A Change of World, Episode 2: Books that Broke Down Barriers
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, books that broke down barriers.
Ruth Rosen: Let me give you, for those of you who are really young, just an image of how bizarre life was before the women’s movement. Some of these things will shock you.
Curtis Fox: In a lecture given in in 2016 for the organization Women Interrupted, historian Ruth Rosen talked about what life was like for women in the 1950s and 1960s. Classified employment ads in the paper, she said, were segregated by sex.
Ruth Rosen: If you were a woman and you wanted to become something else that was listened under men, like plumber. Forget it. You couldn’t get an apprenticeship. Banks refused to give women credits or loans. Your husband or your father had to signed for loans. No women were on the Supreme Court. No women headed corporations. If you can believe this, as late as 1970, a very famous doctor got on television and said women are too hormonally disturbed to become the President.
Curtis Fox: Obviously, in spite of first wave feminism which won the right to vote in 1920, women were still second class citizens. But what about in the literary world? What was the situation like for women poets before say, 1960?
Joan Larkin: It was completely an old boys club. Women poets were first of all discouraged from existing, it was not women’s place. If they existed, they were disparaged and condescended to.
Honor Moore: Let’s just put it this way; if you were female, that was one thing against you. You would have to overcome the factor of your gender, not to mention your race, in order to get your book published. Plus you would have to overcome probably the content of your poems.
Curtis Fox: Joan Larkin, Alicia Ostriker and Honor Moore are poets who came of age during the second wave of feminism. When they went to college, contemporary women poets were almost entirely ignored by the Poetry academy.
Honor Moore: The gods of which were Ezra Pounds, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. There was no place for a woman poet.
Curtis Fox: In 2017, women poets still are not as well represented as men in most literary magazines, and we still haven’t had a female President. But it is safe to say that in the last 50 years, things have changed, for women in general and for women poets. Some of the sparks for these extraordinary changes have come from books.
Betty Friedan: We had to break through the feminine mystic, and the definition, the mask of femininity we were wearing.
Curtis Fox: In 1963, Betty Friedan published Feminine Mystic, the founding document for second wave feminism.
Betty Friedan: Equality, full person and for women meant a radical restructuring of the institutions of society that are based on it.
Curtis Fox: For women poets, change was also sparked by a book.
Sylvia Plath: Daddy, daddy you bastard, I’m through.
Honor Moore: Well, Ariel changed things for women poets. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.
Curtis Fox: This week on the podcast, we’re going to look not only at Ariel but also at some other books that broke down barriers and radically changed the status of women in American poetry. Books by Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Audre Lord. It’s the second podcast in our series, A Change of World, about the intersections between contemporary poetry and second wave feminism. We’re going to start with Sylvia Plath. This is Honor Moor, a poet, anthologist and scholar.
Honor Moore: She didn’t see herself as a feminist because she died before second wave feminism began, so let’s get that straight. She died the same year that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystic was published.
Curtis Fox: Plath died in 1963, and Ariel wasn’t published in the US until 1966. She may not have seen herself as a feminist, but Ariel had an electric effect on women poets who had embraced second wave feminism like Joan Larkin.
Joan Larkin: It was a revelation. It was the most passionate and intimate book of poems that I had encountered. Of course, it was a woman writing about her experience without the filter of male approval.
Alicia Ostriker: She was the first courage giver. For me, and for my generation. It was thrilling to read her.
Curtis Fox: Alicia Ostriker is a poet, teacher and scholar who has written a lot about poetry by women.
Alicia Ostriker: I was a young mother, I had two in diapers and someone sent me Ariel. I read it when everyone else in the apartment was saleep. I was just about out of me skin with excitement. You read a poem and you say, oh my god, that’s exactly what I’m feeling! But you’re not Sylvia Plath. So you didn’t write “The Applicant”.
Sylvia Plath: First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
Curtis Fox: The applicant is a satiric poem about marriage in the guise of an interview.
