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Rheta Johnson: America the beautiful

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

A Wellesley College English professor, Katharine Lee Bates, made a journey by train to Colorado Springs in 1893 and was so inspired by the sights that she wrote a poem. 

 

She saw the wheat fields of Kansas and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. When she took the narrow-gauge train to the top of Pike's Peak, the temptation to rhapsodize must have been overwhelming. Back at the hotel, she took pen in hand. 

 

In 1895, her "America" was published in a church periodical's July Fourth edition. 

 

The poem was a hit, and later, music was added by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. "America the Beautiful" became arguably this nation's favorite patriotic song. 

 

Ray Charles, for my money, did it the ultimate justice with his 1976 Bicentennial version.  

 

I can understand why the view from Pike's Peak would spur you to poetry, if that is your bent. Twice I have taken the same train ride up that Ms. Bates did so long ago.  

 

At the tiptop, the air is thin and cold, but the vantage is such that you don't mind your own temporary discomfort. You stagger around to get your bearings and appreciate the physical beauty below. 

 

This country looks mighty good from a distance.  

 

In a political season like the one in which we find ourselves, however, close inspection hurts. The poet's lines begin to sound more like warnings than praise: 

 

"Confirm thy soul in self-control. Thy liberty in law." 

 

A buffoon that Hollywood would find too absurd to chronicle has emerged as a "leader" of a major political party. His proclamations range from silly to racist, from daft to dangerous. His rallies have provoked protest and violence. He waggles and weaves and reinvents his rhetoric to suit his mood. He draws great crowds and much applause. 

 

A gun lobby only strengthens with each massacre of innocent citizens. Citizens react, but Congress does nothing.  

 

"May God thy gold refine. Till all success be nobleness, and ev'ry gain divine." 

 

Corporate money rules. The political process is such that whoever is elected is compromised from Day One. With football game dynamics, the campaigns are defined by war chests and personal net worth. 

 

"And crown thy good with brotherhood." 

 

States pass legislation targeting their own citizens for no apparent reason except to pander to hate-mongers who operate in the name of religion. Having not learned the hard lessons of civil rights for all, America once again tolerates the same bigotry that fueled Jim Crow.  

 

"Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." 

 

Our "alabaster cities" are dangerous and flooded with tears. From sea to shining sea, there are infrastructure needs not addressed, children with inferior schools, old people with inadequate health care and other real problems always obscured by political red herrings. 

 

The pure poetry of America's natural beauty is mocked by greed, hate, violence, nationalism and the demagoguery that passes for leadership.  

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]

 

 

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