A Change of World, Episode 1: The Wilderness
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf for The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Rediscovering the Wilderness in Women’s Poetry.
A sinking woman sleeps with monsters.
It was only important to smile and hold still.
The beak that grips her, she becomes.
Curtis Fox: In the 1960s, a radical change came to American poetry; women’s voices started to ring out in a medium that had been dominated by men.
Alicia Ostriker: For the first time in the history of writing, which is about 4,000 years or so, women could write without fear, without constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they were going to be approved of by men.
Sylvia Plath: I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it.
Honor Moore: Sylvia Plath’s book Ariel was published in the United States in 1966.
Sylvia Plath: Out of the ash I rise with my red hair.
Honor Moore: And it was sort of, boing!
Sylvia Plath: And I eat men like air.
Alicia Ostriker: Honest, candor about a woman’s experience, about a woman’s rage. Women have been liberated to write about anything they want to. Once women start writing about children, men do it too.
Curtis Fox: This new freedom for women poets flourished in the 1970s with the coming of age of a generation energized and inspired by predecessors, such as Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, H.D., Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath. In a series of podcasts coming out this year, we’re going to look into this phenomenon; where it came from, how it developed, and it’s legacy today. We’re calling it “A Change of World” after the title of Adrienne Rich’s ground breaking first book of poems. On this first episode, we’re going to look at some of the battles modern women poets fought before the women’s movement, before the world so dramatically changed. Let’s start here, with Louis Bogan’s poem “Women”. Here’s his memorable and controversial first line:
Louis Bogan: Women have no wilderness in them,
Curtis Fox: “Women have no wilderness in them”. Bogan wrote that in 1923 just after women had won the vote, the culmination of the first wave of feminism.
Louis Bogan: Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.
Honor Moore: You can imagine, give me a break! What are you talking about?
Curtis Fox: Honor Moore is a poet who came of age in the 1960s and 70s during the second wave of feminism.
Honor Moore: It infuriated us! If wilderness is a metaphor and you’re talking about Louis and Clark charting the wilderness, that’s what we’re doing.
Louis Bogan: They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
Alicia Ostriker: It wasn’t one of my favourite poems.
Curtis Fox: Alicia Ostriker is a poet and critic who has written a lot about poetry by women.
Alicia Ostriker: Women have no wilderness in them, they suppress themselves basically was what it said.
Curtis Fox: In this poem, Bogan is frustrated with how compliant and obedient women still had to be. She’s looking for a world where women would not be forced to be so subservient, benevolent and selfless.
Louis Bogan: They hear in every whisper that speaks to them
A shout and a cry.
As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills
They should let it go by.
Curtis Fox: Alicia Ostriker, Honor Moore and other poets of their generation knew first hand the unsurpressed wilderness of women poets of the 1960s and 70s, their own and others. But they also started looking further back.
Alicia Ostriker: If we wanted women poets to be taken seriously, we had to look at the whole tradition from the 17th century to the present. As Virginia Wolf says, we think back through our mothers if we are women.
Honor Moore: We discovered a tradition. The tradition was there in full sight.
Curtis Fox: The female poetic tradition just wasn’t taught in college or represented in anthologies yet. In fact, only the names of a few women poets were well-known in the first half of the 20th century.
Honor Moore: When I studied poetry at Harvard, there were two women poets in the course: Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Someone like Edna Saint Vincent Millay was essentially denigrated and buried, as was Amy Lowell. My image for Amy Lowell was someone put her work in a shipping container and labeled it “Amy Lowell is a bad poet” so nobody opened the shipping container. Nobody opened the shipping container of Edna Saint Vincent Millay either. There we were, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and various other women who didn’t get published very much, speaking an “I”, a very powerful, strong, female “I”. Just a permission to take from our own lives our material and make it the imagistic vehicle for our poems.
Curtis Fox: In America, poetry begins with Anne Bradstreet. She came over from England in 1630, and was the colony’s first published poet, male or female. She was upper class and well educated. Her father and husband were both governors of Massachusetts.
Alicia Ostriker: She wrote in a way that turned out to be typical for women for the next three centuries.
Curtis Fox: Alicia Ostriker sees a striking pattern in the way women presented themselves in poetry from the time of Anne Bradstreet all the way up to about 1960.
Alicia Ostriker: A combination of rebellion and submission.
Curtis Fox: For example, says Ostriker, in Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Prologue” she defiantly asserts her right as a woman to be a poet.
Anne Bradstreet: I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
Curtis Fox: But in the same poem two stanzas later, Bradstreet says:
Anne Bradstreet: Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.
Curtis Fox: That’s typical of women poets for generations to come, Alicia Ostriker says.
Alicia Ostriker: Being assertive and taking it back. Being submissive and then turning it around.
Curtis Fox: You can see this dynamic in another early American poet, Phillis Wheatley. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was kidnapped when she was about 6, and sold into slavery in 1761 to a Boston family, the Wheatleys. She was a prodigy. She learned Greek and Latin, and at the age of 20 she published the first book of poems written by a black person in the American colonies. One of her poems is called “On Being Brought from Africa to America”.
