As Julia Bell states in her Ten Books by Women that Everyone Should Read there is no shortage of great women writers, and no great shortage of readers either. There are currently three female laureates in the UK: Carol Ann Duffy (National), Liz Lochhead (Scotland) and Gillian Clarke (Wales). Sinéad Morrissey has just won the T.S. Eliot Prize. By all accounts, female poets aren’t doing too badly. So why is the issue of gender in writing still such, well, such an issue? Although it is certainly a good thing this question is becoming harder to answer, when it comes to reeling off the names of the Metaphysical Poets, the Beat Poets, the Romantics, and so on, I admit I struggle to come up with the name of a poet who also happens to be female. Just as I find it hard to name three female philosophers (anyone?). It seems the problem lies in death, or rather, in history and how it gets written up. Woman wither in the afterlife, while men, it seems, grow stronger from the grave. The challenge lies in bringing female writers to the attention of the people—reviewers, critics and academics—who create and curate the cultural space. And it will take further effort to lift those female poets from the token fringes of culture and reinstate them at the heart of our intellectual register.
The following list is by no means exhaustive and offers a whistle-stop tour through history of some of our best, yes female, poets:
In Greek antiquity SAPPHO (c. 630 and c. 550 BC) was known simply as “the Poetess”. She was one of the Nine Lyric poets, a canonical group of ancient Greek poets esteemed worthy of scholarly study. Sappho’s main contributions to the conventions of the lyric genre are her experimentation with metrical complexity (Sapphic metre) and the deliberate omission of superfluous rhetoric to allow for the sharp and clear images to be delivered with a melodic immediacy. Unlike the poems and ancient texts of her male counterparts, Sappho’s poems were not collated and copied by medieval monks and as a result lost from the manuscript tradition. The fragments and shards of Sappho’s poems that did survive did so either through quotation by other authors or through the discovery of fragments written on ancient papyrus. Her poetry has been translated by and informed the work of poets as diverse as Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Swinburne, Pierre Louÿs, H. D., Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Nicole Brossard, Thomas Hardy, Allen Ginsburg, Amy Lowell and Aléxandros Soútsos, to name but a few. She remains widely recognized as one of the great poets of world literature.
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, Virago Press, London, 2003.
Two hitherto unknown poems came to light in 2013, when an anonymous private collector showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr. Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN (1098 – 1179) was a German poet, composer, philosopher and Christian mystic. Her three main illuminated volumes of visionary theology are Scivias (1142-1148, lost since 1945), Liber Vitae Meritorum (1158-1163) and Liber Divonorum Operum. Her body of nearly 400 letters is the largest to survive from the Middle Ages. Interestingly, she also invented a language and accompanying alphabet that she called Litterae Ignotae, or “unknown language”. She wrote on the natural sciences (Physica), penned medicinal texts (Causae et Curae) and founded two monasteries. Her literary output was prolific, and influential in religious, artistic and intellectual circles. The famous medieval critic Bernard of Clairvaux (a deconstructivist avant-la-Derrida) was a champion of her work. The Ordo Virtutum is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. At the end of her life all of her works were edited and gathered into the single Riesencodex manuscript, now held at the Wiesbaden State Library.
Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings, ed. Oliver Davies, Penguin Classics, 2001
(SOR) JUANA INÉS DE LA CRUZ (1651-1695). I had not heard of this Mexican poet and scholar of Spanish descend until Ruth Fainlight brought her to my attention recently, citing Octavio Paz’ Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, Las trampas de la fe as the most complete study of her life and work. Aged six or seven she begged her mother to let her dress as a man so she could study at Mexico University. It makes it all the more extraordinary that the greatest writer to emerge in the 17th century Spanish-speaking world was a woman. She took vows and entered the convent but even from an initial reading of her work I think it safe to say that the prospect of having a study and a library at her disposal was more of a career move than the response to a religious calling. Her poems ooze intelligence and wit and are by and large void of mystic rapture, instead dealing with the major artistic themes of the time—illusion/reality, dream/waking and original/copy. Her poems and letters contain continual pleas for her writing not to be read in terms of conventional gender stereotyping and defend the right of women to have access to learning. As her star rose and reputation and influence widened, so the Ecclesiastical hierarchy began to attack her more openly and harshly for her preoccupation with worldly affairs. Her 'Respuesta a Sor Filotea', a reply to these organized attacks on her work has been hailed as the first feminist manifesto. Eventually the pressure from the establishment became too big and Sor Juana was forced to sell her extensive library of some 4000 books, as well as her musical and scientific instruments. She died, aged 43, of the plague.
