Poet's Pick April 23
Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt:
"The Sight of Trouble"

Selected by Stephen Burt
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Stephen Burt for today's Poet's Pick!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller
Editors


Stephen Burt's Poetry Month Pick, April 23, 2017

"The Sight of Trouble"
Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919)

 
So, then, my boy, you want to know
          Just what is trouble? Some great day, no doubt
When all this world is full of rain or snow,
Or lonesomer because the birds sing so;
Or some strange night, when this same moon drops low
          On many graves—or one—you will find out.

You do not want to wait, I fear—
          You want to see it now, or pretty soon?
The woman dressed in black so who was here
Said she saw trouble always? It is queer
That she sees things you cannot see, my dear.
          —Did I say there was trouble in the moon?

No, but I think it may be there,
          For people see it when they lie awake.
And in the sun as well, and in the air,
And in the tangles of some yellow hair,
And in the wind that blows it everywhere—
          Except to Heaven (if I do not mistake).

Once when her boy was dead, ah, me!
          It would not let her sleep? —Is it a ghost?
Why, if it were a ghost, then it would be
Something, or nothing, that we cannot see!
And yet it is a ghost, sometimes, and we
          Just think we see it, in the dark, at most.

Do women, then, wear glasses so
          They can see trouble? Hardly, I'm afraid;
Perhaps they see it plainer with them, though.
Oh, as to men! Indeed, I do not know.
They miss the train because their watch is slow,
          And drink such coffee as was never made;

They have to wait till some one brings
          Their hat and gloves and overcoat and all,
After that terrible last church-bell rings,
While she is only doing fifty things,
Between the tying of her bonnet-strings,
          The baby's cries, and putting on her shawl.

So these poor men see trouble too,
          In their own way, a little, I suppose.
Still, what is trouble? Just see here, if you
Tore off that first white rose before I knew
How sweet it was, and cut this lace all through,
          Too well I know how well your mother knows.

(from Dramatic Persons and Moods with Other Poems, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880; repr. Larry Michaels, That New World: Selected Poems of Sarah Piatt 1861-1911, Toledo, Oh: Bihl House, 1999)

 

* Stephen Burt Comments:
Poems that at first seem complicated and difficult suggest that the world is complicated and difficult; poems that seem simple, inviting and reassuring suggest that the world is inviting and reassuring, at least when seen rightly (say, through the lens of faith). Piatt's poem seems simple—in diction, in situation—but it never offers reassurance: rather, the woman who speaks to the boy in the poem tries not to show him, but instead shows us, how difficult, how unjust, her life—all life, to her—now seems.

Raised on plantations in antebellum Kentucky, Piatt (1836-1919) married the diplomat and minor poet J.J. Piatt; their first book of poems was a joint publication, in 1864). She continued to publish widely, in magazines and books through the 1870s and 1880s,when the family lived in Cork, Ireland (J.J. served as U.S. consul there); they returned to Ohio in 1893, and her output dwindled after that. Many of her poems—most of her best—concern parents and children, as her book titles make clear (Poems in Company with Children; The Children Out-of-Doors); a hasty reader (or just one who read the wrong poems) might throw her work into the large heap of sentimental, consoling poems about mothers and motherhood, many featuring dead children, produced and consumed by Americans and Britons between about 1830 and 1900. Indeed, her work was thrown there—very nearly unread—for most of the twentieth century, until recent scholars (Paula Bernat Bennett, Larry Michaels and Jessica Roberts) discovered the backstories, the bitter ironies and the resonant characters that set her poems apart.

We meet a few of those characters here. The boy addressed looks up, not to his own mother, but to the woman who speaks the poem, who perhaps has been minding him while his own mother does we know not what: so the last line implies. The boy has recently met another mother, one bereaved, dressed in black. That other mother has lost her son: seeing and feeling "trouble" everywhere, she is willing to tell a small boy about her grief, and she has either frightened him, or simply made him curious, through the vague things she has said to him about the "trouble" she has seen.

No grownup could explain those things adequately to a grownup, not without explaining why we die, justifying the ways of God to men; no grownup should want to explain them all to a young child, but an explanation is what the child demands. As the speaker in this dramatic monologue tries both to explain, and not to explain, she generates the verbal ironies that drive the poem: its power lies as much in its asides, its pretense of casualness, as in anything else, as if the woman who speaks could almost pretend (almost!) that the loss of a son and the clumsiness of a badly-tied shawl were equivalent inconveniences, and both of them no worse than missing a train.

