Prose from Poetry Magazine

Exchange: Meghan O'Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser & Eleanor Wilner on "Women's Poetry"

Meghan O’Rourke:

Is there such a thing as “women’s poetry”? I hesitate to respond—in some ways the question seems to extend the nasty old habit of imagining women as “other” or inferior. But let me offer a mixed-up answer: no, there is not. And yes, in a certain way, there is (though I’d prefer a different term for it).

No, there is no such thing as “women’s poetry” if by the term we mean a distinct and lesser species of verse, implicitly more sentimental and more limited in its concerns than that by men. Samuel Johnson famously compared a woman preaching to a dog dancing: the marvel isn’t how well she does it, it’s that she does it at all. With so little regard for the argumentative power of the female mind, he presumably thought something similar about a woman writing serious literature. Reviewing Louise Bogan’s first book, Theodore Roethke enumerated the shortcomings of women’s poetry, while exempting Bogan from them: “the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life ... hiding from the real agonies of the spirit ... stamping a tiny foot against God ... lamenting the lot of the women; caterwauling; writing the same poem about fifty times ... ” (Hmm. Doesn’t that last flaw apply to your own poetry, Mr. Roethke?)

This kind of sexism was widespread until the sixties or so. No surprise, then, that Elizabeth Bishop, writing when women were beginning to make true inroads into the all-male poet’s club, made it a strict policy not to appear in all-female anthologies. “I prefer my sexes mixed,” she said. Her position, a principled one, was that if women want to be taken seriously, we can’t allow ourselves to be compartmentalized. No minority or specialized status for us, thanks. I think she was right to take this position.

But a lot has changed since Bishop’s time. Women have much more equity in the twenty-first century. The era of “separate spheres” is gone. Most of us now agree that—of course—women are capable of writing poetry of a complexity and breadth equal to men’s. We might go on to wonder, though, if any of this poetry is, in kind, different from men’s?

Here’s where my “yes” creeps in, sort of, and with still-muddled feelings. There is such a thing as “women’s poetry” insofar as each individual is partly a product of the culture that raises us. Ours is a culture that still socializes men and women very differently. The emancipation of women, as Cynthia Ozick has written, is shockingly recent. And there are a few—a very few—inescapable biological differences between the sexes; notably, women can bear children, and men can’t. So I can think of some poems that seem to me to be “about” the female experience in ways that other poems by women aren’t: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” VS Bishop’s “One Art” or Emily Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light.”

What I take issue with, though, is that “women’s poetry” implicitly sounds like a subcategory of a larger enterprise called “poetry.” This is a problem of vocabulary but also emblematic of sexist vestiges that go deep. Are Louise Glück’s early poems about the body—and femininity—somehow not representative of the broadly human? Is a Roethke poem about his father representative of the broadly human—or of a specifically male experience? Which raises more questions: what would it be like, say, if we called war poetry “men’s poetry”? Can calling something “female” or “male” be useful? And isn’t it interesting that Emily Dickinson, one of the founding figures of the American poetic canon, is a female poet whose strenuous imaginative vision seems somehow beyond gender?

J. Allyn Rosser:

I urge that we abolish the term “women’s poetry” on the grounds that it is condescending and regressive. When this exchange was first proposed to me, I wondered whether it were not better addressed in some arena other than that of poetry, which seeks to illuminate human truths rather than ethnic or gender or regional “issues.” But hey: Poetry is a menstrual publication founded by a woman. On the whole I agree with you, Meghan, that times have improved. But I don’t believe that “the era of ‘separate spheres’ is gone.” If it were, there would not be such a phrase in use as “women’s poetry.” What does it mean, exactly? Here are five possible definitions:

1 Poetry written by women? Some poets, editors, and critics appear to use the phrase purely in this literal sense, but their use invariably involves a refusal, possibly a semiconscious or embarrassed one, to acknowledge that it still carries connotations of that “lesser species of verse” you describe.

2 Feminist poetry? In this case the poetry is expected to address the marginalized and oppressed position of women in our historical, sociological, and literary cultures, present and past, and to advocate change. But then we already have a term for that: feminist poetry.

3 Poetry whose audience is primarily women? This is more a marketing definition than a critical one, based on the assumption that men are not very likely to clamor for books that focus on women’s experience. By providing gendered anthologies and even separate shelves, the publisher/bookseller apologizes to women for not valuing their work enough to give it equal representation in “general” poetry anthologies and simultaneously issues a warning: the foregrounding of women’s experience might make a male reader feel like an irrelevant voyeur—and vis-à-vis overtly feminist poems, rather like Satan reading the Bible. CAUTION: limited scope and discomfiting terrain.

