Alicia Ostriker: “Ghazal: America the Beautiful”


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


“Ghazal: America the Beautiful” from The Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems, 2002-2019 by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, © 2020. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. The book is available for order here.


Alicia Ostriker has published seventeen volumes of poetry, including The Volcano and After; Waiting for the Light; The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog; The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011; No Heaven; The Volcano Sequence; and The Imaginary Lover, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award. She was twice a National Book Award Finalist, for The Little Space (1998) and The Crack in Everything (1996), and twice a National Jewish Book Award winner. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Yale Review, Ontario Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Anthology, and many other journals and anthologies, and has been translated into numerous languages including Hebrew and Arabic. Ostriker’s critical work includes the now-classic Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, and other books on American poetry and on the Bible.  [Source: Blue Flower Arts]

Watch Alicia Ostriker’s talk, “Containing Multitude: Poetry and the City,” part of The Blaney Lecture series in 2018.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

I don’t think I’ve had cause to sing “America the Beautiful” since elementary school, and yet its mere mention recalls every single word and note of the opening verse, from the unusual syntax of “O beautiful for spacious skies” to the warbly, sung-way-too-high “Above the fruited plain.” This same is true for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Pledge of Allegiance,” though I’ve recited both more recently. The long-term memory where I store these lyrics is full of other songs learned in childhood, and I’m always surprised to find I can sing along to “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” despite being raised in Illinois, and can recall the lyrics to the opening number from The GIGO Effect, a musical popular in the mid-Eighties. I’m no brain scientist, but I suspect many of us have stored up our own sonic memories from our early lives, those lyrics we repeated in classrooms, churches, ballparks, and gymnasiums.

Today’s poem by Alicia Ostriker reminds us of “our earnestness our sincerity / in first grade when we learned” the song, suggesting that such qualities might be part of why these lyrics stick with us so long. Opening with a detailed image of these childhood recitations, Ostriker uses the first-person plural to evoke a collective memory: “We put our hands over our first grade hearts / we felt proud.” This kind of patriotic pride may feel complicated and fraught to adults, but the poem allows us to remember or imagine a time when there was comfort in innocence, collective creed, and an accepted routine: “School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days.”

As children, we accepted practices and ideals without understanding their foundations or implications, an irony Ostriker illustrates with a note of humor as her speaker recites “One Nation Invisible until corrected.” The actual word from The Pledge of Allegiance, “indivisible,” is abstract and not particularly relevant to a first-grader, who might be much more aware of the “invisible” forces that shape her imagination and reality than of the actual divisions in her country. Looking back at her childish error allows the adult speaker a moment to consider if her substitution was, after all, correct, hinting at the turn the poem will take as she comes of age.

After grounding us in the first-grade, foundational experience, the lessons evolve as the children grow older. Leaving behind the Golden Rule, the maxim of treating others as you would like to be treated, the collective “we” in the poem grows up to learn other behaviors: “What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents.” These lessons of rebellion and individuation signal the poem’s turn and our collective coming of age, driven home in the next two couplets, both starting with the phrase “Only later.” Innocent childhood lessons torn asunder, we learn “the Nation is divisible / by money by power by color by gender by sex.” Ostriker cleverly revisits her speaker’s mistaken hearing of “indivisible” and names many of the forces that corrupt our purer visions.

As the poem works toward its concluding couplets, echoes of yet another patriotic tune learned in primary school help me grasp the poem’s central tension between wanting to believe in a childhood vision of possibility and having to accept a lived reality. Aware of the divisions that create disparate experiences on “opposite sides of the street,” we know nothing is as easy as it seemed in first grade when we rose to our feet and sang together. Instead, we understand “this land is two lands,” a darker version of the Woodie Guthrie that intones a shared possession: “This land is your land / this land is my land.”

Despite my ability to recognize all the ways in which any claim to a shared experience is false, and for the moment setting aside the impossibility of possessing land stolen from Native Americans, I remember the joyousness with which we clasped hands and swayed in the music room. As we sang, we traveled through a remarkable range of geography along a “ribbon of highway,” and our innocent and joyous conception of America then is helpful for me now in trying to set a course as an American adult toward a more just and equitable future.

Ostriker’s poem likewise recognizes the importance of recapturing the innocence of childhood in order to create a “still hopeful America.” We don’t want to forget the hard lessons learned about our country, but neither should we dwell in its divisions as we imagine how to right the wrongs. Here, perhaps, we can make some use of our first-grade hearts. In the poem’s conclusion, the speaker models this, recalling “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountains” as she puts her “hand tenderly on [her] heart,” a gesture that evokes  childlike “earnestness” and “sincerity,” albeit with a new maturity.

The first grader’s vision of unity and pride on which the poem’s opening turns is, in this sense, undergirded by the poem’s form. As the title indicates, the poem is a ghazal, a form that features couplets and repetition, in this case, the word “America” at the end of the second line of each couplet. The form has its roots in Persian poetry, and to learn more, you can visit poets.org or this previous Poetry Sunday column, which explains more of its history and usage. I recently heard the poet Jane Hirshfield, whose new book Ledger Rebecca Foust reviewed here in May, describe one of her ghazals as an “American ghazal,” a looser interpretation of the form’s original rules, and that definition certainly characterizes Ostriker’s, which doesn’t follow all of the form’s intricacies.

Instead, Ostriker capitalizes on repetition to drive home her changing sense of America while embracing the tension between couplets to explore disparate experiences. It is fitting, I think, to use an ancient form from another culture and region of the world to contemplate the shifting face of “America the Beautiful.” Since the election, the news is full of concern about the deep political divide in America, so much so that President-Elect Biden has made “unity” in government one of his primary objectives. At the same time, our very differences are what makes America “beautiful”— the confluence of so many disparate experiences, perspectives, and cultures. I look forward to a time when we again celebrate our differences rather than allowing them to be a source of division and rancor. Reclaiming some of our childhood beliefs in America, in its possibility and early idealism, just might help us get there.


Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.

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