from Poems from the Women's Movement, edited by Honor Moore
On a recent night I had supper with a friend, born like me in the era of World War II, a television executive and a woman whose life, like mine, was altered by feminism. "Tell me," I asked, "what you remember about poetry and the women's movement." I saw memory cross her face, and then she said a remarkable sentence: "The women's movement was poetry."
This is a collection that seeks to mark how women poets made a poetry that, in two decades, altered the face of American poetry forever. The volume includes 58 poets and nearly a hundred poems selected by one of those poets from a literature that is far more vast. "Let this coffin of verses inherit my pain," Joan Larkin wrote in "Rhyme of My Inheritance." Selecting poems written between the publication of Sylvia Plath's Ariel in the U.S. (1966) and 1982, I offer a portrait of how the inner lives of women came into language during that crucial decade and a half, as manifested in poems that range from furious to contemplative, outright funny to analytical, grief-stricken to visionary. A new language began—not a language that was linguistically new (although there are scholars who make that argument), but a language new to them. New to us, I should say, because in the process of speaking what was hidden, we began to identify with one another as women, to become a "we."
In 1966, when Ariel was published in the U.S., American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened when they read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier, and activists who came together to form the National Organization for Women (NOW) that same year. At the time, Plath was identified with the poets M. L. Rosenthal dubbed "confessional" in a 1959 review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies, but that label obscured the significance of her posthumous volume. Here was one woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted her rage, ambivalence, and grief in a voice with which many women identified.
While Ariel marked the beginning of a moment, there had been precursors. Between the wars, a feminist vision in poetry had flourished in the work of Gertrude Stein, H.D., and others, but by the 1960s, works like Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" and H.D.'s Helen in Egypt did not appear in mainstream anthologies. There were also poems by women written during that period that denied the power of women. "Women have no wilderness in them," Louise Bogan wrote in a famous poem called "Women" (1923). That line, later derided by feminists, was followed by a catalogue of female inadequacy and lack of courage: "They wait, when they should turn to journeys." It would take women poets born in the decade in which Bogan wrote that poem to refute her. In 1963, Adrienne Rich completed "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," a poem in which the speaker, a woman "content to glitter in fragments and rough drafts," moves from a "nervy" and "glowering" resentment, to emerge into her power, "her fine blades making the air wince."
Aesthetically, what women poets did in the 1970s could not have happened without the fissure in poetics that Modernism had effected in the previous decades. If one draws an analogy between the Victorian poetic excesses of formalism and ornate diction and the domestication that limited middle-class women in the 1950s, their enraged feminism and that of their daughters can be seen as a disruption analogous to Modernism and what came after. The Beats, beginning with Ginsberg's "Howl," exploded the boundaries even of free verse, allowing a full-bodied roar of emotion and protest; Black Mountain poets like Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov brought an intimacy of address to their poetry that enlarged the American vernacular that William Carlos Williams had introduced; and black poets like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Gwendolyn Brooks (leaving behind the idiom that in 1950 won her the first Pulitzer Prize ever given to an African-American) made poetry a vehicle for political rage.
As American women of the postwar generation came of age, they began to understand the repression their mothers had suffered, and as they imagined lives beyond the family, ownership of their own subjectivity followed. Just as the forms of women's protests ranged in style—from the Yippie-inspired Miss America pageant protest in September 1968 to the 1970 Fifth Avenue march marking the August 26 anniversary of woman suffrage—so, from the first moment, the new poems by women varied in strategy, appropriating a range of poetic approaches. From Marge Piercy's and Robin Morgan's satiric free verse, to Marilyn Hacker's subversive formalism, to Alice Notley's post-Modernism and Lucille Clifton's blues-inspired voicing of an African-American everywoman, women poets began to take up their experience directly, to gather for readings and in anthologies unified not by form or style, but by a common need to understand and change not only how women wrote poems, but how they used poems, and how they lived.
