Showing posts with label Women writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Women writers. Show all posts

Monday, March 08, 2010

The early editors of HOW(ever), L to R:
Bev Dahlen, Susan Gevirtz, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Frances Jaffer & Kathleen Fraser

International Women’s Day is 101 today¹, a figure that reminds me that the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry – still the most influential single book of poems to have appeared in print in my lifetime – occurred pretty much at the halfway point in that history, gathering the post-avant poetries of the period between the end of the Second World War & 1960. That book has been rightly criticized for having just four women contributors among its 44, and for ignoring Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, Ruth Witt-Diamant, Muriel Rukeyser, ruth weiss, Kathleen Fraser, Josephine Miles, Mary Fabilli, Laura Ulewicz & others who could arguably have been included in that work.

I hate to admit that this situation was perceived, at least by myself & the male poets I knew, as “normal” back in the 1960s, but it was. In the 1960s, Gertrude Stein was still considered a joke as a writer, an extra-literary phenomenon of those crazy between-war years in Paris. H.D. was not thought about at all, unless Robert Duncan was talking. Tillie Olsen read at San Francisco State & gave away copies of Tell Me a Riddle because nobody had bothered to buy the book.

So that when Kathleen Fraser wrote about accepting her legs, Denise Levertov put a plaque on her washing machine crediting the Guggenheim Foundation for the machine’s ability to free up her time to write, and when Diane Wakoski began to create poems about – of all things – male sexism, these were all received quite differentially depending on what you had between your legs. Nor were these women alone – Florence Howe’s No More Masks dates from 1973, Judy Grahn’s The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke stunningly all the way from 1964 (just two years after the then-LeRoi Jones put out Four Young Lady Poets, featuring Wakoski, Carol Bergé, Barbara Moraff & Rochelle Owens).

When I was a student at San Francisco State in the 1960s, there was exactly one woman on the creative writing faculty there, Kay Boyle, &, after I’d left, I was not surprised to hear that Boyle fought hard (tho unsuccessfully) to keep it that way, resisting the addition of Fraser to the full-time tenure-track elite. At Berkeley, the only women writers during my time there (Levertov, Lillian Hellman) were visiting faculty. And some of the women who taught literature (as distinct from writing) at Berkeley bought into the very male game that professors could have their pick of grad students as sexual partners. The good old days those were not.

So that when Kathleen Fraser – that name again – joined with some like-minded friends in 1983 to create HOW(ever), the timing was perfect: it proved to be an epoch-making event. Women’s writing already had a long, remarkable progressive history: it was not simply quietist poetry (with all of the politics of conformity that implies) written by women. I recall Kathleen telling me at one point that she was surprised at just how much support she got from male post-avants compared with the deafening silence that greeted the publication from the female quietists of that decade, some of whom had become quite famous as feminists. From my perspective, that made perfect sense.

Still, nothing has done more to change – blur, to some degree even erase – the faultlines for poetry in my lifetime than the mass emergence of women writing. For all of the problems that I have with the concept of hybridity in poetry, I can’t escape the fact that for many writers, especially those younger than myself, the bifurcation of poetry into two counter-posing traditions is experienced as a quarrel among men (white men at that), and that the landscape of poetry in the English language now looks entirely different.

Not that all is perfect. Far from it. It is still possible to have a major award shortlist that consists entirely of men, even though everyone now seems to concede that the absolute majority of poets writing in English are women. Further, this disparity continues to turn up in some of the ways women writers express themselves. Of the 1192 active blogs on my blogroll, 392 are written by women, slightly under 33 percent. For the next week, the top list on my new links page will consist of nothing but these women (and, knowing Blogger, that may be the only list visible). Now, it’s conceivable that one of the reasons for this disparity is me – if I’m missing anyone, send me an email and let me know. It’s also true that not all of the collective blogs are exclusively by men – Give a Fig missed this list because one of its 13 contributors is male. But the distance between the 25 percent figure that marked the participation by women in In the American Tree in 1986 and the 32.9 percent in my blogroll 24 years later is not the sign of a successful revolution so much as it is of one still very much in process.

