The Simple Perfection of the First American Poet

What makes them great.
Aug. 21 2012 3:33 AM

A Taste for Plainness

The simple perfection of the first American poet, Anne Bradstreet.

Poet Anne Bradstreet.
Anne Bradstreet

Courtesy Poetry Foundation.

There's a taste in poetry—as in many other things, including movies and food and maybe even in people—for what is plain, straightforward, and unadorned. This predilection can be childish (some 6-year-olds prefer to eat only things that are white in color and uniform in texture). It can be limited to the point of deprivation (some people only like music easy to hum or funny poems in rhyme. It can be naive, or even kind of dumb. Or, it can be an exciting avenue to art that might go overlooked.

But a taste for plainness or simplicity can be part of a satisfying range—not only between poets, but in the work of a particular poet: appreciating, for example, the plain, direct Wallace Stevens of “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” as well as “The Comedian as the Letter C.” Sometimes, the most plain surfaces demand mastering the most extreme nuances. In a building or a garment, sometimes ornament and elaboration can conceal imperfect seams. Simplicity can demand perfection.

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Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) was born in England, but lived, married, raised her family, and died in Massachusetts: the first American poet, or certainly the first to write in English. Her work is plain in a way that might tempt some readers to condescension, but she knew the Latin poets and writes fluently within the conventions she chose, reaching considerable intensity of emotion and idea.

Sometimes, her poems enter the interesting zone where plain truth testifies to the strange extremes of life itself. Love, jealousy, dread are transformed by candor and precision in “Before the Birth of One of Her Children.” The poem proceeds from dignified, slightly stiff acknowledgements of the great, generic truths of mortality. The application of those truths to the risks of childbirth in the 17th century gains force from the poet's quiet, in a way pragmatic manner of dealing with the known and the unknown. And her poem ends with a striking, frank imagination of loss. In 14 well-turned couplets, Bradstreet goes from the general, traditional wisdom of her first line to the immediacy of tears and paper.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Anne Bradstreet's poem "Before the Birth of One of Her Children." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

“Before the Birth of One of Her Children”

All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death's parting blow are sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon't may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when the knot's untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that's due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harmes,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved'st me,
These O protect from stepdame's injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honor my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy dear love's sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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