I moved to New York City in September 1969 and went to my first demonstration there that fall. It was on the bus to that march that I first heard of Robin Morgan, who as a child played Dagmar on I Remember Mama, a television show I had watched as a child, and who was now, I was amazed to hear, a poet and theorist of women's liberation. I had abandoned my college sonnets and was writing poems out of my own anger and 23-year-old unhappiness. The rich blood-hue of the female sign encircling a fist on the women's liberation button I bought on that bus ride, along with the certainty of the rhetoric in the women's journals I was reading, challenged the passivity of my poems, which lacked the audacity and certitude I admired in Sylvia Plath. As a student at Radcliffe, I had read Robert Lowell, but in reading Plath I encountered, as Alfred Stieglitz remarked on discovering Georgia O'Keeffe, a woman on paper. I did not imagine that my experience, a broken love affair with an older man and a secret abortion, could have the legitimacy of Plath's suicide. The women's movement would soon teach me otherwise.
At first it seemed that New York City in 1970 had no room for personal poems by privileged white women like me. The women's movement I tracked down was heavily influenced by the left politics I was familiar with, protesting racism, the war in Vietnam, inequity of rich and poor, all of which, women's liberation now declared, were consequences of male supremacy and patriarchy. Fulfilling the pledge I'd made when I quit graduate school, I took to the streets, and one day, hearing that the radical newspaper Rat had been taken over by a cadre of women guided by WITCH (the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), of which Robin Morgan was a founder, I visited its offices on East 14th Street. There I found a book by the black poet Sonia Sanchez, whose fierce lyrics startled me with their directness and intimacy. It was there too, in the first woman-produced issue of Rat, that I read "Goodbye to All That," Robin Morgan's declaration of independence from the male left, its title borrowed from Robert Graves' 1929 anti-war memoir. Defending in polemic the takeover of a paper whose radicalism was compromised, she declared, by the pornography that drenched its pages, Morgan took on the sexism of the radical men for whom she and so many movement women had fetched coffee and typed flyers. "Sexism is not the fault of women—kill your fathers, not your mothers," she wrote. Goodbye to all that indeed.
Within a year, I'd found women who were constructing an activism that was woman-centered and independent of the left—the feminists, they were called. One group, Redstockings, held speak-outs about abortion and rape that were reported in the Village Voice, which also described the small groups women were forming in order to speak openly about their lives as women. I knew that I was not the only young woman who had kept an abortion secret, but in the small apartments where my own consciousness-raising group met, I heard other women's stories—not only of abortion, but of rape, motherhood, aspiration for other women, and for lives beyond the careers of their husbands and boyfriends. The aim of these groups was not merely to share intimate stories, but to find commonality and to analyze it, in order to understand how a woman's problem might not be hers alone, but part of her oppression under patriarchy. A new slogan was in the air—"the personal is political"—and in those rooms it seemed completely true. We were meant to "speak bitter" as Chinese revolutionaries were said to have done, to discover who we were and what must be changed. "Eat rice have faith in women,/" the poet Fran \Vinant wrote, "what I don't know now/I still can learn." For some women, these groups guided how they moved in their work lives. In the group I entered in the spring of 1970, there were mothers starting day-care centers, women in the health professions, and women who were community organizers for whom perceptions from consciousness raising gave shape to new political and philosophical ideas. For those of us who were writers, aspects of our lives hidden from us were illuminated, becoming material for our writing. For all of us, what we had kept to ourselves because of competition with other women became instead a way to connect with one another.
We began to read differently as well. In this new context, Sylvia Plath was no longer an isolated victim, but the avatar of a new female literary consciousness. Among us, there were women already writing new poems we considered "in a woman's voice." I read poems by Audre Lorde that integrated her New York experience as an African-American woman into a politically engaged, insistent poetry rich with imagery and erotic force. And I read Diane Wakoski, whose poems transformed female resentment into long, finely articulated lyrics that turned on image and longing: "A woodpecker with fresh bloody crest/knocks/at my mouth. Father, for the first/time I say/your name .... " Now, too, there were women's literary magazines that published poems by women of my generation. I knew of Aphra in New York City, and in a women's bookstore I'd found the Shameless Hussy Review published in California and devoured the wry lyrics of Alta, its editor, and the poems of Susan Griffin, who in 1978 would publish her first book of feminist philosophy, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. In 1972, Ms., the first glossy magazine with a feminist outlook, was founded, and in its pages, as in Rat and dozens of underground women's newspapers, there were always poems. Increasingly in my own work, I spoke not only with the directness and absence of shame gained in my CR group, but with humor and optimism inspired by the wave of women's politics and culture happening all around me. I began to write for other women, to seek poems in the life I was beginning to live, conscious of the ideas of feminism, trying, as Sharon Olds writes in her poem "Satan Says," "to write my/way out of the closed box."
