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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Alicia Ostriker: Why Study Women's Poetry

The following was first posted by Alicia Ostriker to the Women's Poetry Listserv (otherwise known as WomPo).  This is reprinted by permission of the author.

Dear Wom-pos,

I've been busy this morning telling my senators to vote against "enhanced interrogation techniques," e.g. waterboarding, the Feinman amendment which is about to be voted on, but finally got to Wompo digest, and bumped my nose up against this question.

Excuse me?  Why study women's poetry?

At the risk of immodesty (I've been called "modest" all my writing life and I'm sick of it) here's what I have published on the topic:

Writing like a Woman, Michigan series of poets on poetry, 1982--essays on HD, Plath, Sexton, Rich and Swenson, plus two personal essays, one on poetry and motherhood, one on re-writing mythology

Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, Beacon 1986--about which, everywhere I go women tell me "your book changed my life."

The title essay in Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic, Michigan series of poets on poetry 2000.  Here is a bit from near the beginning of that essay:

What I had to work from, in writing Stealing the Language (published in 1986), was eventually over two hundred individual volumes of poetry by women and a dozen or so anthologies.  From these emerged a large but indistinct picture of the women's poetry movement in America since 1960, which slowly assumed focus.  I wanted to define what was new here, what was altering and expanding the meaning of "poetry," the meaning of "woman.”  I needed to understand how the advent of this writing was causing the past history of literature subtly, lightly, irretrievably to change.  For as Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" so finely explains that the order of art rearranges itself whenever a genuinely original new work appears, so it must shift for larger scale literary movements as well.  The women's poetry movement, it seemed to me, was destined to produce some substantial rearrangements.  But of course one senses this in one's bones long before one can say precisely what has happened.

What then is important in contemporary women's poetry?  What follows from women’s cultural marginality and their equivocal relation to a canon which they appropriate, resist and transform?   First of all, there is the discovery that marginality, however painful, may be artistically useful. Some linked motifs announce themselves:  the quest for self-definition, the body, the eruption of anger, the equal and opposite eruption of eros, the need for revisionist mythmaking.  What Adrienne Rich has called "the oppressor's language" is examined suspiciously in this poetry, along with the language's rooted dualisms:  male versus female, sacred versus profane, mind versus body, public versus private, logos versus eros, self versus other, subject versus object, art versus life.  Not surprisingly, the strongest women poets tend to oppose hierarchy;  they like boundary-breaking, duality-dissolving, and authority-needling.   Formally and stylistically, too there are interesting developments.  I want here to sketch three of these, all of which derive from and relate to particular political issues and are, I feel, designed to subvert and transform "the oppressor's language into something a little closer to the heart's desire....I emphasize the matter of style because it has been claimed that the women's poetry movement is not interesting artistically.  But new meaning in poetry is necessarily signaled by new music.  When the music changes, the walls of the city tremble, says Plato.

Please, dear Wom-pos all, recognize that you are individuals, but you are also all portions of something larger, much larger than yourselves, a global movement that will continue long after your lives and mine, in which poetry actually plays a part.



Anonymous said...

Amen! Look forward to reading Ostriker's book.


Lois Roma-Deeley said...

I will be posting additional "must-read" books. Thanks for writing!