Anthology Spotlight: The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820

9781611688887.jpgThis week our Anthology Spotlight series returns with a profile of The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. Citizen Poets, like its straightforward title suggests, is an anthology of poems from Boston periodicals during the early national period. The collection was edited by Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College. Packed with poems and slim as anthologies go, Citizen Poets, published by the University Press of New England, comes in at slightly less than 240 pages and is attractively priced for classroom use at $22.95.

The Origins and Focus of Citizen Poets

Before considering the content of Citizen Poets, especially for a book that could possibly be included in the classroom, it is important to note that the book derives from the work of students at Boston College. While Paul Lewis is listed as the editor of Citizen Poets, the book is a collaborative effort by students at Boston College. Both the “Preface” and “Introduction” to Citizen Poets highlight the role of students in creating this anthology. Citizen Poets derives from increased access to online archives and the opportunities such access provides for the classroom. As the preface to Citizen Poets notes “students, working in small groups over three years, reviewed thousands of poems that were published in Boston magazines between 1789 and 1820” (xiii). The student-involved origin of Citizen Poets would make for an interesting classroom discussion of the role of student work and research. Additionally, Citizen Poets also serves as a model for the incorporation of similar local projects in our own classrooms. Frequently the introductory materials Citizen Poets calls for teachers and students to turn to local projects for the classroom. The origins of Citizen Poets could potential make for fascinating discussion in the classroom as students consider their roles in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. While many colleges and universities tout programs dedicated to undergraduate research, it can remain an abstract concept, especially for students not in the sciences. Considering the origins of a work like Citizen Poets could help make such undergraduate research projects concrete for students. You can read and listen to profiles of Citizen Poets here and here that discus the origin of the project.

The poems included in Citizen Poets were collected from the periodicals that circulated around Boston during the early national period. The anthology focuses on poetry written by “citizen poets.” As the introduction notes, the “citizen” of Citizen Poets “refers not to residents who enjoyed rights and privileges but to residents in general, who, if they were so inclined, could attempt to participate in the give-and-take of Boston’s nascent literary culture” (4). Citizen Poets emphasizes the sights, sounds, and experiences of Boston during the period of 1789 to 1820. The collection focuses on the inclusion of original poetry, much of it anonymous, written for Boston periodicals. While we might not know the identity of many of the poets included in Citizen Poets, the poems provide enough clues for students to speculate about the background of many of the authors.

The Scope and Organization of Citizen Poets

Citizen Poets begins with a brief “Preface” that provides background on the origin of the book, its relationship to both digital and traditional archives, and many of the source periodicals. Citizen Poets also includes a succinct note on the editorial practices employed in the book. The “Introduction” to Citizen Poets includes an overview of Boston, its literary culture, and introduction to the state of print culture during the time period. Additionally, the topic of literary recovery is addressed in an accessible and concise manner. Several poems included in the anthology are mentioned throughout the “Introduction” and provides students with specific examples of poetry that link to the content discussed. The front material of Citizen Poets is characterized by a genuine enthusiasm for the project and the works included. The enthusiasm of the introductory material is marked by a playfulness, like, for example, when it describes the roots of the rivalry between Boston and New York.

Citizen Poets is divided into thematic chapters that focus on particular aspects of life in Boston, and the later chapters represent universal themes, not only ones limited to Boston. In the first chapter, “Coming to Boston,” the poems focus on detailing journeys to Boston. Other chapters focus on gender, the politics of the day, family life, work, and death. There is also an interesting (and fun and challenging) chapter on “Rebuses, Riddles, Anagrams, Acrostics, and Enigmas.” Each chapter includes a brief chapter introduction that situates the chapter’s theme and the poetry in the larger social and print culture context of the era. Unfamiliar people, places, archaic words and spellings, and languages, like Latin, are lightly annotated. Citizen Poets includes a list of periodicals that were used in the creation of the anthology. One appendix includes a sampling of “Representative Editorial Statements” from Boston periodicals, which is great for those of us that might not have access to databases were we can few similar pieces. Citizen Poets ends with a short bibliography highlighting poetry and literary and print culture in Boston and the United States.

