Friday, 27 January 2017

Those Caterwauling Women Poets!

Anne Bradstreet

The complex beginnings from which modern feminist poetry emerged has engendered a long struggle for women-poets. As early at the 17th century, Anne Bradstreet remarked: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / That says my hand a needle better fits," and this statement is a precursor to many similar observations.

Despite the achievements of poets like Barrett Browning, Dickinson and Rossetti, Victorian women poets were stifled by the prevailing cultural ideology and vulnerable to male critics and readers who declared that femininity and poetry were diametically opposed, since the gender of women poets could not fail to subvert their work. This incompatibility, it was alleged, was due to superficiality and triviality.

Accusations against female poets

Theodore Roethke was highly-specific in his accusations towards female poets, and these are some of his charges:  "...lack of range in subject matter, in emotional tone - and lack of a sense of humour... the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life... hiding from the real agonies of the spirit... stamping a tiny foot against God... caterwauling..."

Women-poets who wrote traditionally, in a way that expressed femininity and humility for example, Felicia Hemans who wrote "The Stately Homes of England" and "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" were not opposed with such severity, although their male reviewers patronised them. Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, received much negative cricicism; one suggestion was that her mother was not sufficiently warm and affectionate, otherwise she would have pursued "normal" feminine interests. "She would then have become a church member, been active in community affairs, married and had children."

In many cases, the assumption seemed to be that if the woman-poet was fulfilled in the traditional role of homemaker and wife, there would be no need to seek expression in poetry. The stark reality was that the female homemaker received neither basic freedom nor emotional support. She was likely to be too busy ministering to her relatives to find time and inspiration to indulge her art.

High language and dominant groups

One of the difficulties for women was the requirement for poetry to draw upon the classical literature of Greek and Latin subjects that were an integral part of masculine education. The female poets who aspired to such learning were mocked or ignored, and their efforts were devalued. Suzanne Juhasz described the "double-bind" for women poets, that of being mocked for studying Homer, or held in contempt for not being allowed to study Homer.

This difficulty, however, was not confined to women. Cora Kaplan, the Marxist-feminist, points out that the rupture between childhood and adolescence, where public speech is restricted in certain groups of society, has resulted in high language becoming a crucial part of the power of dominant groups. She is referring not only to the victimisation of women, but to issues of class, race and status. 

It is from this unwieldy foundation that our current female poets have striven to find a voice.

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