Marge Piercy Piercy, Marge - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Marge Piercy 1936-

American novelist, poet, and essayist.

Piercy is a prominent feminist poet whose political commitment informs her work. Her verse often focuses on individuals struggling to escape oppressive social roles. Frankly polemical, Piercy's colloquial, free verse poetry passionately excoriates such phenomena as sexism, capitalism, and pollution, using exaggerated imagery and unabashed emotionalism in service of her social commentary.

Biographical Information

Piercy was born to a Jewish mother and a Welsh father in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit. After attending the University of Michigan as a scholarship student, she moved to Chicago and received a Masters degree from Northwestern University. Much of Piercy's work during the 1960s and 1970s emerged directly from her involvement in the radical youth organization Students for a Democratic Society. She has also been very supportive of feminist issues. As a poet, novelist, and commentator, she has a large international following, and her work has been translated into a number of languages. She lives in Massachusetts and continues to write novels and poetry.

Major Works

In her poetry, Piercy's political concerns are often expressed in an anguished or angry first-person narrative. Her first publication, Breaking Camp, is a volume of poetry that balances expressions of outrage at impoverished living conditions in Chicago with personal accounts of joy in love and being alive. In the 1970s, she shifted her emphasis from poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War to the struggle for women's rights. The poems collected in To Be of Use, Living in the Open, and The Moon Is Always Female reflect her commitment to exposing the damaging effects of patriarchy in contemporary American society and her condemnation of the roles ascribed to women by the male establishment. Piercy's works of the 1980s emphasize the politics of city-planning and the poet's sensual pleasure in such activities as gardening, making love, and cooking. In more recent works, such as Available Light and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, Piercy celebrates her Jewish heritage.

Critical Reception

Critical analyses of Piercy's verse often consider the essential role of political and social commentary, with reviewers perceiving her emphasis on such social problems as poverty, the destruction of the environment, gentrification of old neighborhoods, and civil and women's rights as commendable. Some critics have faulted her work for excessive, often violent imagery as well as a self-righteous tone. Yet she is praised for aspects of her personal poetry, particularly her sensuality, humor, and playfulness.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Breaking Camp 1968

Hard Loving 1969

To Be of Use 1973

Living in the Open 1976

The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing 1978

The Moon Is Always Female 1980

Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy 1982

Stone, Paper, Knife 1983

My Mother's Body 1985

Available Light 1988

Mars and Her Children 1992

What are Big Girls Made of? 1997

The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme 1999

Early Grrrl: The Poems of Marge Piercy 1999

Going Down Fast (novel) 1969

Dance the Eagle to Sleep (novel) 1971

Small Changes (novel) 1973

Woman on the Edge of Time (novel) 1976

The High Cost of Living (novel) 1978

Vida (novel) 1980

Braided Lives (novel) 1982

Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt: Poets on Poetry (essays) 1982

Fly Away Home (novel) 1984

Gone to Soldiers (novel) 1987

Summer People (novel) 1989

He, She, and It (novel) 1991

Body of Glass (novel) 1992

The Longings of Women (novel) 1994

City of Darkness, City of Light (novel) 1996

Storm Tide [with Ira Wood] (novel) 1998

Marge Piercy (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Inviting the Muse,” in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 5-17.

[In the following essay, Piercy describes the initial steps of her creative process—inspiration and concentration.]

Here is Henry Thoreau from his journal for October 26, 1853, although he is talking about spring. “That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it. How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we are made, clear!”

Writing poems can be divided crudely into three kinds of labor: beginning and getting well and hard into it; pushing through inner barriers and finding the correct form; drawing back and judging what you have done and what is still to be done or redone. This essay is about the first stage, learning how to flow, how to push yourself, how to reach that cone of concentration I experience at its best as a tower of light, when all the voices in the head are one voice.

I do not know how to teach that, although concentration can be learned and worked on the same as flattening stomach muscles or swimming farther. You could perhaps set someone to studying a rock or a leaf or a bird—perhaps a warbler. Nothing requires more concentration than trying to observe a warbler up in the leafy maze of a summer tree. If I were really and truly teaching poetry, I would probably drive everybody crazy by sending them off to notice the shades of sand on a beach.

Of course observation isn’t concentration, but learning to do one brings on the ability to do the other. My mother taught me to observe. A woman who had not been allowed to finish the tenth grade, she had some extraordinary ideas about how to raise very young children. Later when I was grown out of dependency and highly imperfect, she had trouble with me and could not endure my puberty. However, when I was little enough to fit comfortably into her arms and lap, we played unusual games. She had contempt for people who did not observe, who did not notice, and would require me to remember the houses we passed going to the store, or play mental hide-and-seek in other people's houses that we had visited. We would give each other three random objects or words to make stories around. We would try to guess the stories of people we saw on the bus and would argue to prove or disprove each other's theories.

