The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Diane Wakoski’s “The Girls” consists of six verse paragraphs in which the first-person speaker addresses the differences, both physical and intellectual, between herself and other women, whom she labels “the girls.” Since “girls” is a term customarily used by male chauvinists to describe females of all ages, Wakoski’s poem has a decidedly feminist edge. “The Girls” was written “for Margaret Atwood and Cathy Davidson”: Atwood is a Canadian writer and literary critic with feminist views, and Davidson is a feminist literary critic.

In the first two verse paragraphs the speaker stresses the differences between herself and “the girls.” While they have thin hips and lemon-scented hands and look like models in fashion magazines, she sees herself with “fat ankles/ And ass as soft as a sofa pillow.” She, however, is the “class brain” who answers more questions in class than they do. More significant, she is the “ugly duckling class brain,” an allusion to the fable about the seemingly ugly duckling which becomes a beautiful swan. In effect, the speaker envies the girls who torment her (Valerie Twadell, who “chased [her] with worms”), but she also feels superior to them.

The third paragraph continues the description of the physical beauty of the girls and also develops the motif of snakes introduced in the fourth line of the poem. Cathy is slim with a fashionable “Zelda-ish bob,” and Peggy is as “slender and...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In an interview with Andrea Musher, printed in Wakoski’s Toward a New Poetry (1980), Wakoski discusses snakes and mythology. She states that the image of the rattlesnake is “basically the phallic image,” but she goes on to claim that “snakes were almost always part of the female cult in all religions.” The Medusa image, which she uses in “The Girls,” is the image “of an intellectual woman that turns the man to stone unless he has a mirror that can reflect it away from himself.” This image she considers “the threat of the female mind.”

In “The Girls” Wakoski uses the symbolism and mythology of snakes to differentiate herself from other women. These women understand and control the “Lords of Life” (the snakes) because they are at “ease” with phallic power. The passage about the cottonmouth best exemplifies the relationship between the sexes: “the cottonmouth who swims next to you all night/ in muddy fertile loving water.” There is no violence, but the swimmers are in “fertile loving water,” suggesting a fruitful union of the sexes.

How this control is achieved is explained in the last verse paragraph: “but I know you pretty girl women/ who handle them like hula hoops,/ or jump ropes,/ or pet kittens.” To handle a hula hoop is to make it circle one’s hips, while maintaining only occasional fleeting contact with it—this is to tease and control through sexuality. To deal with a jump rope is to respond rhythmically to an outside threat without being tripped up or “caught.” To handle a pet kitten is to be affectionate to something that has been domesticated. In all three instances the woman knowingly uses her sexuality to control the men who would control her.

The reference to “pretty girl women” implies that women are only pretty “girls” grown older and more adept at manipulation. In contrast, the speaker is the Medusa figure, who becomes in Wakoski’s mythology “the threat of the female mind.” Men do not adore her, as they do the “girls,” when they are turned away. In fact, the only means of protection a man has against Medusa is the mirror, which reflects the gaze away from himself, but since it is a mirror, the reflection itself becomes a self-destructive threat to the Medusa figure.