February 13, 2013
The great writer Ralph Ellison, in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, gave a literary grandeur to what was a commonplace theme in American society and race relations: African Americans were invisible to white America and eventually, tortured by this predicament, would begin to doubt even their own existence. If blacks were not “seen,” neither were they heard. It took a long time, and the heroic efforts of people like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and countless others, for black voices to be heard in the public square; and tragically, it was as likely that those voices would be extinguished with their speaker’s passing. The strange case of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th-century poet, and her meteoric career, raises many questions, not just about literature, but about the cruel predicament of race in America.
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was an American literary sensation whose only analogue is possibly the young English poet, Thomas Chatterton, for the precocious brevity and novelty of her career. For Wheatley was a slave, captured in Gambia, brought to Boston in 1761 and sold to a wealthy merchant named John Wheatley. Her master John Wheatley provided a letter which was published with her poems, introducing Phillis and accounting for her sudden appearance:
“PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between
Seven and Eight years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education,
and by only what she was taught in the Family, in sixteen Months Time from
her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger
before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred
Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.”
Soon thereafter she started writing poetry as well, apparently on her own initiative, and by 1765 she was publishing serviceable, neo-classical elegies and other poems on subjects ranging from daily life to more elevated moral themes. Such was the oddity of an African-American slave girl writing verse that her first published book of poems was prefaced with a testimonial from prominent colonists, including the governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson as well as John Hancock, that the book was actually “written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa.”
Her poem “To Maecenas” was doubtless self-referential for Gaius Maecenas had been the cultural adviser to the emperor Octavian and the patron of Roman poets. The subject reflected colonial American sentiment. Soon to be revolutionaries, the Colonialists looked to ancient Rome and Greece for classical precedents and models for right behavior:
Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Wheatley was taken up into the world of Anglo-American Evangelical Protestantism, meeting the great preacher George Whitfield about whom she wrote a widely republished elegy:
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.
The poem contained a direct tribute of Whitfield’s patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon, who was friends with the Wheatleys. It was through this connection that Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773. A portrait by the Boston slave Scipio Moorhead (the only surviving example of his work) became its frontispiece.
Indeed, Wheatley traveled to London to meet the Countess and prepare the volume for publication. Having published the first book by an African American, she was lionized by society and later that year freed, “at the desire of my friends in England.” Thereafter, tragically, her life unraveled. She continued to write but never published a second book and she died in poverty, possibly in childbirth.
Wheatley’s is an extraordinary story about which we know too little. Once she was freed, her letters hint that she felt betrayed by her erstwhile patrons as well as by her former owners. Having found herself as a poet, she discovered that she and her voice became appropriated by a white elite that quickly tired of her novelty. She is now taken as a symbol of African American and feminist creativity and resistance. One suspects that her actual history is more interesting—and tragic—than her typecasting by both her contemporaries and posterity. In particular, one wants to know more about her masters, the Wheatleys. By what process of mind and calculation did they purchase a slave, permit her to become educated and published, and then, having capitalized on Phillis’s fame, discard her on the granting of her freedom? In a story that would recur again and again in America, the achievement of African Americans would be greeted first with incredulity and then with a silencing. She had written in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
Some view our race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
Centuries later, African American poet, Langston Hughes, would write, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The question lingers—and haunts.
January 17, 2013
In this week of the Presidential Inauguration, it must be said that poetry serves another function when deployed in public: it is classy, it adds tone and the aura of high-minded literary prestige. This is where poetry gets into trouble: when it gets stuffy, pompous, and stiff.