I wrote without the company of other women poets until December 11, 1971, when I volunteered to take part in a women's poetry reading I'd seen advertised. The ground-floor room at the Loeb Student Center at NYU was packed, many of us sitting on the floor. Twenty-one women read—most of us had not published books and some, like me, had not published at all; others had appeared in Rat, Moving Out, and other women's liberation papers and journals; still others read work that had been, as I wrote later, "buried, as ladies' poems have been/in bureau drawers for years." The ecstatic, celebratory night ended only when the building closed. Six more group readings followed the next winter, and the year after we were joined by women poets like June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and Carolyn Kizer, whose books had been published by trade publishers. Kathryn Ruby and Lucille Iverson, who organized those readings, conceived an anthology they hoped would be definitive; but it was soon clear, as Iverson wrote, that their volume (published in 1974 as We Become New) could only be "a beginning representation of the heretofore muted voices of women."
* * *
Let us take those first NYU readings—and readings like them that were certainly happening elsewhere in the country—as the moment when women began to be aware that a strong wind was blowing through the hearts and minds of women writing poems, the moment we learned none of us was alone. It was at such readings, in crowded rooms all over New York City, among women who might otherwise not have read poems at all, that my friend, the television executive, encountered the women's movement she remembered 35 years later. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth, also inspired by a revolutionary moment, declared his intention "to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used . . . and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination." At those group readings, women read poems that sought to give value to their real lives, transforming them with the colors of an imagination that was woman-centered. One heard poems about fathers and mothers and sisters, about rape and women artists and Gertrude Stein, about miscarriages and the lost power of spinster aunts, about Milton's daughters and washing dishes, about the forbidden love of one woman for another, about Harriet Tubman and the subversive talk of waitresses, the love of mothers for sons and the yearning of daughters for common cause with their mothers. "But examine/this grief your mother/parades over our heads," Louise Gluck wrote in a poem about Persephone and Demeter, "remembering/that she is one to whom/these depths were not offered."
Not only were women writing poems, they were making films and painting paintings and thinking about feminist approaches to architecture. In 1975, Knopf published The New Woman's Survival Sourcebook, edited by Kirsten Ramstad and Susan Ronnie, that presented, in Whole-Earth-Catalog-like form, the panoply of women's culture, its profusion of magazines, newspapers, theaters, presses, food co-ops, credit unions, battered-women shelters, daycare centers—projects of women from every region in the United States, of women of color, and of lesbian women. The poetry section was introduced by my "Polemic #1"—This is the poem to say 'Write poems, women' because I want to/read them"—and offered a double interview in which Robin Morgan and Adrienne Rich suggested that poetry, in Rich's words, "as much as journals and letters and diaries, has been an almost natural women's form .... " Rich also made the point that it was no accident that women novelists flourished in the 19th century—they disguised their real selves in fictional narratives—but now, because women could write openly as themselves, a new women's poetry was possible. Noting the group readings, Morgan credited the explosion of women's poetry to the new feminist tribe, linking it to the bardic tradition. "What was new, Rich added, was that women were now publicly sharing their work, something that many of the past could not. "The poetry of many of my male contemporaries," she continued, "expresses the sense that we're all doomed to fail somehow. It's much more interesting to me to explore the condition of connectedness as a woman. "Which is something absolutely new, unique historically, and finally so life enhancing .... "
At that moment, Rich was exploring that connectedness in a poem about a Soviet women's mountaineering team, all of whom had died on a climbing expedition in 1974. "Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev" might merely have been an elegy for the climbers, but instead the poet transforms them into an image of women undertaking something together—"a cable of blue fire ropes our bodies/burning together in the snow." While the work for change involved risk, separateness was a condition of danger from which women must now emerge. Unlike the women imagined in certain poems of the 1960s-like Anne Sexton's "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" ("At night alone, I marry the bed") or Maxine Kumin's "At the End of the Affair" ("That it should end at an Albert Pick hotel/with the air conditioner gasping like a carp")—women were now reaching out to other women: "till now," Rich imagines Shatayev writing in a diary, "we had not touched our strength ... "
Muriel Rukeyser, a generation older than Rich, had another response to the consequences of female isolation: "I'd rather be Muriel/than be dead and be Ariel." The two-line poem's title—"Not To Be Printed, Not To Be Said, Not To Be Thought"—acknowledged that to suggest that Plath had an option other than suicide or suffering was still taboo. But Rukeyser had her finger on a pulse—once women began to write poems, secure in the women's movement, they began to build a new tradition. Part of that task was seeking out examples of strength in women of the past—a column in Ms. called such women "foremothers." In a meditation on the life of the German political activist artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867 -1945), Rukeyser asked, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" The answer she gave—"the world would split open"—resonates throughout this book, and throughout the history of women writers.