A Sor Juana Anthology, both Spanish and English versions, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1988, reprinted 1990
HOPE MIRRLEES (1887-1978), novelist, poet, translator. Mirrlees’ long poem Paris is a modernist masterpiece that influenced, among others, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, who published it under the title Paris: A Poem (The Hogarth Press, 1919). "Indecent, obscure, brilliant," in the words of Woolf. “Modernism’s lost masterpiece,” in the words of Julia Briggs (2007). Why Paris became “modernism’s lost masterpiece” beggars belief. True, Paris is a difficult poem, in large part because it explores new poetic territory. Aesthetically and in terms of its experimentalism, it is one of most daring modernist works of art, arguably more daring than the ‘Waste Land’. Paris is a dynamic enactment of a journey through a day in post First World War Paris, populated by figures from symbolism, cubism, surrealism, jazz culture and nightlife. The abundant references that originate from a wide kaleidoscope of cultural and literary registers, in an observational, indiscriminate fashion, impart the work with the sense one is reading an abstract painting instead of a long poem. Writing in the Guardian in 2012, Patrick McGuinness captures Mirrlees’ masterpiece beautifully: “Voices, machine noises and musical notes are caught in mid-air, shreds of advertising, brand names, logos, street signs and even the lettering on monuments, are conveyed in poetry that takes liberties not just with standard verse forms, but with linear writing itself.”
Hope Mirrlees, Collected Poems, Carcanet Press, ed. Sandeep Parmar, 2011
MARINA TSVETAEVA (1892-1941) is the only poet I know of who has a planet named after her. Her poems, predominantly lyrical, burn with reckless passion. They are as lucid as they are bewildering and are distinctive in their rhythmic shifts and unusual use of syntax. There is something unpolished and crude about her work, something plaintive, yet with a devil-may-care love for a life lived in the face of much hardship. Her youngest daughter died in a state orphanage in the Moscow famine of 1919, her husband was a spy for the Soviet secret police and later executed, and her sister and elder daughter were carted off to prison camps. She was flamboyantly generous in her admiration of contemporary writers such as Aleksandr Blok, Heinrich Heine and Anna Akhmatova, and corresponded with Boris Pasternak, Rainier Maria Rilke and Anna Teskova. She herself, however, was often on the receiving end of criticism, particularly after an admiring letter to Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was deemed as being too pro-Soviet. As a result she was passed over by and round the literary establishment like a hot potato, forced to get by on bits of translation work. Describing her misery, she wrote to Teskova, "In Paris, with rare personal exceptions, everyone hates me, they write all sorts of nasty things, leave me out in all sorts of nasty ways, and so on." After the émigré years of Berlin, Prague and Paris, she returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, to the town of Yelabuga, where she hanged herself in 1941.
Marina Tsvetaeva: Selected Poems, translated Elaine Feinstein, Oxford University Press, 1971
Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Random House 1999
INGEBORG BACHMANN (1926-1973) Bachmann’s poetry is firmly rooted in the Classical and Romantic tradition but simultaneously infused with abstract language and concrete images. Wittgenstein’s final sentence of the Tractatus, ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’, was a touchstone Bachmann returned to frequently. Her later poetry was often an attempt to reach through and beyond this very silence. Her first collection Borrowed Time (Die Gestundete Zeit) was published in 1953 amid torrents of acclaim and received the coveted Gruppe 47 Prize, which landed her the cover story in Der Spiegel that same year. Bachmann’s subsequent rise to prominence was meteoric. Her second, and final collection Invocation of the Great Bear (Anrufung des Großen Bären) appeared in 1956. She received the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1964 and was the first poet to deliver the (now legendary) Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics. Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan conducted a secret love affair and correspondence that spanned decades. Their correspondence, released and published for the first time in 2008, makes for some explosive reading and throws new light on their poetry.
