Forty some years ago I sat in a Modern Poets of America class; I still have the text book. Of the thirty poets anthologised just five women poets were represented – Emily Dickinson, H.D., Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath I was well acquainted with because in 1969 I sister was toiling away on one of the first Master’s theses on her poetry. Her novel The Bell Jar was published while I was still in high school and I read it during the humid summer holidays of 1973.
Plath was a classmate of Anne Sexton’s in summer school. Like Plath, she committed suicide also, a little over a decade on from Plath’s own death. I first encountered Sexton’s poetry in the unlikely place of Catholic University’s Newman Bookstore sometime around 1976. As a neophyte woman poet, it was not heartening to find all these potential role models topping themselves.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
― Muriel Rukeyser
Emily Dickinson was the first woman poet who taught me that poetry is the work of the subversive, the rank outsider, the desperado – even if you lived within the confines of a house and garden, the wild mind lived as untamed as bees. Plath lived in constant frustration with societal contraint and feminine stereotype. Sexton’s poetry is fearlessly truthful. Her poem on the joys of solitary masturbation can still shock as happened to a friend I recently recommended reading Sexton. But such reckless bravery may also have been symptomatic of a lack of self-preservation.
Fortunately, during my college years I was exposed to other woman poets. I attended a Nikki Giovanni poetry reading. I found Adrienne Rich. I found Gwendolyn Brooks and May Sarton. I found Alice Walker. I found women who had complicated lives, who loved, sometimes lost, but were still in the game. My bookshelves began to fill with women poets who were survivors. They did not crucify themselves with their art. And they were busy telling their truth, even when that meant ‘wearing their ovaries on their sleeves’, as John Ciardi disparaged woman poets back in the 1960s.
Over the decades things changed. In 1973 I was seeking out the first anthologies of women poets, ones who didn’t make it into the syllabuses, but who worked, crafted and wrote and wrote and were published, too. And often forgotten. I now live in the 21st century where the English and Welsh poet laureates and Scottish makar are all women and jobbing poets. This would have been unthinkable when I was beginning to write poetry and wanting to read poems that more readily resembled my interior reality, which was also conditioned by my gender, my body, my hormones, and what society was projecting onto me.
Anthologies can still be very gender unbalanced. So it was a real pleasure to go to the book launch of four Northern Irish women poets in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh today. Arlen House publishers brought out poetry volumes by Medbh McGuckian, Ruth Carr, Maria McManus and Maureen Boyle. The launch was at Enniskillen Castle this afternoon. McGuckian was unable to read at the launch, but the genuine comaraderie amongst Carr, Boyle and McManus was so heartening to see – Sista’s really are doing it for themselves.
In Maria McManus’s reading of her poem Nightingale I had a sense of that feminine truth telling that splits open the world. The poem is dedicated to Marie Wilson, who died in the Enniskillen bombing on Remembrance Sunday 1987. Seamus Heaney had a famous refrain in one of his poems in North – the Ulster catchphrase ‘whatever ye say, say nothing.’ McManus’s reading acknowledged finally having ‘the conversation’ about the sectarian violence experienced over a generation, and I can tell you virtually everyone in the audience was choked up.
For those of you who want to read these contemporary Irish woman poets you can contact Alan Hayes, Arlen House, firstname.lastname@example.org. They distribute internationally through Syracuse University Press.
Woman poets have managed to stay alive and sometimes even thrive. But still I do mourn the fierce imaginative flames of Plath and Sexton. This is the poem I wrote about that Boston summer when they both attended Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop. It appeared in Magma poetry magazine back in 2003.
Cocktail Hour with Anne and Sylvia
Of course, we would meet in a bar,
dark as our wombs,
the banquettes lined in wine Marquette.
Three sexy Scorpios – one golden girl,
one sloe-eyed brunette and me
showing the ashes of middle age.
It would have to be August
in a limp Boston loosening
her corsets against vapidity
and the heat. We would meet
at this watering hole,
cackling over very dry martinis
or maybe a couple vodka stingers instead.
We would watch the spills on the bar
Spread like Rohrshock blots.
We would all cheerfully wear our
Ovaries on our sleeves and make course
jokes about male poets and their pricks.
Flirting academically with the bartender
We would order more nostrums,
Crazy Women swivelling gaily on barstools.
You both would be happy.
You’d swear off crucifixion by art,
Decide to survive, become grandmas,
Grin and flash nicotine-stained teeth,
Wear cliché purple hats and scarlet lipstick
Living more potently than legend or myth
© Bee Smith 2003