March 12, 2013
In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained to his publisher:
“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,
and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied
with their trash.”
Hawthorne’s contempt seethes with the sneering and patronizing discrimination of his era; and demonstrates the double bind of a lot of discriminatory attitudes—the outcast form their own counter-culture, and are further condemned for it. Banished from the highest echelons of literary culture, women responded by tapping a popular audience hungry for “domestic” fiction—romances and the like. They were, then, criticized for undermining serious culture. Nice!
Hawthorne’s superiority, coupled with his angry self-pity, is a particularly bald statement of the obstacles that women writers faced in 19th-century America. But it also inadvertently reveals that women were active producers and consumer of literary culture. Yet, how long would it take for women to be treated on equal terms with men? And how would women authors affect the form and content of American poetry and fiction?
The case of poetry is particularly interesting both in tracing the arrival of women poets, but also for the way that gender influenced and changed the very form of poetic writing.
Hawthorne may have let slip what a lot of people thought about women writers; discrimination is always a tangle of personal and societal motivations. It took a long time to untangle things.
In American poetry, there were outliers like Phillis Wheatley (1752-1784) and a century later, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Dickinson is the archetypical undiscovered genius: now considered one of America’s greatest poets. Virtually unknown and unread in her own lifetime, she wrote over a thousand poems, concise masterpieces about faith, death and the terrible beauty of life.
One suspects that when she wrote: “The soul selects her own society,/Then shuts the door,” she was referring not only to her own shyness, but also to the way that society shut the door on certain sensitive souls. It was only by hiding herself away in her Amherst, Massachusetts, home that she freed herself to write.
Writing poetry is such an odd business that it’s dangerous to try to draw a direct connection between improvements in the legal or social conditions of women and the quality of poetry written by them. Nonetheless, movement on civil and social rights did have a general, positive impact, especially as women gained access to higher education.
At the turn of the 19th century, Hilda Doolittle studied Greek literature at Bryn Mawr college and came under the patronage of Ezra Pound who wrote poems for and about her as well as encouraging her to cultivate a style influenced by the imagistic forms of Asian poetry. Her poem “Sea Rose” begins in almost haiku style:
“rose, harsh rose,/marred and with stint of petals,/meager flower, thin. . .”
Indeed, Pound bestowed Doolittle with the moniker, “H.D. imagiste. The H.D. stuck as her pen name although her verse became less imagistic as her career—and her religious faith—developed.
As a student in Philadelphia, Doolittle met other poets. Together, she along with William Carlos Williams and especially Marianne Moore formed, under Pound’s tutelage, the first generation of modernist American poets. And it was Moore who cracked the proverbial glass ceiling for women poets. Establishing herself, in a way that Langston Hughes did for African Americans, Moore became the poet who would command serious consideration from the literary establishment because the quality of her work could not be denied. Competing equally with poets like Pound or Williams or Frost influenced the kind of poetry that Moore wrote, over and above questions of personal choice and temperament. A particularly astute naturalist, Moore delighted in beauty and elegance of the animal world:
“I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford,
with flamingo-colored, maple-
leaflike feet. It reconnoitered like a battle-
In her poem about “Poetry” she confessed that “I, too, dislike it” but verse gave rise to voice:
“hands that can grasp, eyes/that can dilate/hair that can rise”
In creating a genealogy of American women poets, Moore is important for those she helped and mentored, especially Elizabeth Bishop.
Bishop, like Moore, handled the “women’s question” by ignoring it. They were modernist poets, who happened to be women and they didn’t spend much energy—in public anyway—considering their political predicament. Instead, they created poetry that was ordered by their close observation of the natural world and human society. The results offer the annealed and detailed quality of an Albrecht Durer etching. Consider these lines from Bishop’s famous poem, “The Fish” (Moore had written a poem with the same title so Bishop is paying homage to her mentor),which begins with the immediacy of “I caught a tremendous fish”
“He was speckled with barnacles
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.”
After 75 lines of exquisite observation, the final line is simply: “And I let the fish go.”
A double entendre, perhaps, since Bishop has created the fish in her poem and now lets it and the poem out into the world. Bishop’s tightly packed, carefully considered poetry (she was notable for the time she took before she was satisfied with her work and would release a poem for publication), fit into a solitary and somewhat reclusive personality.
As American poetry became more personal and confessional after World War II—Bishop’s great friend Robert Lowell led the way and she chastised him for making his verse too personal—women poets began to depart from the model created by Moore and Bishop. As the personal became political, so also did it become poetical and then again political as well.
Sylvia Plath’s coruscating poems about the emotional airlessness of middle class life; the analogy of her house to Auschwitz and her father to Hitler still shock. Others didn’t have the audacity—or the sense—to go that far, but the physical and emotional state of women now became a subject that could be raised in print instead of sublimated or kept out of public view.
The line of ascendency started by Plath and pointing to contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck, who have focused on the body (their bodies), draws wider connections and resonances.
With women assuming a larger place in the literary canon, they have also begun questioning the very nature of language itself. In particular, is language necessarily patriarchal? The career of the great Adrienne Rich is key here. Rich was tremendously talented even as an undergraduate, her books won prizes, but in the 1950s she became aware that her poetic voice was not her own. Rich self-consciously re-made her poetics to suit her emerging feminist consciousness. Her poem “Diving into the Wreck” describes her purposes:
“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
‘ and the treasures that prevail.”
The contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland has taken up Rich’s task. Writing her way out from under the patriarchal inheritance of Irish literary traditions, Boland radically stripped her language and lines down to the essentials. In a series of autobiographical investigations, she remakes language, expressing not only her own artistic autonomy, but the multitudinous roles and traditions that she embodies as a modern woman writer.
In “Mise Éire,” Boland offers:
“a new language/is a kind of scar/and heals after a while/into a passable imitation/of what went before.”
Boland is too modest here: the wounding scar becomes a new language altogether and something else entirely.
What Hawthorne would make of women taking possession of the language and subjects of poetry and making it their own is hard to imagine. One hopes he would have grown with the times.
December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.