Sylvia Plath: No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Curtis Fox: We never hear from the applicant, who seems to be a young man who has no idea what to do with his life. The interviewer is in control.
Sylvia Plath: Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
Curtis Fox: With it’s sardonic take on traditional marriage, “The Applicant” has become something of a feminist anthem. Let’s skip a few pages further on in Ariel to a poem in a very different register. It’s one of the most shocking things Plath wrote.
Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
Curtis Fox: The poet boasts about coming back to life after committing suicide.
Sylvia Plath: I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Honor Moore: She was so out there emotionally, and primarily she could express the anger that most of us suppressed, the self destructiveness that most of us were in fact living through but she took further. What was surprising was her freedom.
Sylvia Plath: Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
Alicia Ostriker: What we started to name as feminist in Sylvia Plath’s poet was the notion of the woman poet being the agent in her poems.
Sylvia Plath: Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Curtis Fox: So Ariel had an extraordinary effect. The book was a catalyst for generation of women poets who would remake American poetry in the coming decades. But just as The Feminine Mystic wasn’t the only book that shaped second wave feminism, there were many other books besides Ariel that shaped the new consciousness of women poets. We can only touch on a few of them on this podcast, but at least one of those books was written by Sylvia Plath’s friend, fellow student, and rival, Anne Sexton.
Anne Sexton: For John, who begs me not to enquire further.
Alicia Ostriker: Anne Sexton had talent to burn. She was so gifted.
Honor Moore: When she put her first manuscript together, she had a section of poems about what it was like to be in a mental hospital.
Curtis Fox: Anne Sexton’s first mentor, John Holmes, told her she shouldn’t publish those poems.
Honor Moore: And besides, her poetry was too narcissistic. So she wrote a poem “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further”.
Anne Sexton: Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum
where the cracked mirror
or my own selfish death
Honor Moore: And the point is a poet needs to enquire, and not blindfold herself and not muffle herself.
Anne Sexton: This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear,
like an invisible veil between us all…
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
Honor Moore: I think it’s a great poem, because it’s saying that censorship is what she calls “A veil between us all” that punishes all of us.
Curtis Fox: The poem was in Anne Sexton’s first and most famous book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. It was published in 1960, before The Feminine Mystic, before Ariel even. The book was followed by others that put the details of her life on display; her mental problems, her body, her sex life. This made some critics uncomfortable.
Alicia Ostriker: I think Sexton was probably one of the early poets who got criticized for her content. She didn’t bother to put her female experience into a myth, or into some kind of intellectual context. She just wrote “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”.
Honor Moore: Well the effect it had on critics was it horrified them. (LAUGHING) You can’t do that, you can’t say that. Her sexuality was considered disgusting by the critics. And at that time, the critics were men and the female body in it’s femaleness as a subject, not an object for it’s beauty, but as a subject which experiences what a body experiences was disgusting.
Anne Sexton: Her Kind
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
Alicia Ostriker: Here, Sexton is going back to the witches of Salem, the mad women in New England which is where she lived and grew up. I have been her kind, which means I’m not your kind. I’m not well behaved, I’m not not saying this.
Anne Sexton: I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Curtis Fox: To Bedlam and Part Way Back didn’t ignite the zeitgeist as Ariel later did, but over the next decade and a half, Sexton published a series of books that brought her notoriety and popularity. In 1966, the same year Ariel was published, Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Live or Die. Her growing fame attracted big audiences.
Joan Larkin: I hear her read at the 92nd street Y and she was so glamorous. A backless dress, her poor husband sitting in one of the front rows listening to her read these poems about her lovers.
Honor Moore: Sexton was popular because many women like her who had been housewives, upper middle class, middle class housewives, identified with her feelings of frustration, and her bold screw you music.
Curtis Fox: Sexton actually had her own jazz rock group for her screw you music. It was called Anne Sexton and Her Kind.
