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Linda Russo

Mostly Experimental:

Recent Writings By and About
Contemporary Women Poets & Writers

The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan UP, 2003. ISBN 0 8195 6644 6

American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, ed. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Wesleyan UP, 2002. ISBN 0 8195 6547 4

We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue. Alabama UP, 2002. ISBN 0 8173 1095 9

By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, ed. Molly McQaude. Graywolf Press, 2000. ISBN 1 55597 297 7

This piece is 4,600 words or about ten printed pages long.

These books taken as a group are a sure sign that women have secured for themselves a place in the larger literary field, that we are amidst a final stage of discovering and exploring that peculiar identity “woman writer” or “woman poet.” First there were collections by individual, token women; then collections of women’s writing, then collections of critical essays one women writers, collections of essays on women’s experimentation, and now collections of women’s writing on their own writing — women’s poetics — and, as though signaling that all three stages have culminated, a hybrid collection that brings together poetry, poetics, and critical texts on women poets. The accumulation of poetic and critical theories and practices grants women the opportunity to redefine and clarify for themselves and others their own poetics — which is not to say that there is a feminine poetics.

Many of the writers represented in these collections wrote during or after the women’s movement, when the role of language in shaping identity was challenged both within the women’s movement, which sought to understand exclusions built into its rhetoric of liberation, and after, when critical theory enabled writers to address assumptions that had been taken for granted, that writing might simply reflect experience, for example. These books gather and discuss the work of women writers who, for the most part, take up their work with the awareness that language is a site of contention, and that structures and meanings can be unfixed and renewed. This is valuable information for a younger generation of writers who can now look to a large body of “critical” writing by women that establishes a provisional ground from which to set out and to continue to carry out the challenges that women’s writing has posed.

Like myriad anthologies of poetry by women published years ago and published still, editing such a collection is an occasion to accept the critical challenge of justifying the presentation at hand: what is the advantage of distinguishing writers by gender? And what is the logic that motivates the selection of these particular women? My assumption in reading these books has been that the phrase “women writer” describes a position from which to encounter materials and social contexts and to inscribe a poetics, a way of making that is particular to a shared set of coordinates. I assume, too, that there are many ways to inhabit that position, and that gender (or sexual difference) could be addressed to various degrees and perhaps not at all.

The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, edited by Patricia Dienstfrey (of Kelsey St. Books) and Brenda Hillman, is a grand collection that at first glance seems to have gathered women poets based on their common experience of two institutions: poetry and motherhood. I read this while waiting for my sister to give birth. She’d chosen to do so at home. I believed I was to experience firsthand a poetics of motherhood. To my great surprise my sister had nothing profoundly poetic to say about the experience. Her first comprehensible and complete utterance was that her whole body hurt.

So too, The Grand Permission is grand precisely because it isn’t what I’d expected it to be: a series of essays (some poignant) about how the pregnant body, not quite singular, not yet plural, poses a challenge to linguistic expression as we know it, or about the unnamable relation to the other that is also so miraculously already self and other, or about how the experience of mothering brings a poet to a greater understanding of language to forge a new means of producing poems, i.e. that there was a poetics of motherhood. I can see now how my own expectations were already marked by my readings in psychoanalysis prompted by several well-meaning feminists. Luce Irigaray once gave an interesting lecture about poetics and motherhood, but thankfully unlike Irigaray, none of the poets writing for The Grand Permission have a troublesome debt to fathers Lacan and Freud. None of their essays elicits the sense that they were writing about an experience that risked being “always already” theorized. It is rather the sense of their full possession of their contribution to a large-scale exploration of this new poetic terrain that makes this a remarkable book.

To be fair, I’d also had a helpful introduction to thinking about mothering and poetry in the prose of Kathleen Fraser, whose essays, collected in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Alabama, 1999), seem to have set a precedent for this collection. Fraser’s essays from 1979, “How did Emma Slide? A matter of the gestate” deals practically with the crowding a mother might feel, the potential loss of herself in the needs of others, the sense of the self as multiple because multi-tasking and relates an anecdote in which the author invents “the gestate,” a new poetic form of delay and fragmentation, for a female student in need of one. Like many poetic forms, “the gestate” was provisional. Fraser comments that she never intended it to be taken too seriously, but I think she doesn’t give herself enough credit. Her solution, however simple it might seem in hindsight, spoke to a very real difference in gendered experiences of time and space, apprehending there were very few poetic models to account for this. Mina Loy’s poem “Parturition” (1914), perhaps the mother-poem of the topic of poetics and motherhood, would not be widely available to readers until the publication of The Lost Lunar Baedeker in 1996. Now, 24 years after Fraser spontaneously invented a “new poetic form for women,” a whole collection of essays exists to address that absence, to elucidate that difference.