Women who blog about poetry, poetics & the arts


¹ First observed February 28, 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, it was fomally adopted by the Second International in 1910 & celebrated internationally for the first time in 1911. Some organizations will celebrate its centennial next year.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Pam Rosenthal

The “20 women poets” who have had the most profound influence on my writing, in alphabetical order –

Kathy Acker

Rae Armantrout

Sandy Berrigan

Elizabeth Bishop

Lee Ann Brown

Abigail Child

Jan Clausen

Beverly Dahlen

Tina Darragh

Lydia Davis

Jean Day

Emily Dickinson

Lynne Dreyer

Hilda Doolittle

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Kathleen Fraser

Judy Grahn

Carla Harryman

Lyn Hejinian

Joyce Holland

Fanny Howe

Susan Howe

Erica Hunt

Lisa Jarnot

Beth Baruch Joselow

Joanne Kyger

Lynn Lonidier

Bernadette Mayer

Laura Moriarty

Harryette Mullen

Rochelle Nameroff

Pam Rosenthal / Molly Weatherford

Leslie Scalapino

Gertrude Stein

Cole Swensen

Rosmarie Waldrop

Diane Wakoski

Diane Ward

Hannah Weiner

C.D. Wright

Sunday, September 29, 2002

In 1969, Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Society published a volume of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry entitled T&G. The book’s subtitle was The Collected Poems (1936-1966). Unpaginated, the text ran all of 60 pages, a number of which were devoted to A. Doyle Moore’s plant prints. Thirty-three years hence, it seems stunning that we can now have a book entitled simply Collected Works (University of California, 2002) whose gathering of Niedecker’s poems and prose totals 362 pages, with over 100 additional pages of notes and indices to lend the volume heft.

In my mind, I had linked Niedecker with Besmilr Brigham, connecting the pair to a larger Dickinsonian tradition of women writing in isolation. But now I think that the parallel feels forced. Brigham & Niedecker share two important dimensions:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Each lived precariously on the economic margins at a considerable geographic distance from major literary centers
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Both held a visible relation to the Pound/Williams tradition – more to Williams than to Pound – and connected to the scene primarily through the mail. 
Beyond that, though, they are profoundly different poets. Part of it may just be generational – Niedecker was ten years older, having been born in 1903, with her earliest poems have been written in the 1920s and her connection to Zukofsky and the Objectivists dating from the early 1930s. Brigham may have been a late starter by comparison – her first publication in El Corno Emplumado in 1966 occurs when she is 53 (although apparently telling people that she was ten years younger).

It’s worth considering what the curious history of the Objectivists meant not just to Niedecker but to all of the writers usually associated with that rubric – active and working together in the early 1930s, but not quite jelling in terms of public response, followed by an erasure from public view in the 1940s & ‘50s, only to return again, this time triumphant, in the 1960s. For one thing, Niedecker’s own position vis-à-vis the participants in the famous February 1931 issue of Poetry & subsequent anthology had changed by the mid-1960s. Fully mature as a poet, she was in no way outside the circle by the time of their collective re-emergence.

Furthermore, Niedecker had benefited from the long silence as did several of the Objectivists as they became a far more disciplined and cohesive group of poets than they had been in the early 1930s. Without any wider audience for so many years, the Objectivists had only themselves and a few others as readers for nearly 20 years.* The work that came out of the long silence was more spare than that which had gone before. Consider the florid tone of this passage by Carl Rakosi, which actually led off the Objectivist issue of Poetry, the first stanza from a piece entitled “Orphean Lost” from a larger serial poem called “Before You”:

The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

This overwrought text, which initiated a revolution, is not to be found in Rakosi’s Collected Poems.** If anything, the text reflects a love-hate relationship with surrealism that shows up both in Poetry, which included two Rimbaud translations by Emanuel Carnevali as well as a little symposium on the “gratuitous and arbitrary” poetry of Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, and in the anthology where Zukofsky literally rearranged the lines of a Kenneth Rexroth work in seemingly random order, to the latter’s considerable vexation.