I suppose such training might have produced what she wanted, a sharply observant person like herself, a reporter's mentality, a little Sherlock Holmes in Shirley Temple guise. What it created in me was observation suffused with imagination, since our life was on the whole skimpy, hard, surrounded by violence outdoors and containing familial violence within, a typical patriarchal working-class family in inner-city Detroit. Blacks and whites fought; the Polish and Blacks who lived across Tireman (a street) fought the Irish who went to parochial school. The neighborhood offered the kind of stable family life writers like Christopher Lasch, beating the dolly of the new narcissism, love to harken back to. Although husbands sometimes took off and not infrequently had girlfriends on the side, women almost never walked out of their homes. Wife beating was common, child beating just as common; drunkenness, drug abuse, rape, molestation of children occurred on every block but families went on from generation to generation. In such a neighborhood where the whites were comprised of Polish, Irish, a few Italian and German Catholics, of some remaining WASP and some newly arrived Appalachian families (I divide the Appalachian WASP from the others because they were often Celts, and because they were looked down on by everybody as hillbillies and provided some of my closest friends), being a Jew was walking around with a kick-me sign. I’d say the level of tolerance for lesbians was higher than that for Jews. You learn to observe street action and people's muscular tensions and involuntary tics rather closely.

Detroit sprawls there, willfully ugly mile after flat smoggy mile; yet what saves it are trees. Every abandoned vacant lot becomes a jungle in a couple of years. Our tiny backyard was rampant with tomatoes, beans, herbs, lettuce, onions, Swiss chard. One of the earliest poems I wrote and still like is subtly about sex and overtly about peonies. Pansies, iris, mock orange, wisteria, hollyhocks along the alley fence, black-eyed Susans, goldenglow whose stems were red with spider mites, bronze chrysanthemums, a lilac bush by the compost pile. Nothing to me will ever be more beautiful than the flowers in that yard, except my mother when I was young.

You learn to sink roots into your childhood and feed on it, twist it, wring it, use it again and again. Sometimes one daub of childhood mud can set a whole poem right or save a character. It’s not always a matter of writing about your family, although at times we all do that. You use your childhood again and again in poems about totally other things. You learn how to use that rush of energy and how to make sure your use transcends the often trivial and ludicrous associations you are touching and drawing power from.

Some poets get going, get the flow by reading other poets. You learn whose writing moves you to your own, whether it’s Whitman or the King James version of the Bible or Rukeyser or Neruda in Spanish or in translation. Actually I’ve never met anyone who got themselves going by reading poetry in any other language than the one they were working in, but I’m curious if anybody does. On the other hand I have met a number of poets who use work in translation to prime themselves. It is a priming act we’re talking about. You set the words and rhythms going through you and you begin to align yourself. It has disadvantages, of course; if you are the least impressionable you may produce involuntary pastiche. You may find yourself churning out imagery that is bookishly exotic, imagery culled from others and bearing the imprint of being on loan like clothes that fit badly. Some poets use poetry of another time to prime themselves, to minimize the unintentional fertilization.

This priming can happen by accident. Oftentimes I am reading poetry and suddenly a poem starts, that change in the brain, maybe words, maybe an image, maybe an idea. It need not even be poetry. That quotation from Thoreau that begins this essay instigated a poem called “Toad dreams.” I remember starting a poem in the middle of reading a Natural History magazine or the Farmers Almanac.

I think of that instigation as having a peculiar radiance; that is, the idea, the image, the rhythm, the phrase—radiates. I find myself wanting to attend to it. I may not know at once, often I may not find out for several drafts, what that meaning, that implication, that web of associations and train of utterances will be or even in what direction I am being led. Sometimes the original moment radiates in many directions. Then my problem is sorting out the direction to pursue first or exclusively.

At that point if concentration is not forthcoming, the whole possibility may be blown. If you can lose a novel by talking it out, you can easily destroy a poem by not paying attention. I have lost many poems that way; I must lose one a week because I can’t get to a typewriter or even to a piece of paper fast enough—sometimes can’t break through to silence, to solitude, to a closed door. I am not good at working at cafe tables, as Sartre was supposed to do, although I have written on planes often enough. Even then I work only when I have a bit of space, never while wedged in the middle seat. I need at least a seat between me and any other person to work on a plane. At home, I need a closed door.

Poems can be aborted by answering the phone at the wrong moment. They can be aborted when an alien rhythm forces itself in, or the wrong other words are juxtaposed. I cannot work with a radio on loud enough to hear the words, or a television, or music with words playing. I have trouble working at all with music on, for the rhythms are much too insistent. I know other writers who work to music, but I cannot do so. Rhythm is extremely important to me in building the line and the poem, so any other insistent rhythm interferes. Irregular rhythms—hammering on a construction site nearby—have little effect.

I had a friend in Brooklyn who used to work with wax plungs in her ears, but I find that difficult. I talk my poems aloud and my voice roaring in my head gives me a headache. However, I pass on this method as it may do the trick for you. I know another writer who uses a white noise machine, the type usually purchased to help you sleep. I used to run an air conditioner to screen the noises from outside the apartment, when it seemed to me that every window opening onto the center of our block in Adelphi had a radio or a TV or both turned to top decibel.