Camille Dungy: It is a perfect little neoclassical poem.
Curtis Fox: From our perspective today, you’d think from the title of this poem that this would be about a calamity. But in perfectly turned couplets, she begins with meek acceptance. I asked poet Camille Dungy to read it. Here’s the first stanza.
Camille Dungy:'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Curtis Fox: So she’s grateful for being Christianized, thank you very much. But here’s how she turns it around, it’s very sly and subtle.
Camille Dungy: Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
Curtis Fox: Camille Dungy explains just how this poem turns it’s own Christianity into a rational radical argument.
Camille Dungy: She subverted it by saying and now, I can be refined, I can become an angel. When you’re thinking of Cane which is in her poem “Cain” as in “Cain and Able”, but it also suggests sugarcane which is one of the big reasons why people were brought from West Africa to the new world. That idea of refinement, and you can be purified, you can be made white which is what happens when you refine sugarcane. So she at the end of the poem says, “I can be equal to you”.
Curtis Fox: Tell me about Phillis Wheatley in the context of African American poets looking back on her.
Camille Dungy: The presence of this young black woman Phillis Wheatley at the very beginning of the formation of America. She wrote poems for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson begrudgingly acknowledged her talent. She was part of the fabric of what would become American literature. So to know that I had a foremother who brilliantly existed was terribly important to me. There’s a beautiful essay by the poet and critic June Jordan called “The Difficult Miracle of Phillis Wheatley” in which she talks about how miraculous this human being was. That essay was a very formative essay for it’s time in terms of reinvigorating the interest in Phillis Wheatley in the 19670s and 80s.
Alicia Ostriker: “Negros, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train”. It’s that same modesty and immodesty, submission and rebellion, the doubleness that many many women successfully adopted.
Curtis Fox: Doubleness, submission combined with rebellion. Alicia Ostriker says we can see it in Emily Dickinson about a century later.
Alicia Ostriker: One of her best known poems, “I’m nobody”. Just about the same identical time as Walt Whitman is saying “I celebrate myself, I sing myself”. Emily Dickinson is saying —
Cindy Kats: I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Alicia Ostriker: (LAUGHING) Modest, shy, self-deprecating Emily. Then in the next stanza —
Cindy Kats: How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Alicia Ostriker: So in the same poem she says, I’m nobody, and she makes fun of publicity, of the public person. Also at the same time bringing the “you”, the reader into the poem — “Are you — Nobody — too?” There’s a pair of us. She makes herself into the somebody whom you are following. It’s very complicated.
Curtis Fox: Dickinson could write about her deepest inner life in part because she did not seek publication for her poems. She didn’t want fame, she wanted to write in private to shield herself from the potentially silencing criticism of the outside world. But if the modest Emily Dickinson didn’t excite women poets in the 1960s and 70s, there were less shy sides to her.
Alicia Ostriker: Demureness was one of her games. Another was eroticism.
Cindy Kats: Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
Alicia Ostriker: So that’s not just sexy, it’s also gender bending. I’m going to moore in you? What is that saying about the physical relationship? “Rowing in Eden — Ah — the Sea!” Don’t tell me that Emily Dickinson didn’t know what an orgasm was. She sure did.
Curtis Fox: In spite of her occasional demureness, women poets of the 19th century lead by poets such as Adrienne Rich, found in Dickinson a powerful poetic women’s voice in all it’s wildness. Honor Moore remembers attending a reading Rich gave of her essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.
Honor Moore: She quoted Emily Dickinson, “My life had stood a loaded gun”. We could identify with that poem.
Cindy Kats: My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
Honor Moore: i.e. I hadn’t been writing poems, I had no voice.
Cindy Kats: till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
Honor Moore: The muse, the ominous.
Cindy Kats: And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
Honor Moore: i.e. for my muse
Cindy Kats: The Mountains straight reply -
Honor Moore:— echoes back.
Cindy Kats: Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
Honor Moore: (LAUGHING) She is too much. I just have to read one more thing. Emily Dickinson:
Cindy Kats: Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day—
Curtis Fox: Inspire of her poetic witchcraft, Emily Dickinson published very little in her lifetime. Actually, many of her poems were first published in the 1920s and her work didn’t become widely read until the 1950s. So after Phillis Wheatley in the late 1700s, what happened to black women poets and the story of women asserting themselves in poetic history? For Camille Dungy, there’s a poem by Alice Dunbar-Nelson that speaks to this predicament.
Camille Dungy: I’ve long been interested in the Alice Dunbar-Nelson poem “I Sit and Sew” because of it’s apparent quaintness and frustration.
Curtis Fox: Dunbar-Nelson was born in 1875 in New Orleans to mixed race parents. Like Phillis Wheatley, she published her first book of poems when she was only 20, but unlike Wheatley she went on to write many more books, not only poetry but short stories and essays. She was married briefly to the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a biographical detail that says Dungy has drawn attention away from her work.
Camille Dungy: It happens so frequently for women artists, that we’re as interested in Frita Kahlo’s love affairs as we’re interested in her art. That seems to be the case frequently with Alice Dunbar-Nelson when people write about and think about her.