Another precedent for this collection is Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Talisman House, 1998), the anthology edited by Mary Margaret Sloan in which I’d encountered another rare foray into the topic of poetics and motherhood, Carla Harryman’s “Wild Mothers.” Her essay usefully troubles the psychoanalytic model with its assertion that autonomy, a necessary fiction in writing that employs the singular, self-knowing “I,” is not only a construction of consciousness (a psychoanalytic notion) but of the imagination as well. Harryman makes the seemingly revolutionary observation that a mother’s imagination changes as the child changes. Her essay begins, in other words, to explore motherhood as a spatio-temporal relationship that involves two subjects, both of whom engage, through the experience, in language.

These texts together formed my first set of expectations for poetry-writing mothers, the best of which The Grand Permission confirmed, the worst of which, to my great relief, The Grand Permission dispelled. Motherhood is not merely the condition of being defined in relation to a small child and thus cut off from the larger social and linguistic world. The “grand permission” is to undertake poetry not regardless of one’s role as mother (which could lead toward more apologies for anatomy, as in Denise Levertov’s poem “Hypocrite Women”(1964)), but because of it. Motherhood is not a topic in these essays so much as it is an experience through which poetics is inflected.

As Rachel Blau DuPlessis comments in her compelling, historically-grounding Foreword to this collection, a “major shift in consciousness and institutions” over the past thirty years “not only makes motherhood and writing possible to do in the same life but proposes motherhood as a source of deep and enriching meditations on the nature of poetry and the writing vocation.” This anthology, she continues, “documents this change and is its fruit”(vii). DuPlesiss’s essay is also usefully cautiously critical of what the collection has achieved and what remains to be done in the exploration of the new, necessary knowledge that poetic motherhood has to offer.

In their selection and organization of these essays, Dienstfrey and Hillman have revealed motherhood to be resistant to generalizations, to be a space as complex as each mother-child relationship that constitutes it. They include essays on different stages of motherhood, from pre-natal to birth to post-partum to childhood to adolescence, and even losing a child; and on different sorts of mothering: step-motherhood, lesbian co-mothering and adoption. Contributors represent a range of styles and tendencies, and most, almost all, of these essays forego the essay as a standardized form. Many are multigeneric, incorporating poems, dialogues, lists, definitions, collage, shifting points of attention.

Some consider the complex ethics of being both mother and artist, as does Claudia Keelen in “Erasing names, multiplying alliances” and Fanny Howe in “The Pinocchian Ideal” (printed, in an earlier version, in Moving Borders).

Some work in a prepositional method, like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “Eighty-Five Notes” or Laura Moriarty’s “The Writing Being” both of which explore the relational roles of motherhood and writing.

Several essays (by Gilian Conoley, Toi Derricotte, Alice Notley, Alicia Ostriker, Maureen Owens, and others) are written as memoirs. Eavan Boland’s “The Other Sylvia Plath” is unique in its consideration of another poet’s motherhood. Boland argues that motherhood gave Plath “at last a sense of... active participation in the power and mystery of times, seasons and arrivals”(70) and offers a new reading of Plath as a “nature poet,” a poet whose “stance is certain,” a “female prospero,” a “speaker with a new kind of control: able to command the natural world because she is herself generative of it”(71). In their introduction, Dientsfrey and Hillman write:

Even as so many of these authors configure a writing life that is bound to a variety of spatial, temporal, social, literary, and environmental networks, there is a way in which each one sits at her desk and in a room apart. Yet in whatever space she writes, the contemporary woman is no longer isolated in domestic space but is instead accompanied by a rich set of poetic traditions not available to women writing just half a century ago. (xxv)

That so few of these essays engage poetics in the terms that they have been discussed (by men) throughout history, where the poem is the privileged site of attention, is a good thing for poetry. I wonder if this collection would help recuperate the dearth of theoretical writing by women that Marjorie Perloff once, now infamously, declared. Although initially angered by her comments, I knew she was right. But I also sensed that the “theoretical” was being too narrowly defined. The Grand Permission throws into relief the body of poetic theory that Perloff had in mind, writing marked by its concern with abstract economies and the concreteness of the signifier.

As women continue to lay claim to the particularity of their condition as poets, by making, for example, motherhood relevant to poetics, they urge into view more of poetry’s complexity as a practice engaged with the material and social world — the world of the citizen: “The child brings the writer to the world of citizenry” (Barbara Einzig, 240) just as “The (writing) mother creates the citizen” (Laura Moriarty, 105).

