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America's independence from Britain resounds in its poetry

The tradition of individual spirit in the US has been handed down since Walt Whitman. On Independence Day, Jay Parini salutes the poets who have captured the song of America

Last week, over breakfast, my teenage son looked up. "What's the point of Independence Day?" He chewed his cereal. "Shouldn't we have just stayed with England?"

I hemmed and hawed, saying that we were being taxed without representation. Of course this was one of the reasons for declaring independence from Britain in 1776, but the story is more complicated than that. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Americans were lucky to have a first-rate Enlightenment intellectual at the desk in 1876, able to put immortal words to paper. He inspired a revolution.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics each one singing his, as it should be, blithe
and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat the deck
hand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench the hatter singing
as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song the ploughboy's, on his way in the morn
ing, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother or of the young wife at work
or of the girl sewing or washing
Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day
At night, the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

On the far side of the water, high on a sand bar,
Grandfathers are lolling above the Arkansas River,

Guitars in their laps, cloth caps like Cagney down over their eyes.
A woman is strumming a banjo.
Another adjusts her bow tie
And boiled shirtwaist.
And in the half-light the frogs begin from their sleep
To ascend into darkness,
The insect choir
Offering its clear soprano
Out of the vaulted gum trees into the stained glass of the sky.

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