WHITHER THE FEMME FATALE POET?

Elinor Wylie.  Lyrical, with a dash of madness.

Where have they all gone?  Not only does the candle no longer burn at both ends, the one end is hardly flickering.

Great power for the poem, and for the woman, resides in the femme fatale poet.  What killed her, and why has she been allowed to die?

Even if the femme fatale is not the ideal state of things, it elicits a powerful interest in poetry.  Moral objections are moot, since femme fatales will exist and all the negative associations of that genre will exist, whether we want them to or not, and poetry’s involvement can mitigate the unfortunate aspects and also give to the world a heroic and social character for poetry which today it lacks.

In the 1920s, when school chums Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, together with Harvard friends Scofield Thayer, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, bound together in their modernist ‘Little Magazine’ coterie, which gave itself Dial Magazine Awards, published in Poetry and tooted its tin manifesto horn, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were best-selling poets, continuing a tradition from the previous century–when the poetess out-sold the poet.

Before academic solipsism, women’s poetry reflected breast-heaving life: Osgood bitterly reproaching a gossip’s judgment on her friendship with Poe in the pages of the Broadway Journal, Dickinson dreaming of hot romances, Barrett thanking the wooer who snuck her out of her father’s house, Millay hotly turning a cold eye on past sexual flings.

The brittle, sexless poetry of Marianne Moore, the wan, affected imagism of H.D. put an end to the reign of Femme Fatale poetry.

The suicides of Plath and Sexton were sacrifices on the altar of  femme fatale poetry, a reminder of what had been crushed by Pound and Eliot’s modernism.

In Eliot’s wake, Bishop has emerged as the most important female poet of the 20th century, but she’s sexless in comparison to a poet like Millay.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds present a domestic, intricately examined sexuality, a far cry from the femme fatale; Jorie Graham had an early opportunity to be a femme fatale, but transformed herself into a foet instead.  Marilyn Chin embraced ethnicity. Mary Oliver has gone the ‘fatalistic love of nature’s creatures’ route.   No femme fatale there, either.

The forgotten Elinor Wylie (d. 1928) wrote wonderful poems.  In “Now Let No Charitable Hope,” one can hear distinctly the frightening yet delicate voice of both Plath and Sexton, the confident whisper of the femme fatale:

Now Let No Charitable Hope

Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

6 Comments

  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 17, 2009 at 8:41 am

    The Little Clock

    Half-past-four and the first bird waking,
    Falling on my heart like a thin green leaf.
    If you are alive, your heart is breaking,
    If you are dead, you are done with grief.

    Half-past-five and the birds singing sweetly,
    World washed silver with the rain and the wind.
    If you are a saint, you have lived discreetly,
    If you are a sinner, you have surely sinned.

    Half-past-seven and the birds singing madly;
    Sun flames up in the sky like a lark,
    If there are things to remember sadly,
    Wait and remember them after dark.

    ……………………………Elinor Wylie (1885-1928)

    ~

    Five Flights Up

    Still dark.
    The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
    The little dog next door barks in his sleep
    inquiringly, just once.
    Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
    once or twice, quavering.
    Questions—if that is what they are—
    answered directly, simply,
    by day itself.

    Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
    gray light streaking each bare branch,
    each single twig, along one side,
    making another tree, of glassy veins…
    The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.

    The little black dog runs in his yard.
    His owner’s voice arises, stern,
    “You ought to be ashamed!”
    What has he done?
    He bounces cheerfully up and down;
    he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.

    Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
    He and the bird know everything is answered,
    all taken care of,
    no need to ask again.
    —Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
    (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)

    ……………………………..Elizabeth Bishop (1927-1979)

    ~

    No need to ask oneself if the later poet was influenced by her predecessor — what does it matter when the content is so rooted in an experience everybody knows, and almost certainly women more deeply than men? But what we do need to ask ourselves is the relative value of these two approaches to a pain which is particularly hard to express — because it doesn’t want to be expressed, because expressing it would change everything, because any words one might find to say it would in the end close the door on it forever and we would be lost in the quotidian. An indispensable pain without which we can neither be or know anything, or be happy.

    Which approach gets closer to that? Of course the second is far more familiar, but isn’t it also for that very reason a little humdrum, just a little too nice and comfy? Doesn’t it lack depth, authority, maturity even? I mean, I love both of them, but I have to admit that the second doesn’t quite rise to the task for me, at least by comparison. “Five Flights Up” is pedestrian, a bit anyway, isn’t it? And of course I write more like the second one myself, as most of us do, but that’s also because, honestly, I lack the stature to write like the first. I lack the size and the courage — and also I’m afraid I’ll be dismissed as sentimental, perhaps even as too feminine!

    I’m not saying the Wylie is a “better poem” — it’s chalk to Bishop’s cheese. It’s just that we’ve lost the facility to write poetry that speaks to the whole human condition, and not just to our small, familiar selves.

