Anne Spencer (1882-1975)
Contributing Editors: Evelyn H. Roberts and Jo Lee Greene
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Aside from black literature anthologies and general reference sources, limited critical material is available. The poet Anne Spencer can best be made accessible to students in various ways.
1. Relating Spencer's fascination with reading and studying at the Virginia Seminary (note, for example, her selection as the commencement speaker).
2. Presenting an overhead transparency of one of her longer poems, "At The Carnival." Most students enjoy this poem and can relate to such an experience--comparing or contrasting with their own carnival and/or county fair experiences.
3. Showing the photographs that appear in J. Lee Greene's Time's Unfading Garden.
4. Using selected black literature anthologies placed on library reserve for students who wish to prepare brief oral reports or short papers.
Many of Spencer's poems show dramatic compression and sharpness of image and phrase. She is no pleader of causes, choosing rarely to comment on the race issue in her published poetry. Yet her biography reveals a wide acquaintance with civil rights leaders, literary dignitaries, lecturers, and other prominent citizens, black and white, who would appear as public speakers and/or artists in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Students admire Spencer's commitment to maintaining a free, independent spirit, not being hampered or restrained by husband or offspring. They also admire her determination and concentration to create despite the reality that "art is long and time is fleeting." In addition, students applaud both Spencer's assertiveness as demonstrated by her work for women's suffrage and her determination to create options that allowed her to pursue her art by diverse routes (as demonstrated by her work as the first black librarian in Lynchburg).
Students are curious about Spencer's statement, published by Countee Cullen (Caroling Dusk, p. 47):
"But I have no civilized articulation for the things I hate. I proudly love being a Negro woman; [it's] so involved and interesting. We are the PROBLEM--the great national game of TABOO."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, and Angelina Grimké, Anne Spencer maintained a strong belief in individual freedom and liberty to convey ideas and uphold ideals vital for personal expression. Further, Spencer possessed strong individual preferences and exhibited objections to various standards or beliefs that may have compromised her personal ideals. See poems not included in this anthology such as "Wife-Woman" and "Neighbors."
Further, Anne Spencer sustained a life-long admiration for poets and the art of poetry. In her poem "Dunbar," she pays tribute to Chatterton, Shelley, and Keats.
Some additional similarities can be cited showing an interrelatedness in the art of the above-mentioned poets. As Emily Dickinson advanced in years, the circle of her world grew ever smaller. Dickinson became a hermit by deliberate and conscious choice. Similarly, Anne Spencer withdrew from the community as the years passed. For Dickinson, her isolation allowed her to become prey to the then-current Emersonian doctrine of "mystical individualism." As a flower of New England transcendentalism, she became a Puritan and free thinker obsessed with the problems of good and evil, of life and death, nature and destiny of the human soul. Toward God, Emily Dickinson exhibited an Emersonian self-possession.
Moreover, Emerson's gnomic style became for Emily Dickinson epigrammatic to the point of being cryptic; a quality that Anne Spencer, Amy Lowell, and Angelina Grimké likewise display.
Finally, Anne Spencer in some of her poems--"Requiem," "Substitution," "Wife-Woman"--appears to embrace a pantheistic view that can be compared to Emerson's view in "Hamatreya" of recognizing God in nature.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Though sometimes coupled with the Harlem Renaissance period, Anne Spencer follows the tradition of neo-romantic poetry, having composed some poems before the Harlem Renaissance era was clearly identified, or designated. Her poetry communicates a highly personal experience, revealing an arresting image. Her assessment of an experience may be occasionally ironic but discloses her profundity.
Anne Spencer's style reveals her individuality, an affinity for nature imagery, and the conventions of British and American romantics, as her sensibility to form and color, a rich and varied vocabulary, and a pantheistic philosophy disclose.
An admirer of Robert Browning, one of her favorite poets, who, despite his use of the idiom of conversation, achieved remarkable cogent compressed lines, Anne Spencer, likewise, achieved a similar style. Economy of phrase and compression of thought result from numerous revisions of the same poem. Compare with Emily Dickinson's extensive and/or intensive revision strategy.
To help students imagine Spencer's original audience, they are urged to create a yesteryear time capsule list for the poem when first written or published: listing common objects, terms, phrases, scenes, situations existing then but vastly different from the present era.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Both Emily Dickinson and Spencer were philosophical in their observations and perspectives. Dickinson's simple yet passionate style was marked by economy and concentration. She developed sharp intense images and recognized the utility of the ellipsis of thought and verbal ambiguity. Like Anne Spencer, Dickinson read extensively and intensively.
Compare Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" with Spencer's "Substitution" and "Requiem."
Ralph Waldo Emerson created his own philosophy, believing that all forces are united by energetic truth. Though he lectured and composed many extended prose works, Emerson's poems, like those of Emily Dickinson and Anne Spencer, contain the core of his philosophy. He directed considerable thought to social reform and the growing issue of slavery.
Spencer, like Emerson, composed her poems in her garden. She has voiced high ethical, aesthetic, and independent positions on the topics she addresses in her poetry.
Although Anne Spencer did not vividly express her concern for social issues as did Henry David Thoreau and R. W. Emerson, her adult civic and professional life as librarian, and occasionally her poetry, addressed her concern for social and racial progress. H. D. Thoreau conveyed a genuine feeling for the unity of man and nature in Walden. His deep-rooted love for one place, Walden, characterized the epitome of his universe. Similarly, Anne Spencer's garden was central to her symbolic, historic, literary, religious imagery and meaning.
Countee Cullen's "Foreword" to his work Caroling Dusk asserts that "Anne Spencer [writes] with a cool precision that evokes comparison with Amy Lowell and the influence of a rockbound seacoast" (p. x1).
Note: Examine Amy Lowell's "Patterns." Compare techniques and concepts as noted in Spencer's poems, e.g., "Substitution," "Lines to a Nasturtium," and "For Jim, Easter Eve."
Both Angelina Grimké and Spencer studied well their neo-romantic models. Both writers reveal great sensitivity and emotional acuity. Neither is writing for a group or class, or a race, nor do they use the language of complex reasoning and emotional compression. Rather, there is the direct attempt to present and define an emotional experience.
"Anne Spencer." In Negro Poetry and Drama and The Negro in American Fiction, edited by Sterling Brown, 65-66. With a new preface by Robert Bone. New York: Atheneum, 1937/1978.
Cullen, Countee, ed. Caroling Dusk. New York: Harper, 1927. 47-52.
Greene, J. Lee. Time's Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. 204. Since Anne Spencer's poems were published in nearly every major black anthology, it is essential to include Greene's work, for the appendix contains the largest collection of her published poems. Spencer never arranged for a collected publication, though she constantly composed poems, and revised many of her earlier pieces through 1974, the year prior to her death. See also Chapter 7, "The Poetry: Aestheticism" and Chapter 8, "The Poetry: Controversy."
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Nation (23 June 1926): 692-94.
Locke, Alain. "The New Negro; An Interpretation." In The American Negro: His History and Literature, edited by Alain Locke, 3-16. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1925/1968.
Primeau, Ronald. "Frank Horne and the Second Echelon Poets of the Harlem Renaissance." In The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited with a memoir by Arna Bontemps, 247-67. New York: Dodd, 1972.
Stetson, Erlene. "Anne Spencer." College Language Association Journal, XXI (March 1978): 400-09.