THE COLOURFUL WORLD OF WOMEN IN POETRY offers insights into the simple and knotted issues of life that are faced by female writers and thus presenting a female perspective in their poetry. The long journey undertaken by them eventually establishes a stable female poetic tradition. From ‘no-entry-ladies-forbidden’ to a powerful and magnetic destination of a new “second” world that is free “from the linear absolutes of male literary history”, this fascinating journey makes a compelling reading.
I was, being human, born alive I am being woman , hard beset I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get LET NO CHARITABLE HOPE: Elinor Wylie (1)
In recent decades a great deal of interest has been shown in women’s literature and this seems rather odd in view of the standard of equality between the sexes raised so high. However, the principle of equality cannot invalidate the distinction between the two kinds of human consciousness just as it cannot demolish the biological differences. From the psychological angle an exploration of the characteristic female consciousness which colours the poetry by the new women poets is extremely fascinating and reveals the other side of the human consciousness. As Blaise Pascal very rightly remarks “We arrive at the truth not by the reason only, but also by the heart .”(2)
Not very long ago expressing his opinion about Charlotte Bronte’s literary activities, Robert Southey –ten years before the publication of JANE EYRE –had remarked that literature cannot be the business of a women’s life. Similarly an old Bishop declared to Virginia Woolf “that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare.” Virginia Woolf in her famous reply imagined in her early feminist writing A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN that there was a sister of Shakespeare who was immensely gifted and as eager to see the wide world as Shakespeare was. But when she ventured outside Stratford- at-Avon, she found herself pregnant, killed herself and now lies buried at some crossroads of London. (1) Subsequent women theorists agree that the literature of women depends on biological, social, psychological facts that govern her existence. In fact if one is asked to name a single most characteristic feature of women’s writing it can best be provided in the words of Margaret Atwood written in the context of Canadian literature but which can be very aptly applied to the literature of women all over the world: it is a literature of survival and victims. The subjugation of women had been long and suffocating and just as one tenth part of the iceberg is seen floating while the larger chunk remains invisible, underneath the creative imagination, the dread of the victimized experience still clings:
I return to the story of the woman caught in the war & in labour, her thighs tied together by the enemy so she could not give birth. Ancestress: the burning witch, her mouth covered by leather to strangle words. SPELLING: Margaret Atwood
It is interesting that any discussion on women’s poetry inevitably includes a French- Simone de Beauvoir whose THE SECOND SEX alone took the challenge of the prevailing ideology of ‘Kinde, Kuhe und Kirche’ until the 1960s & 1970s when the need to evolve a female literary tradition was felt. They have come a long way since then and have jumped over the various phases charted by another eminent theorist –Elaine A. Showalter. (2) From the FEMININE stage when they had to use pseudonyms to get published or the FEMINIST stage when they needed a platform to dramatize their sufferings or the FEMALE stage when they declared and acknowledged that they are different and happy being women ,they have eventually entered a FREE stage that is as Showalter adds –“American women writers in the 21stcentury can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose.” This poetry coming straight from heart and genuine feelings is convincing, therefore profound and has a broad spectrum. The best poets are too individualistic to allow their poetry stamped by one theme. They accept what they are and what they feel, and they express that without any mask, with no intention of “telling it slant”. Adrienne Rich in her essay WOMAN AND HONOR: SOME NOTES ON LYING says “women have been driven mad, ‘gas lighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds have been mystified to us”. (3)
Now with honesty, courage and willingness women reveal the most intimate aspects of their personality, their fears and their desires. The grudge she bears against men is the most bitter. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton both consider the male ego as a wicked energy. Sylvia Plath faces it directly and does not spare even her father:
Daddy I have had to kill you You died before I had time DADDY (4)
Vengeance and intense hatred changes her submissive image into the avenging shapes of restless witches and vampires:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.
