In the late 1850s, when a young Sarah Morgan Bryan began to publish her poems in magazines and journals (her first collection, A Woman’s Poems, appeared in 1871 under her married name Sarah Piatt), poetry was one of America’s most popular literary forms. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and their fellow Fireside Poets were perennial best-sellers, and the brash youngster Walt Whitman had made his own controversial splash with the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Piatt’s poems and collections, which tended to focus on such universal human subjects as courtship and romance, marriage and family, and children, would continue that popular literary legacy well into the 1890s.
In the early 21st century, however, few Americans read poetry for pleasure, and fewer still read Sarah Piatt. For a time her works were dismissed as sentimental and superficial, part of a wide swath of 19th century women’s writing deemed too slight or insignificant to be remembered (even in scholarly works or college classrooms). While at least some scholars have in the last few decades recovered Piatt and added her to their expanded American literary canon, her dense, difficult poems might still seem too demanding to reach a wide audience; she’s like Emily Dickinson without the compelling biography as a way in to reading her challenging works.
Yet while Piatt’s life story might be less compelling than Dickinson’s, her poetic style is just as impressive, and to my mind even more singular. Piatt’s lyrics consistently depict individual perspectives and identities with the same complexity and humanity as do Dickinson’s; but Piatt often puts those individual voices in conversation with other voices (whether included in the poem or implied), creating dialogic lyric poems that are unlike any in her era (or since). And those dialogues allow her to portray her universal human topics of love, childhood, and parenting (among others) with a depth and power that’s likewise unmatched in American poetry.
Here are three examples, one each on those three central themes:
- “A Pique at Parting”: At the end of a date with her suitor, a young woman expresses jealousy of another woman he’s courting. Sounds like a stereotypical romantic situation—but from that starting point, Piatt creates, in her speaker’s perspective and in her implied conversation with the suitor, a poem that engages with gender roles and expectations, narratives of home, marriage, and religion, and questions of whether and how women can resist or challenge these dominant social images. Sylvia Plath’s confessional and feminist poems have nothing on Piatt’s “Pique.”
- “After Her First Party” (page 16 in that text): Through the deceptively simple dialogue between a young girl returning from the title event and her mother, Piatt weaves a powerful portrait of the border between childhood and young womanhood, of present fantasies and past memories, and of what we can and can’t communicate even to those with whom we are closest. The girl, the poem’s principal speaker, can’t quite see any of those themes—meaning we, as readers, only partially glimpse them as well, an evocative way to both capture younger readers and draw us older ones into that youthful perspective for a bittersweet moment.
- “The Palace-Burner”: Piatt’s best poem (and for my money the single best American poem) uses a seemingly minor parenting moment—a mother and her young son look at newspaper illustrations and alight upon a portrait of a revolutionary from the 1871 Paris Commune—to create as stunning a portrait of both the benefits and the limits of empathy, self-reflection, and parent-child relationships as any in American literature. And all, I should add, within a structure and rhyme scheme from which Piatt (unlike her more free verse contemporary Dickinson) never diverges.
Three of the many reasons why we should all read Sarah Piatt’s unique, demanding, and utterly compelling poems.