the poem with further emotion when he thanks his father with a kiss, doing “what a child does / when he’s given something to keep”.

A memory of his father.

Coming Up

Two more views of fathers, just in time for Father’s Day.

Join us on the 15th.