On Tuesday, Alabama Republicans chose Roy Moore as their candidate for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Despite Donald Trump campaigning half-heartedly for his opponent, Luther Strange (and later deleting his tweets of support), Moore got the endorsement of former White House adviser and Breitbart king Steve Bannon. Which makes sense, as the former judge's brand of conservatism has more in common with the Brietbart ideology than that of the Republican establishment. An anti-choice, anti-gay marriage conservative, Moore whipped out a tiny pistol at his final campaign rally to show just how pro-gun he is. And, in 2006, he penned an op-ed headlined, "Muslim Ellison Should Not Sit in Congress," before Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to win a seat, took his oath of office on a Qur'an.
But like most of us, Roy Moore contains multitudes. He isn't just one of the loudest proponents of the birther movement, nor simply a man who believes Sharia Law has taken hold in parts of the United States. He cannot be defined solely by the time in 2005, when he was removed from his position atop his state's highest court after he defied a federal judge's orders to take down the 2,600-pound Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. Or the other time he was removed from the court after urging probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2013.
No, on top of all of those things, Roy Moore is also a poet.
In his 2007 poem titled "America the Beautiful," Moore tells you more or less everything you need to know about his worldview:
America the Beautiful, or so you used to be,
Land of the Pilgrims' pride, I'm glad they're not here to see,
Babies piled in dumpsters, abortion on demand,
Oh, sweet land of liberty, your house is on the sand.
Your children wander aimlessly poisoned by cocaine,
Choosing to indulge their lusts, when God has said abstain.
From sea to shining sea this Nation has turned away,
From the teaching of God's Law, and a need to always pray.
So many worldly pastors telling lies about our Rock,
Saying God is going broke so they can fleece the flock.
We've kept God in our temples, how foolish we have grown,
When all the earth is but His footstool, and Heaven is His throne.
We've voted in governments that are rotting to the core,
Appointing Godless judges who throw reason out the door.
Too soft to put a killer in a well deserved tomb,
But brave enough to kill that child before he leaves the womb.
You think that God's not angry, that our land's a moral slum?
How much longer will it be before His judgment comes?
And how can we face our God, from Whom we cannot hide?
What is left for us to do, but stem this evil tide!
For if we who are His children, will humbly turn and pray,
If we seek His holy face, and mend our evil way,
Then God will hear from Heaven and forgive us of our sins.
He'll heal our sickly land and those who live within.
But, America the beautiful, if you don't then you will see,
A sad but Holy God withdraw His hand from Thee.
Although I don't agree with the views Moore expresses in this poem, that doesn't mean it should necessarily be rejected as a work of art. So I asked some esteemed poets to critique "America the Beautiful." Here's what they had to say:
Hanif Abdurraqib, writer and poet who is the author of the poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much
What stands out first is the predictable rhyme scheme used. Which, in this case, leads to some pretty forced imagery to make the rhymes work. For example, "abortion on demand" is a poorly constructed line that seems to only exist for the sake of the anchoring rhyme of "sand" in the next line. I would maybe attempt to pull back from rhyme and try some free verse.
Bigotry opens itself up to a wide tapestry of language, and Moore shouldn't limit himself. Also, and perhaps more importantly, I think assuming how pilgrims might feel about a woman's right to choose if they were around in 2017 is a tough throw for Roy to make right there in the opening stanza without anything to hold it up. There's a lot of inconsistency in the narration, mostly I'm confused about Moore's desire to kill. In lines 15 and 16, he goes from advocating putting a killer in a tomb to (once again) criticizing abortion. I think the poem is perhaps better served as a narrative thread detailing the exact age at which Moore's logic allows for the killing of a person.
The line breaks are unfortunately predictable and unsurprising, made worse by the smattering of question marks and exclamation points. A smattering that some (this reader, for example) might find excessive and distracting.
Poets love making God a central character in the poem but hate fleshing him out. Here, once again, we get a God that is mostly just really pissed off, with no other traits. The poem should serve its characters gently. Also, God is potentially way more relaxed than the poet portrays him here. I imagine God is writing bad poems about how angry we are all the time.
Kazim Ali, associate professor of creative writing at Oberlin College and author of four poetry collections. His forthcoming book, Inquisition, happens to feature a poem called "Amerika the Beautiful."
The main failure of the poem is a failure of empathy and certain assumptions the writer makes of the reader. The phrase "land of the pilgrim's pride," invokes a very historically inaccurate picture of America as "empty" without population—and one that makes invisible the people who actually did most of the manual labor and agricultural work to build the country. There is a rich potential for the phrase to be used ironically, on the other hand, since the puritans did arrive in search of religious freedom and the ability to practice their own beliefs. Roy Moore denies that freedom; rather, he wants everyone else to practice *his* beliefs.
The poem also runs into the problem of reinscribing the very violence it seeks to protest. "Babies piled in dumpsters," for example, is an inaccurate depiction that is purposefully violent in order to frame a political disagreement. Then again, when Roy Moore talks about judges who throw logic out the door I do have a moment of wondering whether he is an Andy Kaufman-style performance artist or whether he is really serious? Time will tell. There's further irony in the title, America the Beautiful, but I do believe that irony is intentional. It is so hard to tell these days.
Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, poet from California who published her first book, There Should Be Flowers, in 2016
The rhyme scheme is a little trite and unimaginative, the title is unoriginal, and the rhythm comes across as awkward in many sections. The content is very repetitive (we get it Roy, you romanticize a time when only white men mattered), and it doesn't offer any sort of insight or revelation in the way it thinks it does. Reading this, I'm tempted to say something like, "This is not actually poetry," but unfortunately white dudes writing terrible verse reinforcing patriarchal bullshit is a grand and longstanding tradition in the literary world.
Speaking purely as a reader of poetry, one could not say that this poem follows Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new," that is, poetry moves us, or is most effective when language and form work together to reinvigorate worn ideas or have us see the world around us anew.
Regrettably, "America The Beautiful" by Judge Roy Moore recycles not only hackneyed images and ideas but also cliches about people and the complexity of our lived lives. Moreover the metrical poem (emphatic iambic beat) attempts to reinforce its moralizing by rhyming; even those are predictable and seem sponsored by Dr. Seuss.
What the poem does have going for it is its use of demotic language and of course, the allusion to the patriotic song "My Country Tis Of Thee," which every schoolboy who grew up in America during Moore's youth probably knew by heart from daily recitations: ("Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing; / Land where my fathers died, / Land of the pilgrims' pride"); you can even hear a little Shakespeare in there (all the world's a stage in "all the earth is but his footstool"). But the problem with such poetry of everyday speech and familiar echoes is that they never ascend to true, lyric eloquence of authenticity because such poems simplify in a way that exceptional poetry resists. Reading this poem is like watching an old black and white comedy where the characters are mere caricatures and the plot is laughably unsurprising.
The poem lacks subtlety and frankly I cannot help but define it as mere doggerel. Another great American poet, William Carlos Williams, said "No ideas but in things." Meaning a good poem persuades us through its recreation of the vivid world through language; the poet finds images that express or correlate to his worldview and most treasured beliefs. Such prattle as that here, that relies on abstractions and imagery meant to be shocking, is beneath the dignity of excellent poetry for example written by the likes of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Levine, and Adrienne Rich.
We can only wish that Mr. Moore has taken a few classes and learned how to write poems that truly move and affect his audiences.
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