Curtis Fox: Going back to Sylvia Plath for a moment. She committed suicide in 1963. Sexton actually envied her friend for doing it first, and wrote about it in her poems. Sexton herself committed suicide in 1974. For Joan Larkin and other poets of her generation, this was a troubling precedent.
Joan Larkin: I had a double response to these two women poets. They were givers of permission to explore that intimate material of our own lives, of my own life. They were good poets too, wonderful craft, wonderful voice. At the same time, there was something very irritating and angering about the fact that they were two suicides, the two crazy women who finally appeared in the anthologies that we were reading. There was a kind of double message from the mainstream that to be a woman poet you had to be a little bit out of your mind.
Muriel Rukeyser: The title is “Not to be Printed, Not to be Said, Not to be Thought”
Curtis Fox: Muriel Rukeyser, a generation older than Plath and Sexton, wrote a poem about the false glamor of poets committing suicide. Honor Moore included it in her anthology, Poems from The Women’s Movement. It is very short.
Muriel Rukeyser: I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.
Curtis Fox: When did she write that?
Honor Moore: She wrote that right then, in the 70s.
Curtis Fox: Long before Plath and Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser had been writing poems, weaving together politics, sex, myth and history. She was doing it all.
Muriel Rukeyser: Great Alexander sailing was from his true course turned
By a young wind from a cloud in Asia moving
Like a most recognizable most silvery woman;
Curtis Fox: She was a respected yet marginal figure in American poetry. Her generation often dismissed her as a leftist political poet, says Alicia Ostriker.
Alicia Ostriker: Muriel Rukeyser was rejected on the left and the critics on the right, who were the sons and grandsons of T.S. Eliot, slammed her for being political, while the left slammed her about writing about sex. Coming and going.
Curtis Fox: Rukeyser was however taken up by second generation feminist poets. One of her greatest champions was Adrienne Rich, who brought her own heady mix of politics, sex, myth and history into American poetry.
Alicia Ostriker: I think what what Adrienne Rich brought was intellect. That was something that women were not supposed to have. Intellect, and a leftward leaning sensibility in which coming out as lesbian was just one part.
Curtis Fox: In the 1970s, Adrienne Rich became perhaps the central figure for second wave feminist poets. Joan Larkin was a friend of Rich’s, and she edited groundbreaking anthologies of lesbian poetry in the 1970s that included Rich’s poems. Larkin said Rich’s great stature came only gradually.
Joan Larkin: They were all close in time, but there was an explosion. Rich wasn’t on the radar as a feminist and a liberating poet at the same time that we were first aware of Sexton and Plath.
Curtis Fox: Adrienne Rich had already been around a long time when Ariel burst into the scene, and people were lining up to hear Sexton reading. Rich’s first book, A Change of World, came out in 1951. The poems were formally accomplished and decorous. Her later books charted a path of greater political engagement and feminism.
Adrienne Rich: A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes.
Curtis Fox: “Snapshots Of A Daughter In-Law” was the title poem of the first of her books that was recognizably feminist.
Alicia Ostriker: The form cracks open. She writes still in the third person, she doesn’t say “I”. But she talks in the title poem, “Snapshots Of A Daughter In-Law” about the predicament of the woman poet.
Curtis Fox: Snapshots Of A Daughter In-Law was published in 1963.
Joan Larkin: That’s interesting because again, that’s the Betty Friedan year. The publication of The Feminine Mystic, 1963.
Adrienne Rich: She shaves her legs until they gleam
like petrified mammoth-tusk.
Honor Moore: The end of the poem prophecies the advent of a new kind of woman.
Adrienne Rich: Well,
she's long about her coming, who must be
Her mind full to the wind, I see her plunge
breasted and glancing through the currents,
taking the light upon her
poised, still coming,
her fine blades making the air wince
but her cargo
no promise then:
Honor Moore: And then the next breakthrough poem was “Diving Into The Wreck”, and there she does finally speak of her revolutionary self as “I”.