4 Poetry in a distinctly women’s style/voice? Several smart critics have posited unconvincing theories (for example, Alicia Ostriker’s identification of the “exoskeletal style”). I don’t believe there are ways of using language that are “essentially feminine” or distinctly woman-oriented or -generated.

5 Poetry about women’s issues? These are understood to include maternity, childbirth, female sexuality, household tasks, and various forms of patriarchal abuse or oppression.

Even the last definition is a trap. Poetry explores the mysteries and complexities of the human condition, whether it is seen through the lens of female or male experience or written by a woman with a heightened feminist consciousness or a man indignant about racial discrimination. Meghan, you single Dickinson out as transcending gender (though of course many of her poems are expressly written from a female perspective as “wife” or “daughter”), but what great poet does not? If you explore any women’s or men’s issue with an awareness of its complexities, you arrive at the underlying human one; and if a poem doesn’t penetrate beyond the circumstantial layers of its speaker/situation, it just isn’t good. Plath’s “Daddy” is good not because it aptly describes the speaker’s resentment of patriarchal figures in her life, but because in a thrillingly complicated voice Plath expresses a compellingly complicated version of oppression and a version of the human response to it. A male reader might recognize a corollary response in himself when he writhes at the voice of an ineffectual, immoral president who “leads” and “speaks for” him.

Yes, the personal is political, but good poems are not dictated or overwhelmed by polemics. I’ll give Keats the last word here, even if he isn’t on my gender team: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us...”

Eleanor Wilner:

Reading both your responses, a sense of history assailed me: how things both continue and change their shape through time. Until about the middle of the twentieth century, “women’s poetry” did not exist except as a patronizing category defined by a male literary establishment (“if by the term we mean a distinct and lesser species of verse”). In the seventies and eighties, women writers took possession of the term: from a category of opprobrium and dismissal, it became a self-defining and liberating unifier, and a strategic instrument in the rising feminism of the time. That we can now reject the term—that we currently have three living generations of women publishing every kind of poetry—is a result of time ripening possibility, and women, in those years, seizing it.

During the seventies, it was the women’s movement that fostered a spate of ground-breaking women’s anthologies, archival and historical, making poetry by women visible, providing raw material for a feminist poetry criticism, as well as fostering poets who sought, in the depth charges of poetry and the transformation of inherited language, an instrument of social and personal change. The writing of that time records just how harrowing, and exhilarating, that change was, when we had been deeply conditioned to believe that we could not, or should not, cross well-defined boundaries.

Without this necessary stage in our history, it’s hard to imagine that we’d have the luxury to ask, and answer in the resounding negative, the questions required to justify such a category: does women’s experience comprise a foundational category for poetry? Is language structurally or formally related to sexual difference? I think we three concur that all poets have their particular stance, women no more or less than men (Roethke’s The Lost Son, Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law), which may open that deeper place that touches all (who will listen). And that the formal, patterned structures of poetry are as ungendered as the waves of the sea. Arguments for gendered style (men or women’s) require carefully selected samples and a world of unnoticed omissions.

We may have come far, but, as Jill reminds us, our equity is imperfect, hard won and very recent, and the undertow of the past remains strong. (In our government today, it is a riptide.) Meghan’s honest reference to her “still-muddled feelings” indicates that, though gender is certainly not a defining characteristic of poetry, it remains a charged subject. I wonder, for instance, how you would feel about being invited into an all-women’s anthology? Can gender still influence the reception of work? How do you see your relation as a poet to a tradition that, until but a few decades ago, had largely excluded our sex?

Meghan O’Rourke:

Our historical proximity to a world of profound sexual inequality does inform my relationship to a tradition that “until but a few decades ago had largely excluded our sex.” Not in any kind of topical or patriarchy-obsessed way; as a poet, I’m interested in the imagination, not “issues.” But I sometimes wonder if it might actually be liberating (so to speak) to be a woman and a poet today, whether one doesn’t feel quite the belatedness a man might. There aren’t as many poems about motherhood as there are about fatherhood, or as many poems about, say, female sexuality from a woman’s perspective. I don’t usually think in terms of subject matter when I sit down to write, though; I think about capturing a sound or a sonic insistence.