LADY LAZARUS (5)
U. A. Fanthorpe does not mind dying ritually :
since I always rise again But I should have liked a little more blood To show they were taking me seriously. NOT MY BEST SIDE (6)
Jean Tepperman warns men that she is waiting for them with her broom stick around graveyard with her other sisters:
If you stop at a red light in the wet city traffic, watch for us against the moon. We are screaming, we are flying, laughing, and won’t stop. WITCH
Fears of women are not imaginary: at times they are very real and nightmarish too. Jean Arasanayagam, a Sri Lankan poet who embraces a new religion, a new culture, she linked herself by marriage, fights against exclusion and ostracism in her new family – an experience completely alien to men:
Freely I walk through an open gate but now the path is blocked tangled with cactus, only my eyes wander beyond a wall of thorns.
DAUGHTER-IN- LAW (7)
There is another category of Black women poets, long kept apart by a wide socio-cultural gulf, who had to struggle oppression simultaneously on literary, racial and sexual fronts. The revolutionary Black poet Nikki Giovanni in her autobiography GEMINI says, “How and why I became a fighter is still a mystery to me. If you believe in innateness, then I guess the only logical conclusion is that it’s in my blood.” (8) We are fortunate to get in return a very colourful gift of the beauty and magic of the power of Black world in literature:
I wish I were a shadow: oh wow! When they put the light on me I’d grow longer and taller and BLACKER
POEMS FOR MY NEPHEW (9)
MY STORY of Kamala Das boldly reveals her experiences and marks a turning point in the history of modern Indian writing. In the manner of confessional poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ann sexton, there has been an effort to remove the mask that covers the poet’s actual face. Kamala Das, Denise Levertov, and Carolyn Kizer want women poets to have the freedom to write without affectation. Blunt and colloquial they criticize themselves for various forms of hypocrisy. Kamala Das is courageous enough to have refused the conventional role of an Indian wife: “My life had been planned and its course charted by my parents and relatives. I was to be the victim of a young man’s carnal hunger and perhaps, out of our union, there would be born a few children. I would be a middle class housewife, and walk along the vegetable shop carrying a string bag….I would wash my husband’s cheap underwear and hang it out to dry in the balcony like some kind of a national flag and wifely pride.” (10) Anne Sexton, an American and Pulitzer prize winner too could not lead the conventional life for long because of the intense pressure from the inside: “All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children….I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up , and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.” She writes much more fiercely than any poet in our time about her physical and mental bliss. And this points to another very significant aspect of women’s poetry that they are glad to be women. Their poems show the joy and difficulty, their struggle with housekeeping and recurrent dreams of loveliness. Mona van Duyn was assertive when her prize winning entry was ridiculed by Allen Ginsberg, a dissenting judge, for the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN POETRY 1971 as “mediocre”. She, in her reply openly said without any shame that her poems are created in that place “where the undomesticated feelings snapping and snarling run around the domestic ring .I find myself most interested in the self-definitions which occur in the ‘home-base ‘from which we go out into work, war, politics and conquest of nature and to which we inevitably and constantly return.” Sylvia Plath was visited by an almost impetuous creative force towards the end of her life and in an unpublished typed manuscript she writes that these poems “were written at about four in the morning, before the baby’ s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman settling his bottles…” Adrienne Rich tells of a similar experience with her famous poem SNAPSHOTS OF A DAUGHTER-IN- LAW which took her two years to complete: The poem was “jotted in fragments during children’s naps, brief hours in a library, or at 3.00 AM after rising with a wakeful child.” And she feels overjoyed because she was able to write, for the first time “directly about experiencing myself as a woman.” Revolving around imaginative but a lack-lusture dull routine, female poetry is a beautiful blend of gross and subtle. She is happy mending the socks of her children and still has the energy and confidence that “she can warn the stars.” Kitchen chores and writing poetry both are taken as part of their fertility and immensely enjoyed by Erica Jong:
“Salt the metaphors. Set them breast up over the vegetables & baste them with the juice in the casserole. Lay a piece of aluminum foil over the poem, cover the casserole & heat it on top of the stove until you hear the images sizzling.….”ARSE POETICA
In her essay FRUITS & VEGETABLES justifying the title of the book she says “Ïf I am going to spend time in the kitchen, I wanted to know how to look into an onion and see my soul, to reclaim for poetry the humble objects of a woman’s daily life ….” The gastronomical and the new poetic flavors are fogging up the male conventions and bringing in a fresh, maddening fragrance in the arena of women’s literature till now loaded with symbols of frozen outdoor landscape and fiery hearths created by their suppressed identities. Poetry, Jong believed, “had been an elitist upper-class men’s club long enough. It was high time to welcome in the people who prepared the food!”
