Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”: An Analysis

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—

                                                  ravaged 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!

Recent Publication: Maryland Literary Review

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in the inaugural issue of the Maryland Literary Review. It’s called “We Sleep However We Can,” and it’s an ekphrastic poem inspired by Fernard Léger’s Animated Landscape, a 1921 painting in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. I lived in Baltimore for almost three years while pursuing my MFA, so it’s nice to have a poem published that can rep for the Old Line State.

Special thanks and good luck wishes go to Nathan Leslie, the editor of the Maryland Literary Review. May your new journal find its audience!

You can read “We Sleep However We Can” by clicking here, and you can see the BMA’s listing for Léger’s painting here.

Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy”: An Analysis

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)In my A-Z Bookish Survey, I mentioned my current project of reading through Kathleen Hoagland’s anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present (Devin-Adair, 1947). Recently, I read through the book’s selection of Thomas Moore’s poetry, and though I had not heard the name, I discovered I was familiar with some his work. In popular culture, Moore’s most familiar piece is probably “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” whose tune appears at the beginning of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and is part of a running gag used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.

However, I found myself more drawn to a different Moore poem, “The Minstrel Boy,” a ballad recounting a young musician’s death in battle. Let’s take a close look at it, shall we?

“The Minstrel Boy”

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell!—but the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

First, some context. Born in 1779, Thomas Moore came of age during a period of turmoil in Irish history. He was nineteen-years-old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out, and was friends with several prominent members of the Society of United Irishmen, such as Robert Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. Moore himself did not take part in the rebellion, instead focusing on his schooling and his literary pursuits.

However, as Kathleen Hoagland notes in the introduction to 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, “It has been the history of literature throughout the ages that in times of social, political, and national upheaval, of war and stress, new creative forces emerge” (p. xliii). Moore was no exception to this supposed trend, and in 1807—in the aftermath of the failed rebellion and the Acts of Union 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom—he began publishing his Irish Melodies, which, “in one respect at least, lifted the curtain of scorn by which all things native to Ireland were covered” (p. xliv).

“The Minstrel Boy” is one of those Irish Melodies, and it’s difficult not to see the lyrics as a response to the failed rebellion. The title figure calls his country “Land of Song,” which fits rather well with the conceit of Irish Melodies, and his primary instrument is a harp, which had long been a symbol of Ireland and was used in the United Irishmen’s iconography. That the minstrel boy destroys his harp before it falls into enemy hands is tragic, as it signifies a knowing surrender of Irish freedom, yet his final words to it are uplifting: that beautiful music so identified with his country “shall never sound in slavery.” Its return, the poem’s logic seems to imply, will signal the return of Irish liberty.

Granted, there is a metatextual irony here. The success of Moore’s lyrics meant that the music of Ireland, the sort the minstrel boy must mourn the loss of, gained its then-largest audience only after its homeland officially ceased to exist as an independent country. Perhaps we are better off seeing “The Minstrel Boy” as the voice of a subjugated people, rather than the clarion call of a nation. Or perhaps those final lines are not a statement of fact, but of intent—the people will make freedom theirs, and the harp shall be restored.

Beyond its stirring nationalist sentiment, I think “The Minstrel Boys” offers the reader some surprises in terms of form. Specifically, as the poem transitions from the first stanza to the second, it deviates from the established pattern of the ballad in some productive ways.

Now, in everyday usage, “ballad” generally refers to a melodic, slow-tempo song, usually about romantic love. (Back when I was an undergraduate instructor, this was the definition all my students immediately jumped to when I said the word.) However, in the context of literary history, a ballad is a narrative poem set to music, and often uses the structure of common meter: four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme ABXB or ABAB and whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a concrete example, consider the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “[Because I could not stop for Death – ]”:

Because | I could | not stop | for Death 
He kind | ly stopped | for me
The Car | riage held | but just | Ourselves
And Im | mortal | ity.

In practice, ballads often stray from a strictly iambic rhythm, inserting extra unstressed syllables to give the piece a more galloping beat. However, the number of stresses in each line generally remains constant, which is why “common meter” is often called 4343. The first four lines of “The Minstrel Boy” demonstrate this nicely:

The min | strel boy | to the war | is gone,
In the ranks | of death | you’ll find | him,
His fath | er’s sword | he has gird | ed on,
And his wild | harp slung | behind | him.

Here we see that while Moore includes some anapests and weak endings, the total number of stresses follows that 4343 pattern. The one possible wobble is in line 4, as we would normally want to stress “harp,” but “wild” is easy enough to elide into one syllable, and so “harp” would be demoted to an unstressed syllable between “wild” and “slung.”

But in the second half of that first stanza, the meter gets trickier. Lines 5-6 scan normally, but lines 7-8 get complicated because of the typography. Without the italics, we’d scan those lines like so:

“One sword, | at least, | thy rights | shall guard,
One faith | ful harp | shall praise | thee!”

Indeed, Moore or his editors could have presented the lines with no annotations, and they’d be among the most regular lines in the poem. But the italics used for One at the start of each line require the reader to stress that word, which would bump the stress totals to 5 and 4, respectively. It might be possible, though unnatural, to demote “sword” to unstressed for purposes of scansion, but the polysyllabic “faithful” needs a stressed syllable, so line 8 is definitely overloaded.

I’ve written about this strategic over-stressing of lines before, when I analyzed Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex,” but I think Moore’s poem offers an even more striking example of how it can be used effectively. Right as the speaker pledges his undying support for the cause, the line can no longer contain the emotion, and is instead overwhelmed with feeling.

And then—the come-down. The next stanza leaps, like all good ballads do, to the minstrel’s boys demise, and here the poem deviates from the established pattern in a different way. “The Minstrel fell” gets doubly punctuated, not only with an exclamation point, as might be expected, but also with a dash, which all but severs the line in two. It is the poem’s most dramatic pause, which only highlights the lack of a pause at the end of the line. Line 9 is the only instance of enjambment in “The Minstrel Boy,” the only place where the poem’s syntax overruns its lineation. As it happens, the image right before the line break is “the foeman’s chain,” which “Could not bring his proud soul under.” Forget about the minstrel’s soul—the oppressors can’t even hold down the verse!

What are your thoughts on Moore’s poem? Do you have any suggestions for other classic poems to tinker with? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this analysis of “The Minstrel Boy,” you may be interested in some of my other close readings. There’s the Charlotte Smith poem I linked above, or, for a slightly more recent post, a look at Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”