Citizen Poets includes some poems by well-known writers, like Judith Sargent Murray, but the majority of poems are anonymous

The Poems of Citizen Poets

The majority of the poems included in Citizen Poets represent the production of anonymous poets contributing to the periodicals of Boston during the early national period. However, there are a few selections from better-known authors such as Judith Sargent Murray and William Cullen Bryant and Susanna Rowson. The lack of canonical writers in Citizen Poets provides an opportunity for students to consider canon formation and to address the tension between high and low art. In short, Citizen Poets marks an excellent occasion to answer that question of “but is it any good?” raised by Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs. However, as the introductory material points out, and my reading sustains this claim, there is a freshness to the work of these anonymous poems because they aren’t familiar and they aren’t high art. I found that many of the poems were chortle worthy. Some of the poems are indeed “good.” Additionally, many of the poems make great reading because of the simplicity and accessibility of their meter, rhyme scheme, and accessible topics. The poems of Citizen Poets, regardless of their artistry, are pieces that could lead to fruitful discussions and explorations in the classroom. The size of the poems also makes them appropriate for the classroom. The poems of Citizen Poets range in size from a page or two to handful of stanzas or a single short stanza. The format of the poems could lead to a fruitful discussion with students about the form and layout of periodicals.

Citizen Poets reminds us that when we study literature we often forget that authors and readers had lives beyond the page; beyond a world of reading and writing. One poem that I think captures the multifaceted lives of the authors is Susana Rowson’s poem, “God is There,” a work written in response to a performance by The Handel and Haydn Society. Rowson’s poem about one of America’s earliest (and continuing) musical organizations, illustrates for students that people of this time did things like listen to music and attend concerts. Rowson’s short piece, like many of the poems included in Citizen Poets, invites students to engage these poems in the larger contexts of literature, history, art, and music.

Is there Too Much Boston in The Citizen Poets of Boston?

City or regional focused anthologies are a popular genre and often have a specific draw to classrooms. One thing in the back of my mind as I read  Citizen Poets is if it would be, well, too much Boston for students. From my own experience of spending two weeks on a text, or tracing through a theme over the course of a semester, I know that even the most engaged students can grow weary of a course theme or topic. Might students tire of the Boston of Citizen Poets, no matter how evocative the poems and the poets are? Yes, that is a possibility, especially for students that might not engage with the entirety of the text and see the universality of the thematic chapters.

However, the topical scope of the poems included in Citizen Poets makes Boston-fatigue unlikely. Beyond the title of this anthology, beyond the introduction, and beyond the first chapter which features poetry about journeys to Boston, the world of Boston recedes with the later chapters’ thematic focus on universal topics. Yes, these are poets with ties to Boston writing in periodicals circulating around Boston. However, the thematic division of Citizen Poets revolves around the universal: work, family, death, and even word games and having fun. It goes without saying that each of these topics aren’t specific to Boston or any one area, or anyone person, or even any one time period. Citizen Poets takes on universal themes  and would fit well within in many different courses.

From the introductory materials (both to the book and the individual chapters) through the variety of charming and playful poems included, Citizen Poets is an accessible book, even for students in general courses or early career majors. Given the Boston focus coupled with the emphasis on poetry and print culture, Citizen Poets might be best suited for a seminar or topics class consisting of juniors and seniors. Still, I’d be comfortable assigning this text in lower level classes.

Classroom Text Pairings for Citizen Poets

What kinds of texts would pair well with Citizen Poets? Several come to mind for a class on the American city. For example, Citizen Poets would dovetail nicely with texts like The Quaker City, New York by Gas Light, and many others. Another natural pairing would focus on print culture in early American and could include works by Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Susana Rowson. The variety and universality of subjects covered in the thematic chapters of Citizen Poets makes for a versatile text.

Additionally, there is an abundance of digital resources that could be paired with Citizen Poets. For example, online resources from the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum would make a great addition for background material or classroom workshops with archival materials. The Boston and/or Northeastern connections of these archives provides for a wealth of resources. I’ve used many of these websites in my classes and students often respond well to them. In the podcast realm there are several episodes from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and The JuntoCast that would pair nicely with the content of the book.

Citizen Poets is a welcome addition to poetry anthologies for the classroom. The variety of poems included, the introductory material, the price, and the pedagogical opportunities makes Citizen Poets an attractive anthology for classroom use.


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