17 pages 34 minutes read

Ada Limón

A New National Anthem

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Ada Limón is a contemporary American poet widely admired for her work's confessional approach, authentic emotions, and striking Imagery. “A New National Anthem,” first published by BuzzFeed in 2016, appears in her fourth book of poetry, The Carrying (2018). Like much of Limón’s work, the poem explores broad themes of Identity and Belonging from an autobiographical Point of View.

Limón has published six books of poetry to date. Her work has won a number of awards and honors, including the Autumn House Poetry Prize, the Pearl Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Center, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Limón is the current Poet Laureate of the United States.

Poet Biography

Ada Limón was born on March 28, 1976, in Sonoma, California. Her grandfather emigrated to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico. Her mother, Stacia Brady, is an artist and painter whose work appears on the covers of several of Limón’s books of poetry. Growing up, Limón says she was highly influenced by the visual arts. She graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's degree in drama in 1998. She then moved to New York to study poetry. She graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 2001. Her teachers included Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and Mark Doty, among others.

After earning her MFA, Limón lived in New York City for 12 years. She wrote and published poetry while working in the marketing departments of Condé Nast and Travel & Leisure magazine. Her first book, Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press, 2006), won the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her second book, Big Fake World (Pearl Editions, 2006), won the Pearl Poetry Prize. She published her first poem in the New Yorker in the June 8, 2009 issue (“Crush.”), celebrating it as a milestone in her poetry career. A review praised her third book, Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions, 2010), for its “vigor, intensity, and informality” (“Sharks in the Rivers by Ada Limón.” Publishers Weekly).

Limón took the leap and become a full-time poet after her stepmother died of colon cancer in 2010. She moved to Kentucky to join her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Lucas Marquardt. Her fourth book of poetry, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), was “born of a failed novel” and became “the book that really started to change things” for Limón (Harris, Elizabeth A. “Ada Limón Makes Poems for a Living.” The New York Times, 6 May 2022). Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018) is Limón’s most awarded book of poetry, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and being named a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. It is one of Limón’s most personal collections, “touching on aging parents,” “chronic pain,” and “infertility” (Harris). Limón hosted the third season of The Slowdown, a critically acclaimed poetry podcast, from 2021 to 2022. In 2022, Limón was named the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States. She is the first Latina to hold the position. Her sixth and most recent book is The Hurting Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Limón teaches poetry remotely from her home in Lexington, Kentucky.

Poem Text

Limón, Ada. “A New National Anthem.” 2018. Poetry Foundation.


The speaker begins by declaring her feelings about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States. She “never cared” (Line 1) much for it, and besides, she says frankly, it’s not a very good song. She gives a few reasons why. For one, it’s a difficult song to sing, “too high for most of us with ‘the rockets' / red glare’” (Lines 3-4). She also dislikes the part about bombs. She comments in an aside: “(Always, always, there is war and bombs)” (Line 5). The speaker recalls performing the song when she was in high school, before the homecoming football game. She struggled through the difficult song, throwing “the tenacious high school band off key” (Line 7) in the process. It didn’t matter much in the end, because “the song didn’t mean anything” (Line 8). It was just something they had to do before the game could start.

The speaker also dislikes the other three stanzas of the national anthem that are rarely sung. She cites the lyrics, “no refuge / could save the hireling and the slave” (Lines 11-12) in the third stanza. She wonders if there’s some universal truth in this fact. Maybe every song about the United States “has an unsung third stanza, something brutal” (Line 14). She imagines that hidden truth “snaking underneath” (Line 15) the crowd at a sporting event as they sing.

Lest the reader get the wrong impression, the speaker turns to something she likes: “the flag, how it undulates in the wind / like water” (Lines 18-19). She likes it the best when it’s “not a weapon” (Line 21), when someone who “has lost everything” (Line 21) clings to it. She likes the flag when it’s folded up neatly and “you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can / love it again” (Lines 23-24). That’s when the song changes and “feels / like sustenance” (Lines 24-25). She imagines that song being sung by different landscapes across the United States: “by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains, / the red River Gorge, the fistful of land left / unpoisoned” (Lines 26-28). That’s “our birthright” (Line 28), the song people sing when things are so hard they can’t go on, when they need hope that sounds like a lit match in the darkness of “an endless cave” (Line 32). That song seems to say, “my bones / are your bones, and your bones are my bones, / and isn’t that enough?” (Lines 32-34).