Curtis Fox: In 1918 while hundred of thousands of American men were fighting in World War One, Dunbar-Nelson wrote a poem called “I Sit and Sew”.
Camille Dungy: This poem is very much about what it means to be a woman who is constrained by the circumstances of gender inequity.
Curtis Fox: The poem bares comparison with the war poetry of the period, but from the far distance of enforced domesticity. Here’s the second stanza:
Cindy Kats: I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
Camille Dungy: She wants to be on the battlefield doing something, not just fixing this pretty seam. She wants to be sewing up bodies, sewing up world order, active.
Curtis Fox: Notice that the whole stanza, the whole poem in fact, says nothing about race.
Camille Dungy: For writers of color very frequently there’s a sense, “Oh, you’re a black woman writer and now you’ll always write about black women things”. Whereas this poem by Alice Dunbar-Nelson is saying, “I’m a woman, and I’mw writing about what it means to be set aside from the theatre of war, and of life”. That is a common thread that she has with other women in that moment.
Curtis Fox: So as June Jordan and other African American women poets of the 60s and 70s are looking back on the tradition, what’s different for the black women of that generation, and your generation for that matter, looking back to history as opposed to white women. It seem like race adds a complexity to it that I’m trying to get at.
Camille Dungy: (LAUGHING) One of the things that becomes different for me as I look at the history of women writers is that in the way that women look and say, “Oh, there’s Anne Bradstreet, I can pull Anne Bradstreet up again, we can reclaim Emily Dickinson’s poems as Emily Dickinson intended for those poems to be presented, as opposed to these prettified things that showed up at first, that we can claim these women writers and understand this really interesting poetically charged literary heritage that I’m a part of”. But if I just name Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson, who’s work I love and admire, I’m missing a part of my heritage. I’m missing a part of my story. So bringing poets like Phillis Wheatley and Alice Dunbar-Nelson into that tradition allows me to see another part of me that is very real and true and important.
I knew you were gone. I do not mean the long road to Haiti is not so long.
I knew too that through them, I knew too that he was through.
Curtis Fox: Some women poets in the early decades of the 20th century became players in the avant-garde movement of literary modernism. I give you Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude Stein: If they tear a hunter through, if they tear through a hunter, if they tear through a hunt and hunter, if they tear through the different sizes of the six
Curtis Fox: But how does a modernist poet like Gertrude Stein fit into the story of women poets finding their voices as women?
Alicia Ostriker: I don’t think she fits in. What she fits into is the experimentation of modernism. Modernism for women meant you didn’t write about your feelings at all, or at least not openly. You wrote abstractly, you wrote playfully, you wrote experimentally, you did interesting things with form like Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein. To try to get the approval of the boys club, you had to write like the boys and not write about domesticity, not write about romance, not weep, that kind of thing.
Curtis FoxAt last, the achievements of modernist women poets were huge, but Honor Moore says that for her generation they were something of a discovery in the 1960s and 70s.
Honor Moore: H.D., the pen name of Hilda Doolittle who was a contemporary of Pound and whom Pound championed, you’ve read her short lyrics, her imagist poems, and then you find out that she has several book length poems: “Trilogy”, “Helen in Egypt”. She’s not a mere lyric poet. “Trilogy” has the kind of power and ambition of “The Waste Land” and “The Cantos”, but it’s by a woman so nobody — that long poem “Trilogy”. It really took digging out these poems and liberating them from the dusty back shelves of the library. We continually had the attitude that the strong powerful poems by women were being supressed, and we were meant to find them.
Curtis FoxThere were two poets coming out of late modernism who they didn’t need to dust because they were still very much alive and they were models for how women could inhabit their own poems.
Gwendolyn Brooks: This is Gwendolyn Brooks, January 19th 1961, reading from my own poems.
Alicia Ostriker: I think submission is not the word I would ever use with Gwendolyn Brooks.
Gwendolyn Brooks: From A Street in Bronzeville, “Kitchenette Building”.
Alicia Ostriker: She presents the world that she sees out of her window and her movements through her south side Chicago neighbourhood as givens.
Gwendolyn Brooks: But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Curtis FoxAnother poet who was very influential with younger poets like Adrienne Rich was Muriel Rukeyser.
Muriel Rukeyser: on second cry I woke
fully and gave to feed and fed on feeding.
Curtis Fox: Rukeyser’s example of speaking out personally and politically gave courage to younger women poets as they began to take stalk of the depth and breadth of the female poetic tradition.
Alicia Ostriker: The line “No more masks, no more anthologies”. No More Masks becomes the title of a best selling anthology of women’s poetry. She wrote “If one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open”. The World Would Split Open became the title of another anthology.
Curtis Fox: Alicia Ostriker. We also heard from Honor Moore and Camille Dungy. Our reader was Cindy Kats. This has been the first episode of our series, A Change of World. We’ll be back soon with another episode about some of the landmark books of women’s poetry in the 1950s and 60s. 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 from SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it in iTunes. The theme music for this podcast comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.
The first episode in a special series on the women’s movement
The first episode in a special series on the women’s movement