But let me ask another question: we all concur that we ought to abolish the unpleasant term “women’s poetry.” As Eleanor put it, “all poets have their particular stance, women no more nor less than men.” But is all great art totally uninflected by gender? In its achievement, yes. What about the forces that give shape to it? Jill, you write that Plath’s “Daddy” is good “because in a thrillingly complicated voice Plath expresses a compellingly complicated version of oppression and a version of the human response to it.” I agree. But to me it’s also good because it expresses something specific about a woman’s relationship with her father, and the chthonic, elemental rage the speaker feels is one I’d never seen troped in quite these terms before. That was exciting. When I think about the composition of “Daddy,” I often feel that it was something about Plath’s experience as a woman that gave her access to insights about humanity that most of us don’t have.

So is there some middle ground between the notion that all great poetry “transcends gender” and the idea that any poetry tackling the female experience is either polemical or has designs on us? In other words, can’t poems be rooted in their historical circumstances and also speak across the divide? Is it possible that some poems written by women are great—and broadly human—in part because they capture something universal that is distilled from the author’s experience as a woman? Such a thing may not be central (or even relevant) to our experience of a writer’s poetics, but is it therefore meaningless? We often talk about great poems of old age, poems by Yeats and Stevens and Milosz, without ever thinking that such work might “have designs on us.”

And I do find myself playing cocktail party games like this: would Randall Jarrell have included the word “womanish” in his poem “Next Day” if he were a woman? The lines in question are: “Now that I’m old, my wish/Is womanish:/That the boy putting groceries in my car.//See me.” (It’s always seemed to me that “womanish” was awkwardly self-conscious here.) Would Plath have stumbled upon the nursery-rhyme poetics that give her poems such propulsive sonic force if she weren’t a mother? These may not be hugely important questions, compared to the aesthetic insight of a poem itself. But I’m pleased by the fact that there are women writing about the kind of elemental rage Plath tackled in her work. What about you?

J. Allyn Rosser:

I agree that poetry isn’t exactly unisex in terms of content; we are two sexes and, our formative training (in the nursery, playground, church, classroom, court) still underscores this fact. But in every other respect poetry is and should be treated as gender-neutral. My obligation to my predecessors for garnering respect for women poets is enormous; but I feel my debt can be paid only by writing unignorably good poems I won’t need to struggle to get readers for. At this stage, would it not be a disservice to women’s hard-won prominence to contribute to a re-segregating anthology? Now, if I were invited to appear in an anthology titled Poetry About Women’s Experience which also featured some work by men (e.g. Frost’s “A Servant to Servants” or “Home Burial”) I’d be perfectly happy with that.

Meghan, your proposal of a possibly gender-inflected poetics intrigues me, but I’m not yet persuaded. Plath’s use of nursery-rhyme language and rhythms was not unprecedented. Blake borrowed their power in his “songs”; Eliot shored some of them against his ruins; Auden used them to stunning effect in poems such as “Law Like Love” and “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Sure, Plath’s use is different from Blake’s, Eliot’s, and Auden’s, but that brings us back to Eleanor’s recognition that each poet has a “particular stance.”

I heartily concur that Plath’s particular expression of rage is impelled by a particular kind of rage, but I’m not sure that the actual experience that inspires a work of art necessarily “inflects” its expression. I too rejoice to see new conduits of female-experience-induced rage (FEIR, pronounced fire, not fear) but I love the resulting poems for their uniquely-inflected types and timbres of frustration: Rich’s bitter, flinty precision in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” Atwood’s sly acidity in “Tricks with Mirrors,” Glück’s chagrined, scowling recoil in “Mock Orange,” all contrasting as much with each other as with Plath’s reckless and desperate irreverence in “Daddy.” Their artistic affinity is no greater, to my mind, than what they share with “The English Are So Nice!” which is wonderful not because it was written by an English person oppressed by xenophobic “proprieties,” but because D.H. Lawrence was uniquely equipped to feel and express that particular resentment, drenching the poem in his own trademark contempt. Both poem and rage are deeply Lawrentian—not male or English—just as Plath’s are utterly hers.

Eleanor Wilner:

I admire the passion of that last statement, Jill, which stresses the idiosyncratic way poetry outwits and undermines the restrictive categories of conventional usage—even as we bristle at the regressive category implied in any attempt to gender poetry. That said, I wonder about that “utterly”—especially in tandem with your previous sentence which sets the Lawrentian completely apart from the collective ground of his utterance. Though I agree that what makes the poem wonderful is what Lawrence’s style of contempt does to that Englishness, “not male or English” seems to negate the fact that only an Englishman, and probably only one born to the working class, could or would have written such a poem. What makes it his also makes him theirs—for it is the culture that grieves him, and gives his poem point.

