Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place

Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place

Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place

Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place

Synopsis

In an insightful and provocative juxtaposition, Margaret Dickie examines the poetry of three preeminent women writers Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich investigating the ways in which each attempts to forge a poetic voice capable of expressing both public concerns and private interests. Although Stein, Bishop, and Rich differ by generation, poetic style, and relationship to audience, all three are twentieth-century lesbian poets who struggle with the revelatory nature of language. All three, argues Dickie, use language to express and to conceal their experiences as they struggle with a censorship that was both culturally sanctioned and self-imposed. Dickie explores how each poet negotiates successfully and variously with the need for secrecy and the desire for openness.

By analyzing each poet's work in light of the shared themes of love, war, and place, Dickie makes visible a continuity of interests between these three rarely linked women. In their very diversity of style and strategy, she argues, lies a triumph of the creative imagination, a victory of poetry over polemic.

Excerpt

A Sonnet that Gertrude Stein embeds in Patriarchal Poetry appears to be a parody of the conventional love sonnet:

To the wife of my bosom
All happiness from everything
And her husband.
May he be good and considerate
Gay and cheerful and restful. (YGS, 124)

But, because the language here is reminiscent of Stein's celebration of her lover in Lifting Belly," its aim seems more ambivalent, less clearly parodic. Ambivalence marks Elizabeth Bishop Sonnet," which opens with the acknowledgment that the speaker is "Caught--the bubble / in the spirit-level, / a creature divided" (CP, 192), although it closes emphatically with the image of the "rainbow-bird" "flying wherever / it feels like, gay!" (192). When Adrienne Rich addresses her lover in Love Poem," she is more forthright, claiming that "to write for you / a pretty sonnet / would be untrue" (TP, 7).

These poets' use of the sonnet form, however problematic, suggests their uneasy claim on its tradition. Stein heads her sonnet with the phrase repeated throughout Patriarchal Poetry," as if she intended to mimic and deflate that poetry:

Patriarchal Poetry.
SONNET (YGS, 124)

But when she writes of the wife "Whose transcendent virtues / Are those to be most admired / Loved and adored," she is addressing this wife as she did Alice B. Toklas, and thus she seems to be attempting to find a place for herself in the tradition of patriarchal poetry.

Rich, too, denying herself "the pretty sonnet," names it and thus declares its importance. It could be argued that the pretty sonnet has been untrue to most lovers for a very long time, and so we might wonder, why make an issue of it in the plain style of this poem, so unsuitable to the artifice, not to say prettiness, of the sonnet? Yet Rich may have her reasons. She has written, if not sonnets, love poems that call up the tradition of the sonnet sequence. Here she draws attention to that earlier work and to the fact that she has moved on to a point that will not elicit such a poem. Still, she seems to want to keep in mind the "pretty sonnet" as a . . .

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