February 3, 2022

Poem to Read Aloud: Anne Spencer's Carnival

Poems to Read Aloud , Public Speaking , The Buckley Experience , Resources

The Buckley School's founder believed that all public speakers should hone their presentation skills by reading poetry out loud. We keep that worthwhile practice alive by including a poem in our magazine each month for you to read aloud. Above, a portrait of Anne Spencer in her wedding dress. 

"Anne Spencer of the unforgettable line, cool, aloof, dispassionate, immortalizing the diving girl at the street carnival."

– Poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson

A barely literate girl, Annie Bethel Scales Bannister enrolled at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in 1893. She was 11 years old. Six years later, she graduated and delivered the valedictory address, an indicator of her keen mind and the work she would produce in the years to come.

From her home in Lynchburg, Virginia, Anne Spencer would become a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems were first discovered by James Weldon Johnson when she was in her 40s. More than 30 of her poems were published in her lifetime. She was the first African-American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

"No dream can live unless somebody lets it live or die unless somebody kills it. Twenty-five years ago I drew from the lottery of matrimony its greatest prize, an understanding heart."

– Anne Spencer, writing about her marriage

Spencer married classmate Edward Spencer a few years after she graduated. Their home in Lynchburg became a meeting place for civil rights advocates, a salon for writers, and a refuge for travelers in the segregated South.

Anne Spencer also worked as a librarian for 30 years and was a civil rights leader herself, helping to found the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP.

Chauncey Spencer

She and Edward had three children. Their son, Chauncey Spencer, was a pilot and aviation pioneer, a leading force in the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen and the integration of the U.S. Air Force. 

Spencer lived to be 93 years old. Her home and beloved garden, on the National Register of Historic places, are maintained as a museum.

A U.S. Postal stamp honoring Anne Spencer, released in 2020.

To learn more about Anne Spencer, her poetry, her home and garden, and the poems she left unwritten, this article from The Oxford American is filled with wonderful stories and details.

For you to read aloud, here is Spencer's "At the Carnival."

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!

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