With a sweeping view of the history of the "poetess," Kia Groom takes apart academia's gendered reading of confessionalists. Starting with the question of why Lowell is remembered for his poetry while Plath is remembered for her suicide, she traces poets' use of the "I" from Sappho through to the present day. And she argues that, in a canon that assumes the "I" is always male, the female poet has to fight to get her "I" recognized. --SBB
This Will I Now Sing Deftly
In my second year of graduate school, I took a literature class on mid-century American poets. I was excited by the course—in addition to studying Lowell, Roethke, and Jarrell, we were also to spend time on Sexton, Plath, Bishop, and Brooks. I was thrilled. The 1950s was a time of revolution: the birth of the confessional mode enabled women, perhaps for the first time, to write in their own voices. When it came time to pick a research topic for my essay, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to address the subject of confessional poetics. We had spent some time on Lowell’s Life Studies, and I wanted to talk about the gendered “I,” about the public reception (both then and now) of the confessional poems of Lowell, in contrast to the poems of Plath and Sexton. Because I saw a difference there. Claiming the “I,” as a woman, is not the same as claiming the “I” as a man.
I went to my professor and pitched the idea. I told him I perceived a difference in the way critics received the work of these poets. I told him I found it interesting that Sexton is often dismissed as hysterical and melodramatic, that Plath is written off as “a poet for teenage girls”—as Becca Klaver and Arielle Greenberg put it in their essay, “in the unwritten handbook for aspiring female writers, it’s understood that the chapter on Plath ends with adolescence.” You’re supposed to grow out of Plath. Nobody is supposed to grow out of Lowell, I said, and I believe that’s tied to this idea of the confession, of how making the private public is a political act, an act that cannot be separated from gendered construction.
He looked at me for a long time—that well-practiced, thoughtfully considered look that I assume tenured faculty members spend hours practicing in the mirror, when they’re not writing impassioned defenses of Ezra Pound. The look was equal parts patronizing and paternalistic. I felt his verdict before he delivered it.
“Well,” he said “I don’t think that’s really a good idea. If you want to write about Plath and Sexton, why don’t you write about suicide instead?”
This is the attitude of an entire generation of scholars, when it comes to reading the work of female poets: our confessions, our words, our lives are only interesting if they are explosive, if they are scandalous. More than once I’ve heard it said that we might not pay any scholarly attention at all to Sylvia Plath, had she not killed herself. As if she is not notable for the fierce, white-hot anger of poems like “Lady Lazarus,” but only for the emotion behind them, the emotion that was more memorably expressed in her tragic, violent death.
I take a deep breath. I try not to become incredibly angry. They want me to become angry, I remind myself. Because my anger is easy to dismiss. Because my emotions are easy to dismiss.
Because we expect women to be emotional, don’t we? There is nothing interesting about a woman sharing her feelings with us. There is nothing revolutionary or surprising about a woman saying “I feel….”
We’ve become desensitized to women’s verbal and textual confessions. There was a time, perhaps, when to violate the sanctity of private life, to publicly state “I feel…” was, for women, groundbreaking. But today, we value women’s confessions only when they go one step further. We need her to enact those feelings, preferably violently. Preferably publicly. Preferably with gross finality. Then, she has our attention. Then, we might buy her books.
One of the first poetic lessons I remember being taught: don’t say “I.” I have an entire folder of poems edited to omit the fateful pronoun. “It’s not universal enough,” I was told. “It will alienate readers.”
The subtext of this lesson: the “I” is only alienating when there is a gendered tension between the “I” who writes and the “I” who speaks. The default “I” does not alienate the reader, because the default “I” is male. You don’t catch anyone saying that Walt Whitman alienates readers.
There is a long history of what Corinne Blackmer calls, in “Writing Poetry Like a ‘Woman’,” “the authoritative, traditionally masculine “I” of lyric poetry.” But to occupy “I” as a woman, to speak with confidence from that place of authority and—worse!—to dare expose private feeling to the public sphere….this can never be universal. Women who choose to confess behind the shroud of the established “I” are taken seriously only if they are willing to sacrifice their gender identity. As Jane Hedley points out in I Made You to Find Me, the blurb on the back of the first print of Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus, penned by critic Alfred Alvarez, reads “…Plath…steers clear of feminine charm, deliciousness, gentility, super-sensitivity, and the act of being a poetess: she simply writes good poetry.” The subtext here is that Plath’s identity as a woman ought to be irrelevant to her identity as a poet. If she wishes to inhabit “I”, she must perform a kind of intellectual castration. Only then can she move past “feminine charm” and “super-sensitivity,” and transcend this awkward, unevolved, diminutive distinction of “poetess.”
