Here’s an Alicia Ostriker poem that speaks very much to our current times, even though it was written in 2013. We don’t need Donald Trump to reveal our divisions, however. We’ve always had a dark side and a light side.
In Ostriker’s version, the two are characterized by the difference between “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.” The first, which started off as a martial drinking song, celebrates how the flag keeps flying despite “bombs bursting in air.” The other is a hymn to the country’s natural beauty. One has its fists up, the other its arms outstretched.
According to Wikipedia, the ghazal—a Middle Eastern form—is comprised of five to fifteen independent couplets that are somehow linked, in this case by the repetition of the word “America.” I find my own heart thrilling as I hear my country named in what functions as a one-word refrain. “School Days,” meanwhile, takes me back to a song I learned in first grade (in 1957), when we were “still hopeful.”
Ghazal: America the Beautiful Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity in first grade when we learned to sing America The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner and say the Pledge of Allegiance to America We put our hands over our first grade hearts we felt proud to be citizens of America I said One Nation Invisible until corrected maybe I was right about America School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days when we learned how to behave in America What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents who didn’t understand us or America Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful live on opposite sides of the street in America Only later discovering the Nation is divisible by money by power by color by gender by sex America We comprehend it now this land is two lands one triumphant bully one still hopeful America Imagining amber waves of grain blowing in the wind purple mountains and no homeless in America Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart somehow or other still carried away by America
I still feel carried away when I say the “Pledge of Allegiance” and imagine an indivisible America. Such civic rituals have never been so important.