Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley
American literary ambivalence comes in shades dark and light: the dialogue that took place in the 1960's among Black American poets was a mirror image of the traditional professional-amateur, or artist-mystic dialogue of white American poetry. Blacks even have their own counterpart of Anne Bradstreet, Mother of the White American Muse, in Phillis Wheatley, born a century after The Tenth Muse had "sprung up."
Mrs. Bradstreet was a native of England. Though Phillis Wheatley was born on the west coast of Africa, she was reared in the same rigorous New England climate that had brought her predecessor to bloom. For whatever reason, however, Wheatley's spiritual home was England no less than it had been Bradstreet's. The difference was only that Anne Bradstreet's models were Puritan English; Phillis Wheatley's were Augustan English. The parallels continue: Wheatley' first publication, a translation of a story by Ovid, was published at the behest and with the aid of friends, and her first full book, Poems on Various Subjects, appeared in England in 1773, though a pamphlet of her work was printed in Boston in 1770.
There is no doubt that Wheatley was a prodigy and a genius. If Bradstreet had been well-received by her society, it was nothing compared with the stir made by the Black woman on both sides of the Atlantic. Wheatley emulated popular Augustan poetry to the degree that her talent, great as it was, never developed beyond mere competence, and the wonder she caused lasted no longer than her novelty. In other words, condescending whites fussed over her for reasons that were racial and biographical, not artistic, and another American precedent was set: poetry is most interesting when its creator has public-relations value; poetry is not interesting in and of itself, as a product of our culture. If it were, we would still read one or two poems by Bradstreet and Wheatley, perhaps "Contemplations" by the former and "An Hymn to the Morning" by the latter.
Wheatley's work was frozen by her talent, or the praise accorded her, or the objective neo-classical ethos of her time -- more likely all these things -- at that point beyond which Bradstreet began to develop a truly individual poetry. In a 1969 reprint of The Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley, G. Herbert Renfro said that "in translations of Ovid or Horace, she was singularly proficient." She was a professional poet serving an age dedicated to public expression, not "creative writing." She never developed to the point of personal expression, at least not in the poems she allowed to be published.
One wonders what might have happened had she torn away the Negro mask, the slave mask that protected her and kept her a celebrity rather than allowing her to develop as a poet. One wonders whether Phillis Wheatley did not, in fact, write those poems she would have had to hide or destroy, or else become a martyr. The romantic age was imminent (Emerson, immanent), and in England the so-called "pre-Romantics" were writing. Even in America there were Philip Freneau and Manoah Bodman just coming on. That Bodman was the rankest of native amateurs, and those few read him would dismiss him as a harmless crank, Freneau was an amateur, and he wrote in two styles-neo-classical and romantic.
Did Wheatley secretly do the same? She wrote largely at night. Did she confess her darkness into shadow and destroy the confession? Useless speculation -- we can probably never know. Certainly no one ever had more cause for ambivalence, for cultural dissociation, than a lone Black female living as a slave in a patrician family in Boston. One hint only -- Renfro quotes "one who had every opportunity for knowing" to the effect that "'she did not seem to have the power of retaining the creations of her own fancy for a long time in her mind. If during the vigil of a wakeful night she amused herself by weaving a tale, she knew nothing of it in the morning."' Fortunate amnesia.
James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar, at the end the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth wore the mask of gentility that Wheatley had donned in the eighteenth century, though Dunbar loosened it a bit with his dialect poems. Perhaps an agonist, a poetic theoretician, is necessary before a movement can begin, and no agonists of Soul poetry -- to be distinguished from Oversoul poetry -- would arrive on the scene until the 1960's with LeRoi Jones and others. Even so, the theories propounded by contemporary Black poets look much like Emerson's when they deal with abstractions, like propaganda leaflets out of Transcendentalism when they deal with social consciousness, and like the "free verse" vs. metered verse arguments out of Whitmania when they deal with technique.
Phillis Wheatley and Philip Freneau were contemporaries, within a year or two of one another. In Our Singing Strength Kreymborg says that Freneau "was the first American after Bradstreet to follow the muse exclusively. In two centuries people place poetry higher than any mundane concern." Kreymborg, like everyone else, had forgotten Wheatley. America can boast of three considerable professional poets in two centuries.
Freneau's ambivalence was not of the classic American visionary-artistic type; he was a committed artist. Rather, his was an ambivalence of style, neo-classical versus pre-romantic. Waggoner says that Freneau "was a competent journeyman, born perhaps in the wrong time, when a style of poetry and of thinking was about to be replaced by another that would make his own seem irrelevant. Freneau had the misfortune to be a 'traditional' poet, imitative in the old mode, not yet fully aware of, or able to create, the new romantic mode." (American Poets, p. 30.)
There is something wrong, however, with this talk of old modes and new, transitions, and so forth. It is as though our historians are blaming an ethos, or some other abstraction, for our poets' shortcomings, rather than placing the blame where finally it must lie: our poets simply weren't very good, nor would they be until the nineteenth century. Their imaginations were limited. It wasn't the age's fault that our poets were merely journeymen, though perhaps it was the age', or the nation', fault that it did not encourage capable people to write poetry. It is evident there were great people in view, but they wrote in the pragmatic fields of politics or theology.
