Women Poetry and Poets Analysis

At Issue

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The relationship of women to their own poetry is a problematic one. One issue is the female poet’s marginal position with regard to literary tradition. Is she a part of it? Can she use its images and figures, myths and history, to express her specifically female experience? How has she done so in the past? Does her revisionary work allow her greater expression? How does the inclusion of women’s work provide a more complete picture not only of the history of poetry, but also of cultural history? A second problem concerns a great irony in the history of women’s poetry. For women to be considered as artists, they have had to claim modesty, for becoming a public figure (a published writer) was as good as bringing shame on one’s family for illicit behavior. Moreover, when the public has approved of a female poet, it has often been exactly for her modesty: Even Adrienne Rich’s first volume was said by W. H. Auden to contain poems “neatly and modestly dressed.” Female poets also have been praised for the gentle virtues embodied in the Victorian ministering angel: delicacy, spirituality, and grace. Genius and originality displayed by female poets often have been seen as accidental or masculine, and the recording of women’s experiences as inferior because it is not universal. Female poets have been seen as neurasthenic oddities, as strident Amazons, and as the angels of the house of literature. Rarely has their work been considered without the application of...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Early U. S. Poets

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Historically, many female poets have treated the problem of literary reputation in their works, among them Anne Bradstreet, who wrote in her “Prologue,” “If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,/ They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.” Until Bradstreet’s time, poetry was circulated in manuscript among small circles, until changes in publishing in the seventeenth century resulted in more widespread publication. So it was that Bradstreet, the first poet to publish while living on American soil, found that a collection of her poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650), had been published in England by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. She made a particularly innovative contribution by her extended use of the maternal metaphor in “The Author to Her Book,” wherein she writes to her work as if it were her child, an equation taken up and explored by many contemporary female poets. Another Colonial poet, the slave Phillis Wheatley, produced neat neoclassical verses, having been supported and educated by her master’s family. Sarah Parsons Moorhead was a significant female poetic voice in America’s Great Awakening.

Like their British counterparts, many early eighteenth century female poets in the United States engaged in a poetry of wit, polish, and public involvement. Mercy Otis Warren, for example, wrote political satires as well as other political essays. Susannah Rowson combines the era’s...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Twentieth Century Female Poets

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

With the advent of widespread public education for girls as well as for boys, the admission of women into higher education, and the flourishing first wave of the women’s movement, “the new woman” broke out of the gender prescriptions for the “angel in the house.” Women wrote daringly about personal passion and desire, feelings not sanctioned by the nineteenth century code of femininity. The conflict of changing gender prescriptions is reflected in the poetry of Sara Teasdale. Early suffragists and feminists, such as Alice Meynell, wrote with a new political conviction.

Modernist women, such as Gertrude Stein and Amy Lowell, advocated linguistic condensation and experimentation with language and images. Hilda Doolittle (“H. D.”) was instrumental in fully exploring one motif widely used by many other female poets, including Louise Bogan, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton: the meaning for women of the myths of Western civilization. Marianne Moore experimented with “syllabic” verse, concerned with packing meaning into words, phrases, and sentences rather than into stanzas. The modernist style was distanced, employing an objective speaker.

Edna St. Vincent Millay explored the resonance of myth in her own time; on the other hand, she wrote in an accessible, immediate, personal, and even sexual manner, reintroducing into women’s poetry a rather daring openness. Like Meynell, Millay explicitly addressed social and political issues in her poetry. Dorothy Parker was the first female poet to confront the dangers to women of the romantic heritage. Her acerbic tone and stance paved the way for the attitudes of Sylvia Plath and Diane Wakoski. African American female poets, such as Georgia Douglas Johnson, began to explore the significance of race and gender to one’s art.

Between World Wars I and II, women overtly wrote of social and political issues. In the postwar period, however, this kind of personally intense, committed writing went out of style. African Americans such as Margaret Walker...

(The entire section is 831 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, eds. Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. Covers writing from four centuries. Its feminist perspective remains significant to the study of female poets.

Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women’s Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1987. Explores ways in which female poets write both within and against the dominant tradition. Examines characteristics of male poetry and theory, discusses how they relate to women’s work and perception, and discusses the distinct aesthetic of women’s work.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Discussion grounded in an examination of poetry by U.S. women from 1650-1960 explores the ways in which poetry by women in the twentieth century is radically divergent from poetry by men. Discusses such topics as the divided self, physicality and erotics, anger and violence, and revisionist mythology.

Pope, Deborah. A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women’s Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Discusses the theme of isolation in works by Louise Bogan, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Omnibus collection of feminist literary criticism.

Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Treats modernist women from the perspective of cultural criticism. Discusses how the persona that each woman develops is dictated both by the social and political environment and the individual psyche in that environment: How have women seen themselves, their history, and their own capacities for creativity?

Walker, Cheryl. The Nightingale’s Burden: Women Poets and American Culture Before 1800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. Selects particular poets who form one aspect of women’s literary history, focusing on poetic autobiography, self-representation, and nineteenth century archetypes. Discusses new ways of reading women’s intentions through the writers’ personal histories, through female literary history, and through the social and cultural history of their times.

Watts, Emily Stipes. The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977. An accessible introductory examination of particular poets, themes, and treatments.