June 18, 2011

Guest post: Marriage of the Piatts

On June 18, 1861, Sarah Morgan Bryan married John James Piatt. In the early months of the Civil War, the marriage of the daughter of Kentucky slaveholders to a young man from Indiana seems the ultimate example of opposites attracting. But the two twenty-five year olds shared poetic talent and ambition (both had recently begun their published careers: John with his debut collection, Poems of Two Friends, co-authored with William Dean Howells; and Sarah with poems such as “Waiting at the Party,” in the Louisville Journal) and three years later released a co-authored collection, The Nests at Washington and Other Poems (1864).

For Sarah, co-authoring her first collection with her husband could be said to foreshadow much of her career: she would come to be known largely for poems about and for children, such as those collected in Poems in Company with Children (1877), A Book About Baby (1880), and Child’s-World Ballads (1887). Even when she focused on more mature themes, as in her first solo collection A Woman’s Poems (1871), she often did so through the dual and interconnected lenses of courtship and motherhood: the book’s first and third poems, “The Fancy Ball” and “Her Metaphors,” describe young women’s social aspirations; its second and fourth, “After Wings” and “The Little Stockings,” address a mother’s perspective on her children’s lives; and the balance continues throughout.

Yet simply describing these poems’ topics does a great injustice to Piatt and her significance to American poetic and literary history. Her dense, layered, multivocal style differentiates her from any contemporary poets, and makes even the most seemingly straightforward topics rich and resonant: “After Her First Party” views a teenage girl’s first social experience through the voices, perspectives, and identities of both the girl and her mother, lending humor and wisdom to both sides of this multi-generational dialogue; “A Pique at Parting” begins with that most clich├ęd of courtship subjects, one woman’s jealousy of another’s relationship with her suitor, and over five stream-of-consciousness stanzas extends its speaker’s sharp and evolving perspective to a striking range of themes. Her best poem, “The Palace Burner,” uses an ordinary domestic moment—a mother and her son looking at some newspaper images—to create one of American literature’s most deep and compelling examinations of class and gender, submission and rebellion, the layers of any individual’s identity and how we do and do not communicate them to our families, our communities, and even ourselves.

*Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He serves as President of the New England American Studies Association and maintains the AmericanStudies blog. His most recent book, Redefining American Identity, was published by Macmillan in March 2011.

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