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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...

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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

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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 advocation of the rights of the individual with its poetic style in works such as “Rights of Women.” Judith Sargent Murray was the first significant feminist poet in the United States.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, female writers gained increasing exposure (and often censure) in the trans- atlantic and newly expanded readership which, along with technological advances in publishing, created a market for poetry by women. Women began to form an integral part of the publishing industry, seeking to earn or supplement a living through writing. Along with this greater exposure came a greater insistence by the social dictates of the new middle classes on the female poet’s modesty, circumscribing her choice of subject matter to the religious and the domestic, turning her inward to contemplate nature or revere the virtues of home. At the same time, female writers were often selling better than were men; record numbers were publishing in journals specifically for women readers, which paid well. From Lydia Sigourney to Louise Guiney, the popularity of female poets soared during the nineteenth century. It was the unpopular, unacclaimed Emily Dickinson, however, one of U.S. poetry’s most significant innovators, who deftly adapted English grammar, usage, and poetic form; Dickinson makes parts of speech perform new roles and makes common words taken on worlds of new meaning. In her deceptively simple verse, she anticipates the twentieth century by setting out an extreme situation and exploring human possibilities within that situation.

Twentieth Century Female Poets

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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 and Gwendolyn Brooks continued to explore social matters, but many other female poets reflected the new demand for objective verse. In the postwar years, the gender expectations for women dictated domesticity once again. Some women wrote within these expectations, but others, including Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich, wrote against it, pushing to new limits the possibilities of traditional symbols and myths.

Many themes and treatments that began to crystallize evolved over the next decades. These include the poet’s changed relation to the world of nature from that of the male poet standing apart from nature to the female poet acknowledging her own existence as part of nature, exemplified by Maxine Kumin and Canadian poet Margaret Atwood; the reader’s involvement with the personal circumstances of the poem and of the poet; and the expression of anger and rage against self, world, and cosmos, anger at male power in its insistence that it is right and rational.

In the 1960’s, women’s poetry expressed what the women’s movement itself was fostering: consciousness-raising. The poetry explored the validity of female experience, and its germaneness to any discussion of larger cultural issues. Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Marge Piercy, and Adrienne Rich, among others, often eschewed the aesthetic value of universality in favor of writing out of their specific experience and interpreting their specific moment in history. Minority women, such as Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Ana Castillo, and Leslie Marmon Silko, manipulated language to express their specific visions, thereby adding new energies to North American letters.

Many female poets continued to write in the same vein as Rich in her efforts to retrieve and revise history through a poetics of the community of women. Others followed those French feminists who asserted that history, tradition, and language have been created by the patriarchy for its own ends, and that it must all therefore be disposed of and replaced by a woman’s literary language—not of death and destruction or cold rationality, but of creation: writing that is ebulliently physical, warm, joyful, emotive. Many women’s poetic careers have spanned the changes in times and tastes. For example, Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay’s poetry of the 1920’s and 1930’s was part of the modern imagist movement; in the 1940’s and early 1950’s she infused her political activism into her art; her later works explored the concerns of woman in herself, her home, and her society, and the possibilities of the future for children.

All strands of the tradition of women’s poetry meet in its one overwhelmingly apparent characteristic: the quality of its first-person immediacy and intensity. It examines not only the heart and soul but also the bones and nerves of its speaker— and often of its listener. It shows a need for connectedness with others as well as a fear of being hurt by that connectedness; the poetry at once pulls the reader in and pushes her or him away. Its insistence on the personal as a fit subject for art has begun to release poetry in general from the constraints of an objectifying modernism.

Bibliography

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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.

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