Is Women's Poetry Passe? A Call for Conversation

By Leahy, Anna | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Is Women's Poetry Passe? A Call for Conversation


Leahy, Anna, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


In the January 2006 issue of Poetry, three women writers assert, "[W]e all concur that we ought to abolish the unpleasant term 'women's poetry"' (322). The poets who made this conclusion are Meghan O'Rourke, an editor for Slate and the Paris Review and author of Halflife; J. Allyn Rosser, whose most recent poetry collection is Misery Prefigured; and Eleanor Wilner, a 1991 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, whose latest collection is The Girl with Bees in Her Hair. My initial response to their commentary was "Bravo"!

Why, after all, should women writers worry that their work may be judged in relation to their womanness? Why should they be obligated to fit or resist gendered expectations? As a woman poet who still remembers the struggle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, I understand how categorization according to gender can be, and has been, crippling for women. Ultimately, however, I believe that we risk losing more by doing away with the term women's poetry than we do by keeping it. Certainly, one reason for this is that gender inedquality still shapes our lives, despite apparent gains (recently, a student expressed shock when she discovered that the Equal Rights Amendment had failed). And my female creative writing students tend to be drawn--as I was--to the work of confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, to women poets and their work. In some way, women's poetry as a category asserts that the woman poet exists within a tradition that long ago left her in the dark. As pleasant as it sounds to eliminate wording that reinforces stereotypes, rejecting the term risks obfuscating recent history, erasing the artistic work that the category delineates, and silencing questions about canonization.

The exchange in Poetry, then, is a call for conversation among poets writing today and scholars studying women writers of the past. Given the journal's prestigious history (it published T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") and its now unequalled financial power in contemporary poetry (in 2002, Poetry received a bequest of more than one hundred million dollars from Ruth Lilly), the commentary among O'Rourke, Rosser, and Wilner deserves serious consideration, even though it echoes the same issues I heard debated twenty years ago as an undergraduate.

POETRY BY WOMEN: CONTEXTS FOR OUR CAREERS

Harriet Monroe founded Poetry in 1912 with the following statement of the magazine's "Mission": "The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine--may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! ... [The editors] desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." Because this statement announces that various kinds of work commingle within the pages of Poetry, one might expect gender to be equitably represented, especially recently, unless men--or women--have more "ample genius." While a sweeping study of this and other literary journals is needed, a random look at recent issues of Poetry offers a sense of who's getting through the "open door." In the July/August 2006 humor issue, which includes work by Rosser, Wilner, and poet and feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert, eleven of thirty-four contributors outside the commentary section are women. In the last issue of 2006, four of ten poets are women. In this issue in which the commentary on women's poetry appears, four of twelve poets are women.

Those four include Louise Gluck, who, almost twenty years ago, wrote, "I'm puzzled not emotionally but logically, by the contemporary determination of women to write as women. Puzzled because this seems an ambition limited by the existing conception of what, exactly, differentiates the sexes." She continues, "[A]ll art is historical: [I]n both its confrontations and evasions, it speaks of its period" ("Education of the Poet" 3). I'm confused by this contradiction, which reverberates through the Poetry commentary as well: If a historical period is steeped in gender ideology and if all art speaks of its historical period, it seems logical that women, with or without determination, may write as women. …

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