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.

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BARD OR LARD?

Seamus HeaneyLiterary Lion or Mr. Potato-Head?

In a flattering  Harvard magazine cover story on Seamus Heaney published three years ago, ‘Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen: On rhymes and responsibilites,’ Adam Kirsch, Heaney’s former workshop student at Harvard, obediently strives to glorify his old prof and Nobel Prize winner.  

Kirsch, after making introductory remarks on poets’ “responsibility” to the “ideal reader,” turns to Heaney’s most famous poem (unfortunately for Heaney) “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

There’s nothing wrong with honoring labor and one’s digging ancestors, as Kirsch hails Heaney for doing here.

The problem begins when the poet—as poet—attempts to own the ‘digging’ legacy—in his poem

In a heavy-handed manner, at odds with all that is poetical, the poet feels impelled to inform us that his pen, which rests “between” his “finger” and his “thumb” (as if anyone needed to be informed how to hold a pen) is “squat,” (like the gun in line 2, like the digging spade, like the poet’s fist?) and, since he has “no spade” he will “dig” with his “pen/gun.”   The metaphorical contraption of Heaney’s poem is rudely forced in a ham-fisted manner as would invite derision were such a thing handed in by a writing student to a writing class, and an example would surely be made: this is the kind of  forced metaphorical writing which should be avoided at all costs.

It’s not a smooth metaphor.  Pens don’t dig. 

Not only is Heaney going to dig with his snug, squat pen, but his “head” breathes in the inspiration of potato-smell from cut “roots.”  

If we ask how an ivory tower icon like Seamus Heaney, with his Harvard Chair, his T.S. Eliot Prize, and his Nobel could  have such a wretched poem (wretched even for a schoolboy) as his best-known poem, it might be well to remember that before he was an ivory tower icon he was the humble, Derry, Peat-moss, poet, and this very identity of a potato-digging, poor Irish Catholic, an Irishman from the fields, a genuine salt-of-the-earth, may have allowed his work to circumvent those close-reading strictures that would have otherwise condemned such bathetic, metaphorical excess.   

The “squat,” sweaty laborer was allowed his excesses as the token Irish Poet.  

The excessive gutterality of his poetry (the passage quoted from “Digging” is a pretty good example)  blends in with the excessive nature of Heaney’s metaphors, combining to produce a style which is not so much poetic as thick—the triumph of which is a sly joke played in the snobby, puritan halls of Harvard as Heaney attempts to chase down the ghost of T.S. Eliot.

When Heaney is not slathering on the metaphors, he’s often amassing sharp, primitive objects.  Kirsch quotes Heaney from his book District and Circle:

In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,

the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,

it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,

hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter

as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate

standing guard
on four braced greaves.

 “The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump,” Kirsch writes, anxious to make Heaney’s work not only “responsible,” but a pleasure and a delight.

These lines, however, feel like a torturer’s inventory from the Saw films.  

They are hardly “lip-smacking.”  

Heaney is no grinning Irish jester at the Blueblood court of Harvard.

This tied-up bear will tear you to pieces if you get too close.  

Kirsch is merely heaping on praise when he says: “Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure… What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself…”  

Heaney is not a “lovable poet” or a poet of “pleasure.”  

Heaney loves assonance, but assonance which slobbers all over the reader is not necessarily a pleasing effect—especially when it seems to have a mind of its own.

Heaney is best when he writes dramatically.    His style of metaphor and thing-ism tends to be self-indulgent and is mostly painful to read.  I could list little excellences in Heaney’s poetry all day, but I am concerned here with the true picture of Heaney’s reputation. 

Heaney looks hard at the world.   It’s time a critic looked hard back.