Erica Hunt’s observation in “The World is Not Precisely Round” perhaps sums up what this collection as a whole communicates. She writes, “Each act of writing or mothering stuns by the immensity of its hidden archaeology of failure, riddled origins, hidden clauses, minute pleasures achieved through tactical approximations. Poetry and mothering have this in common with other human activities that manage to be part of the real, and in doing so they can transform our sense of the real, even as they are incomplete, imperfect, of impartial”(18). What is permitted in this collection is the possibility that these writers can transform our sense of the real.

Two new books reveal that gathering writing on or by women poets needn’t adhere to a logic of similarity, and that the conversation can benefit from the differences and indifferences that play out as well. These are American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, an outgrowth of the 1999 Barnard Conference of that subtitle (at which Perloff made her infamous comment), and We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, edited by Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue. American Women Poets is a hybrid work bringing together primary sources — poetry and prose-poetics — with critical essays as secondary sources.

It includes nine poets who partook in the conference’s climactic roundtable in which each offered a statement of poetics, or a version thereof — Rae Armantrout, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach and Harryette Mullen — plus one, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Selections of 5-10 pages of poetry, in most cases, suffice, exceptions being Howe (represented by 17 pages of her sparse lyrics), Graham (with 15 pages of meditative verse composed of long- and extremely short-lines replete with brackets, parenthesis, dashes, colons, quotation marks, etc ., that serve to remind the reader that they encounter her voice) and Hejinian (a close second, with 13 pages excerpted from longer serial works, visually similar to Graham’s but fluid and undifferentiated). These texts are joined by a critical essay and an extensive bibliography of each poet’s work.

This would seem then to be an ideal teaching anthology for an upper-level course on contemporary women poets, or for that “general reader” interested in this particular site of poetic activity. We Who Love to be Astonished brings together a sizeable body of critical essays on (and two authored by) writers whose work marks out the terms of “experimental” in a range of ways; these make reference to many women included in American Women Poets in the 21st Century (save Brock-Broido, Graham, Hillman and Guest), and the work of less-discussed writers such as Kathy Acker, Carla Harryman, Denise Chávez, Erica Hunt, Tracie Morris, and Jayne Cortez, is addressed alongside more established “experimental” poets such as Norma Cole, DuPlessis, Fraser, Fanny Howe, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, and Rosmarie Waldrop.

Regardless of how well-known a particular writer is, it is, in general, difficult to find essays about many of these women and harder still to find a collection of essays addressing a range of radical practices. We Who Love to be Astonished addresses experimental prose, visually-exploratory texts, and sonic experiment (hence the “performance” in the anthology’s title) and includes several essays on non-white/ “non-dominant” writers and addresses “cultural hybridization”(4) as experimental technique. As a whole it shows contemporary women writers to be taking on many issues in many forms.

Spahr’s introduction to American Women Poets in the 21st Century is necessary reading. Aside from covering her introductory duties, enumerating contents and specifying the collection’s intentions, Spahr puts forth her own informed reading of contemporary lyricism (something she’s written on previously), expertly placing the reader amidst an ongoing dialogue. Though she concedes that the collection intends to further a dialogue between “lyric” and “language” — a division she contests, reminding us that one is a genre, the other a social grouping — she makes it clear that the collection does not portend to be representative of two factions, but of a range of innovations on the lyric as these extend through readings of modernism: “Its attention is to the contemporary poetries that are attentive to modernism’s forms . . . the collection presents a variety of ways that modernist techniques are being used within lyric contexts”(11).

Still, Spahr points out that there is a clear difference between “a poem written for investigating the self and one written for investigating language or community,” and asserts that their similar techniques make clear that “form is no longer the clear marker of intention or meaning that it was thirty years ago”(10). To read the contemporary lyric, then, is to notice differences in intentions. While the collection “makes room within lyric for language writing’s more political claims” its focus is mainly on formal and aesthetic issues. It is clear that Spahr would urge us toward a reading that is aware of the former — she notes that the social and the cultural “keep intruding and developing an aesthetic frame whether the poets admit it or not”(2). In her enumeration of the critical essays she comfortably provides a political reading where the author’s tendency is toward an aesthetic one. Sphar doesn’t hesitate to stake her position: “It . . . matters to me that lyric not be given up to aesthetics only or even aesthetics mainly”(11). And the alphabetical happenstance that places Harryette Mullen’s work at the end of the collection becomes in Spahr’s hands a fortunate consequence; Mullen’s exploration of racial as well as gendered identities suggests for Spahr that lyric as a genre is ideal for critique, that “the lyric space of intimacy has the potential to be an exemplary space for examining political intimacies, race and gender intimacies, and community intimacies in addition to its relentless attention to more personal intimacy”(13).

