Day 8 of NaPoWriMo dawned and my usual writing routine was disrupted. That was because it was the day to venture out and do grocery and other necessary shopping in the village. Under lockdown that requires a lot of time and effort sanitising, laundering, washing outdoor footwear, the whole palaver. I normally write my poem a day while sipping my tea in bed. Today, for the first time in a long time, I drafted my poem while not wearing pyjamas.
After showering, feeding myself a breakfast well past lunchtime, and have a second cup of tea, I tackled the prompt. We are asked to take a famous poet’s line of poetry from randomly generated tweet bot. I tried the first poet tweet bot mentioned, the https://twitter.com/sylviaplathbot. Partly this was out of sentiment. Back in the 1960s, my sister was one of the first Masters candidates to write her thesis on Sylvia Plath’s poetry. So from the time I was around twelve the Plath was a presence in our household. The first line of each stanza was the quote that the tweet bot provided me when I finally settled down to the task of writing some poetry today.
Though my poem has come out a bit flippant today. Extra points to the reader who can spot the extra poetry line quoted in the poem.
Day 29 NaPoWriMo/GloPoWriMo finds me on Day 5 of my sojourn in southwest England. We are in Glastonbury with the festival of Beltane imminent. The prompt for today asks us to play with the Plath Poetry Project. Choose one of that site’s posted Sylvia Plath poems and respond. After a quick perusal I opted for Little Fugue.
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 my sister was toiling away on one of the first Master’s thesis 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 a Boston summer school class taught by William Lowell. 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. See the epistolary poem I wrote in reply to that quotation I found so many years ago.
Dear Mister Ciardi,
I can admit to a certain prejudice against a man who disparaged women, for having the biological gaucheness, not all to say, just those jumped up gibbons, those poets who will go wear their ovaries on their sleeves, writing brownies and babies.
Against a man who disparaged women and that category viewed as 'poetess', or applied arcane masculine doctrine as to who is fit for poetry's practice, that having a pair should disqualify shirt sleeves unless they are styled for guys...
For having the biological gaucheness of being the chicken with all the eggs, it riles me up to make a fuss and cuss, because women poets ought not have to beg for a place in academe's pantheon or be a glass ceiling phenomenum...
Not all to say,just those jumped up gibbons, those who have the nerve to speak about blood, other things all messy and feminine, beat breasts, tear hair, wrend garments, defame studs. That is what will become of poetry written by people who have ovaries.
Those poets who will go wear their ovaries spilling their ink on a monthly basis can write, breastfeed, push the baby buggy (sometimes with an intense, driving fierceness) out from under the stairs, out through the door, turning up on time, sign at the bookstore.
On their sleeves, writing brownies and babies, the spit up and societal sickness, is the red badge of all our popped cherries. Women need the teeth and claws of tigress. The gloves have come off, Mr. Ciardi. I am out and proud of my ovaries.
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.
One of the reasons I was inspired to become a poet involves Sylvia Plath. Indirectly. But really, this is about remembering that my elder sister was a writer. A poet. And shared my gender. In a time in the sixties when you would be hard pressed to find many woman poets in anthologies my sister was a walking, talking, frequently irritating but also motivating factor in my knowing that it was okay for a woman to write. And you didn’t have to kill yourself over it.
Sylvia Plath has loomed large in my creative formation partly because my sister was working on one of the first MA thesis on Plath’s poetry back in 1970 when Plath was barely seven years in the grave and I was barely a teenager. Plath, along with Anne Sexton, were the contemporary woman writers that were in college syllabus in the 1970s when I was at university. I’d open my college text on American poetry and literally count the women who were included. There was Amy Lowell (lesbian), Plath (suicide), Emily Dickinson (recluse) and Anne Bradstreet (professional Puritan wife). If you didn’t fit into any of those categories then it often felt like you were making it up as you went along.
I knew I did not want to grow up and be like Sylvia Plath. But I did write poetry from age eleven. I still wanted to write poetry. But I felt I owed it to Sylvia Plath to make a pilgrimage up to her grave. In a kind of reverse role modelling she helped mould me as a writer. Her life embodies many of the contradictory tugs and shoves and pulls on a creative woman’s life: children, marriage, domesticity, equal partnership and creative partnership. Virtually all women who write have confronted those life elements and made choices, compromises and confronted conflict of interest.
I made the pilgrimage to Heptonstall parish churchyard to visit Plath’s grave. It lies in the newer cemetery behind the parish church, across a cobbled lane. I begin to quarter the cemetery, scanning for a 1960s style headstone. I find a Greenwood with the surname an odd echo of Plath’s Bell Jar alter ego. A local woman walking a ancient Golden Labrador comes into the graveyard. I ask if she knows which section I should be looking in for Plath. She very hospitably leads the way, chats the exact number of minutes for politeness sake and then leaves me to pay my respects.
Crocuses are blooming on the grave. There is a pile of coins that have been left on top of her headstone. Jewish custom would have one leave a pebble but wherever this custom originated I added my own twenty euro cents to the pile.
At bedtime I leaf through one of the Lumb Bank’s library books (no sign of Ted Hugh’s Birthday Letters on the shelf). It’s a Bloodaxe anthology Modern Women Poets. I have tattered copies of some of the 1970’s first anthologies of women poets, obviously with a strong American bias. The publishing climate has changed considerably since then and the UK poet laureate is a woman. Reading Elizabeth Bartlett’s poem “Stretchmarks” the bitterness over the discrimination women poets and writers faced in the late 20th century drips off the page. I am reminded of the quote ascribed to John Ciardi (who was a tutor at Breadloaf Writer’s Conference when my sister attended) disparaging those women poets who “wrote with their ovaries on their sleeve.”
Women can choose to write and not be mad, bad, sad or dangerous to know. It can be a strategy for sanity and life affirming and for the higher good of many. It can be a moral choice, too. Although since poets always seem to be the first political prisoners to be sent off to the gulag perhaps all poets, regardless of gender, are a little dangerous to know.
Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts and the Social Inclusion Unit offices.