Celebrating the poetry of the women’s movement
Mar 1, 2009
20 Min read time
On a recent evening, I had supper with a friend, a television executive. Like me, she was born in the era of World War II; like mine, her life 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 something remarkable: “The women’s movement was poetry.”
When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, 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 a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female 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 written by women during the interwar years that denied the power of women. “Women have no wilderness in them,” Louise Bogan wrote in a famous 1923 poem called “Women.” That line, later derided by feminists, was followed by a catalog of female inadequacies: “They wait, when they should turn to journeys.” It would take women poets born in the decade Bogan wrote those lines 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 wake of Ariel 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 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 Allen 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 the beat LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Gwendolyn Brooks (leaving behind the idiom that in 1950 won her the first Pulitzer Prize 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 women’s suffrage—so, from the first moment, the new poems by women varied in strategy. 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 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, in her youth, had played Dagmar on Mama, a television show I had watched as a child. I was amazed to hear that, by that time, she had become a poet and theorist of women’s liberation. I had abandoned my college sonnets and was writing poems out of my own anger and twenty-three-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 Plath. As a student at Radcliffe, I had read Robert Lowell, but in reading Plath I encountered, as Alfred Steiglitz 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.
Sylvia Plath was no longer an isolated victim, but the avatar of a new female literary consciousness.
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, inequality between rich and poor, all of which, women’s liberation now declared, were consequences of male supremacy and patriarchy.
Fulfilling the pledge I had 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’s 1929 anti-war memoir. Defending in polemic the takeover of a paper whose radicalism was, she declared, compromised 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 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 consciousness-raising group met, I could actually hear other women’s stories—not only of abortion, but of rape, motherhood, aspirations 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 Winant 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 daycare centers, women in the health professions, and community organizers for whom perceptions born in 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 work. 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.”
There were also 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 found the California-based Shameless Hussy Review 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 consciousness-raising 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.”
Not only were women writing poems, they were making films and painting paintings and thinking about feminist approaches to architecture.
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 had 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 including June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and Carolyn Kizer, each of whom had published books. 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 1975 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, among women who might otherwise not have read poems at all, that my friend, the television executive, encountered the women’s movement she remembered thirty-five 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 colouring 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 nature of 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 Glück 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 Grimstad and Susan Rennie, which 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 nineteenth 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 women 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 much more life-enhancing.”
In fact, 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 for 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 needed to 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.“
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.
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 optimism of their new movement, they began to build a new tradition. Part of that task of construction 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 and artist Käthe 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 the history of women writers.
But it would take a few years for women to reread and find commonality in their poet foremothers. Most of us had not 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 such as Amy Lowell and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had 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 had not 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 had been taught. In my limited view, Elinor Wylie and Sara Teasdale seemed shrouded in Victorian lace, and I did not 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 in the ’60s. Sara Teasdale “asked the heaven of stars / What I should give my love?” but 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 had read feminist anthologies of twentieth century women’s poetry, such as 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 wordplay 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 centrality of poetry to the women’s movement. And one poem that reflected this centrality was Judy Grahn’s twenty-page 1973 epic “A Woman is talking to Death,” which I heard her read at Westbeth, the artists’ housing complex in Greenwich Village. 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— / as I have left so many of my lovers.”
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 as a demonstration of the power of the poetic resources now at our disposal. 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 named 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; 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 Kunitz chose Olga Broumas’s Beginning with O, a young woman’s reading of Greek myth that also celebrated the erotic love of women.
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 Rich, Jean Valentine, and Rukeyser, she published those poems in 1974, with an essay explaining her anguished journey toward publication. The impediment 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 traveled since the publication of Ariel that Cooper, by 1982 the author of several volumes of poems, could then write 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.
A version of this essay will appear as the introduction to Poems of the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore, which will be published by The Library of America, April 2, 2009.
Jane Cooper’s “The Green Notebook,” excerpted from The Flashboat, is used with permission from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
March 01, 2009
20 Min read time