    See the very last sentence in the previous “Tupelo Welcomes You” post to see what we’re losing in making ourselves so small that we can only congratulate each other, and then not always so honestly!

    Local — that’s what we’ve become, isn’t it?

    So what’s the opposite of local? What’s the dimension in us that a poet like Elinor Wylie could still address and we can’t?

    And why not?

    Christopher

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 17, 2009 at 9:58 am

    We think globalization has expanded our perceptions and our clout, whereas it really just clanks like the internal combustion engine. What a wasteful contraption compared to the imagination, what a snail’s pace donkey cart compared to the speed of light even, not to speak of infinity, hardly moving at all and mostly just noise, heat, and bother. And do we really think we’re going anywhere poised up there on the tips of our rockets that take days just to get to the moon if they don’t blow up first, or get cancelled because of the weather? Should we even call that travel?

    I was very struck by the last Hubble photograph of the most “distant” scene the scientific eye has yet managed to “see.” It’s a breathtakingly beautiful photo, but deceptive because each tiny spot in the huge panorama is a galaxy, the whole picture spanning millions of light years across — or was it billions? Yet the version of it I saw in the paper measured just a few inches!

    So which of the two poems moves in more significant space, moves faster, probes deeper?

    We’ve contracted today in our poetry, and spin our small wheels in a world so circumscribed and ordinary it’s embarrassing.

    Is that why it’s fashionable to write junk and say it’s experimental? Is that why we buy poetry that has nothing to say, and dismiss poems like “The Little Clock” as old hat and sissy?

    Christopher

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 17, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks for posting those poems, Christopher.

    The poems do seem related; they imply the same thing.

    But the Wylie poem is the intoxicant–her feelings become mine, through the imagery and the music.

    The Bishop reads like the beginning of a novel by a very clever and very observant author, an author who is observing, but not feeling the experience.

    Obviousy he has no sense of shame.”

    “A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.”

    Words such as ‘obviously’ and ‘almost’ give away the game for me. Bishop, as brilliant as she is, is not going in. She remains outside.

    There’s no mystery in the Bishop. Her message is: animals are simple and naive, they transition easily from night/sleep to day/grateful, while humans are “stern” and responsible and have baggage: “a yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.”

    The Wylie is simpler; it’s less busy, and yet there is a mystery in her poem which the Bishop lacks, for Wylie is not making a neat distinction between innocent little dog and stern owner; Wylie is actually singing the very experience of saint v. sinner in the reader’s heart.

    Wylie conveys a judgment in the soul covered up in ecstacy.

    Tom

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 18, 2009 at 2:18 am

    Elizabeth Bishop’s message is even more insidious than that, Tom. She assumes the world that poetry is engaged in is just a shameful little dog with no understanding, and its propulsion the internal combustion engine of her feelings. Well, as I said in my previous post, the internal combustion engine is just heat, noise and bother, and a most unsatisfactory method of propulsion when compared to the size of the human imagination and the much larger feelings it can transport. It’s as if Elizabeth Bishop’s sort of modern style, pedestrian I called it, and it really is, were one of our space rockets — which in relation to the size of the cosmos are just cap-guns for children, and can never take us anywhere at all. Just the moon and maybe Mars at a stretch, and with such tiny pay loads and at such huge expense and danger, and making such a mess of our hair and the environment!

    Needless to say, I love Elizabeth Bishop — but I get very irritated with the adulation that surrounds her and makes contemporary readers see so much more than there actually is even in some of her best poems. As I argued at some length on Harriet (“Fish II” by Martin Earl [click here]), the moment at the end of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is decidedly NOT an epiphany if you take the trouble to look at the fish itself as she actually describes it. You also have to look at how and where the final realization is actually accomplished — in the oily, internal-combustion-engine bilges of a most unpropitious little sinking boat. There is nothing transcendental there at all — indeed, it’s just the opposite. [Click here for the beginning of that specific discussion.] And there’s no epiphany in the dawn of “Five Flights Up Either.”

    The irony is that in our flight from what we call ‘superstition,’ which is just another way of dismissing something as ‘sentimental,’ isn’t it, we have ended up with a longing for epiphanies that we can no longer fulfill. Stephen Daedalus’ vision of the girl on the sands can never be accomplished in an environment like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up,” because the latter lacks entirely the whole romantic mystique that Joyce and Daedalus grew up with in Ireland including, needless to say, the poetic tradition. Elizabeth Bishop may have found some of that in her own personal life in Brazil, but the style with which she wrote her poems could never convey it, which I think she knew, and why perhaps she published so little. Our contemporary poetry can’t fly either — we just don’t have the equipment for it, the models, the heart or the courage, all of which have been taken away quite deliberately by the irascible men who would make it new, leaving us with nothing but synthetics!

