Monday, April 1, 2019

Poets of the Commonwealth

April is National Poetry Month, a monthly observation that cannot go unnoticed here in Massachusetts. Since the founding of the American colonies, poetry has remained a crucial part of the state’s already impressive literary legacy. Read on for a sampling of Massachusetts poets throughout history, and share with us your favorite poets both past and present from our commonwealth!

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first poet to be published in the American colonies. She and her family arrived in what would become Boston on the Arabella in 1630. Both her father, Thomas Dudley, and her husband, Simon Bradstreet, would serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but she would make a name for herself with her poetry, which was first published in 1650 in a collection entitled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. The collection was supposedly published both in North America and England without her knowledge, though it’s possible that Bradstreet simply downplayed her publication ambitions to which ameliorated the criticism regarding whether or not women could or should write. Another edition of her poems was published posthumously in 1678. Her most famous poems include the epic “The Four Monarchies,” “"Upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666” in which she laments the loss of her library, and the intimate “To My Dear and Loving Husband.”

Phillis Wheatley (c.1752-1784) was the first published African-American female poet. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery and eventually was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. The Wheatley family taught her not only to read and write in English, but also Greek and Latin, and later supported her literary ability. However, many doubted that her work was her own, and she was even interviewed by 18 Boston gentlemen, including John Hancock and Thomas Hutchinson, who signed an attestation clause verifying that she wrote her poems herself. Her Poems on Various subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773, and her most famous poems include "On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “To His Excellency General Washington,” and “To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works” dedicated to Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African-American artist in Boston.

Title page of Poems on Various subjects,
Religious and Moral
by Phillis Wheatley.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the leader of the transcendentalist movement in the 1800’s and a poet, essayist, and philosopher. While his philosophical essays are better remembered than his poetry, he influenced many poets in his day, including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William Ellery Channing, and Ellen Sturgis Hooper. He also published an anthology of poetry called Parnassus in 1874, featuring both male and female authors. His famous poems include “Threnody” regarding his grief after the passing of his son, and “Concord Hymn,” written for the 1837 dedication of the Battle of Concord monument.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) remains a mysterious figure in the Massachusetts literary world. While a prolific poet, hardly any of her poems were published during her lifetime. She lived much of her life as a recluse, and only after her death were her poems discovered by her sister, Lavinia. The first collection of her poetry to be published appeared in 1890 under the simple name Poems. Despite being unknown during her life, she is now one of the most popular and famous of the commonwealth’s legendary poets.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) lived throughout New England during his lifetime. He would live at various times in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, for which he served as the state’s poet laureate. His poetry often used rural New England life to illustrate his social and philosophical themes and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature many times. His legacy includes the Robert Frost Trail near Amherst and the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, where he taught from 1916 to 1938. His famous poems include “Fire and Ice,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Chapter 359 of the Acts and Resolves of 1998, which created
an annual Robert Frost Day on the fourth Saturday of October.l

e e cummings (1894-1962) was a poet, novelist, and playwright best known for modernist, free-form poetry. His distinctive style was influenced by art forms like Dada and Surrealism, and his first collection of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923. Later in life he returned to Harvard University as a guest professor and his lectures were later collected as i: six nonlectures. His most famous poems include “i carry your heart with me,” “in Just-“, and “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a poet and short-story writer born in Worcester. She travelled often, particularly to Brazil, where she lived for 15 years. She avoided personal and confessional themes in her poetry and labels such as “female poet” or “lesbian poet” as she wanted to be considered based on the quality of her writing, not on her gender or sexual orientation. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for Poetry for Poems: North & South - A Cold Spring. Her most famous poems include “First Death in Nova Scotia,” “In the Waiting Room,” and “The Fish.”

Want to learn more about poetry both historical and contemporary in Massachusetts? Check out Mass Poetry (

Alexandra Bernson