Friday, 12 December 2008

We are one family

Women poets...can't live with 'em, can't...well, you get the idea. We ended up talking about various women poets in the comments to the Emily Dickinson post below so here's a continuation of that discussion...carrying on in a seamless fashion...or something like that.

Because I was writing about Emily D I had a sudden urge to go and look in my copy of '101 Poems by 101 Women' (faber & faber 2001...bought for me as a gift a while back). It was edited by Germaine Greer (gotta love her...well, I do anyway) and I was wondering which Emily Dickinson poem GG had chosen (I was pretty sure she wouldn't have left her out altogether). Greer chose, just so you know, the one that starts 'The Soul has Bandaged moments -' (and that first line sounds like something artist Tracy Emin might write these days...and then sew onto a quilt and stick that up on the wall). I enjoyed reading the poem and most especially the section with “She dances like a Bomb” because it made me think that maybe if Dickinson had been around in the late 1980s/early 90s she might have ended up lost in the world of rave as I did. She might even have written a poem about dancing and put it up on YouTube. You never know. Stranger things have happened. Mostly on YouTube...

Of course once I'd picked the book up I got to reading the rest of the anthology (please let's not bother arguing about the pros and cons of women only anthologies...some arguments, when had over and over again, can get very boring...). '101 poets..' is a fascinating collection with the poems in chronological order - starting with Anne Askew in 1546 and ending with Margaret Atwood in 1995. There are some of the ones you might expect (a Plath – 'The Colossus', a Rossetti – 'The Convent Threshhold', a Duffy - 'Valentine') and quite a few you might not. I was really glad to see an Angelou ('Phenomenal Woman') because I really like some of her poems (though she seems to be out of fashion with poetry snobs...all the more reason to like her I would suggest). I was also glad to see Jenny Joseph's practically world-famous 'Warning' (though my guess is the poet herself might have liked to see a different poem included...she has written other things!). But still, just because a poem has been popular (liked – my goodness – by ordinary common people, how dare they!) that is no reason to automatically look down on it, dismiss it and stamp one's silly feet. Plus if it's good enough for Professor Greer...I don't see why some of us mortals can't read the poem again without prejudice. It has some great moments ('and say we've no money for butter') and we visited an aunt in Canada a while back who belonged to a 'red hat club'. Talk about getting poetry out to a wider public!

I was also pleased to see some of my favourites – Stevie Smith, U.A.Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead (fantastic poet!), Fleur Adcock and this lovely piece from Dorothy Parker:


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

(printed 1926)

It rhymes. It's funny (and more). It's unexpected. I love it! This poem also reminded me of 'Notice by Highland Regional Council' which is in Hugh McMillan's latest book (but that's enough about him - he's been plugged to death here already and anyway it's ladies' day). I suppose I like both 'Résumé' and 'Notice...' for similar reasons - they are both (a) clever, (b) well-observed in their succinct way, (c ) true and, importantly for me at least, (d ) poems that can turn the subject of suicide into something better than it is. Left to itself suicide is...miserable, obviously, and especially, as people never tire of saying, for the children. (Oh and saying that never helps either.)

Now look what's happened! Damn these poems that actually make us talk know...real stuff!

Anyway, I've been reading the '101 Poets' book on and off this week and I was quite taken by one poem in it called 'The Sisters' by Amy Lowell (the title of this post comes from it's a bit Sister Sledge but I like it). The poem is quite long and is about a dream involving Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and...Emily Dickinson, no less, so you might like to go and read it (if you can find it on-line...I've had a quick look and can't right now...will look again later). It reminded me a little of the Billy Collins poem about Dickinson that Liz mentioned in the comments last time. The Lowell poem also includes these lines 'For, after all,/A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain'...I like that too though I'm not sure it's always true (only jesting, folks...or am I?). I won't post the whole poem but the opening is interesting:

'Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry.'

Except of course all poets are queer – in some way or fact all people are really. After another bit about being queer (she was that too – apparently) she continues:

'I wonder what it is that makes us do it,
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves.'

The 'man-wise' is a bit out-of-date now, I suppose, but the rest still works. Do we all have a poem about fragments (poets male and female and anything in between)? I know I do - it's called 'She's not there' and it was posted here on 8th May 2008 (well, I am a woman poet...I'm pretty sure...and I can't just plug Shug, you know). I think Jim Murdoch is right that 'She's not there' is probably one of my best poems to date and I wouldn't have known that if he hadn't pointed it out (thanks Jim!). So you poets...can't live with 'em, can't...well, you know the rest. One family...indeed.

p.s. I'll do the 6 things task next time I think, Sister Hope!


I was mentioning Greer's brilliant introduction in the comments. Here are a few sample quotes from it...

'What I hope I have done is to have worked a sampler, a selection of odd and interesting morsels, that will whet the appetite for more. I can say with confidence that there is better poetry by women than most of what you will find in this book, but most of it is by Emily Dickinson, and I promised I would introduce you to 101 women, all of whom are worth knowing, for different reasons.'

'Some of the poetry I have chosen is frankly bad; all of it is imperfect. My main criterion has been the only one that interested Emily Dickinson, who brushed aside all Higginson's cavils about her syntax and rhyme and asked only whether her poems lived, asked and received no answer. All 101 of these poems have a life of their own; though they may limp or writhe or grunt instead of singing and dancing, shriek and gibber rather than reason and persuade, they are alive.'