All that deliberate excess is gone by the 1960s. Thus we can identify a second factor separating First and Third Phase Objectivism*** – a new emphasis on a spare, unadorned style not always evident during the 1930s. This was reinforced by the return to writing of George Oppen, who had had the most austere aesthetic during that first decade.+

Niedecker may have been isolated geographically, but she was integrally part of this literary cabal and it is this community that created the foundation for her broad acceptance, especially after her death in 1970. Brigham never had this – the poets with whom she is said to have corresponded, Duncan & Creeley, were already famous by the 1960s. Older than either of them, Brigham never made the transition from correspondent to peer. While the work of those two men was associated with Black Mountain College, where each had taught, they had always been completely different poets and, by the 1960s, each was evolving according to impulses and demands that had little to do with one another, regardless of their mutual admiration. So it turns out that it is Brigham far more than Niedecker who was truly the Outsider poet.

This is true in other ways as well. Place is important to both of Niedecker & Brigham, but Niedecker inhabits the Wisconsin of her poems with a sense of its presence, very nearly its omnipresence++  compared with the far more tentative landscapes the peripatetic Brigham confronts in Mississippi, Texas, Mexico & Arkansas. I sense Niedecker truly in her environment whereas Brigham carries the perspective of someone who appears to have been an observer more than a participant, regardless of the context…just passing through, taking notes.

My impression of this is heightened by the fact that Brigham is a poet of the eye, whereas Niedecker thinks and proceeds by ear. A distinction like that is simply a part of one’s human chemistry – it’s not a question of right or wrong decisions – but the distinction plays out in important ways for poetry.  There is a tonal logic in Niedecker’s work, as there is, say, in the poetry of Larry Eigner, which is extraordinary to read. The poetry as a result possesses a cohesion that communicates as total life prosody – you are never in doubt that you’re in the presence of a major poet with Niedecker. Brigham’s poems are no less intense or intelligent, but tonally they’re more diverse – the range is from straightforward narrative, rather like the piece I quoted on September 25, to highly enjambed. You can see & feel all of her directions, but never quite sense that presence of an overwhelming unifying force.

On the other hand, a true Collected Poems of Besmilr Brigham might tell as different a story as Niedecker’s Collected Works does from T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-66).

* & even this overstates the case. Oppen had dropped out almost entirely, working as a political organizer, fight in the Second World War, then choosing exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Bunting, more of a sporadic than a prolific poet, was off in the Middle East occupied with espionage.

** Two of the four sections of “Before You,” have been preserved: “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” and “Unswerving Marine,” both of which show up in the section of the Collected entitled “Amulet,” albeit not in the order they appeared in 1931. All four sections can be found as separate poems in Poems 1923-1941, Andrew Crozier’s admirable excavation of Rakosi’s work from Objectivism’s First Phase.

*** See “Third Phase Objectivism,” Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, “George Oppen Issue,” Spring, 1981, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, pp. 85-89.
+ The noteworthy exception to the austere style is Zukofsky. To a significant degree, the commitment to “A” pushed his own poetry in different directions than the rest of the Objectivists, although his shorter pieces often reflect the stripped-down aesthetic of his cohort.  A test of my thesis about the impact of “disappearance” of Objectivism in the 1940s can be seen in the work of the two younger poets from that issue of Poetry who continued to write and publish: Rexroth and Ted Hecht. Their poetry evolved in ways different from the core Objectivist group as well as different from one another – neither adopted anything like a spare style.

++ Interestingly, when Niedecker turns to place as Other, in the four-part poem “Florida,” she too emphasizes the eye – both opening and closing sections focus on the visual aspects of the state – the birds, the older women wearing slacks.