Certainly, some of our amateur poets had more imagination than did our professionals: Edward Taylor's imagination was fantastically baroque, and Manoah Bodman's simply fantastic, though it showed more in his prose work than in his poetry. To read Bodman's account of his conversations with angels and demons, in An Oration on Death, is to step through a mirror darkly into the world of Poe or H. P. Lovecraft, except that it comes off as real, not literary in any way; however, both Taylor and Bodman were concerned mainly with religion, which was acceptable to their society, a subject of practical concern. Neither Bradstreet nor Wheatley were particularly religious poets, except in rather conventional ways. Nor was Freneau.
Perhaps an Emersonian critic like Waggoner would say that this sectarianism was at root why our professional poets' work was of a mundane order: poetry is a religious experience, an exploration of the self and a discovery of the soul, not entertainment. What American professionals needed was an agonist to give them a sense of poetic being in a rationalist age, in a materialist nation. Given a failure of personal imagination, poets may need either a major theorist-such as Whitman found in Emerson-or at least a major exemplar who, in his or her productions, sets the standard. The amateurs found their agonist earlier than the professionals. Not until the twentieth century would the professional poets have T. S. Eliot to set over against Emerson; Eliot would, in fact, be both agonist and exemplar for the cause of poetry as artifice rather than vision.
America produced no exemplars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-poets who, despite all handicaps, simply towered out of the ranks. All the exemplars were British, and our underprivileged singers could merely reflect the current poetic styles of the mother country. What poetic names can America conjure with in the nineteenth century -- Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Dickinson. These sounds have the same sort of ring as do the names Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Arnold, but what can we do with the eighteenth century? Wheatley, Freneau, Bodman, as against Dryden, Pope, Blake, Gray, Goldsmith, Johnson, Burns. If we were to try the same thing in politics or polemics it is a question whether England would so easily overshadow its colony. The American novelists of the nineteenth century fare much better than our poets. At least fiction has an obvious function: it entertains, and when America finally decided that a little entertainment was all right, Cooper read a bad English novel, decided he could do at least as well as that, and did. Washington Irving, the younger Dana, Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James, to name a few, did likewise.
Not that nobody honored our nineteenth-century singers, merely that no one paid serious attention to them. At no time in our history were poets more honored. Bibliophiles, in their browsings through second-hand bookstores, have long been amazed to see how many editions of our nineteenth-century professional poets there are on the shelves: "Household Editions" of Bryant, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, even John Godfrey Saxe -- the period's Ogden Nash -- weight the boards. The nineteenth century cast them in amber; it institutionalized them and began to teach them in the schools, whence the term "Schoolroom Poets." Perhaps everyone in the grades still gets an annual spring-tonic dose of Snow-Bound -- institutionalized poetic respectability. Since when has poetry been "respectable"! England didn't institutionalize its Romantics because they were respectable.
In America poetry is a matriarchal institution in every sense of the word, including the genetic: the mother of white American poetry was Anne Bradstreet; among her lineal descendants were Dana and Holmes. The mother of Black American poetry was Phillis Wheatley. Furthermore, American poetry was institutionalized by women in the schoolrooms of the nation for two centuries. These schoolmarms acted as literary censors-only that which was acceptable to "refined feminine sensibilities"-to quote from in old schoolbook-was allowed as literature. Is it any wonder that many Americans, including Whitman, grew up believing that such poetry was not "manly"?
Most important, however, is the Emersonian dogma regarding what constitutes American, as distinguished from European, poetry. Poetry "of the mind"-classical poetry-has traditionally been defined as "masculine" poetry; poetry in balance of mind and emotion -- that is, formalist poetry -- Emerson saw as essentially European, concerned with matters of conscious craft, artfulness. It was against this latter kind of poetry, practiced by the post-Modernists, that the Beats rebelled in the 19SO's, just as it was against this kind of British poetry that Emerson inveighed. There was but one choice Left for Emerson: to define American poetry as of the Soul or Oversoul -- it is emotional, feeling poetry. Poesy of "the emotions" has been traditionally defined as "feminine," but even Europe has written poetry of emotion, so that would not sufficiently allow of an American poetics in and of itself. No -- much Romantic poetry is artful, concerned with form and technique. What, then, is to distinguish American poetry? Intuition, of course. One need not write out the adjective almost automatically used to modify the word "intuition."
Emerson's jargon is full of words that link the writing of poetry to the processes of birth, nurture, growth. American poetry would be, then, a feminine poetry from conception to delivery. Sanford Sternlicht, a contemporary amateur poetaster, believes that, because he is not a woman and cannot bear children, he therefore "gives birth" to poems instead (The Teaching Writing: Two Essays on Two Arts). But one need not ransack obscurity in order to discover other examples of sexuality being equated with the creation of American poetry. In The New Naked Poetry, John Logan writes that "as a lover reaching out to you the audience with the long penis of my tongue of poems, showering the sperm of my syllables and breathing on you with the passion of my warm breath, I have only recently learned to look at you as you are looking at me." Fortunately, Galway Kinnell in the same volume offers an antidote to this and the various other toxins to be found between the covers. He says, with considerable insight, "There is often a deep anti-intellectualism, a lack of balance and reasonableness, even a certain stupidity in American writers."