Adrienne Rich: First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
Curtis Fox: In this poem, the poet scuba dives down to see a wreck.
Honor Moore: The wreck can be history. It can be our society. It can be literature. It can be my psyche.
Adrienne Rich: I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
Honor Moore: She describes going down as an act of discovery, instead of climbing higher and triumphing over something. Going down into the past, into the self.
Adrienne Rich: I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Honor Moore: Many women like myself feel that we get our inspiration from within and not from above. That we draw from ourselves as from a well, and that this is something new in the history of written culture.
Joan Larkin: When a poet is writing her poems, she is in the deepest element of her being. She is finding that which may have been suppressed, that which she may have not been able to previously articulate. So this poem is a kind of battle cry, but it’s a communal battle cry.
Adrienne Rich: We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
Curtis Fox: “Diving Into The Wreck” is the title poem of what became a very influential book.
Joan Larkin: It’s a hinge. In Rich, it’s the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
Curtis Fox: It was selected as the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. Rich had agreed with two of the other female nominees that year that if any of them won, she would accept it as a joint award with the other two, and on behalf of all women.
Joan Larkin: This was an announcement to the world that we are a movement, there is a movement of women poets and we speak not just for ourselves but for each other.
Curtis Fox: One of the other female nominees who shared the award was Audre Lorde, for her collection From A Land Where Other People Live.
Audre Lorde: Speak proudly to your children
where ever you may find them
you are the offspring of slaves
and you rmother was
Honor Moore: I think both Adrienne and Audre were tremendous courage givers, they were on the front lines. They were the ones who said, “You’re afraid, I’m afraid, we are all afraid. Now let’s go do it”.
Curtis Fox: Of the poets we’ve been talking about on this podcast, Audre Lorde had farther to travel to establish herself in the literary world. Not only was she a woman, she was black, and she was a lesbian who wrote candidly about sex.
Joan Larkin: I’m thinking of her poem called “Love Poem”. That was a beautiful lyric poem. It’s clearly an embrace of self, and embrace of other women that went very deep. It wasn’t just rhetoric, it was coming out of the life she lived.
Audre Lorde: And I knew when I entered her I was
high wind in her forests hollow
fingers whispering sound
from the split cup
impaled on a lance of tongues
on the tips of her breasts on her navel
and my breath
howling into her entrances
through lungs of pain.
Honor Moore: If you could say that Rich and Plath and Sexton plowed the field for women poets, in particular white women poets, what Audre Lorde did was plow the field for African American women poets, both gay women poets and sexual women poets.
Alicia Ostriker: The openness toward lesbianism was thrilling to many women, and not only lesbians. It was openness to the truth of her body and her feelings, and that is what we were all afraid of and desiring.
Audre Lorde: Greedy as herring-gulls
or a child
I swing out over the earth
over and over
Honor Moore: She embraced her sexuality, she embraced her sensuality, and she embraced her anger. She was amazingly bold with her fury.
Audre Lorde: A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Joan Larkin: Audre’s anger, and the dignity of her anger, and the force of it, was like a shield she held in front of herself. She was such a strong personality, strong voice. There was power, there was dignity, self affirmation, female affirmation, and from Audre Lorde’s voice, not just the poems on the page, I felt that I had permission to speak strongly. To speak out, to be proud.
The Black Unicorn is greedy.
Joan Larkin: All of these women poets had very striking physical voices.
Every woman adores a fascists.
You know the murmurs.
Joan Larkin: It was almost as if we had these great opera singers.
I have found the warm caves in the woods.
The thing itself and not the myth.
Joan Larkin: I can hear their voices in my head still.
Curtis Fox: Joan Larkin. We also heard from Alicia Ostriker and Honor Moore. This has been the second in our series, A Change of World. We’ll be back soon with another episode. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, and of this series in particular. Email us at [email protected]. You can link to the podcast on social media on SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it on iTunes. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.