Poet's Pick April 4
Anne Bradstreet:
"The Author to her Book"

Selected by Julie Sheehan
National Poetry Month 2011

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Julie Sheehan's Poetry Month Pick, April 4, 2011

"The Author to Her Book"
by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i' th' house I find.
In this array 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

   

* Julie Sheehan Comments:
Anne Bradstreet sailed for the New World in 1630, survived into old age, bore eight children who also lived into adulthood, and was the first American poet writing in English, male or female, to publish a book. Or, I should say, to have a book published; it was done behind her back, she in Massachusetts, it in England. She wrote “The Author to her Book” later, after learning that her name was on one, much to her shock. Thus this little apology is on a mission to rectify her horror, and it gives us a glimpse of what Bradstreet’s true gift was: a fierce sense of occasion. Occasional poems, like letters, are written to a live audience or reader and are attached to a specific event like a funeral or wedding. Bradstreet wrote elegies for grandchildren, valedictions to family members embarking on voyages, poems of gratitude after recoveries from fevers, even verses to mourn her house when it burned down in 1666. These are her best poems, and none of them were in that published work.

All poetry should have the urgency of an occasional poem. Much of it, including the poetry in Bradstreet’s book, doesn’t, unlike “The Author to her Book,” which has the fresh, direct and tough qualities of private language among familiars. We don’t hear so much as overhear it. Unstintingly, unsentimentally she describes the child: “ill-formed,” “in rags, halting,” “rambling brat,” “unfit for light.” The language is brutal, a brutality necessary to control the anguish of the mother, who knows her darling goes into a world as harsh as the one it leaves. At the matter-of-fact acknowledgment, “Yet being mine own, at length affection would / Thy blemishes amend, if so I could,” the poem gets down to the business of mothering. The speaker administers a practiced, vigorous spit shine of the kind that only mothers can give and only their children can endure. But by the end, the mother’s fear for her child is palpable. She is piling on the advice. The final couplet turns its attention on the “poor” mother whose financial circumstances are so harsh they “caused her thus to send thee out of door.” It’s all the more tender for the absence of self-pity, except for that “alas” in the penultimate line.

The poem dazzles me because that mother-child relationship, despite its raw emotional  heft, is fictional. While life as a Pilgrim was not easy, Bradstreet was never so poor as to have to send her children off to beg. It’s also purely metaphorical. The “offspring” Bradstreet addresses is her volume of poetry. When we read the poem metaphorically, we wonder why a “poor” talent must send her poems “out of door.” Isn’t the opposite true, that bad poems tend to stay put with their authors? I read the metaphorical “poor” as “poor in spirit,” in the Biblical sense of clear-eyed about one’s own shortcomings and, consequently, humble. She is relinquishing her poems out of love for them, just as a parent relinquishes her child to “take thy way where yet thou art not known,” but she’s hardly romanticizing that process. So we start the poem thinking the poet is abject (“my feeble brain”), but we end with tremendous respect for her strength.

For a poet to apologize, however insincerely, for the quality of his poetry was conventional—everyone but Milton apologized in those days—and yet Bradstreet’s choice of metaphor is startling, particularly since, as a woman, she would have already faced a credibility gap with readers. It took some nerve to write from the intimacy of a mother’s experience. I didn’t discover Anne Bradstreet until I was in my mid-thirties, about to have my own child, and it would have been later had Marie Ponsot, another gift to poetry and herself mother of a large brood, not intervened. Thank God for wise and humble women, then and now.


About Julie Sheehan:
Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book: Poems & Otherwise, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award and NYFA Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. She teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.


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