BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as himself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

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.

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!