'Poetry is strange stuff and over the centuries it has got stranger. Five hundred or so years ago any gentleman was expected to be able to pen on demand a respectable sonnet to his mistress' eyebrow, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century poetry had been transformed from an elegant accomplishment to a savage destiny, a sacred and sublime vocation, not to be attempted by anyone who shrank at the prospect of madness, destitution and death. Women had struggled to be poets when what was needed was the education that they had not got, and they continued to struggle to be poets when what was demanded was egomania of delusional proportions. Post-modernism has taken some of the pressure off; irony is a medium that women have always understood.'



Dave King said...

Your list of favourite women poets would be much the same as mine, although I would include Carol Ann Duffy and, I am ashamed to say, did not know Dorothy Parker. However, I share your opinion of Résumé, so thanks for widening my horizon. I must look her up!

Liz said...

Rachel, great post...will check out the poets you mention and maybe get to adding some Irish women poets that I like...over the weekend, hopefully, as head in a spin right now and may have the onslaught of a vomiting bug!

Rachel Fox said...

Dave - I am surprised you haven't come across Parker before. She is known as many things - a critic, a screenwriter, an all-round wit...but she was a fine poet too. She is perhaps more people's poet (or comic's poet..) than poet's poet...but I really like her poems (and I know my girl Fiendish does too).

I did not list all my favourite women poets here...I only mentioned ones that were in the particular anthology. And I do like Duffy too...I particularly like how she just gets on with being good and successful without making any fuss (she barely blinked when she won the TS Eliot prize...made some joke about buying her daughter a new computer...). I haven't quite got to the point of LOVING her poems but that might yet happen. Maybe I just haven't read the right one for me yet.

Liz - I don't know how many of the women in this particular Faber anthology are Irish. When you tell me your favourites I'll look them up and see if they're in it.


Marion McCready said...

I would add Akhmatova to the list and maybe Sexton whom I become more fond of in recent years.

Marion McCready said...

Oh and Kathleen Jamie!

Rachel Fox said...

As I said I only referred to poets in the '101 Poems by 101 Women' in the post (it is in no way my post about all women poets). Akhmatova is not in the Greer book but Sexton is ('Woman with Girdle' printed 1962).

Jamie is not in this particular anthology but then not that many living poets are. The book intends to give a good spread of women poets over the ages more than fit in all the good poets of today, I think (plus Greer's specialist subject is earlier poetry is it not?) . I see Jamie in loads of anthologies so I'm sure she didn't mind missing this one too much. I do enjoy her poems...I keep meaning to read more.


The Solitary Walker said...

Kathleen Jamie - yes! In the prose field too her book of essays 'Findings' is superb.

Duffy - really haven't been able to get into her, I'm afraid.

Rachel Fox said...

Good Jamie tip...I do sometimes get into poets via their prose...which probably tells you terrible truths about my love/hate relationship with poetry! I had in mind a post about that!

As for Duffy...well, we can't all like everything. I have shocked you all regularly with my lack of fervour for Leonard Cohen amongst others...(Plath...Eliot...).


Marion McCready said...

I don't understand the Cohen thing either, especially amongst poets, doesn't do anything for me at all.

The Solitary Walker said...

Shock is good! But Leonard Cohen is God. Obviously. I thought everyone, poet or otherwise, knew that?

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil - I just took another look at the book and I don't think it contains any poems in translation (which would explain the lack of your Russian favourite).

I was just reading the is brilliant and I may have to quote some in another post another time!


Jim Murdoch said...

I've never really got into this men-poets vs women-poets thing. At least with poetry there are an increasing number of women writing poetry so that running across a female poet is nothing unusual. I wonder what the exact ratio is these days? I might suggest that there could be more women than men.

In some of the other arts this disparity hasn't been addressed. Take 'classical' composers for instance. How many female classical composers can you name? Off the top of my head I can name two before the 20th century and that's Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann (but she really was far better known as a pianist) and Hildegard of Bingen. At school I learned of three more, Elizabeth Lutyens, Imogen Holst and Elizabeth Maconchy but I never heard any of their music. Since then I've discovered a few more but by comparison to the male composers they're a drop in the ocean.

Rachel Fox said...

Classical music...not something I can comment on! Not yet anyway.

As for Cohen and G/god, SW...I'm not a huge fan of either...but if others want to adore them that's fine with me!


Rachel Fox said...

After mentioning the Greer introduction in the comments here I have gone back and pasted some quotes from it at the end of the original post. They are worth reading - go take a look!

hope said...

Sister Rachel, only list when and if you feel like it. December comes with enough pressure as it is. :)

Nice post. I like Dorothy Parker simply because she didn't see the world as belonging to men, even if most of her generation did.

Liz said...

Adore the Greer quotes,Rachel, must seek out that book for under the tree ...; )
Just to give my tuppence worth on fav. Irish women poets at the moment - Rita Anne Higgins and Leontia Flynn would
be two that I read a lot…they each have their own distinctive way of saying things…and Rita Anne Higgins is definitely a people’s poet…love her humour and sharpness..
Here is a poem of hers

and this is a great article on her (just in case you like the poem and want to
investigate further…but time is a bugger, I know…too many poems and time too
short.. : ) )

This is a Leontia poem.


Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Liz for coming back with all that. I have heard of Flynn but not Higgins (who actually sounds more my thing) but I will keep an eye out for poems by both.