But it would take a few years for women to reread and find commonality in their poet foremothers. Many of us hadn't read women poets of the past. In the wake of Modernism and the New Criticism, professors required Eliot and Stevens and Pound; even women poets like Amy Lowell or Edna St. Vincent Millay, who'd had large readerships during their lifetimes, were absent from most college reading lists. When I took American poetry at Harvard in 1966, there were two women on the syllabus: Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even then I had the sense that if Bradstreet hadn't been the first significant American poet, she would not have been included; as for Dickinson, she was presented as a lone spinster with an accidental gift, and even as feminism turned me toward women of the past, I continued to buy into the interpretations I'd been taught. In that limited view, Elinor Wylie and Sara Teasdale seemed shrouded in Victorian lace, and I didn't bother to reread them. Lines like this by Wylie—"in coldest crucibles of pain/Her shrinking flesh was fired"—might once have salved heartbreak, but not now. Sara Teasdale "asked the heaven of starslWhat I should give my love?" I preferred the heavens animated by Rich in her 1968 poem "Planetarium": "A woman in the shape of a monster/A monster in the shape of a woman/The skies are full of them." Claim monstrousness, claim our own difficult power, the poet seemed to be saying. Let yourself become "an instrument in the shape/of a woman trying to translate pulsations/into images for the relief of the body/and the reconstruction of the mind."
With the work of feminist critics, I would soon understand that many women poets had not only been left out of the canon, but also that selections in anthologies could distort the quality and nature of their achievement. I'd read feminist anthologies of 20th-century women's poetry like No More Masks and Rising Tides, but it was Louise Bernikow's comprehensive 1974 collection The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1550-1950 that, by retrieving poems from the past that asserted female power and value, rereading poets like Wylie and Amy Lowell, rediscovering poets like Frances E. W. Harper and Adelaide Crapsey, and including blues singers like Ma Rainey and worker poets like Aunt Molly Jackson, introduced me to a possible canon of women poets. "What is commonly called literary history," Bernikow declared, "is actually a record of choices." And of interpretation: the following year, at the Donnell Library in New York, I heard Adrienne Rich give the lecture "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" in which she presented the poet not as relegated to compensatory solitude but as a woman who made a choice to do her work, in the full knowledge that she was "a poet of genius."
"The woman's place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep," Audre Lorde wrote in her essay "Poems Are Not Luxuries" (1977). "I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight." Lorde's declaration reflected the increasing centrality of poetry to the women's movement. Reviewing a passel of women's poetry anthologies for Ms. in 1975, I'd read Amazon Poetry, an anthology edited by Joan Larkin and Elly Bulkin, which included a few of the poems in this book, among them Jan Clausen's "After Touch," which dramatizes her coming out with a startlingly positioned final line "I am a lesbian," and Martha Courtot's "I am a woman in ice/melting" that concludes with the lines "but now my fingers move/in a panic/of wanting to be burnt." The editors had sought to learn what lesbian poetry was, beyond love lyrics from one woman to another—the poems, they wrote, "belie a simple sexual definition." The collection included excerpts from an epic poem called "A Woman Is Talking to Death," first published in California in 1973.