Piatt keeps her diction simple right to the end: we hear an adult woman trying to speak to a child, to keep to words that he can comprehend. Her syntax  and line shape start out simple as well, with phrases that run exactly the length of the line. Like the people in Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, though, she loses control of her sentences, saying what she thinks and how she feels rather than what the situation requires: the phrases get more complicated, and the scenes more vivid, until the boy fidgets, makes mischief, and stops the poem short. The simple rhymes, too, fit a speech to a child (know, snow, so, low): they, too, get undercut as we realize that the boy has asked the speaker to explain (and the speaker has tried, and failed, to explain) everything that can go wrong with the human lifeworld.

"Trouble" could mean many things, of course, all bad, and with wildly varying seriousness, from a child's mischief (sometimes with monetary cost: destroying good lace), to vague unease, to mortal peril. The child who does "not want to wait" to grow up would change his mind if he only knew what grownups know: what "trouble means."

But what do grownups know? Not, really, where the dead go when they die, or whether their souls survive; not, surely, what we should do about the fact that we die—not even how to comfort the living. As clairvoyants, or those driven mad by grief (who claim to see the dead) are to normal competent adults, so are competent adults to children: the second miss what the first see, and it's good that they miss it, since those visions may be hallucinations. The boy cannot see "trouble" because he is not (fortunately) afflicted with visions, but also because it is an abstract quality (one common to all adult experience) and because he does not yet know how the world goes.

Piatt's wry, sorrowful speaker, on the other hand, has seen trouble "everywhere," outdoors and in, before weddings and after funerals, like the funeral she has attended herself. The poem shares a great deal with Randall Jarrell's "Next Day," another poem set just after a funeral, though it would be shocking to learn that he knew Piatt's work; Piatt's poem also points to the omnipresence of death and mourning in postbellum U.S. culture, to the way—between memories of the U.S. Civil War and relatively high infant mortality—death was a much greater part of everyday life than it is for most Americans now. Other poets (including Piatt's contemporaries) reacted with lugubrious sentimenality, or fawning condescension, trying to sound like happy children themselves; Piatt reacts with the self-assured irony of an impersonation within an impersonation, creating a woman who feigns offhand confidence but really regrets—regrets more than she can say—the limits and the ghosts that define her life.

Womanhood is one of the limits. It is a limit that the boy will never know, and it means that she knows "trouble" as men cannot. At best, what grownup men seem to know is how to avoid the minor, practical troubles of parenthood (by shunting them all off to women); what women know amounts to practical skills, "coping tricks," as we say today, enough to get through the day but not to discover (nobody discovers) what else we should do with our lives. Women must learn those practical skills, learn all of them, because men, fathers, cannot be bothered: they complain about coffee they ought to feel lucky to drink, trains and train journeys they ought to feel lucky to take, and watches they might instead think they are lucky to own. These men (the men the boy knows: a "white-collar" family, as we say now) all operate on the insistent time of the business world, at once more urgent and more forgiving of human frailty than the 24-7 time of family life, of the women's work that must always be done.

The kind of "trouble" mothers see, which fathers never know, is the trouble described by late nineteenth century feminists (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example) who wanted to help mothers escape confinement in the home. But that is not the only kind of trouble in the poem: indeed, it arises late, and in the angry last line it almost disappears—this speaker cannot stay in that mindset for long. Piatt's  language and situation point on the one hand to controversy about mothers' roles, about men's privilege and women's blame, and on the other hand to the unconsoling structure of the world. If you think of 19th-century proto-feminism here, you might also think of A. E. Housman's almost cryptic conclusion, "I was ready/ When trouble came."Such binocular vision—feminism and tragedy, if you like; harm remediable and irremediable, seen together—makes Piatt stand out.

Advocates of political change, and the poems of advocacy that they write, emphasize the injustice in social arrangements, the avoidable ways that we do one another harm: "this way of grief," says Adrienne Rich in one poem, "is shared unnecessary and political." Advocates of what used to be called—what may still be called—a tragic view of life emphasize injustice we can never cure, the fact that we grow old, or ill, and die, the limits to all human powers, the chance (as Jorie Graham put it in one early poem) that "maybe there just/ isn't enough/ to go around." Activists call tragedians quietists, apologists for the ways things are; tragedians call activists short-sighted, Utopian, ignorant of human limits. The best and farthest-sighted writers, whatever their genre, escape both accusations, because they see both the wrong that we do to one another (as in a sexist society, as in the child-rearing customs that leave girls and women with every short straw) and the wrong that nature does to us (as in premature death: the news brought by new ghosts). Poetry may not provide a solution for all these dissatisfactions; no one should ask that it try. It can, however, depict them, with bemusement, with irony, and with an attempt to widen our sympathies, not only for the beleaguered mothers, and the other (female) caregivers, in Piatt's poems, but for the child, who will know soon enough what "trouble" can mean.


Stephen Burt:
Stephen (also Steph, or Stephanie) Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, most recently The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard University Press, 2016). A new book of Steph's own poems, Advice from the Lights, will be published by Graywolf in late 2017.


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