Often I begin a poem simply by paying attention to myself, by finding what is stirring in there. I need a quiet moment. I try to use the routine of waking to bring me to work, whether into a novel I am working on or into poetry. I work best in the morning, although I started out believing myself to be a night person. I changed over during the sixties when the one quiet time I was assured of was before the rest of the antiwar movement in New York was awake. I learned to get out of bed and to use waking to move toward work.

Without the pressure on me now to work before friends are stirring, I need not rush to the typewriter but I preserve my attention. I always do some exercises in the morning and I take a morning bath. All of that routine I use to become thoroughly awake but retain some of the connectedness, some of the rich associativeness of dreaming sleep. I don’t want to shed that dark energy of dreams, nor to lose that concentration and involvement in the clutter of the day. I don’t think of it quite as self-involvement. I remember when a relationship that had been part of my life for seventeen years was breaking up, I would wake very early after three or four hours sleep and lie in anxiety and pain. Nonetheless by the time I rose through my morning schedule, when I came to the typewriter, I was clear of my immediate anguish and fussing and ready to turn them into work or to write about something entirely different.

I am not saying every writer should get up, eat a good breakfast, take a hot bath and do exercises without talking much to anyone, and then she will write richly. I am trying to say that you must learn how to prepare in a daily way for the combination of concentration and receptivity, a clearing that is also going down into yourself and also putting antennae out. One thing I cannot do and work well is worry about something in my life. If I sit at the typewriter fussing about where the money to pay the real estate taxes is coming from or whether my lover loves me more or less today, whether I am spending too much money on oil this winter, whether the decision taken at the MORAL meeting was correct, I will not find my concentration. I can carry emotions to my typewriter but I must be ready to use and transmute them. They must already be a little apart. It is not exactly emotion recollected in tranquility I mean, although for twenty-five years I have contemplated that phrase with increasing respect. I often feel the emotion but with less ego, less anxiety than in ordinary life. The emotion—the pain, the regret, the anger, the pleasure—is becoming energy. I suppose whenever I find my life too much more fascinating than work, I work less and write less well. I certainly write fiction poorly in these stretches. I produce some poems, often decent ones, but my output is down.

Such periods are not frequent because I love to write more than almost anything—not essays, to be honest, but poems and novels. I am still writing in letters to friends this week that I am immensely relieved that I have finally shipped off my novel Braided Lives to my publisher in its last draft. I do in fact feel as if an elephant had risen daintily...

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Marge Piercy (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Revision in Action: Chipping and Building,” in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 79-98.

[In the following essay, Piercy explicates the final stages of her creative process, in particular how she revises and finishes her poems.]

I have put together three accounts of the process of writing through various drafts toward the finished poems. Each of these brief descriptions includes the various drafts of the poem I was working on. Each process offers a somewhat different route between onslaught and finished product, with differing problems to solve en route.


(The entire section is 5481 words.)

Eleanor Bender (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Visions of a Better World: The Poetry of Marge Piercy,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Bender provides a thematic overview of Piercy's verse.]

Perhaps more than any other poet of her generation, Marge Piercy is most explicit in confronting the political, social, and economic realities of her time. A poet of conscience, Piercy does not separate her politics from her life, or her life from her poetry. Like Muriel Rukeyser before her, Marge Piercy's poetry is not confessional. Her poems never apologize, suffer from guilt, or dwell on some abstract evil. Piercy is...

(The entire section is 4470 words.)

Jeanne Lebow (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bearing Hope Back into the World: Marge Piercy's Stone, Paper, Knife,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 60-71.

[In the following essay, Lebow asserts that “the publication of Stone, Paper, Knife marks Piercy's full evolution into a doer, a user of tools, a woman who has created her own vision of the world on paper.”]

In “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties,” a 1974 essay in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Marge Piercy felt that “Success was telling some truth, creating some vision on paper” (207); however, she did not have hope of altering the world...

(The entire section is 4481 words.)

Ronald Nelson (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Renewal of the Self By Returning to the Elements,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 73-89.

[In the following essay, Nelson considers the theme of healing in Piercy's verse.]

Marge Piercy speaks of poetry as “utterance that heals on two levels.” First, it heals the psyche because “it can fuse for the moment all the different kinds of knowing in its saying.” Second, it can heal “as a communal activity. It can make us share briefly the community of feeling and hoping that we want to be. It can create a rite in which we experience each other with respect and draw energy” (“Mirror...

(The entire section is 4956 words.)

Eleanor Bender (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Marge Piercy's Laying Down The Tower: A Feminist Tarot Reading,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Bender explores Piercy's use of Tarot imagery and feminist perspective in Laying Down The Tower.]

In the eleven poems of Laying Down the Tower, Marge Piercy takes a feminist perspective in interpreting the symbolism of the ancient Tarot. As the concluding section of To Be of Use, these poems show the development of the poet's feminist consciousness through the early 1970's. Over a decade later, they typify what historian Gerda Lerner noted...

(The entire section is 3644 words.)