This April is the twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, an appropriate time to explore the poetry and drama of New England. The orally transmitted songs and rituals of the Native Americans came first, of course, but are largely lost to us. The first English-speaking American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was one of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Her book The Tenth Muse was published in London in 1650, a significant landmark for American literature. Among her descendants are several other distinguished writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Richard Henry Dana.
The works of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets who followed Bradstreet are pretty obscure now, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the greatest American poets and poetry came out of New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton…an incomplete list can be found at the end of the New England Book List, and further suggestions are most welcome.
When it comes to drama, it’s not so easy to track down plays set in New England. We do have the Big Three that are consistently ranked among the greatest American plays ever: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (New Hampshire), Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Connecticut), and The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts). But beyond these, my investigations turned up very little, and almost nothing I had ever heard of. The Pulitzer-prize winning Painting Churches by Tina Howe is one exception. If you have read or seen any others, please let me know!
As for my own plans, I have to revisit Our Town, since I now live 15 minutes away from Peterborough, New Hampshire, the basis for the Grover’s Corners of the play. I’d also like to read Long Day’s Journey into Night and check out the film with Katharine Hepburn, and maybe The Crucible as well. I wish I could see some live productions, but those are few and far between in my area.
In the realm of poetry, I’m curious to look into Anne Bradstreet and maybe some other early poets, and I’d definitely like to revisit some of my favorites from Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I might even get around to the Dickinson biography I have sitting on my shelf, My Wars Are All Laid Up in Books. There’s also a new book by David Orr that looks interesting, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. I’ll look for some more modern and contemporary poets to explore too. And as always, I’m looking forward to seeing what you discover!