This small volume was the result of a collaborative effort between the American Poetry & Literacy Project (APL) and the Academy of American Poets to distribute 100,000 free books of poetry in small towns and large cities throughout the U.S. during April—National Poetry Month— 1998.
It contains 101 poems from some 39 poets drawn from approximately 350 years of American experience. Many of the poets are one reads in high school and college are—Edgar Allan Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Langston Hughes, to name a few. Each poet is introduced with a brief biographical note. Ezra Pound still contemplates the faces in the train station, Robert Frost still has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps, Wallace Stevens is still spending a lot of time looking at blackbirds, Emily Dickinson finds death kindly stopping for her, and Walt Whitman—well, he’s busy singing about himself and sounding his barbaric yawp.
But on a closer reading there is something a little more to these poems. Subversive is perhaps too strong a word, but the message of high school history books is turned on its ear ever so slightly.
The first two poems are from the colonial period and are written by women, one of them a slave who was eventually freed. The first, Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672), was a Puritan immigrant from England. She is considered the first published poet in the New World. Her work was received favorably on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet she doesn’t spill her ink on conventional religious themes so much. The poem selected for this volume is a love poem to her husband:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man love by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.” (p. 1)
The second poet, Phillis Wheatly (1753?-1784), is described as a “literary phenomenon,” writing poetry in the style of Milton and Pope in an adopted tongue. She only published only volume of poetry. The piece selected is an excerpt from “To the Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth”:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts along best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatched from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seize’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?” (p. 1-2)
She’s not only bringing up the cruelties of slavery and the slave trade in polite conversation, she’s making a political statement regarding the American colonies.
In keeping with this current of not-quite subversive feel is an entry of Francis W. Harper (1825-1911) “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
“Make me a grave wherever you will,” the poet says, “… but not in a land where men are slaves.”
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave:
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave. (pp. 27-28)
While there is much that is familiar to anyone who went to school in the United States, there are also a few surprises. This is a volume that one could keep not only to read and to use as a reference, but to pass on to kids in school.