- The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789−1820 ed. by Paul Lewis
“For whether I’m a dunce or poet, / I feel above prose, or below it” (29), announces the anonymous author of “The Stage Coach: Inscribed to Mira,” the lead poem in The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789−1820, edited by Paul Lewis. In many respects, this couplet—at [End Page 231] once humorous and sincere, witty and unassuming—captures the charming ethos of the entire anthology. It reflects a body of early national poetry composed by average Bostonians (hence the title “citizen poets”) without any pretense to poetic accomplishment, even with occasional irreverence toward the genre. Some unforgiving readers may decide that the amateur verse of Citizen Poets is so lowbrow that it indeed falls beneath prose, but given that this sentiment is whimsically internalized, if only in tone, by a major portion of the poetry itself, other readers will find more than a few selections refreshingly frank and unaffected, opposite the genteel stylization of early American poetry to which we are most accustomed. In short, Citizen Poets exposes us to the poetic vernacular and folk idiom of New Englanders in the early Republic. The author of “The Stage Coach” himself—a “clever fellow” (33), he declares—thematizes precisely that with a narrative pun on the “stage coach,” the vehicle whereby he makes his way to Boston but also the self-referential “stage” of his poetic performance, yes, with an explicit nod to Shakespeare. The point is that the theatrical artifice operates on the same level as that which it represents: poetry and life, stage and coach, are for this author indistinguishable, and the jocular, conversational voice employed gives one the impression that the poem is a piece of popular variety theater, a vaudeville sketch. We are invited to sit back and enjoy ourselves, to take pleasure in the antiheroic drama of the common American—dunce or poet, you decide—adventuring to the big city for the first time.
I tarry with “The Stage Coach” because its aesthetic ethos best characterizes the intentions of Citizen Poets as described by Paul Lewis. In his illuminating introduction, Lewis offers the anthology to us in the spirit of “The Stage Coach”—we are asked to journey back in time to Old Boston, to experience the smell and taste of the city as it was in the thirty years after the ratification of the Constitution. Assembled with a group of English majors at Boston College as a collaborative project, Citizen Poets is a kind of homage from citizens of Boston to citizens of Boston, to the early years of the Cradle of Liberty. “[I]nformality and community” (11) is the keynote theme. Citizen poetry, says Lewis, is a literature of time and place, a literature that reflects the quotidian realities of the early Republic, a literature whose purpose is to facilitate dialogue, entertain, or shape public opinion, not to carve out a cultural space of individuality, genius, and originality. Citizen Poets is an exercise in archiving local color. And it succeeds. From [End Page 232] acerbic verse by Boston women protesting sexism and compulsory marriage to epigrammatic stanzas satirizing physicians and lawyers, from fervent encomiums to George Washington and Marie Antoinette to lyrical effusions in praise of Bacchus and mechanics, from didactic poetry devoted to the cause of abolitionism to acrostical rebuses devoted to the public declaration of love, readers get a strong and round impression of the “felt life” (6) of Boston in a historical moment of intense political and social change, of new beginnings and exciting, if contentious, possibilities.
But if this poetry “can seem intimate, revealing, and alive” (3), as Lewis remarks, this has as much to do with the way that he and his collaborators put the anthology together as it does with the poetry selections in and of themselves. Lewis explains that Citizen Poets is delimited not only to poetry published anonymously and pseudonymously in local...