Thursday, December 3, 2009

Alfred B. Street, Albany's Forgotten Poet


Poet Alfred Billings Street was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1811 and raised in the Sullivan County town of Monticello where he studied law in his father's office.

At the age of twenty-eight, he moved to Albany and, at the same time, gave up legal work for a literary career. His works were frequently published in local newspapers and he was often called upon to write verses for civic events such as the dedication of the Albany Rural Cemetery. His work was especially popular during the Civil War with many patriotic verses in honor of the Union and Lincoln. He also wrote a number of historic pieces such as The Burning of Schenectady and Frontenac.

But he was best known for his love of nature. He wrote two books about expeditions into the Adirondack Mountains, Woods and Waters and The Indian Pass. Though rather wordy, both are invaluable firsthand accounts of the Adirondacks in an era before tourism and mass transportation. And nature provided the inspiration for many, many poems which were collected and published in two volumes as The Poems of Alfred B. Street.

Street also served as the director of the New York State Library from 1842 until 1868 and, until 1868, as law librarian.

Perhaps because of its flowery over-sentimentality, Street's works are hardly known today. But, despite such a flaw, they deserve a better fate. They are are a reflection of their era, but at the same time, they are luminous portraits of still-pristine landscapes...some of which no longer exist or are greatly altered.

We leave the shadowy woods; a lovely glade Opens upon us, and a deep-toned sound Shakes on the ear; it is the organ-voice Of the hurl'd waters scatter'd o'er their rocks In streaks of plunging foam, while high above The twisted fir-tree slants as though to pitch Headlong beneath...

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from A Walk To The Tivoli

I first "discovered" Alfred B. Street about twelve years ago - give or take a couple of years. At the time, I had begun to explore the vast and fascinating Albany Rural Cemetery. Not content to just wander through the 400+ acres of historic graves, I got my hands on a copy of Henry Phelps' book The Albany Rural Cemetery - Its Beauties, Its Memories through inter-library loam. The book included a poem by Street. At the time, I occasionally wrote and published poetry myself so I was immediately attracted to the idea of a local poet. It took quite a bit of effort to find his grave at the Rural Cemetery. After quite a few failed attempts and two or three inquiries at the Cemetery office, I was finally able to locate his grave by finding the grave of his wife, Elizabeth Weed Street. The poet, who died in 1881, lies in an unmarked grave next to her.

A pearly ray steeped a portion of the hemlock couch...and selecting this as the nearest approach to the light of heaven, I was soon asleep.

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from The Indian Pass

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