Tracy K. Smith is someone who should need no introduction, but seeing how even the superstars of contemporary poetry are relatively obscures, here goes: she is the current Poet Laureate of the United States, a professor at Princeton University, author of several books of poetry (including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars [Graywolf, 2011]), and all-around inspiring figure in the literary world. Seriously, go read her.
I’m currently working my way through her most recent collection, Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018), and I was so struck by one of the pieces that I set aside everything else and started writing up an analysis of it. That’s how most of these blog posts start, really: something I read makes me think so rapidly that I have no choice but set everything down (and hopefully, set everything in order). The poem in question is called “Declaration”; you can read it on the Poetry Foundation website, where there’s also a recording of Smith reading the poem aloud.
The first thing to note about “Declaration” is that the words themselves are not of Tracy K. Smith’s creation. Instead, “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry, a form of found poetry in which the poet takes a pre-existing text and removes (“erases”) some or most of the original words, such that the remaining words form a new composition, often one that comments on the original text. Though erasure poetry doesn’t really involve writing as we normally conceive of it, it still requires a kind of creative vision: the ability to see new contexts for old words, to find subversive potentials in someone else’s language.
In this case, Smith uses the United States Declaration of Independence as her source text, which is perhaps the most famous document I’ve seen a poet black-out. However, if you haven’t read the original document (and didn’t see Smith’s title), I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t realize what Smith was doing here. I think it may be helpful, then, to talk about the declaration for a bit.
When we think of the Declaration of Independence, we tend to think of the lofty rhetoric near the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But such eternally quotable assertions about natural law and political philosophy are a small percentage of the document’s word count, because the Declaration of Independence was not written to be a treatise. It was a written in a specific context for a specific purpose: to state the intention of Britain’s North American colonies to break away from the mother country.
That context explains why most of the document is devoted to listing off the colonies’ grievances against George III. The history of “repeated injuries and usurpations” is the justification for the war for independence, for a course of action that would have been considered treasonous had Britain prevailed in the conflict. The list explains why, per the authors, the declaration is necessary. Yet because the content of the section is so tied to a particular moment in history, it’s the part whose present-day power would seem rather limited. I mean, we’re not exactly stirred to anger these days by hearing references to the Quartering Act, right?
At least, that’s what I used to think, until July 4, 2017. That was the day that NPR decided to adapt their Independence Day tradition of reading the declaration on-air for Twitter. In a series of over 100 tweets, NPR’s Twitter account relayed the entire text of the declaration, like a town crier with WiFi. Most people recognized the exercise as a simple patriotic observance, but a small number of people, mostly of a right-wing persuasion and likely seeing the tweets outside of their full context, assumed NPR was criticizing Donald Trump and even advocating for revolution.
Now, if you’re like me, your first impulse is some good old cathartic laughter: “Haha, the Make America Great Again people don’t recognize the Declaration of Independence!” These randos on Twitter saw a news organization commemorating Independence Day, and assumed it was an attack on their fearless leader. But by accident, the people outraged over this exercise revealed that the declaration remains a powerful document in its entirety. How can anyone reading the declaration from start to finish come upon a sentence like, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler over a free people,” and not connect it to the present moment? And that’s with context. Now imagine seeing that sentence while idly scrolling through Twitter. Yes, these Trump supporters were off-base on the intention of the exercise, but if it were an institution less staid than NPR, I don’t think it would be that unreasonable an inference.
So, to summarize this long digression: the grievance section of the Declaration of Independence, even though it is the least-recognized and most-dated part of the document, is still a powerful piece of rhetoric, perhaps especially when the language is removed from the original context. And with all that in mind, we can now ask ourselves: What does Tracy K. Smith do with it?
The first thing I’ll note is that Smith leaves the rhetorical structure of the source material largely intact. The primary device used in the grievance section of the original document is syntactic parallelism, especially anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of consecutive phases, e.g., “He has refused to Assent to Laws . . . He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws . . . He has refused to pass other Laws . . . etc.”). Smith’s “Declaration” preserves that formal element, and if anything amplifies it by also using epistrophe (repeating words at the end of consecutive phrases). The result is something which condenses the grievance section down the sensation of listening to it:
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our— (lines 3-8)
Yet while Smith preserves the source material’s form, she seems to have eliminated, erased, its content. We have all these transitive verbs which are incomplete without grammatical objects, all these phrases which sound in need of closure. One might be tempted to say that what Smith has done is transform the Declaration of Independence into something close to theoretically pure rhetoric.
That, for the record, would be a perfectly fine approach for an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps it would reveal the emptiness behind the lofty ideals and philosophy which the document advocates for: all so much pleasant-sounding air. But Smith has something more specific in mind with this. After all, the passage quoted above is not free of content. Those verbs—”plundered,” “ravaged,” “destroyed,” “taking away,” “abolishing”—have charges, connotations, that pure sound would not have. And they start to call to mind a particular piece of context behind the source material, the inescapable contradiction at the heart of American history.
You probably know where we’re going with this, but to make it explicit: the country that extolled the equality and inalienable rights of “all men” permitted and was built on chattel slavery. The men who stuck their necks out in accusing George III of tyranny practiced their own tyranny upon the black slaves they and their fellow citizens owned as property. It is the unpardonable hypocrisy that has continued to haunt the United States from its inception to the present. One cannot in good conscience read the Declaration of Independence without mentally raising that objection to it.
Some might say, of course, that we can separate the admirable aspects of the declaration from the moral failings of the society that produced it, that we can discard the slavery and keep the inalienable rights. (One hears this a lot with regards to Enlightenment-era philosophy.) And that’s why I think Smith’s choice to make “Declaration” a found poem is so powerful: it suggests that such a separation is impossible. In the process of blacking-out the original text, her artistic vision knows to preserve such phrases as “the circumstances of our emigration / and settlement here” (13-14) and “taken Captive / on the high Seas / to bear” (15-17). She sees the sorts of grievances the declaration’s signers lobbed at the crown, and highlights how they were blind to the same faults in themselves.
Smith is not the first person to use the Declaration of Independence for critical purposes, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted from it during his “I Have a Dream” speech, only to then call it a “promissory note” that has gone unfilled. Ho Chi Minh cited it, alongside France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, at the beginning of the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence, then attacked the Western imperial powers for violating those cherished principles. But Smith’s poem feels even more scathing than those instances. MLK and Ho Chi Minh emphasized the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—ones that society has failed to live up to, yes, but ideals worth aspiring toward. But with “Declaration,” one senses that the ideals themselves have been tainted. For a poem that appears so halting on the page, that’s one hell of a strong theme.
That’s it from me. But what about you? What are your thoughts on “Declaration,” or on found poetry in general? Feel free to sound off in the comments! And if you’re looking for more thoughts on recontextualizing the classics, you may want to check out my piece on Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s short film In the Body of the Sturgeon, which rearranges Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha into a story about a submarine’s crew near the end of the Second World War.
And, as always, thank you for reading!