Poetry -- Emerson and his cohorts to the contrary notwithstanding -- is an art, not an egg. It is the product of a human being using words in order to express his or her humanity, and the humanity of others. Words are symbolic forms, not spermatozoa. The poet is not merely "masculine" -- all brain and brawn; not merely "feminine"-all heart and intuition. A poet is a whole person whether male or female, and a poem is the artifice of the whole person. Sternlicht's theory of poetry composition is a "male chauvinist" theory: Under such circumstances, why would there be women poets at all? Women can have babies; therefore, they should have no cause to write poems. Surely, poetry is not an exclusively male product; it is an exclusively human product. No one should believe intuition is an exclusively feminine trait, nor that intelligence is masculine. The traditional definitions are arbitrary and fallacious.
Finally, the whole Emersonian argument boils down to grievances against technique. Once all the false issues of Transcendental poetic theory are laid aside, the bedrock is this: if one knows how he is writing something, he is a mechanic, but if one proceeds by intuition, he is pure of heart, a true Poet. The manner doesn't matter, only that the matter isn't mannered. Emerson, Whitman, and Waggoner are uneasy before the elements of language. When they criticize they are all right if they can theorize or generalize or abstract, but they stand amazed before the great mystery of craft, if it is successful, much as they stand in awe of Vision, if it comes off, and in disdain if it doesn't.
Writing is not birthing; composition is not fetal growth; a poem is not a babe in swaddling clothes. The analogy is a false analogy. Poetry is not feminine or masculine, black or white -- it is both, and neither. American poetry is not a manifestation of mother love, it is language art written by Americans about the human experience in all its manifestations. The best poetry, regardless of where it is written or who writes it, or according to whatever theories it is composed, is words in delicate balance of expression.
This debate regarding what constitutes "American" poetry is absurd on its face. It has arisen out of jingoism and self-righteousness, out of a belief in a Manifest Destiny and out of cultural schism. What is interesting is that despite it, or perhaps because the issue was raised, the debate has given rise to agonists and exemplars on both sides, and America has in fact produced a body of poetry of impressive magnitude, primarily in the twentieth century. It is a paradox, perhaps, that much of our finest poetry is international in its significance, and that it grew out of a local squabble about poetic theory.
Our poetry seems to have taken its force, not out of a deeply rooted popular culture, but from a literary and ideological struggle among intellectuals and theologians. Even they don't particularly want to read the poems--they'd much rather argue. At the present moment in America there are dozens and scores of excellent unread poets, but for every one of them there are a hundred English teachers who do not read the poetry produced by their own generation. In the sciences, in the social sciences, in the other arts and humanities-even in theology and philosophy-teachers keep up to date, but mention Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, David Wagoner, J. V. Cunningham, to name just a few of our finest contemporary poets, and often one will draw a blank from an English teacher, even a college teacher.
Teachers are still trapped by the schoolmarm mentality and attitude toward poetry; they are still teaching the Schoolroom Poets or, at best, the Modernists of half a century ago: Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Williams, Frost. A few have worked up to Roethke, Sexton, Plath -- poets of the 1950's and 1960's; one or two know a poem by Randall Jarrell or Robert Lowell or Richard Eberhart. Forget about Weldon Kees or Delmore Schwartz. Perhaps the situation is even worse than this; there was an article in College English in 1975 that told about a student who submitted a portion of one of the most famous contemporary poems -- Roethke's "The Waking" -- to an undergraduate contest, and none of the English professor-judges recognized it.
Beginning in the 1960's the hippest teachers began to bring Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell into the classroom. Maybe, bad as it is, this new "rock culture" is the "folk" culture August Hekscher says we never had, out of which American culture might have built a deeply rooted poetic tradition. If so, it comes belatedly: a rudimentary folk art hard on the heels of a great literary art. We've always done things backward in the United States -- after our Modernist Renaissance, why not slip into the New World's literary Dark Ages!
Fortunately there are too many fine young writers around; they won't forever be buried under the Emersonian caul, nor even the Beatles' larvae. Someone will read them sometime during the next century. Who knows? Perhaps someone will even begin to read and teach Bradstreet and Wheatley, if for no other reason than to prove we've had a viable professional poetry in America for a long time, and that this tradition is even older than the so-called "Emersonian mainstream" tradition that has so dominated the contemporary literary scene. That our early poetry was not very good is no dishonor -- the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have made up for that. There are, however, some fine individual poems in our past, and they are being ignored because we are more interested in such things as Oversoul and theory than in art and literature. The least we owe to our foremothers is an acknowledgment of their early commitment to artistry.
This essay is from Visions and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Putnam Turco, Fayetteville AR: University of Arkansas Press, UArkansasPress 1986. ISBN 0-938626-50-7, trade paperback, $12.95. Recipient of the 1986 Melville Cane Award for criticism of the Poetry Society of America. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.