The notion of privacy sits at the heart of any discussion of poetry by women. To talk about privacy in this context is to recognise the significance in and to women's poetry of the intimate and personal, of the quiet voice communicating to an immediate audience. These elements are apparent in poetry across many periods and cultures ranging from the love lyrics of Sappho through to the meditations and devotions of the Renaissance poet Mary Sidney, from the apparently hermetic exercises of Emily Dickinson to the personal confessions of Anne Sexton and contemporary American poet Sharon Olds.
It is worth noting that in turning our attention to some women poets' evocation of the private, introspective or local, we risk conceding the validity of a largely – but not exclusively – masculine critical tradition which has argued that the private sphere is women's proper and only concern. Even Catherine Reilly, in the introduction to her recent anthology of women's war poetry (poetry which, as Chapter 5 shows, offers some profound insights into the history and politics of its time), asserts that 'women always excel when writing about human emotions'.1 Given that a primary concern of many recent studies in the field has been to refute the assumption that women's poetry is best occupied with the small-scale, with the personal, or with the self, this chapter's focus on the intimacy and quietude of poetry by women may seem an unexpected, even counterintuitive concern.