The poet warns we should be careful about building walls

Herbert Woodward Martin is the Paul Laurence Dunbar Laureate Poet of Dayton and professor emeritus of English at the University of Dayton.

In this age of political divisiveness, I am, persuasively, reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The poet has written of that unidentifiable

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall;

That sends a frozen ground-swell under it

And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

That “something” is invisible. It is attributable to being “the work of Hunters” or “elves.” But this is only allegedly the cause of this breech; nevertheless, it is destructive, socially, politically, culturally? It is a “something” that seeks to separate and demean neighbors. And that is why it must be avoided at all costs. I read this poem as an “unacknowledged legislative” warning. And if we act as participating citizens, we need to pay attention with all of our senses in alert mode.

First and foremost, someone needs to make us see that in spite of our ancestry and cultural heritage we, as a nation of citizens, must be constantly aware that we are all immigrants: willing or unwilling. We all came from distant and differing shores, seeking religious freedom, political freedom, social justice, a chance to expand one’s education and talent, the simple opportunity to work and earn a fair wage, to become millionaires, a symbol of the American Dream.

Everyone who enters the United States of America seeks the renewed promise of those words written by Emma Lazarus in her poem “The New Colossus,” which expresses the underpinnings of our nation and its sense of acceptance and direction. We find those words inscribed on The Statue of Liberty:

… Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Most of the willing immigrants, who came seeking respite and freedom, were documented. Some of the most recent Mexican and Spanish-speaking immigrants came unannounced and undocumented but still hopeful. Still, it must be said that these individuals were seeking viable opportunities with a simple longing, to be welcomed, to be accepted and “to be free.”

However, I think it must be pointed out that of all the groups and nationalities that came, the African Americans came reluctantly as imports from wherever they were bought, stolen or sold into slavery, and once emancipation was obtained they remained and sustained a culture and a political regime that did not like, nor love them and regarded them as something other than human.

They made a new and concerted effort to remain in a land that once offended them, and sought to enjoy the freedoms others claimed as their God-given natural right. They were fortified by the promise and proceeded to make well-documented contributions to this new land. Imagine, for instance, if there had been no Joe Louis, no Leontyne Price, no Paul Robeson, no Marian Anderson, no Roland Hayes, no Jackie Robinson, no Ralph Ellison, no James Baldwin, no Michael Jackson, no Prince, no Tuskeegee Singers or Airmen, there would be no spirituals, no work songs, no blues, no gospels, no jazz or anything else to steal. How poorer would this nation be?

So if we start limiting ourselves by walling out those who may enter, what are we limiting ourselves and our future? What fortunes may be added to what wealth we already have is incalculable.

And significantly, to return to Frost and “Mending Wall,” whose speaker/narrator suggests

what he would do when he states:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Who is going to be harmed? Who is going gain and who is going to lose? What is restrained and what is left to roam free? The greatest of all of the ironies that we have to face up to and live with is the one where the arriving immigrants came and were welcomed and made subsequent laws which isolated the natives and subsequently relegated them to reservations. This is what we did to the American Indians. Let’s use the old term, for we have not washed the mud nor the stain from our faces and not from our consciousness.

It should then be clearer from what the narrator tells us that he is observing in “Mending Wall.” He knows and recognizes that

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines.

No damage will be done; both neighbors can operate without a wall being built. And there will be no guilt to be shared. So neither farmer is in danger of having to harvest pineapples. If we can joke about such an incident. Still, the speaker is cautious about his desires. He wishes that he “could put a notion in his head,” and get him to consider the idea of fences and to realize whether or not they make good neighbors. The speaker’s ultimate goal is: “…I’d rather he said it for himself.” And with this type of reasoning in mind, wouldn’t it be nice if all the presidential candidates thought of it themselves? For clearly the answer is, if the thought comes from within, there is a richer sense of trust and belief in said thought. It is more relevant and even more significant.

In this regard, there can be no more a significant voice than that of former President Ronald Reagan — who understood the damage a wall could do, and so in one of his most emphatic political postures said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And soon afterwards, Germany was reunited.

This poem quietly and heroically implies all the necessary implications: political, social historically and cultural. It tells us rightly that, when we build a wall we are simultaneously shutting out and shutting in community. We are, indeed, negating any and all hope of new possibilities in any old or new categories. The question remains: what do we want to shut in or shut out? And if we choose to shut out, how in the world do we bring ourselves again to be good neighbors?

The political process and all of its options lie before us!