I had picked up the green chapbook when the poet, Judy Grahn, read the poem in its entirety at Westbeth, the artists' housing complex in Greenwich Village, late that year. With her woman lover on the Bay Bridge, the speaker of the poem comes upon the site of an accident—a white man on a motorcycle and a black man in a car have collided and the white man has died. The "queer" woman speaker of the poem leaves the black man behind despite his entreaties that she remain as his witness: "I left him as I have left so many of my lovers." As an unemployed lesbian, she has her own fears—the condition of the "unemployed lesbian" becomes a metaphor for the vulnerability of any woman unprotected by patriarchy in the face of its brute power—the bridge, the police, the motorcycle, the urban night. In the context, the speaker's admonition, "This woman is a lesbian, Be Careful" has a sharp irony, as does the "mock interrogation" the poet stages: "Have you ever held hands with a woman?" "Yes, many times." "Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?" "Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die before my eyes . . ." Over the course of eight sections, the poem opens into an examination of the boundary for women between love and the threat of violence, which the speaker personifies as Death: "wherever our own meat hangs on our own bones/for our own use/your pot is so empty/death, ho death/you shall be poor."
With this poem, the whole political enterprise of feminism was subsumed by poetic means into an understanding of the complexity of the stark power relations that involve gender, race, and sexuality. In the hush that fell on the room at Westbeth after Grahn finished reading, I felt the poem both as a caution that we not allow our poems to become merely parochial and a demonstration of the poetic force we now had at our disposal. It is in light of the challenge of "A Woman Is Talking to Death" that I now read Lorde's "To a Woman in Rage" in which the black speaker, a lesbian who has a white lover, hallucinates her own racist murder of a white woman—"her white face dangles/a tapestry of disasters seen/Through a veneer of order." Or June Jordan's "Case in Point," an account of a rape of a black woman by a black man. Or Diane Di Prima's "Annunciation," in which the originating moment of the birth of Christ is read as rape. When Audre Lorde wrote in her essay that for women "poetry is not a luxury," she was speaking for a movement that read its writers. "It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."
As the 1970s progressed, women poets began to have an impact in the mainstream of American literary life. In 1974, when Adrienne Rich was chosen co-winner with Allen Ginsberg of the National Book Award, she accepted the prize, by prior agreement, with two of the other women nominated, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. In 1976, Stanley Kunitz chose Carolyn Forché as the winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize, and her volume opened with "Burning the Tomato Worms," a long poem in which a young woman claims strength from the ambiguous legacy of her immigrant grandmother; the following year, 1977, he chose Olga Broumas's Beginning with O, a young woman's reading of Greek myth that also celebrated the erotic love of women. A line declaring a woman's sexual desire for another woman might now no longer have the axis-shifting resonance it had just a few years before. The poems women were now writing might find themselves, as Jorie Graham writes, "opening/from eternity//to privacy ... "
In the 1950s, the poet Jane Cooper, born a decade before Plath, had censored her second collection of poems, recovering it only when riffling through a box of old papers decades later. Unmarried and childless, she had nonetheless felt she could not be a poet. "Privately I felt the poems were never finished. I suspect most privately of all, that I couldn't face living out the range of intuition they revealed." Encouraged by women friends, including Adrienne Rich, Jean Valentine, and Muriel Rukeyser, she published those poems in 1974, with an essay explaining her anguished journey toward making them public. The issue was not so much the poems themselves, but the poet's reticence, her resistance to moving from being a girl who wrote to a woman poet. How could she live the life of a woman and the life of a poet? This is a question women poets still ask, but it is a measure of the distance we came in the years this book covers, that Cooper, by then the author of several volumes of poems, could write, in 1982, what amounts to a declaration of a poet's freedom:
. . . . . It seems I am on the edge
of discovering the green notebook containing the poems of my life,
I mean the ones I never wrote. The meadow turns intensely green.
The notebook is under my fingers. I read. My companions read.
Now thunder joins in, scurry of leaves. . .
About the Author
Honor Moore is the author of the poetry collections Red Shoes, Darling, and Memoir, and has edited Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, volume #12 in the American Poets Project. She is the author most recently of the critically acclaimed memoir The Bishop's Daughter.
Poems from the Women's Movement
American Poet's Project
The Library of America