Here, we must go back. We must understand that “poet” has only recently come to include and embrace women, that the poetic tradition, despite enthusiastic participation from female-identified persons from as far back as recorded history will allow (hello, Sappho), has repeatedly failed to canonize its sisters in ink.
Women always wrote, of course. They wrote letters, and they wrote plays, and yes, of course, they wrote verse. But if a woman was to profit off her writing, it was as a novelist—novels, considered low-brow potboilers whose primary readership was, itself, women, were an ideal outlet for the woman writer. Poetry? Well, perhaps. But one should not expect to be widely read, much less to be considered as equal in talent and skill to the likes of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, or Coleridge.
Charlotte Smith, in her Elegiac Sonnets, makes use of the “I.” Published first in 1784, the sonnets are woeful meditations on love (unrequited or lost), artistry, and the poetic tradition. Had she been writing not in 1784, but 1984, we might have put it this way: Charlotte Smith is a big ‘ole goth. She waxes lyrical about her painful emotions, her otherness, her isolation and loneliness. Yet despite the deeply personal nature of her poetry (if one peels back the veneer of that universal, genderless [read: default male] “I” and examines her life—a husband in debtor’s gaol and 12 children to feed—it’s impossible not to read her sonnets as, in a sense, confessional), her “I” is a smokescreen. Charlotte Smith cannot speak for Charlotte Smith—indeed, her status as poetess demands that deference is paid, every step of the way, to her male contemporaries and forebears. Sandwiched between her pastoral musings on her own misery (which of course never directly address her feeling, but are masked through observations about the seasons, the weather, the landscape) are poems dedicated to and in celebration of her male mentors, friends, colleagues. This might be perceived as a sweet gesture, were the poems themselves not exercises in damage control, a bow and a scrape to the greater power of the male poet.
This self-effacement was not peculiar to Smith. Anna Letitia Barbauld, another female Romantic poet now proposed for inclusion in the (still overwhelmingly male) canon would often round out her poems with a strophe dismissing her own skills and talents. In “The Invitation to Miss B…” Barbauld waxes lyrical for 184 stunningly wrought lines before closing with:
Here cease my song. Such arduous themes require
A master’s pencil, and a poet’s fire:
Unequal far such bright designs to paint,
Too weak her colours, and her lines too faint,
My drooping Muse folds up her fluttering wing,
And hides her head in the green lap of spring.
Modesty? Maybe. But it seems more than that. Barbauld, after giving us 184 lines of exquisitely rhymed and metered verse, tells us ultimately that she is not a master of her craft. She is not a poet. That indeed, whatever little skill she has can be attributed only to the Muse—and her muse, unlike perhaps the shining, glorious muse of Wordsworth or Coleridge, is “weak” and “drooping.” This would be the equivalent of Audre Lorde rounding out “A Woman Speaks” with “I am/woman/and not white./And not very good/sorry for wasting your time.”
The shocking truth is that, for their time, Smith and Barbauld were doing something highly radical in daring to pick up a pen, daring to publish their poetry at all. But the “I” they were located in was necessarily restrictive. They were not free to confess, to blend the writing “I” with the speaking “I.” Smith, her verse already so concealed behind the tropes of the Romantic period, by the muse, by the pastoral, by the constructions of myth and artifice, was, as Stuart Curran notes in his introduction to Elegiac Sonnets, still torn down by her contemporaries for being self-pitying and weak. Reviewers worried that she was suicidal. Are we sensing a theme, yet?
Historically, women were not allowed to be poets. A woman, in a pinch, might be a poetess. But really, a woman was the force of inspiration, not creation. She was the muse.
And that’s a complicated relationship, isn’t it—woman as muse? To what degree is it symbiotic? To what degree does the male poet need his muse? Who holds the power there?
Key, I think, to answering this question is the fact that the muse has no agency, no purpose but to inspire her charge. She’s a slot machine, an ATM dispensing art and music and poetry. And she is always a woman. And she is always beautiful. And she exists for no other purpose than to satisfy a man’s needs.
I think of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the story where Calliope is trapped and repeatedly raped by Erasmus Fry, who can’t for the life of him seem to come up with an original idea without her.