Their latest attack is on the ancient myths: they examine themselves and their place in relation to their past and future anew. Well armed with their womanly weapons women are revisiting the ancient myths which they think are like covered hidden pits prepared by men for women to fall into the trap of oblivion:
I cannot go on sharing his nightmares My own are becoming clearer, they open into pre-history which looks like a village lit with blood where all the fathers are crying My son is mine! AUGUST: Adrienne Rich
They challenge the male ego by refusing to accept their superiority. Jane Harrison questiion “Why is a woman a dream and a terror to a man and not the other way round?” blows off the romantic –myth-making-tradition. If Adrienne Rich thinks the charisma of man to come purely from his power and not from anything fertile in him, Margaret Atwood in SIREN SONG wonders how the “boring song” of sirens “works every time” and forces men to leap ‘overboard in squadrons’? The sirens are tired of singing and don’t enjoy any more on the lonely island. (11). American poet Alta changes the meek image of Euridice, silently walking behind and dancing around her singer husband Orpheus’ love:
all the male poets write of orpheus as if they look back &expect to find me walking patiently behind them. they claim i fell into hell damn them, i say I stand in my own pain & sing my own song.
Jean Arasanayagam‘s Medusa with writhing locks “knotted with tangled reptiles,” laughs and tells menfolk that these are tame snakes:
It is your own fear, not fear of me That turns you into rock. MEDUSA
This act of revision gives a different angle to the archetypes and thus by deconstructing the old myths they are reconstructing a colourful women’s literary tradition. They project their new self, confident and strong enough to kick the male fantasy:
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal I cannot be comprehended except by my permission EGO TRIPPING: Nikki Giovanni
Male and female, as Kate Millett points out, in many ways represent separate cultures. This difference, however, is read to mean inferior for centuries and men have served this distorted picture with utmost pleasure. Women are amused by this male fantasy and with their efforts have emerged successful to have cleared the smudges from the mirror of the history of women writers :
Not my best side, I am afraid The artist didn’t give me a chance to Pose properly, and as you can see, Poor chap, he had this obsession with Triangles, so he left off two of my Feet, I didn’t comment at that time ……… But afterwards I was sorry for the bad publicity.
NOT MY BEST SIDE: U A Fanthorpe (12)
Critics have charged that female poets express no sense of ‘cosmic optimism’. If they are not expressing cosmic visions they have been writing directly of their inner world, a world definitely vaster than can be imagined. Beauty of nature, art of love, strategies of politics, world of dreams and mystifying myths are the materials of their poetry. Poetry for them is x-ray that “helps you see the wound and understand it.” They see in poetry “a possibility for survival.” And this they do by expressing their pent up voices gagged for long in myriad and in many interesting ways. They present the intertwined realities of personality and culture that has nurtured them without hiding the facts of either their personality or the culture. They assess the destiny of women in a ritualistic power –structured society with the “will to change” its complex value system:
where painfully and with wonder at having survived even this far we are learning to make fire HABITATION: Margaret Atwood (13)
1. Virginia Woolf. 1977. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. London: Grafton Books . (p.45)
2. Showalter. Elaine. 1977. A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton University Press
3. Rich, Adrienne.1979. ON LIES, SECRETS, AND SILENCE: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. (p.190)
7. Arasanayagam, Jean. 1999. WOMEN, ALL WOMEN. Calcutta: Writers Workshop
8.Giovanni, Nikki. 1971. GEMINI: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on my twenty-five years of being a black poet. New York: The Bobbs - Merrill Company. Inc.
9. Das. Kamala. 1988. MY STORY. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. (page 85)
4.5.6,10, 11,12. See Fleur Adcock, ed. 1987.THE FABER BOOK OF 20th C WOMEN’S POETRY. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
NOT MY BEST SIDE: U.A. Fanthorpe
HABITATION and SIREN SONG: Margaret Atwood
DADDY and LADY LAZARUS: Sylvia Plath
NOT MY BEST SIDE: U. A. Fanthorpe
The rest of the quotes are from INTERNET