Most of the accompanying essays in American Women Poets in the 21st Century set out in like manner: a few books by each poet are addressed (often a first, second, third, etc. book), a sense of the poet’s standing in historical (and contemporary) configurations is provided, some theorists are applied to illuminate a poet’s methods or concerns, and poems are closely read. They appear to have been written for this book (only two are reprints).

Hank Lazer’s “Lyricism of the Swerve,” for example, explores the lyrics and poetics of Rae Armantrout by situating her among some other lyric poets (Zukofsky, Creeley, Ashbery), referring to several books in her oeuvre, and then turning to her essay, “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” effectively placing her amongst her female contemporaries on both sides of the proposed lyric/language line. The essay by Craig Dworkin’s diverges wildly from this approach. “Parting with Description” is not a conventional literary-critical essay. Rather, taking up Hejinian’s classic early work Writing is an Aid to Memory (and the Oxford English Dictionary), it is as much an essay on a method of reading Hejinian as an essay on Hejinian’s writing.

Dworkin provides an exacting description of Hejinian’s use of language, and perhaps because of its precision and engagement — Dworkin incorporates in bold-italics passages from Hejinian’s writing into his own — it forgoes the breadth that the other essays strive for and perhaps doesn’t best serve the needs of an introductory anthology. On the other hand, it proposes an interesting methodological alternative to the timeworn quote-and-explication mode; and as a method of reading it provides an approach to the works of other “difficult” poets as well.

We Who Love To Be Astonished would seem to pick up where Spahr’s introduction leaves off. Many of these essays further define that subcategory of women delineated in American Women Poets in the 21st Century (“those experimenting in language and lyric”). Although editors Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue don’t set down a working definition for “experimental,” they explore a related response: astonishment. It is a “feminist proclivity,” they write, “to astonish by presenting what previously remained not only unseen but unlooked for in mainstream culture. In their verbal innovations, these writers investigate racial-sexual differences in material society . . . proffer[ing] ways of seeing the unseen, looking at the unlooked at”(5). Invoking in the collection’s title a refrain in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, they highlight the situation of a female life in writing.

This is a “teaching anthology” as well, but geared toward a different audience. The editors outline in their introduction several goals. They seek “not only to promote dialogue among schools of experimental poetry and fiction, but also to cross formal thresholds and boundaries among this volume’s diverse pool of literary critics”(4); to provide “suggestions as to how one might configure many varieties of feminist thought — and, likewise, the way in which such varieties of feminist thought form words and letters on a page”(4); and to “reconfigure the patterns by which we will receive experimental poetry and fiction to come”(12).

This latter comment, especially, suggests that this is a volume of essays for professors and critics hoping to get a handle on current experimental women’s writing. This collection as a whole presents a new means of thinking about this body of work, and features essays that rely on established patterns necessarily modified by having to undertake experimental women poets as their subjects.

The anthology By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry comes from a corner of poetry existence in which a decidedly different critical consciousness reigns. I was struck, initially, by the outdated notion in the title: to “reclaim” seemed descriptive of a feminist project of yesterday. A history of twentieth-century American poetry is a history of women making and remaking poetics as a gendered space.

Perhaps “reclaim” is meant to renew the past claims for poetry made by a group of women diverse enough to include Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore, Laura Riding Jackson and Louis Bogan, Muriel Rukeyser and Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. By Herself doesn’t do this. Coupling “reclaim” with “by herself” the title does set out to characterize this anthology’s working ideology: that the ways of women poets are numerous and independent. Each makes her own (re)claim by herself, not requiring the aid of a movement or a school.

What’s lacking, as a result, is a sense of a conversation, a sense that any one of these poets hears any other, each too wrapped up in her own individual essaying. As such it reads as a gendered miscellany collecting conventional works of literary criticism, tightly thematic essays, looser meditations on language and poetic technique, a manifesto or two, and autobiographical memoirs.

In her introduction, Molly McQuade, an experienced editor and poet herself, presents her anthology’s purpose as primarily pedagogical: it intends to address a generic gap between the official languages of “the critical” and “the poetic” which are defined by different “habits.” She hopes these essays of criticism by poets will show how “criticism is potentially nearly as artfully expressive as the poetry that provoked it”(4).

