She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century

By Bennett, Juda | Transformations, September 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century


Bennett, Juda, Transformations


She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.

In the preface to She Wields a Pen, editor Janet Gray asks us to consider a crude colonial portrait of domestic life. "A black woman sits cradling a white infant in the corner of a modest middle-class parlor. She gazes into the distance through a window. In the centre of the room a white woman reads from a bright little book, her attention enfolding her audience of toddlers, a girl and a boy. Overseeing all, a young white patriarch stands, hands in pockets, as if he has nothing to do but signify his position in the household." Gray leads us from the margins (the black woman is placed where canvas meets frame) to the center (the woman) to a second center (the foregrounded patriarch) and, finally, to the scene itself ("the mother enacts what became known as `republican motherhood'"). Miraculously, She Wields a Pen does more to reveal the multiple lives, concerns, and social complexities of Nineteenth Century women than do the 3,000 page anthologies from the larger publishing houses.

She Wields a Pen places the poems of the Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani next to Emily Dickinson, Owl Woman next to Emma Lazarus, Ann Plato next to Louisa May Alcott. Poets never mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States appear in Gray's anthology. Authors who never made it to the more compendious and infinitely impressive Norton Anthology of African American Literature are given space in these 374 pages. Even the poets that many of us are familiar with (the canonical Emily Dickinson, and the newly canonical African American writer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper) are represented by lesser known works. Gray has put together an anthology that at times seems comprehensive and at times idiosyncratic. Perhaps this is the real delight of the text -- its ability to surprise while also assuring us that the Nineteenth Century (or perhaps we should say certain aspects of the Nineteenth Century) will come alive in the reading of these poems.

The healing songs of Owl Woman or the forty-three answers to Caroline Gilman's "What Will Be Your Destiny" remind us that poetry comes in many forms. A group entry from the Zaragoza Clubs reminds us that poetry cannot always be packaged and ordered by individual biography. This is not an anthology that promotes stars as much as one that delights in a community of voices. Emily Dickinson, the one superstar of the collection, does not overshadow the others. Although she is represented by an entire fascicle (Dickinson created packets or groupings of her poems), the entry does not attempt to display the breadth of Dickinson's poetry. Instead, fascicle 34 allows us to consider how Dickinson self-published, arranging the poems so that they would enrich and complicate one another. This, too, seems to be Janet Gray's goal. Not to offer easy answers to the women's poetry of the Nineteenth Century, but to enrich that body of literature and to delight us with its complexity.

Despite the editor's resistance to a simplistic unity, she does offer us interesting ways into the individual poems as well as a way to think of the literature and its context.

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