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Why I Am a Woman Poet
My Sister-in-Law, Sister, Niece, and Me in My Mother’s Kitchen
Anna Leahy reminds us, in her recent essay “Is Women’s Poetry Passé?” in Legacy, that “in the January 2006 issue of Poetry, the three female poets who had been asked to comment on “women’s poetry” (Meghan O’Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser, and Eleanor Wilner) asserted, “we all concur that we ought to abolish the unpleasant term ‘women’s poetry.” And in the ensuing few years, consensus on this point seems, if anything, to have become wider. Even I, who claimed for myself the name of “poetess” in a 2002 essay, found myself beginning a paragraph in my recent Women’s Work post on Harriet with the caveat that “there may not be such a thing as women’s poetry. . .”
But the more I have thought about it since writing that post, the more I have decided that, whether or not women’s poetry exists, I am a woman poet, for three reasons:
1. First, being a woman poet helps me write the way I want to write. I like to write about mothers, daughters, female ancestors, and their lives and lore. I like to write about babies, birth, and breastfeeding. I like to write about nature, food, and spiritual life in ways that can feel female; for example, I learned this week that women have much better senses of smell than men and that women’s voices help plants grow significantly faster than men’s. These sorts of new truths make me wonder how such things affect poetry by women and more importantly, they give me the kind of deep curiosity that leads to poems. Women’s stories and experiences have been missing from so much of our cultural history; Judy Chicago, in her monumental feminist installation The Dinner Party, which I took my daughter to see recently, conveys this brutal lack of access to information about women by making it frustratingly difficult to see the gorgeously intricate patterns and embroiderery on the backs of each of the table runners commemorating the female guests of honor. Now at the earliest dawn of female recovery—a time when, in certain parts of the planet, it is just finally beginning to be possible to imagine a world in which women’s experience is valued equally with men’s—I feel lucky to be born a poet into a gender that brings with it so much experience that needs urgently to be expressed. To be a woman poet gives me access to a pomegranate, a cornucopia, of inspirations crying to be articulated through more than just my one lifetime. Whether I am writing about a female experience or about a female perception of a “universal” experience, if I start out from the position of a woman poet, it leaves more room within each poem to explore being a woman; there is that much less I need to establish for the reader at the outset.
And the way I want to write involves not only theme and subject matter but also form, style, poetics. My poetics involve incantation and repetition that grew directly out of my experiences of participation in women-led, earth-centered spiritual groups. Also, the meaning of literary traditions changes when I respond to them as a woman poet. Were I a male poet, for example, I imagine that I would not be nearly so interested, or at least would be interested in a different way, in the complexities of poetic form and meter. The fact that women have worked less than men in the range of traditional English meters makes these patterns especially intriguing to me as a woman; at the least, it has given me a fresh angle of approach towards the traditionally male field of prosody (and, going full circle from the male prosodists who were my own teachers, one that seems to be of fresh value to some male poets and prosodists as well).
2. Being a woman poet connects me consciously with a literary tradition of other women poets. As described above, I find myself writing about themes that women poets wrote about for centuries, and sometimes in subtly similar ways to the ways that they wrote about those things for centuries (for the curious, some of my thoughts about the aesthetics of the “poetesses” are summarized here). When undertaking an endeavor, it is helpful to have an accurate idea of who else has undertaken it and how they have fared, so this connection with tradition is one of the most obvious practical benefits of deciding to be a woman poet. As I have grown to know myself better as a woman poet, that self-knowledge has also spared me some real-life pain; for example, if an editor admires my poetry overall but finds fault with some aspect of it that seems essential to the fact that I am a woman poet (for example, suggesting my poems would be better with “bigger” themes or a “harder, rougher” tone (yes, both of these things have happened)), rather than beat myself up trying fruitlessly to change something integral to my work and meaningful within the traditions of women’s poetry, now I can seek out those editors, female and male, who are used to understanding and appreciating poetry by women poets, and can trust them for a more informed reaction to these types of poems.
3. Being a woman poet connects me with a literary future that I am excited about. And again, since literary traditions far outlast the tastes of any particular literary moment, this gives me a certain respite from the currencies of literary taste, as if I held onto an anchor of self-awareness in a sometimes difficult sea. Leahy, for example, quotes Sue Miller to the effect that “Women . . . are rewarded today not for writing as women traditionally have, but for writing as men have,” and suggests that the most highly-praised books by women may be those “in which so-called male subject matter—cultural clashes, war, anger—overcame female authorship.” [Please note: this is not to fall into the trap of essentialism; Miller is not saying women shouldn’t write about these things: clearly, many women are inspired to write about these topics and write very well about them. Miller simply means that the books that do take on these topics (or ones in which the authors take on familiar female roles such as the vamp or the mommy—also evident in creative nonfiction, as articulated in Anne Trubek’s essay “Where Are the Queens of Nonfiction”)—may be likelier to succeed in the current climate.] As a “woman poet,” I am free and even justified in maintaining a longterm view.
I realize that my decision to be a woman poet is a rather idiosyncratic choice. No doubt it is influenced partly by the fact that my mother is a poet too (see my Mother’s Day post). The women’s poetic tradition is a living reality for me. I don’t expect other women poets to do the same, nor do I question the importance for many women poets, such as those who opened this article, of trying to get rid of the term “women’s poetry.” I am simply speaking for myself, describing how it feels for me to have decided to be a woman poet.
Richard Epstein, commenting on Eratosphere on my Poetic Justice post, writes, “When I see forums devoted to poems by and about women or by and about people of color or by and about gay poets, my reaction is always pretty much the same: How would you feel if you encountered a forum called Poems by Men, White Poets, or Heterosexual Poets?” Epstein’s post makes clear that he expects such a forum would inspire “indignation” on the part of someone like me, for example, who has started a listserv for the discussion of women’s poetry). But in fact, I would feel exactly the opposite. I would be ecstatic to see anthologies, forums, and panels devoted to “men’s poetry.” It would signal to me that men had become conscious that maleness is a gender and can influence men’s poetic choices and voices.
One of the most exciting literary-critical thrills I have had recently came from an experience just like that. I was outside reader for a senior thesis at Middlebury College about the use of mythology in women’s poetry. Among the excellent feminist readings of poems by Sexton, Bogan, Plath, and many others, what knocked my socks off most of all was a brilliant “masculinist” reading of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” in terms of the male tradition of writing about the Narcissus myth. When this kind of reading is no longer shockingly new, that may be the time I will be ready to stop thinking of myself as a woman poet. When white poetry, male poetry, and heterosexual poetry are understood to be the poetries of specific kinds of people and not of the universal Poet, then all poems will have a good chance of being appreciated for what they are—poems by specific kinds of people. When my privileged status in terms of race (Anglo-Celtic), class (upper middle), and sexuality (hetero) is just as obvious and visible a classification as my gender status, that may be the right time to stop thinking of myself as a woman poet. At that point all of us will, I expect, be more tolerant of poetry built on unfamiliar assumptions; more curious to learn about the variety of poetic traditions in which poems operate, and more literate in the varieties of possible poetic excellence.
In deciding to be a woman poet, I know that I risk oversimplifying myself and my traditions. To reduce the staggering variety of women’s poetry to the “women’s poetic tradition” is just as absurd as reducing the staggering variety of men’s poetry to the “men’s poetic tradition.” It is absurd. Utterly absurd. But right now I prefer it to the alternatives: it feels as if it gives me more room to move.