Saturday, September 17, 2011

If Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt Had Made the World

I've mentioned my love for Piatt's poems, but I wanted to give you a sample why.  Let's examine Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt's (August 11, 1836 – December 22, 1919) brilliance and feminism through the poem "If I Had Made the World".  I ran across her poems in the 2003 Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume C.  Piatt was not included in earlier editions nor in later ones.  For some reason, our professor thought it would be a wonderful idea that we take upon ourselves the insane quest of presenting her life, her work, and criticisms of her work.  It proved incredibly difficult in 2005, as there was barely anything available on her in print or online (though I didn't look at reviews on microfilm...I avoided those at all cost).  The only thing available was a collection of her poems by Dr. Paula Bernat Bennett.  I bought it online, but it didn't come in enough time, so we made due with the conflicting statements found online and in the anthology.

Piatt was a well-educated woman, and I don't just mean in terms of going to school and university.   A descendent of Daniel Boone, Piatt lived in Kentucky and Washington, D.C., pre-Civil War; Ohio during and after the Civil War; and Ireland post-Civil War.  She had lived in a state that had slaves but belonged to neither the South or the North in the beginning of the war as a neutral state, later returning to the Union.  She grew up believing the slaves her friends and denounced her Boone familial traditions.  Piatt didn't understand slavery; she just knew she didn't want her friends to leave or to leave her friends.  She saw beauty in those she grew to love as family.  Piatt and her personal slave whom she referred to as her "nurse"loved each other deeply, and her nurse traveled with her to Ohio once she married.  She experienced both sides of the war, and equally criticized both the North and the South in their selfish war that destroyed families and brought blood upon the earth.  She again experienced the awful civil wars in Ireland and the rest of Europe as they had revolutions.  She did not just read about the wars; she lived wars.  She experienced enough to know the ridiculousness of war and wrote about it with great fervor and critical eye.

Piatt would be published in a variety of names, including SMBP, Sarah Piatt, SMB Piatt, Sarah Morgan, SM Bryan Piatt, as possibly to overlook her gender.  Her husband was her publisher, and she was permitted, then, to publish in a time when women were typically not published.  He was supportive, as he saw that magazines liked her writing more, but it didn't mean that he didn't resent her obvious talent.  Sarah appeared in a variety of magazines and journals and had a few poetry books published by her husband.  She was feminist in her poetry, brutally scolding men who think women possessions with control over them, as proved in "A Pique at Parting" (which will soon be highlighted).  But she displays her intelligence through the poems and her negative view of the world through poems such as "If I Had Made the World" and "A New Thanksgiving."

Her style was covert in that it was very vague in terms of how the poems could be interpreted.  She carefully chose her words for a variety of interpretations.  This caused many critics to see her as nothing but a genteel poet with a knack for writing children's poems.  They were far from children's poems, though often telling fairytales.  The upbeat and abrupt style of her poems often added a dripping sarcasm to the messages.

Take a look at our example...

If I Had Made the World

If I had made the world – ah me!

  I might have left some things undone!

But as to him – my boy, you see,

A pretty world this would be,

  I’d say, without George Washington!

Would I have made the Baby?  Oh,

  There were no need of anything

Without the Baby, you must know!

---------I’m a Republican, and so

  I never would have made “the King.”

I might have made the President –

  Had I known how to make him right!

---------Columbus?  Yes, if I had meant

To find a flowering continent

  Already made for me, I might.

I would have made one poet too –

  Has God made more?  ----------  Yes, I forgot

There is no need of asking you;

You know as little as I do.

  A poet is – well, who knows what?

And yet a poet is, my dear,

  A man who writes a book like this,

(There never was but one, I hear;)

----------Yes, it is hard to spell S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e.

  So, now, Good-night, – and here’s a kiss.

You are not tired? – you want to know

  What else I would have made?  Not much.

A few white lambs that would not grow;

Some violets that would stay; some snow

  Not quite too cold for you to touch.

I’d not have taught my birds to fly;

  My deepest seas would not be deep! –

My highest mountains hardly high;

My deserts full of dates should lie –

  But why will you not go to sleep?

I’d not have made the wind, because

  It’s made of – nothing.  Never mind.

Nor any white bears – they have claws;

(Nor “Science,” no, nor “Nature’s laws!”)

  Nor made the North Pole hard to find!

I’d not have made the monkeys – (then

  No one could ever prove to me

There ever was a season when

All these fine creatures we call men

  Hung chattering in some tropic tree!)

Once more, Good-night.  This time you hear?

  Please hear as well my morning call.

---------Yes, first I’ll tell you something queer:

If I had made the world, I fear –

  I’d not have made the world at all!

In "If I Had Made the World", Piatt has a bedtime conversation with her son. And we don't hear the son's dialogue, but can clearly gather it by her responses, often with a repetition of the question. We begin with the creation of the United States, essentially being founded on blood. After all, it's first president was a general, a war hero, a man with blood on his hands. This sets the tone for the rest of American history. "A pretty world this would be" without our first president.

