Anne Spencer: Poet, Gardener, Activist
April 20, 2010 10:21 PM   Subscribe

Anne Spencer (1882-1975) (video tribute from the State Library of Virginia) was a Harlem Renaissance poet, a gardener, a librarian, and an activist. Her work was influential among her peers and successors - as was her legendary and beloved garden in Lynchburg, Va, where she lived for her entire adult life. She wrote only 50 known poems - 25 to 35 of which were published in her lifetime - on topics that were important to her - the beauty of nature, racism and equality, and her faith, including these 8 of her better-known poems , Before the Feast of Shushan, and Lady, Lady. Many of her poems were reprinted in anthologies, but the controversial White Things (c. 1918, published c. 1923, inspired by a particularly horrible lynching of a pregnant woman) was never reprinted.

She was discovered and strongly encouraged by James Weldon Johnson when he came to help Spencer, her husband, and other citizens found the Lynchburg, Va chapter of the NAACP. She worked to integrate the faculty of the local black school and became the librarian at Dunbar High. She was as passionate about equality and education as she was about her garden, which inspired a episode of A Garden Story. Her house and garden are now a museum. The house is kept as it roughly was when she died in 1975; local garden clubs are restoring the garden to it's 1930s splendor.
posted by julen (7 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting. This is powerful stuff, filled to the brim with life-colored swirls of darkness, color, and light. wow!
posted by Vibrissae at 11:33 PM on April 20, 2010

I find it funny how a Virginia writer gets lumped into the "Harlem Renaissance," primarily because she was a black writer writing at the time.

I had to read Lady, Lady for a first year English class.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 11:56 PM on April 20, 2010

I'm amazed this only gained two comments. That "White Things" link was worth a post on its own.
posted by Leon at 11:36 AM on April 21, 2010

Michael Pemulis: "I find it funny how a Virginia writer gets lumped into the "Harlem Renaissance," primarily because she was a black writer writing at the time. "

Well, she was published in the same anthologies as other Harlem Renaissance writers, maintained a correspondence with them, and hosted them in her home and held salons in her garden. Many of those writers were her peers and her admirers. But you aren't the first to bring this up; I've seen her also mentioned as a member of the "New Negro" movement, named after an anthology she was published in and which is centered a little later than the Harlem Renaissance, and which contains many of the same authors as in the Harlem Renaissance. As a label I suspect it's gotten less traction because it's a)not as superlative as "Renaissance", b) it contains the term "negro", which is not a term that modern speakers think is outdated, and c) contains the word "new" which is a temporal term that usually has a shelf-life; at some point "new" is no longer new.

In any case, I was inspired by a trip to her home/garden yesterday (I highly recommend a visit!). She painted/wrote the words of A Lover Muses (later renamed Lines to a Nasturtium) on her kitchen wall and I couldn't believe I hadn't read a poet that wonderful before. White Things bowled me over, too.
posted by julen at 1:16 PM on April 21, 2010

Thank you for this. I hadn't ever heard of Anne Spencer and now I'm resolved to read more. julen, can you (or others) recommend a good printed collection of her work? My searching has only turned up Harlem Renaissance anthologies, which may be the best I can do.

Some wonderful lines in these poems: "He's haunting the byways of wine-aired leaven / And throating the notes of the wildings on wing"; "hands, / Twisted, awry, like crumpled roots." I quite liked this, from "Letter to My Sister":
This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you'd die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.
Excellent post.
posted by cirripede at 2:55 PM on April 21, 2010

After some poking around, I think Anne Spencer: “Ah, how poets sing and die!” is the only collection out there - you can buy it from the museum itself. Not only are the used copies on Amazon are higher priced, buying it from the museum goes to support maintaining the museum. I'm kicking myself for not picking it up when I was there.
posted by julen at 2:24 PM on April 22, 2010

Terrific, well-done post. I don't think I had ever read her before.
posted by desuetude at 8:07 PM on April 22, 2010

« Older Face from the past come back to haunt you!   |   Time traveller spotted in 40s photo Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments