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 moral judgments. Feminist criticism and scholarship, however, have asked new questions in the late twentieth century: Is there a specifically female voice in poetry? Does it express a female worldview? Are there metaphors, tropes, forms typically used or adapted by women? What have been the material circumstances—education, financial independence, freedom, and the survival of childbearing— necessary for women to write?
It has become a commonplace to say that female writers have been excluded from publication. On the contrary, at least since the late eighteenth century, many women have been published in and edited major journals, their collected works going through many editions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, women were publishing in numbers equal to those of men. Their works have been denied the status of high art, however, for the literary establishment of the early twentieth century (including women), with its changed sensibilities and taste, denigrated the great popularity of female poets of the previous era and trivialized their work. It has taken much of the twentieth century for female poets to work through both the blame and the praise.
Early U. S. Poets
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....
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