    ~

    It’s so hard to say what I have just said, and of course contradicts everything we’ve been taught about poetry, as well as everything we get given jobs to teach. But that is precisely Scarriet’s mission, and we won’t let go.

    The irony is that it wasn’t Elinor Wylie what is more Edna St Vincent Millay who were holding back the clock, but Ezra Pound — and did he ever mess with it. Ever since the hands of modern poetry have been whirling around like chickens with their heads cut off — lots of movement but no sense of direction at all. Indeed, Pound and his friends have trapped us in a time warp — and it’s way back in the past!

    Modernism is so old-fashioned. The avant garde today? What a joke!

    Christopher

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 18, 2009 at 4:06 am

    I’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water in that previous statement, I know, but to make such a case requires drama!

    Because of course there’s value in Modernism too, but I feel sure that in the re-evaluation of our period that’s bound to come, ‘Modernism’ will be seen as a backwater. The little eddies Stephen Burt and his friends are playing with in the shallows will get hardly a footnote, Elinor Wylie will be near or even several rungs above Jorie Graham, and Edna St Vincent Millay will be near the top with Robert Frost.

    Elizabeth Bishop will probably be among the few modern poets cited as exceptions that prove the rule — Modernism was a reactionary movement that entirely lost the plot.

    Ashbery will be Euphues, no more, no less.

    L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E a combination of Skeltonics + Emblem Books. The whole movement worth a footnote. A PhD but not a book, and even that one sociological, not literary.

    Christopher

    P.S. & N.B.
    We got banned first from Pw.org (Poets & Writers), then from Poets.org (The Academy of American Poetry) and finally from Poetryfoundation.org (The Poetry Foundation of America), the three most influential poetry organizations in America, for expressing ourselves not too frequently or abusively but too well. In other words, we were banned for being not just ‘subversive’ but so effectively subversive we were ruining the plot!

    And is that what we meant?

    You bet your bottom dollar it was, and we were holding our own every time with whatever got thrown at us too, despite being so nice — and how terribly sad to have to say it. Indeed, we would much rather have continued our dialogue with all of you in the open. As it is we always did our best, were always polite and amenable, and always responded positively to any suggestions that would make our presence easier, but even so we got axed.

    Are you listening P&W, AoAP, and PFoA? We know you’re there, and welcome you to our discussions, but it would have been so much more profitable for everyone had we been allowed to continue as we were.

    But you were too afraid.

    C.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    December 18, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Christopher,

    No, I don’t think they’re listening. They’re too busy with publishing, promoting, curating, with all that business of getting noticed and filling their resume. No one has time for poetry, for the art, and for the real talking about the art.

    I mentioned Marilyn Chin in my femme fatale piece, Christopher, and you’ve probably never heard of her; probably one person in a million has heard of her, and yet google her and you’ll see page after page after page devoted to her: a reading here, a press notice there, an interview there, and this google search will impress upon you, perhaps, of how vast is this activity in po-biz, this manic chasing after the holy grail of recognition. The business of poets getting recognized has drowned the poetry and the genius of poetry.

    Scarriet will continue to hammer away at its themes, but meanwhile there will be a lot of people who couldn’t listen even if they tried; the buzzing of the hive is simply too loud.

    The businessmen of poetry feel that poetry is in such a precarious position that we have to be nice to it and not be honest—but this makes the problem worse. I believe you used the term, chickens with their heads cut off, above, and this is exactly right.

    And yes, the fraud that is High Modernism must be attacked. I’ve seen many efforts in recent years to vent, but no matter how forcefully critics begin to reckon with contemporary poetry they ALWAYS stop short of finding fault with so-called High Modernism.

    Just to give you an example. I plucked an old copy of ‘Poetry’ magazine off the shelf, March 2007, and Anne Stevenson writes of meeting graduate student Frank O’Hara at Michigan in the 50s where he came looking for Hopwood prizes (and this is probably where O’Hara met Auden who taught at Michigan) and she mocks his ‘Personism’ manifesto: “Claiming for Personism a populist departure from High Modernism, O’ Hara and his friends simply created an alternative clique.” So there you have it, in the pages of ‘Poetry’ magazine: exactly what Thomas Brady got in trouble for saying on Harriet. Anne Stephenson uses that dreaded word, which makes John Oliver Simon and Michael Robbins spit in their soup: Clique.

    And yet, and yet…Anne Stephenson can’t see the “clique” that was high modernism. Look at how she grovels before the so-so poet Marianne Moore: “Poetry, as Marianne Moore affirmed, is after all personal, yet it must in some sense be universal, too.” Look at this platitude. And Anne Stevenson somehow thinks the untouchable Miss Moore is indispensible in “affirming” it.

    This attitude is killing us. The inability to see through the curtain of ‘High Modernism.’

    Thomas