Next, we get a very confusing state on her religious beliefs, which equaled her own wishy-washy beliefs as an increasing agnostic, possibly even atheist.  After seeing such disastrous and bloody times in a Christian-oriented country, she published this poem in 1977.  Much like Robert Lowell in "The First Snowfall" or Anne Bradstreet's musing son her dead children, Piatt resents God for taking away her children.  It's unclear at first in the poem whether she does think that nothing would exist without God when she says nothing would exist without the Baby (though world existed before the Baby). But her problem with the Baby is mostly its patriarchal and monarchical presence, as she states boldly, "I’m a Republican, and so/I never would have made 'the King.'" Bold move, Piatt. Bold move. The Republicans at the time were social activists, fighting for freedom of slaves and rights for women (a complete opposite from now, I might note). For Piatt to take sides was a bold move as a woman. But her criticism of The King is pivotal in that lets the reader know that Christianity is more of a patriarchal monarchy, but at the same time it could be read as a criticism of monarchy itself, being sandwiched in between a couplet about The Baby and one about the president. In this aspect, a president would not have to be a man. Piatt goes on to declare: "I might have made the President –/Had I known how to make him right!"

Colonialism seems to leave a bitter taste in her mouth, having lived in America and sympathizing with the Native Americans and those of African descent and having lived in Ireland, a country long at war with England over its own land. Her son asks her if she would've made Columbus, to which she responds, "Yes, if I had meant/To find a flowering continent/Already made for me, I might." How brilliant is this? It can be taken in a few ways, but it seems most likely that she's saying, "This land was not meant for him. The natives were already here. It doesn't flower so much anymore at this point during the war and reconstruction. But some may take it that Columbus did not mean to find America. Either way, she's tearing the crap out of Western Civilization's origins.

It seems in her eyes, Shakespeare is not equaled by any other poet. When her sons asks if there are any other poets, she tells him: "And yet a poet is, my dear,/A man who writes a book like this". Whether this refers to her own book or her holding Shakespeare's book is unclear, but if she's referring to her own, she's got quite an ego. At the same time, she points out the blatant idea that only men can be poets and writers when she says, "A man who writes a book like this". She ought to know the troubles a woman had getting published and being taken seriously. Piatt returns to Shakespeare, noting that there was only but one, she hears. It's interesting in that now Shakespeare is the only poet, according to others; he is the first and only poet. But is he, according to her? It seems that her work was compared to Shakespeare's in criticisms, and this is her way of saying, "Writing doesn't have to copy Shakespeare's." This is a time when writing began taking different forms, but it was still unaccepted (Walt Whitman, for example).

Now, Piatt shifts to nature. Everything is attainable, tangible, youthful, and pure: lambs that don't grow to become yews or rams, flowers with blooms that never die, snow never too cold. Here we have a symbolism of the color white being associated with purity. She does, on the other hand, note in the next stanza that she would not have created "white bears", which "have claws". This symbolism of white is now tainted; almost villainous. But one could also read this again as the white man with weapons ruling the world. The idea of eternal youth also presents itself that neither living thing would die, certainly not of old age.

Piatt continues to tell how nature would be if she'd made the world. Birds should not fly, mountains should not be so tall, and seas should not be so deep. Her world is compacted, so everything is attainable by humans. We can climb the highest mountain; we can swim the seas and see all that dwells in it. Why not be able to see everything that lives on Earth, even the North Pole? No place goes without sustainability. Even the most extreme climates are livable spaces, like the desert. I like this world.

Why she would not have made the wind is not insane as it sounds. When the reader examines the lines closer, the use of the word "nothing" can be read as the wind being made of nothing, as well as dismissing the idea of not making wind. Why have something that isn't made of anything? Piatt wants the visible, the tangible--things we can see and believe in. In this couplet, the inclusion of "never mind," especially as two separate words seems to be carefully constructed, as it could very well pertain to the idea of uselessness in mot having anything between the ears. We must exercise our minds, never having nothing in our minds. It's a bit of a stretch, but that's what one must do in order to read Piatt's poetry, and that's how she meant for it to be read.

Refusing to have science or nature's laws, Piatt wants to discredit evolution, a theory that draws her away from her own religious beliefs. The idea of evolution as part of Nature's laws, became of interest in the 1700s. Piatt would have likely read Darwin's widely published On the Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. This publication caused quite a stir, both scientifically and religiously. It's likely it made Piatt question her own beliefs in God. She would have done away with science, so she wouldn't want to believe that humans could descend from primates, which she definitely would not have made. The reader should also note that when she says, "All these fine creatures we call men/Hung chattering in some tropic tree", she only refers to men and in a very sardonic way. She completely makes men into a joke when she calls them "fine creatures", like they think they're above women. In her own way she links men back to chattering monkeys because they absolutely have not changed. The image in my mind when I read this stanza is hilarious: old white politicians just sitting in a tree top, howling and screeching at each other, accomplishing nothing, save for eating bugs off each others' backs. The more one reads into it, the more we see her belief solidified in evolution and less in God, which is noted earlier in the poem.

But the more she thinks about it, she would not have made the world because it would have probably ended up the same way, no matter how perfect it would have started. White men would still dominate the world, and death would still be a natural part of life, which comes with war and violence. Men would still derive from monkeys and still act like them, and women would still be suppressed throughout the world. Congratulations, world; you're a douche! (Signed, SMBP.)

Some compare Piatt to Emily Dickinson, but they differ incredibly in tone, theme, and even in style, despite them both being "genteel" writers. Besides, Piatt's work was published long before Dickinson's saw the light of day (literally). I want to thank Dr. Paula Bennett for rediscovering Piatt and bringing her to the literary world once again. Now there's a plethora of work on the internet available to us, and there's a reason why. The woman was nothing short of brilliant.

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