Though McQuade avoids making an explicit judgment, it’s clear that poetry is better and criticism a sort of step-sister made ugly by critics who fail to rise to the occasion of poetry and “find a language and voice unmistakably theirs.” She hopes to encourage a criticism that “might offer, as this book seeks to, an education by and through poetry for readers old or new, occasional or long-term — something a bit different and a bit larger, perhaps, than what criticism typically offers”(4).

This makes sense coming from the woman who founded and edited the weekly poetry review column for Publisher’s Weekly; but she does overlook forays that have been made in bridging this gap, particularly ample in the work of women poets: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “For the Etruscans,” Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, Rosmarie Waldrop’s essays “Form and Discontent,” “Alarms & Excursions” and “The Ground is the Only Figure,” and Susan Gevirtz’s book-length study of Dorothy Richardson, Narrative’s Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson (Writing About Women, Vol 16), to name a few.

McQuade’s premise is adroit: critics and book reviewers could learn a thing or two about thinking critically about poetry from writers who, we assume, must think critically about poetry: poets. But a further, stronger point is made. It is women poets who “reclaim” poetry that have the most prescient lessons for the current critical moment:

Long excluded from the canon of poetry, women have for even longer been excluded from the canon of criticism. With few exceptions, they still are as I write. By Herself attempts to redress that exclusion and uncover a novel and lasting body of knowledge while telling a story of women unheard until now. The timing and the telling seems fortunate, since only in recent decades have women in growing numbers begun revising what we believed American poetry was and could be. Surely their revisionary motive can work useful changes, too, on the way we think critically about poetry. (5)

One might expect McQuade to render a piquant gendered fiction, a story of aesthetically pluralistic feminist intervention, a “swerving” into the genealogies of our fathers. One might also expect a departure from an aesthetic factionalism characteristic of anthologies of American poetry since the New Criticism. As such, By Herself might have undertaken the reclamation project that is suggested by the historical scope of this collection, which, with Adrienne Rich’s feminist classic “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” spans a full quarter century.

Not so, however. What this collection undertakes, rather, is the publication of many essays, some quite valuably managing to surpass personal interest or anecdote, all but four of them written in the past decade, over half of them published for the first time in this volume, and many pointedly working contrary to such a reclamation project. To cite only one: how does Rita Dove’s essay (at 28 pp. long for this collection) surveying the work of Derek Walcott contribute to the work to be done? This is included, ironically, in the anthology’s first section entitled “Writing Their Lives,” following up essays on Dickinson, Wheatley, Moore, and Plath. Who is “their”?

McQuade makes a case for the generative power of encountering disagreement, and it is in this spirit that she has assembled essays by an aesthetically diverse group of 26 poets — “exemplars from many traditions” — including Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Alicia Ostriker, Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach, Heather McHugh, Annie Finch, Lyn Hejinian, Eavan Boland, and C.D. Wright.

But to make a claim for disagreement seems disingenuous, when what we really have is a peaceful pluralism. Only one essay, Mary Karr’s “Against Decoration,” sets out with teeth bared. Perhaps this anthology simply tries to please too many. It gathers a few classics, invites a few newcomers, includes a few stars, and covers quite a few topics, many of them having nothing to do with poetry by women.

Still, the volume manages to include essays that are necessary and rewarding reading. People will want this collection to read Eavan Boland’s “Letter to a Young Poet” and a few others, including Sharon Olds’ touching and informative “A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser” (quite a few lessons to be learned from Rukeyser on teaching poetry), Lyn Hejinian’s now-classic generative, art-historical, feminist-critical, and poetic “La Faustienne,” and C.D. Wright’s “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry.” There is the firmness to Wright’s mind, a vastness to her reading, and an unstinting determination to be an individual poet that makes this essay indispensable. While essays by old-school feminist beside more recent essays by those differently-committed reveal the extent to which the definition of a “woman poet” — or the imperative to define oneself as such — has changed, this collection still invites the question: What, in this context, could a reclamation mean?

I took instruction from Eavan Boland’s outstanding “Letter to a Young Poet,” which got to the beating heart of the matter, being, in part, about one woman’s struggle to realize, “join together,” her life — a young mother’s life — as a poet, while constructing a crucial perspective on the historical nature of that task: “the past needs us,” she writes, “That very past in poetry which simplified us as women and excluded us as poets now needs us to change it. To bring it our warm and fractious present . . . we need to change the past. Not by intellectualizing it. But by eroticizing it. The concept that a template of poetic authority can actually be changed, altered, radicalized by those very aspects of humanity which are excluded from it is at the heart of what I am saying.” Too many essays in Beside Herself, Boland prompts us to realize, accept, even champion, an old template of poetic authority.

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