Darkness Spoken: Ingeborg Bachmann, The Collected Poems, translated by Peter Filkins, Zephyr Press, 2006
Herzzeit, The Correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Suhrkamp, 2008 (as far as I’m aware, yet to be published in English).
FOROUGH FARROKHZAD (1935-1967) was an Iranian poet and film director. She was a controversial modernist, an iconoclast, and one of Iran's most influential poets of the twentieth century. Farrokhzad's poetry was banned for more than a decade after the Islamic Revolution. Her work is bold, forthright, and bursts with the joy of the creative act. If you are going to read only one poem today, make it ‘I Will Greet The Sun Again’. On February 13, 1967, Farrokhzad died in a car accident at age thirty-two. In order to avoid hitting a school bus, she swerved her Jeep, which hit a stone wall; she died before reaching the hospital. Her poem ‘Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season’ was published posthumously, and is generally considered the best-structured modern poem in Persian.
Sin: Selected poems of Forough Farrokhzad, ed. Sholeh Wolpe, Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 2007
There is little to say about SYLVIA PLATH (1932-1963) that hasn’t been said already. Joyce Carol Oates described Plath in the New York Times Book Review as "one of the most celebrated and controversial of post war poets writing in English." However, not including Plath in this list of ten female poets would be like not including Arthur Rimbaud on the male-shadow list. Plath is one of those rare literary figures whose work is considered a poet’s poet and read by the public. Her literary legacy looms as large over the 20th century as Arthur Rimbaud’s does over the 19th century. Equally, their lives have taken on mythological dimensions. Their genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction still astonishes. Both were literary innovators. Plath of the confessional style; Rimbaud of the prose poem. Both were in explosive relationships with other poets (Paul Verlaine famously shot Rimbaud in the wrist at Brussels Midi train station), and both had much of their small, yet influential oeuvre published posthumously. Charles Newman, an early editor of her work commented that, "in absorbing, personalizing the socio-political catastrophes of the century, [Plath] reminds us that they are ultimately metaphors of the terrifying human mind."
The Colossus and Other Poems, William Heinemann, 1960
Ariel, Faber and Faber, 1965
ADRIENNE RICH (1929-2012) has been described as one of the most eloquent and provocative 20th century voices on the politics of sexuality, race, language, power and women's culture. Her career spanned seven decades, more than twenty collections and numerous prizes. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), Leaflets (1969), The Will to Change (1971), and Diving into the Wreck (1973) are among her best, stylistically drawing on cinematic techniques of jolting edits and collage. Rich’s determination, in her own words, "to write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman's body and experience" can be seen as an attempt to restore the female idiom to the aesthetic discourse of literary history, rather than a body of work separate to or other than that of her male counterparts.
ANNE CARSON (1950-) brings us to the present day. Carson is a Canadian poet, translator, essayist and professor of Classics. What Johann Peter Eckermann said of Goethe is true also of Carson: she changes poetic style as easily as a snake sheds skin. The question of how poetry can reflect the times we live in is one that Carson explores assiduously in terms of form. The recasting of classical, biblical and literary figures in modern day settings anchor the freely associated images and puts flesh on the bones of her intellectual rigour. Her poems are a blend of poetry, essay, prose, dramatic dialogue and criticism. A good place to start would be The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), which won Carson the T.S. Eliot Prize. Daphne Merkin wrote of it, “I don’t think there has been a book since Robert Lowell’s Life Studies that has advanced the art of poetry quite as radically as Anne Carson is in the process of doing.”
Not forgetting: Else Lasker-Schüler, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mina Loy, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickenson, Stevie Smith, Selima Hill, Wis?awa Szymborska, Valérie Rouzeau, Imtiaz Dharker, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and so many, many other poets it would be a disgrace to find filed (away) under ‘Gender Studies’ 100 years from now.
In 2011 Penguin Classics published an anthology of 100 manifestoes written between 1909 to 2009: 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. Anyone who can guess correctly how many manifestos written by female authors are included in this anthology stands to win my copy of this book.
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