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  • NYS Writers Institute

Remembering Emma Lazarus on the day we commemorate our nation's independence

We celebrate our Independence Day today. We recall the hopeful words in our nation's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

More than 100 years later, after our nation survived its Civil War, our country dedicated the Statue of Liberty on October 28, 1886. Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus" is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the statue:

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

During the 2020 year of COVID, Alicia Ostriker has used her platform as reigning NYS Poet to commemorate Emma Lazarus, her poem, and the Statue of Liberty. With her colleague Mihaela Moscaliuc, Ostriker gathered translations of "The New Colossus," from more than 40 languages for a project produced by the American Jewish Historical Society:

The site offers a trove of information about Emma Lazarus and includes "Emma's Digital Storybook."

From Ostriker's essay:

"For me, the poem’s beauty cannot be separated from my family’s history. All my grandparents came to this country at the turn of the century, very close to the moment that inspired the poem. They were escaping poverty and pogroms. To them, as Jews, America was the land of opportunity, of hope for the hopeless. None of them ever became rich. But they survived. For them, the rejection of the Old World of aristocracy and tyranny and the dream of a New World of freedom and safety, came true.

I was taught this dream by my parents—taught that I should be proud of being American not because we were 'the greatest,' whatever that means, but because we were the melting pot, we were a democracy that gave hope to the 'little people,' we were a land of refuge, we were the land where prejudice and hatred might one day be eliminated. Millions and millions of American families coming from every corner of the globe have experienced that hope." Read the full text of Ostriker's essay.

In the video below Daniela Gioseffi, American Book Award winning author of 17 books, reads "The New Colossus" in Italian, the language of her father. In accompanying text, Gioseffi writes about her father's perilous journey across the Atlantic. "Modern Europe’s largest massacre prior to the Holocaust, and resultant poverty, drove my father steerage passage, through Ellis Island, where he contracted diphtheria.

After recuperating, he faced prejudice towards Italians, called dirty dagoes, guineas, wops. With lame leg, he dragged a heavy wagon, six miles daily, delivering newspapers to feed family, and put himself through [Union College in Schenectady] to earn Phi Beta Kappa, while his three brothers served in the US Military."

We're grateful to our NYS Poet Alicia Ostriker for her active role in bringing poetry to our citizens and celebrating our state's poetic history. Her term ends this year, along with NYS Author Colson Whitehead. The announcement of the new State Poet and State Author will be held in late September.


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