I’ll be the first to admit—well, my students might beat me to it, but I wouldn’t be the last to admit, anyway—that there are some works of American literature that maybe don’t need to be remembered and read widely and frequently. I’m not talking about stuff that’s just not that interesting or worth reading at all, but rather works that are just difficult or obtuse enough that I get why they aren’t part of our broad national conversations, why mostly scholars are the ones reading and discussing ‘em. Even if there’s value to working with them in the classroom—and I tend to think there is, as evidenced by the fact that I’m teaching a whole class on Henry James this coming spring!—that doesn’t mean that they’re ever going to be on nation-wide reading lists, nor that they necessarily should be. We can’t read or even be particularly aware of everything without diffusing our attention a bit too fully in any case.
All of which is to say, part of me gets why my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, is also one of the least-read of all the American authors with whom I’ve worked. Much of Piatt’s work fell into the categories of children’s or courtship poetry, sweet but very forgettable pieces that paid the bills but weren’t ever destined to set the world on fire. And the more serious and meaningful stuff, well, let’s just say that it gives Emily Dickinson a run for her money—dense, demanding as hell, allusive and elusive poems, the kind of things that my students likely mean when they say “poetry” with that slight shudder (as they often do). But there are a couple of things that Piatt does phenomenally well, and the combination of the two makes her unique and extremely important in our literary history: she creates genuinely dialogic poems, works in which multiple speakers (sometimes all explicitly present, sometimes with certain voices implied) engage with each other’s perspectives and voices in complex and rich conversations; and she tackles huge, defining elements of identity, factors such as gender and class and multi-generational family relationships, without losing a bit of the nuanced and impressive humanity with which she imbues her characters and worlds.
To cite one example (available, among a handful of her best poems, at the link below), “The Palace-Burner” (1877): Piatt’s speaker is a mother who is sitting with her (seemingly) young son, looking through old newspapers, when they come upon a picture depicting events from the 1871 Paris Commune (where communist revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and, briefly, governed the city and nation). As the mother talks to her son, responding to his unintentionally insightful questions and thoughts, she moves through a range of themes and emotions, from the revolution’s overarching objectives and realities to the class status and motivations of the picture’s female palace-burner to, ultimately, her own identity as a mother, relationship to her son, and sense of the value and significance of her self and soul. In just nine four-line stanzas, we learn more about this woman and mother-son dynamic—to say nothing of the complex and already then in the process of being forgotten historical event about which they talk—than we might in novels by lesser talents. And despite the distance of over a century and the differences in gender (among others) separating me from Piatt’s speaker, the poem, like all Piatt’s best works, has also taught me a great deal about my own perspective and identity.
Piatt’s poetry doesn’t necessarily point us to a lot about American history or identity in specific ways, and of course those are central focuses of this blog and my work and career. But when it comes to doing perhaps the most significant thing literature and art can do—creating voices and identities as rich and complicated and human as our own, and so allowing, or maybe forcing, us to examine ourselves, to consider what and who we are and what we should and can be at our best—she’s way up there. More tomorrow, on a Renaissance man who built canals, co-authored pioneering works of anthropology, fought for the Union and drafted the Confederacy’s surrender terms, and just generally, to quote Jack Nicholson, makes me want to be a better man.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) That online collection of a handful of Piatt’s best poems: http://www.alltrees.org/professional/teaching/classes/piatt.php
2) Speaking of Dickinson, a pretty interesting article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her almost-editor, about their multi-year conversation (mostly through letters), in which for example she defined for him how she knows if something she reads is poetry (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”): http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/emilyd/edletter.htm
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