Poetic License: Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt
My case in “Poetic License: Seven Curators’ Poetry Selections from Distinctive Collections” highlights an unexpected interconnection between two different parts of Falvey Library’s Special Collections by featuring a poet whose work appears in both our Popular Literature and Irish Literature collections.
Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919)
Sarah M. B. Piatt was an American poet whose long career began in the mid-19th century and lasted into the early 20th century. She gained prominence in her late teens, with her early work appearing in widely circulated newspapers and story papers under the name Sallie M. Bryan. After her marriage in 1861 to fellow poet John James Piatt, she published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in book form. Although she was well-known during her own lifetime, she sank into obscurity for most of the 20th century as poetic tastes changed, only resurfacing in the 1990’s when she was rediscovered as part of the growing movement to reassess the scope of the literary canon and recover forgotten women writers.
Piatt demonstrated great flexibility as a poet, writing poems that could appeal equally to multiple audiences, including children as well as adults. Her lasting success during her lifetime demonstrates her accessibility to casual readers of popular periodicals, but her work also rewards re-reading and careful analysis. Her poems, which often incorporate multiple voices and perspectives, comment directly or indirectly on social and poetic conventions. Her use of irony to contrast surface meanings with deeper intentions makes many of her poems particularly appealing to modern readers, who may be more attuned to this mode of expression than her 19th century contemporaries were. For one particularly striking example from Piatt’s work, take a look at “Giving Back the Flower.”
The New York Ledger
Story papers were one of the leading forms of home entertainment for much of the 19th century. Resembling a newspaper but containing a mix of serial installments of novels, short stories, poems, household advice, humor, and sometimes even games or puzzles, these publications provided weekly or monthly doses of entertainment for millions of American readers. One of the most successful and influential story papers was Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, which began publication in 1855 and ran for almost fifty years.
The New York Ledger relied heavily on recurring contributors to fill its pages every week, and these writers gained celebrity as a result of their frequent appearances in the widely-circulated paper. Sallie M. Bryan was one such celebrity poet, contributing works frequently during the early years of the Ledger. Several issues containing her work can be found in Villanova’s collection of New York Ledger issues, available online.
The Sarah Piatt Recovery Project at Ohio State University has collected many of Piatt’s New York Ledger poems in an online archive. The process of preparing this exhibit led to the rediscovery of a Piatt poem, “The Dove and the Angel,” in the March 30, 1861 issue, which had not been previously identified by OSU’s project.
An Irish Garland
Long after she had moved on from story paper contributions, Sarah Piatt and her family lived in Ireland for well over a decade (1882-1893) as a consequence of her husband’s appointment as a United States consul. During this time, she had opportunities for travel and to become part of the local literary community. Piatt’s Irish years produced a significant number of new poems. Most of her published volumes saw first printings published abroad. One such volume was An Irish Garland, first published by David Douglas in Edinburgh in 1884, then reprinted for American audiences in an edition found in Falvey Library’s Joseph McGarrity Collection of works about and associated with Ireland. The full book has been digitized and can be read online in its entirety.
If you would like to take a deeper dive into the life and work of Sarah Piatt, you might enjoy the Discovering Sarah Piatt: America’s Lost Great Writer podcast, hosted by Ohio State University’s Elizabeth Renker, to whom this exhibit and blog post owe a debt of gratitude for valuable input provided.
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