The first thing that jumped out at me while reading Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration” was the poem’s structure. I have never seen a poem have that spacing and style, so I decided to do some additional research and learned that “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry. Meaning Smith used a pre-existing text and took out most of the original words to make something new. The pre-existing text in this case is the United States Declaration of Independence, and she eliminates most of the original words so that the Declaration of Independence can be viewed from a context that’s different from just the original colonies tearing away from Britain. This new context is able to use some of the significant themes the original text offers and apply them to different ideas. Smith is using her poem to illustrate the hypocrisy of the document because slavery was so prominent when it was written. The hypocrisy exists because the Declaration of Independence advocates for the inalienable rights of every person, yet slavery remained prominent for many years after the text was written.
Smith emphasizes the transitive verbs while leaving out the content making them incomplete in a sense. Some examples of this are “plundered our-,” “ravaged our-,” “destroyed the lives of our-,” “taking away our-,” and “abolishing our most valuable-.” In all of these examples there is no content provided, but it is because of this that we are able to look at the pre-existing text differently. Our new context fills in the content left out by Smith. All of those verbs fall in line with how people treated slaves during that time, and using the Declaration of Independence’s own words really highlights the contradiction. The writers of the old text failed to see their own faults in the society they created, and the examples “taken captive,” “on the high seas,” and “to bear” supports the idea that Smith wants us to see this contradiction. I believe Smith’s overall message is that we cannot excuse the hypocrisy of our history just because of how impactful the Declaration of Independence was in forming our country.
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*Excellent* close reading and reference to some light outside research in here. Christopher Miller has shown how Enlightenment writers – from Rousseau to Thomas Paine – made heavy use of slavery as a metaphor, with very little if any reference to the fact that slavery was anything but metaphorical for so many human beings in their lifetimes. Smith’s poem, as you’ve demonstrated, foregrounds that disconnect in the language of Enlightenment thought and more specifically in the Declaration of Independence.