In This Article Sarah Piatt

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Reception

American Literature Sarah Piatt
by
Jess Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0144

Introduction

Largely unknown to readers for most of the 20th century, Sarah Piatt (b. 1836–d. 1919) is now recognized by many as a major figure in the poetic 19th century. The story of her writing life and the afterlife of that writing will likely be familiar to students of 19th-century American women’s poetry. During her lifetime, Piatt’s work was published by some of the most respected publishers and in some of the most sought-after periodicals. Her poems earned her national and international recognition and praise. Once the modernists took the helm of American letters, though, Piatt’s poetry along with that of so many of her contemporaries fell from favor. The very poems that 19th-century readers had often found too “experimental” for their tastes struck 20th-century readers as too “conventional.” Relegated to dusty shelves, her eighteen books of poems and hundreds of periodical publications were left largely unread until the late 1990s when a significant number of Piatt’s poems appeared in anthologies for the first time since her death. By turns playful, ironic, erudite, conventional, grim, and evasive, her body of work took shape over a long career during which she led a somewhat itinerant life characterized by loss. Piatt was born in antebellum Kentucky but spent her adult life as a displaced southerner married to poet John James Piatt. She lived with their family in Ohio, Washington, D.C., Ireland, and ultimately New Jersey. Loss followed her wherever she went, in the form of either memory or experience. Particularly devastating were the deaths of three of her sons—two while living in Ohio in 1873 and 1874, and one while living in Ireland ten years later. But the losses that haunt her poetry are many and varied: the loss of lovers and children, of youth and security, of romantic notions of the American South and moral certainties. Though Piatt makes it tricky to map her life onto her poems (even as she encourages readers to do so), her particular experiences no doubt contributed to the development of her distinct aesthetic—one characterized by a deep and abiding ambivalence, by an investment in the contextual nature of language and the drama of spoken interactions, and by a particular weaving of convention and innovation.

Primary Texts

As of the composition of this entry, no complete collection of Sarah Piatt’s work exists. Readers are left to discover Piatt’s poems through her many books; through her numerous periodical publications; and through the selections of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century editors, which, like all selections, offer crafted versions of Piatt and her poetry. This section offers an inventory of the books of Piatt’s poems published since 1864. This focus on her book publications admittedly cannot encompass the full scope of her publications because it leaves out the poems that she published exclusively in periodicals, which are many. A full listing of those publications has not yet been published, though the bibliographies and notes in late-20th-century and early-21st-century editions provide some guidance on that front. See Periodical Poetry as well for more information.

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