When the Subject is a Poet

By Catherine Reef

In May 1846, in England, a small green book appeared without fanfare. Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, received a couple of promising reviews; one critic called the book “a ray of sunshine,” and its sixty-one poems “good, wholesome, refreshing, vigorous poetry.” But the poets proved more interesting to their contemporaries than their work. Who were the Bells? Were they brothers? No one guessed that they were sisters, a clergyman’s daughters living in a godforsaken village on the Yorkshire moors. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë had hidden behind masculine pseudonyms because Victorian society frowned on women writers.

The world remembers the Brontës as novelists, as it should. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Agnes Grey are classics, books that have remained in print for well over a century. They continue to be read, studied, and treasured. Yet the world ought to remember, too, that the Brontës were poets first.

Part of my task in writing The Brontë Sisters was to introduce young readers to my subjects’ poetry. Carefully chosen excerpts show, for example, how Charlotte understood passion, an emotion that would guide her in literature and in life:

Some have won a wild delight,

            By daring wilder sorrow;

Could I gain thy love to-night,

            I’d hazard death to-morrow.

Other extracts convey Emily’s bold, musical style:

Come, the wind may never again

Blow as it now blows for us

And the stars may never again, shine as they now shine…

 And quotations from Anne’s poetry communicate her strong reliance on faith:

If life must be so full of care,

            Then call me soon to Thee…

I have written biographies of other poets, of Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and E. E. Cummings. As with the Brontës, in each case I wanted to give my readers a foundation for exploring the poetry on their own. This meant explaining how and why the poems were innovative and suggesting what to look and listen for while reading. It meant providing carefully chosen extracts from major and lesser-known works to illustrate the points I made in the text, and to give readers the flavor of the poetry.

In the nineteenth century, Whitman embraced “democratic America” and its people. He celebrated westward expansion and recorded the suffering and sorrow of the Civil War. So among the many lines I quoted from his work were these from the magnificent, all-encompassing “Song of Myself”:

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers…

 And these from the exuberant “Passage to India”:

I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,

I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world…

I also chose these lines from “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman’s heartbreaking description of his duties as a wartime nurse:

The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,

Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard…

 Whitman made sure that “the real war” – the ugly, bloody truth of battle – made it into books. He also gave voice to the nation’s sorrow following the death of Abraham Lincoln in the great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?

And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?

 Whitman broke free from the careful rhymes and rhythms that had governed the work of earlier poets, including the Brontës, and wrote long, chanting, beautiful lines of free verse like these from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

Poetry was forever changed.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872, seventeen years after Whitman published the first edition of his sprawling Leaves of Grass, but he wrote in traditional forms, preferring regular rhymes and meters to Whitman’s rolling cadences. The first African American to earn his living with his pen, Dunbar wrote powerfully about what it meant to be black in the predominantly white society of his time, as some of the verses I include in my biography illustrate. These are from “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…

 Dunbar often wrote in standard English, but he also composed many poems in dialect, and this caused him to fall out of favor in the late twentieth century. So much dialect poetry by white poets had deliberately presented African Americans as uneducated and perhaps comical in their ignorance that readers tended to label all dialect poetry offensive. Yet Dunbar had written his verses with affection, faithfully capturing the accents, and the humanity, of people he knew and loved. His dialect poetry deserves to be read and appreciated, so I presented my readers with excerpts, among them this one, which depicts a warm scene of family life:

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,

            Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.

What you been doin’, suh–makin’ san’ pies?

            Look at dat bib–you’s ez du’ty ez me…

 Most readers know E. E. Cummings as the poet who eschewed capital letters. This was not quite true of Cummings, however. He used capitalization (or its absence), punctuation, and the spaces between words and lines to add meaning to his poetry, to force his words to communicate more. Capital letters indicated emphasis, and parentheses allowed two images to be considered at once. Space showed readers when to pause, whereas the lack of it meant that words ran together quickly. It all makes sense when lines such as these are read aloud:

pigeons fly ingand

whee(:are,SpRiN,kLiNg an in-stant with sun-Light

then)l-

ing all go BlacK…

 Can’t you just see these pigeons in flight, momentarily catching sunlight on their iridescent feathers?

Through careful use of capitalization, Cummings reminded us how beautiful words can sound. He especially loved the musical letter O:

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn…

whisper

less creature huge grO

pingness…

And what other poet could make letters hop around–“r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” “PPEGORHRASS,” “gRrEaPsPhOs”–to describe the action of the insect whose name they spell: grasshopper.

I hope the examples I provided in this book have enabled readers to find meaning and joy even in Cummings’s most abstract poems. I hope, too, that my readers will value poetry by Cummings and others throughout their lives and share their favorite poems with others.

Sharing a poem is like giving a gift. In Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet I shared with readers with the complete text of Dunbar’s aching, powerful “Sympathy.” Today I give it to you:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   

For he must fly back to his perch and cling   

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

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