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Anne Spencer: Poetry


Harlem Renaissance poet and activist Anne Bethel Scales Bannister Spencer was born on a Virginia farm in 1882. The daughter of former slaves, Spencer’s mother enrolled her in school for the first time when she was 11, at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now Virginia University of Lynchburg). Six years later, Spencer graduated as valedictorian. Though she lived in Virginia her whole life, she maintained close friendships with many Harlem Renaissance writers, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois. She worked with Johnson and others to establish the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP and served for 20 years as the librarian for Dunbar High School.

Spencer’s poetry engages themes of religion, race, and the natural world. Thirty of her poems were published during her lifetime, in such anthologies as The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and Caroling Dusk (1927). She was the first African American woman poet to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973). Her work was gathered posthumously in Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry (1977). She is also the subject of Half My World: The Garden of Anne Spencer: A History and Guide (2003), by Rebecca T. Frischkorn and Reuben M. Rainey, and Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden (2011), by Jane Baber White.

Spencer died of cancer at the age of 93 and is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg. The Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum is included on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Virginia Historic Landmark, a Friends of the Library USA Literary Landmark, and a Historic Landmark by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. A selection of her papers is archived at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

(Source: Poetry Foundation)

At the Carnival

Gay little Girl-of-the-Diving-Tank,

I desire a name for you,

Nice, as a right glove fits;

For you—who amid the malodorous

Mechanics of this unlovely thing,

Are darling of spirit and form.

I know you—a glance, and what you are

Sits-by-the-fire in my heart.

My Limousine-Lady knows you, or

Why does the slant-envy of her eye mark

Your straight air and radiant inclusive smile?

Guilt pins a fig-leaf; Innocence is its own adorning.

The bull-necked man knows you—this first time

His itching flesh sees form divine and vibrant health

And thinks not of his avocation.

I came incuriously—

Set on no diversion save that my mind

Might safely nurse its brood of misdeeds

In the presence of a blind crowd.

The color of life was gray.

Everywhere the setting seemed right

For my mood. Here the sausage and garlic booth

Sent unholy incense skyward;

There a quivering female-thing

Gestured assignations, and lied

To call it dancing;

There, too, were games of chance

With chances for none;

But oh! Girl-of-the-Tank, at last!

Gleaming Girl, how intimately pure and free

The gaze you send the crowd,

As though you know the dearth of beauty

In its sordid life.

We need you—my Limousine-Lady,

The bull-necked man and I.

Seeing you here brave and water-clean,

Leaven for the heavy ones of earth,

I am swift to feel that what makes

The plodder glad is good; and

Whatever is good is God.

The wonder is that you are here;

I have seen the queer in queer places,

But never before a heaven-fed

Naiad of the Carnival-Tank!

Little Diver, Destiny for you,

Like as for me, is shod in silence;

Years may seep into your soul

The bacilli of the usual and the expedient;

I implore Neptune to claim his child to-day!


We trekked into a far country,

My friend and I.

Our deeper content was never spoken,

But each knew all the other said.

He told me how calm his soul was laid

By the lack of anvil and strife.

“The wooing kestrel,” I said, “mutes his mating-note

To please the harmony of this sweet silence.”

And when at the day’s end

We laid tired bodies ’gainst

The loose warm sands,

And the air fleeced its particles for a coverlet;

When star after star came out

To guard their lovers in oblivion—

My soul so leapt that my evening prayer

Stole my morning song!


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