Since culture is intrinsic, it cannot simply be discounted. If it denies and distorts us, then we must change it—and in so doing, release from it fresh energies. The long exclusion of women from literary tradition is related to gender definitions which have hobbled our humanity at large, men’s and women’s—and in this way, poems which openly reveal a woman’s reality as it suffers from gender (among other) definitions offer a vantage which both alters the tradition and expands it for all (“broadly human,” oh yes—and I’ll accept the pun). T.S. Eliot’s point takes renewed meaning here: original work within a tradition alters all that precedes it, and in that sense we change the past to leave the future more open—as old, imprisoning versions are reshaped by a new perspective. As you said, Meghan, we don’t suffer from belatedness, but oppositely, feel the urgent necessity and even the exhilaration of speech after so long a public silence, and so much misrepresentation.

My appreciation for Ostriker’s re-visionist work is consonant with my concern for what she calls “stealing the language”: the need to return to the foundation texts like the Bible and, while mining the power of its great poetry, alter its narratives precisely by entering and giving voice to those silent or anonymous figures who did not “make history” but suffered it. The figures in and structures of these narratives are another kind of form, and here I think that the long exclusion from tradition (and equality) does affect the shaping, the restructuring of these deep narratives—and this is true for people denied access to literary outlets by class and race, often a more complete exclusion than that for gender alone. But all this is too copious and well-documented a subject to more than touch on here.

I think we are precisely at that point you describe, Jill, where to write “unignorably good poems” is how we honor our hard-won freedom. It was to make that point that younger poets Erin Belieu and Susan Aizenberg decided (in 2000) to put together an anthology of poetry by American women published in the previous decade, “without privileging any particular theme or... agenda,” to celebrate “poetry that leaves the visible and invisible walls of women’s identity ghettoes behind,” and which displays only the heterogeneity of our voices, subjects, and aesthetics. One hundred and eighteen poets are in the anthology; only one poet declined on the basis of the volume’s gender identification. “Happily,” says the introduction, “there is now no need to search, even as there is no evidence, for an identifiable ‘woman’s voice’; what unifies the work is ... ancestral silence as the very substrate of its being, and what honors that silence is precisely the rich variety of voices that have at last ended it.”

Meghan O’Rourke:

That anthology sounds like a good thing, Eleanor—I like “ancestral silence” as its sole unifying motive—and certainly a far cry from Psyche: The Female Poetic Consciousness, a seventies anthology I picked up at a thrift store a few years back, in which Erica Jong gets real estate beside Emily Dickinson. I keep Psyche around not because it’s great—it’s not—but because it reminds me, pleasingly, that so much has changed since then. Its editors did believe that experience necessarily inflected our work, and were full of schematic thoughts about how women “want to become” rather than “want to be.” We’re luckily at a much more pluralistic, less dogmatic place; I would happily be in Belieu’s anthology, even if I wouldn’t want to be in Psyche.

But Jill, I’m intrigued to find that you really don’t believe our experience inflects our work. Look, we’re all steeped in the ideas we’ve inherited from Romanticism and Modernism, and I suspect we all believe that poetry is, as T.S. Eliot would have it, impersonal, and demands the “continual extinction of personality.” We probably all think, like Keats, that our “imagination is a monastery,” or, like Stevens, that intentions don’t matter to a poem. But does it really make sense to talk about Langston Hughes without acknowledging that being black had something to do with his poems? Or that Paul Celan’s experience as a Jew in the Holocaust shaped his work?

The argument isn’t that the work of all women is radically shaped by their gender, much less that a “women’s poetry” is in any sense the same. I wasn’t suggesting that women like Bishop and Adrienne Rich have a greater affinity with one another than they do with other poets who are far more like them. But it’s my feeling that there’s a way for us to feel that poetry (and by extension, all art) is something outside the self—something transcendent of gender, age, self—and, at the same time, to feel that it can (at least in some instances) be shaped by a set of historical circumstances. What looks like an either/or debate may really be one that needs a new way of being described, in less didactic terms. It’s my experience that in important ways we don’t entirely intend our poems. We begin to write them, and then they announce their intentions; our job is to develop the habits that allow us to see the patterns emerging.

