4 Poems to Honor & Uplift RBG’s Legacy
Since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Sept. 18, Americans have mourned her loss, celebrated her accomplishments, and vowed to carry on her legacy of making change. Throughout her career, Ginsburg fought tirelessly for equal protection on the basis of gender, reproductive rights, immigration, and other important, often divisive issues. Even as she struggled with five previous bouts of cancer, Ginsburg held an unflinching focus on the law and on upholding justice, earning her the affectionate, iconic moniker “Notorious RBG.” These four poems can comfort us in our collective grief, as well as encourage us to advocate for the forward-thinking future Ginsburg set in motion.
“Respect” by Melissa Studdard
The host of VIDA Voices & Views, a podcast celebrating women’s contributions to the literary arts, Studdard’s feminism deeply informs her poetry. Similarly, Studdard led the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Women’s Caucus, mirroring Ginsburg’s bold and insistent advocacy for gender equality. In “Respect,” Studdard pays tribute to a powerful and formidable woman. With allusions to “bedtime” and “stuffed rabbits,” the poem traces this woman back through her childhood, suggesting an early and important calling, or an innate sense of purpose. Through its fierce descriptions, it’s easy to imagine RBG as the subject of its awestruck stanzas.
“Because her body is winter inside a cave / because someone built / fire there and forgot to put it out,” writes Studdard. “. . . Because when the world got / shoved up inside her / she held it tight like a kegel ball / and wondered / at the struggle Atlas had / carrying such a tiny thing / on his back.”
“Ghazal: America the Beautiful” by Alicia Ostriker
Ostriker emphasizes both feminist and Jewish themes in her poetry, echoing the significance of Ginsburg’s Jewish identity. Joyce Carol Oates called Ostriker’s poetry “essential to our understanding of our American selves.” Similarly, through her role as a Justice, RBG personified America and its continual push for progression. Through the ghazal form, which repeats the same word in different ways, Ostriker reckons with America again and again, reinventing its meaning. Like Ginsburg—who criticized injustice and sought to eradicate it—Ostriker recognizes both the country’s strengths and flaws in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful,” presenting it in all its complexity. Nevertheless, both women see the country as worthy of repairing.
“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,” writes Ostriker. “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.”
“They shut me up in Prose” by Emily Dickinson
Like Ginsburg at the beginning of her career, people often underestimated Dickinson due to her gender. Both pivotal figures resisted and rebuked this stigma. In “They shut me up in Prose,” the titular “they” acts as a stand-in for a dismissive, male-dominated society—the same type of society Ginsburg faced when she couldn’t land a job after graduating from Columbia Law School. Just as RBG advocated for herself and went on to change this outdated standard, Dickinson stands firm in her own intelligence and confidence. Following both of their storied accomplishments, neither Dickinson or Ginsburg could ever be “shut up” again.
“They shut me up in Prose — / As when a Little Girl / They put me in the Closet — / Because they liked me ‘still,’” depicts Dickinson. “Still! Could themself have peeped — / And seen my Brain — go round —.”
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
Most famous for being the poem emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” is a triumphant and courageous ode to American values at their best. In writing the poem, Lazarus took particular inspiration from the idea of immigrants reading it as they sailed into the harbor. RBG also valued immigrants and strove to uphold the poem’s mighty ideals. Like Lazarus, also a Jewish intellectual who challenged prevalent views in her time, Ginsburg saw the law as a way to uplift the country’s most vulnerable populations.
“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she / With silent lips,” Lazarus describes. “‘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-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
Looking to follow in RBG’s footsteps in your own poetic way? Learn how to fight for social justice through poetry.