October 12, 2007

Poetry Friday: Columbus Day edition

I realized the other day that while Columbus Day was observed earlier this week, today is the actual date. So here are the first three poems, including the introductory "Apology", from A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét, first published in 1933.

by Rosemary (1898?-1962) and Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943)

We couldn't put in all the great
Or even all the small,
And many names with sterling claims
We haven't used at all.

But here's a rather varied lot,
As anyone can see,
And all and each by deed and speech
Adorned our history.

Some got the medals and the plums,
Some got their fingers burnt,
But everyone's a native son,
Except for those who weren't.

So praise and blame judiciously
Their foibles and their worth.
The skies they knew were our skies, too,
The earth they found, our earth.

Christopher Columbus
by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

There are lots of queer things that discoverers do
But his was the queerest, I swear.
He discovered our country in One Four Nine Two
By thinking it couldn't be there.

It wasn't his folly, it wasn't his fault,
For the very best maps of the day
Showed nothing by water, extensive and salt,
On the West, between Spain and Bombay.

There were monsters, of course, every watery mile,
Great krakens with blubbery lips
And sea-serpents smiling a crocodile-smile
As they waited for poor little ships.

There were whirlpools and maelstroms, without any doubt
And tornadoes of lava and ink.
(Which, as nobody yet had been there to find out,
Seems a little bit odd, don't you think?)

But Columbus was bold and Columbus set sail
(Thanks to Queen Isabella, her pelf),
For he said "Though there may be both monster and gale,
I'd like to find out for myself."

And he sailed and he sailed and he sailed and he SAILED,
Though his crew would have gladly turned round
And, morning and evening, distressfully wailed
"This is running things into the ground!"

But he paid no attention to protest or squall,
This obstinate son of the mast,
And so, in the end, he discovered us all,
Remarking, "Here's India, at last!"

"He didn't intend it, he meant to heave to
At Calcutta, Rangoon or Shanghai,
There are many queer things that discoverers do
But his was the queerest. Oh my!

by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

I don't know who this Indian is,
A bow within his hand,
But he is hiding by a tree
And watching white men land.
They may be gods -- they may be fiends --
They certainly look rum.
He wonders who on earth they are
And why on earth they've come.

He knows his streams are full of fish,
His forests full of deer,
And his tribe is the mighty tribe
That all the others fear.
-- And, when the French or English land,
The Spanish or the Dutch,
They'll tell him they're the mighty tribe
And no one else is much.

They'll kill his deer and net his fish
And clear away his wood,
And frequently remark to him
They do it for his good.
Then he will scalp and he will shoot
And he will burn and slay
And break the treaties he has made
-- And, children, so will they.

We won't go into all of that
For it's too long a story,
And some is brave and some is sad
And nearly all is gory.
But, just remember this about
Our ancestors so dear:
They didn't find an empty land.
The Indians were here.

* * * *

For more poetry and Poetry Friday, head over to Two Writing Teachers for today's round-up. Thank you, Ruth and Stacey!

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