J. Allyn Rosser:

Meghan, I like your point that “our job is to develop the habits that allow us to see the patterns emerging.” This is what Ostriker and others (Eleanor among them) have been doing so well for some decades now; and continued vigilance is crucial. Equality of gender representation does not simply mean how much pica space is allotted, but what sort of poem is approved. Marion Thain has pointed out that women’s poetry anthologies from the mid-nineteenth century tended to include poems with titles like “Maiden Love” and “Love’s Epiphany” rather than poems about science, like “Darwinism” and “The Idea” (all four by A. Mary F. Robinson). Is this perhaps still happening when editors of college textbooks favor poems by women on women’s issues, and poems by “ethnically diverse” poets that are expressly about race? Are the poems that address these issues actually better than those (by the same poets) that don’t?

On that tricky matter of Our Poems/Our Selves, I didn’t say that our experience (as women, as factory-workers, as farmers, as clergymen, as aristocrats, as the grandchildren of slaves) doesn’t inform what we write. Rather that experience doesn’t determine the unprecedented qualities of a given human voice, the deep heart’s core of any poem. To return to my example, I’m sure Lawrence wasn’t the only poet of his circumstances to write about that kind of snobbery; but we remember his poem, and not those by his peers. And, Eleanor, because I don’t believe the English culture is any more xenophobic than ours, I can imagine an American writing a poem driven by parallel disgust—“Americans Are So Right!”—but Lawrence has, in effect, beat me to it. While I don’t wish to reduce genius to the setting of precedent, there is a relation.

I agree that the Aizenberg/Belieu anthology is vastly, even incomparably, superior to those women’s collections of the seventies containing poems that can make us wince, as at our own juvenilia: again, that “palpable design” leveled at the reader interferes with those poems as poems, and dates them. (The word dated cannot apply to good art.) Mind you, I value those anthologies for rousing the excitement and confidence that lifted more women’s voices. And while I’m sure that, as Eleanor says, the 2000 anthology intended to make the point that the ghetto walls are finally down, I’m not sure that its very raison d’être doesn’t subtly re-erect those walls. I too am profoundly interested in how new poetry by women can effect a renarration of seminal—whoops, formative—literary texts; but this will be a long haul. We’re competing with the winnowed best of a multimillennial literary crop. It’s not just that the newly released female perspective must be written, but that it must be written so well as to vie with the best of Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare... Whew. I’m not saying I’m daunted, but man, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Eleanor Wilner:

I have to say, as we wind down, that fortunately there is no conclusion to such a conversation, nor escape from its contradictions. The question, which was given to us to chew on, seemed to me at first rather like hardtack, fresh once but dried now and mainly food for exercising the jaw—the effort outrunning the nutrition. But then it seemed that, as long as it is still being raised—this outworn notion (once maligned, later aggrandized) of “women’s poetry”—it would be cowardly not to take it on. (Though one does get tired of throwing off the same blanket.)

Where one stands in history greatly affects which of many “belongings” become essential to honor and even to claim as an identity. Since the most beleaguered groups are bound by their exclusion or oppressive definition to assert a collective identity, it is with happiness that I hear Jill assert so unequivocally that, as poets, we do not, and must not, allow our work to be identified by gender, but by its aesthetic qualities and intentions. This suggests a confident sense of inclusion in the poetry of our day—at which I can only rejoice. Even while remembering how easily first-rate work by women has been mislaid, and how fragile is a freedom so recently won.

Perhaps both points of view expressed about the recent anthology are right: that such a celebration of unclassifiable diversity was necessary—a remembrance, as well, of the countless silenced women at our backs. And yet it might also be good not to feel the need to repeat such a collection, and to be done with gender classification in the arts, and to hope we now have a literary culture that is no longer the male one that needed to protect itself from the experience of women—who, being intimate with men, could hardly take their pronouncements and postures as seriously as they might wish. As Louise Bogan wrote to Roethke: “... before you can toss off the masterpieces... you will have to look at things until you don’t know whether you are they or they are you.” Unlike our current political leaders—who prove that, as Mary Ellman put it, “piety is appetite installed in office”—I don’t believe in Us VS Them, but rather that poetry’s vision is enlarged in an open field. I think of Katherine Anne Porter’s remark when she was asked what she thought of “the woman question.” “Oh, that,” she said. “I think women and men have their feet nailed to the same deck.” Here we may recall her novel, The Ship of Fools. Given that we’re in the same boat, we are all better off on an even deck, and, freed of the definitions that nail us, perhaps a little less the fools of our own making.
Originally Published: January 13th, 2006
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In