Saturday, 28 January 2017

Early Women Poets' Dilemma - to Compete with Men or Diversify

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

One of the aims of the feminists during the 1960s was to challenge the accepted concepts of masculinity and femininity and to eradicate the cultural disadvantages suffered by women. They asked why the traditional tendency of the male poet in pursuing the abstract was more highly regarded than the more personal, emotional approach preferred by women poets, and which suited their psychological inclinations.

It was argued that to favour the idea that elevating the feminine tradition of personal and emotional discourse would be to accept that women were incapable of a more masculine and formalised writing, and therefore to devalue them as poets. This was a dilemma for the feminists, perceived as a choice between competition or diversification. Competition would focus on using language in the masculine tradition of formal, absract thought which draw principle from details, is detached, objective and traditionally considered of higher status. The issue for the feminist supporters of competition was to avoid charges of feebleness and lack of logic, to be coherent and to justify feminine aims. Sylvia Plath provided an example of a highly-competitive voice, although she was not a feminist. For Plath, competiveness was extended to women as well as men.

Opposition to competition

Many women, however, were opposed to competition. The main obstacles with adopting the masculine approach were that competing might also suggest some dissembling, and that it might lead to a further oppression, that of fitting in and pandering to the requirements of the other.

Diversification, on the other hand, would mean the establishment of a feminine language, which was more personal and more emotional and did not separate critical from creative writing, as demonstrated by the writing of Virginia Woolf, whose style remained consistent, regardless of its creative or critical purpose.

The disadvantage of the diversification approach would be the difficulty in challenging the established masculine canon, and being taken seriously on equal terms. To counter this, the supporters of diversification said that the difficulty was rooted in the low value placed upon feminine writing.

Because of this dilemma, there was a strong belief in the necessity for "[A]n alternative woman's tradition (which) would enable feminists to rewrite our independent history... construct a context of poetic meaning... make a woman's discourse thinkable."

To this end, feminist thinkers such as Helene Cixous developed a theory described as "ecriture feminine." Cixous' belief is as follows: "Woman must put herself into the text - as into the world and into history - by her own movement." Cixous continued by describing the richness of women's imaginations, especially with reference to their eroticism.

She entreated women to write and to allow no one to prevent them from exploring their inventiveness.


"The Prologue,"  Anne Bradstreet, Salt and Bitter and Good, Three Centuries of Women Poets, ed. Cora Kaplan, London, 1975.
"The Poetry of Louise Bogan," Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, ed. Ralph J. Mills, Jr. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1965
After Great Pain: The Inner life of Emily Dickinson, John Cody, Cambridge, Mass. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971
"The Double Bind off the Woman poet," Naked and Fiery Forms, Modern American Poetry by Women, Suzanne Juhasz,  Harper & Row, New York,1976
"Language and Gender", Cora Kaplan, Literature in the Modern World, Oxford Univesity Press.
"Towards a Woman's Tradition," Feminism and Poetry, Jan Montefiore, Pandora Press, London, 1987
"The Laugh of the Medusa,"  Helene Cixous, New French Feminism, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1981. 

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