All of these characteristics, the Inauguration has in spades. Inaugurations have gradually gotten bigger and more complicated over time. Certainly, we are far from the day when Jefferson walked over to the Capital from his boarding house, was sworn in, and then walked back to have lunch with his roommates at the communal table. My recollection is that the ceremonies used to be fairly simple, followed by a parade. Now the ceremony itself is lengthy and studded with musical interludes, prayers and invocations, and an inaugural poem—as well as the parade. It’s not clear that the elaborateness of the inaugural ceremony is an improvement over brisk efficiency. The inauguration, which is now an all-day event, tends to bring out the kind of stiff pomposity, both physical and rhetorical, that Americans mock in other areas; the solemn tones of the newscasters with their nuggets of “history.” Inaugural addresses are nearly always forgettable let-downs because the rhetoric is pitched too high as the speaker competes with some ideal notion of “posterity.” Who remembers President Clinton’s awkward rhetorical trope: “We must force the spring,” an admonition that puzzled analysts finally decided was horticultural not hydraulic. One suspects that presidents and their speechwriters are paralyzed by the example of Lincoln and his two majestic Inaugurals.
President Clinton brought back the inaugural poem perhaps seeking a connection with his youth as well as the ideals he hoped to embody since it was President Kennedy’s inaugural that saw perhaps the most famous example of public poetry in American history. Famously, the 86-year-old Robert Frost, a rock-ribbed Rebublican, agreed to read. A flinty, self-reliant New Englander, the poet had been beguiled by the attractive figure of the young Bostonian Democrat. Kennedy, shrewdly courted the old bard—undoubtedly America’s most famous poet—and convinced Frost, against his better judgment, to compose a poem to read at the swearing in. Frost, battening on to the Kennedy theme of a new generation coming to power, struggled to produce an enormous and bombastic piece on the “new Augustan age.” He was still writing the night before the ceremony.
Amazingly, Frost was unable to deliver the new work: facing east into the noon day, he was blinded by the glare off the snow that had fallen over night and could not read the manuscript of his newly completed ode. So Frost, from memory, recited “The Gift Outright” his paean to America’s foreordained triumphalism: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
If the speaking platform had faced west as it does now, all this drama and inadvertent symbolism would have been avoided as Frost could have delivered his giant pudding of a poem. Accidentally, “The Gift Outright” jibed perfectly with JFK’s call to arms and a call to service that troubled only some at the time. But Frost practically was forced to recite “The Gift Outright” once he lost his eyes. It is the only one of his poems that would suit the public needs of the occasion. Imagine the consternation if he had recited the ambiguous and frightening lines of “The Road Not Taken” or the premonition of death in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Reading from “Fire and Ice” at that Cold War moment would have gotten the Kennedy Administration off on the wrong foot: “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in Ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire,/I hold with those who favor fire.” This could have caused panic if not incomprehension among political observers.
The Inaugural poet does not, then, have an easy task, balancing the public, the private—and above all else the political. President Clinton brought back the inaugural poet tradition with Maya Angelou, whose voice and presence redeemed a poem that is not very good. The others have been competent, nothing more. We will see what the newly announced poet Richard Blanco has to say. He is under tremendous pressure and the news that he is being asked to write three poems, from which the administration’s literary critics will pick one is not reassuring. Kennedy at least trusted his poet to rise to the occasion. Things are rather more carefully stage-managed these days. I wish Mr. Blanco well and remind him to bring sunglasses.
As both a historian and poet himself, David Ward will contribute monthly musings on his favorite medium. His current show “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” is on view through April 28 at the National Portrait Gallery.
This is, fittingly, Ward’s inaugural post for Around the Mall. This blog, he writes: “has the modest goal—or at least this blogger has the modest intention—of discussing various aspects of American poetry, both contemporary and from past time. Poetry exists in a particularly salient place in the arts because if it is done well it combines opposites: form or structure with personal exuberance, for instance. Above all, it permits the most private feeling to be broadcast to the largest public. Poetry is one of the few ways that Americans permit themselves to show emotion in public, hence people resort to it at funerals – or weddings and other important occasions. Poetry is a way of getting to the nub of the matter; as Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” There has been a tremendous boom in the number of people who read and write poetry precisely because we see it as a way of opening up ourselves to others in ways that are sanctioned by a tradition that goes back centuries. Among its other dualities, poetry always balances past and present.”