Monday, April 6, 2020
April 6, 2020: Poets We Should All Read: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
[April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’ll highlight a handful of poets, past and present, we should all be reading. Including some suggestions from fellow AmericanPoetryStudiers—add yours for a celebratory, crowd-sourced weekend poetry post, please!]
I wrote about Harper’s inspiring, impressively multi-layered life and career in this post. So here, more specifically, are three of the many Harper poems we should all read:
1) “Bury Me in a Free Land” (1858): Much of the best abolitionist literature was published in nonfiction genres (memoirs, speeches, whatever-we’d-call-David Walker’s Appeal), but Harper’s poem is one of many she wrote before the Civil War that stand among the very best abolitionist works. What’s particularly striking about “Bury” is how it moves between a deeply personal “I” and a potently collective depiction of the experience of slavery, and does so without blurring the two identities (crucial for a poet who was not herself enslaved) while at the same time making clear the interconnections between them. That relationship, between individuals and the slave system, was a fraught and crucial one for any and all antebellum Americans, and Harper’s poem depicts it as successfully and meaningfully as any text I know.
2) “Learning to Read” (1872): In many of Harper’s antebellum poems the speaker was not Harper but Aunt Chloe, an enslaved woman whose perspective, experiences, and communities Harper created across a number of works. She carried Chloe forward into many of her post-war poems, and the Reconstruction-era “Learning” is a particularly beautiful and significant example. Once again she balances the collective and the individual, the public and the personal, this time through the historical conflicts between Northern educators and Southern Confederates over the literacy (and fate) of former slaves like Chloe. In this case she moves through the collective toward the poem’s pitch-perfect, intimate final three stanzas, and their beautiful images of the newly literate, “independent” Chloe in “a place to call my own.”
3) “Songs for the People” (1895): As writers often do, toward the end of her career and life (she was 70 when “Songs” was published,” although she lived, wrote, and worked for another 16 years) Harper began to reflect more fully on what she had done and why she had sought to do it. “Songs” is an interesting such reflection because, compared to most of Harper’s works including the other two poems in this post, it contains no explicit reference to African American histories and communities; a reader unfamiliar with Harper’s identity and body of work could locate the poem in any community, any nation, in any period. That is clearly part of her point, as her works and career, and the goals for them she communicates in this poem, were indeed significant and universal beyond any such contexts. Yet at the same time, the specific context of the 1890s—of, for example, the depths of the lynching epidemic—adds another layer of power and meaning to the final stanza’s “Music to soothe all its sorrow,/Til war and crime shall cease.”
Next poet tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other poets you’d highlight?