Nowadays, poets don’t directly address the muse. You don’t browse any of the slick new indie lit journals and find odes to Calliope, to Erato, to Melpomene. The contemporary male poet’s muse is no longer the mythical woman but the actual woman, and this is evidenced every time her body is invoked as an object of desire or, so often (too often), as a site of violence. Men, the predominantly published, predominantly reviewed poets, can take ownership of women. Women are still struggling to own “I.”
In 2000, Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States between 2001 and 2003, published Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. The poem from which the book takes its name is about exactly what you think it is about. Oh, sure, certainly—it’s a metaphor—the last great defense of the misogynist writer. Dickinson was so private, so withdrawn from society. Collins “undresses” her, and we are supposed to believe that this is about the discovery of her work (arguably, in its own way, a violation)—her private made public.
Mary Ruefle, in her book Madness, Rack, and Honey, gives an eloquent explanation of why this poem is not the pithy, amusing little verse Collins must have thought it was. The poem, she says:
is based entirely on the supposition that Dickinson is an icon of virginity and that it would be fun to do something with that idea, to be the first to do something with that idea. Poetry is subversive for a good reason, but for me it should never be rapacious, living on prey…
Rapacious. To grasp. To be greedy. As a culture, we can’t seem to stand the idea of a woman comfortably occupying her well-deserved place in the canon. Not even if that place is bestowed posthumously. We must rip. We must tear. We much undress. All this to say: you can be a poetess. You can have struggled hard your whole life to shed that “ –ess,” become instead just poet. Your work, brilliant and powerful, may even have been acknowledged by scholars and critics, may even have clawed its place into the canon.
But you will always be muse. You will always be object. Your “I” is subservient to the predatory “I” of Billy Collins (who comes to stand here for the mighty “I” of the academy, of the canon, of the history of Western poetic tradition). Of the 50 poet laureates/consulting poets of the United States, how many have been women? Twelve. Twelve, out of fifty. 24%. And yet anecdotal evidence and informal polls suggest that MFA programs across the country are receiving applications from, and accepting, more women than they are men. What’s the deal? What is happening here?
If even Emily Dickinson cannot be spared, then folks, I am scared. I am terrified. Because I don’t know how I can exist in a poetic landscape that is so hostile to my experience, to my body, to my secrets and my truths and the ownership of my own voice.
In a 2009 interview with The Poetry Foundation, W.D. Snodgrass, “the original confessional poet,” was asked to give his thoughts on Plath and Sexton. Of Plath, Snodgrass admits that he doesn’t recall whether he actually ever met her, that he “[doesn’t] like most of her work” (even though he has only read the widely anthologized pieces), that she is “good, but not that good.” Of Sexton, who was Snodgrass’ student at Keyon College, the father of confessionalism said:
I thought she was tremendously talented…[but] very derivative. A lot of her poems showed the influence of Lowell…or of me. I thought in time that she would get over that and she would come to her own style. I don’t think that she ever did.
He describes his correspondences with Anne as increasingly “less of a pleasure,” that her requests for feedback and guidance were “troublesome.” Later in the interview, when describing how Sexton would often cry during readings of her work, he makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t stand for such melodramatic nonsense. “There is a difference,” he says “between exposing yourself and displaying yourself.”
I wonder in which category Snodgrass would have placed this poem by Alt Lit poet and publisher Stephen Tully Dierks:
I WILL LICK U 4EVA
I’ve been thinking about you
i’m strokin it
Or this excerpt from a delightful poem by Brian Le Lay, appropriately titled “Suffrage”:
But my penis is more than just a pretty face
The ghosts of their lips around the base of my sheath
The steam swirls around me
Don't say I've no decorum
Woman can smell sex when she enters a room
(as she is sex when she exits) let alone in the cave of my thighs
where you hibernate
Then there’s Nick DAndrea:
Why does that one poet talk about penises and stuff
Its weird and turns me on, I’d fuck her.
All these from a fifteen minute trawl (at random) of Alt Lit monolith New Wave Vomit’s website. It would be unfair to suggest that this is all that NWV publishes. But I was able to turn up a surprising amount of it within a very, very short space of time. Confessionalism, it seems, has grown tired of emotions—even those rare and splendid jewels, the emotions of men. While it’s still the case that men’s feelings attract a cult-like admiration amongst certain readers of poetry (the assumption being, I suppose, that men are traditionally stoic and rational, and so for one to bear his soul is a beautiful, remarkable thing, no matter how banal his sentiments) the really hot young poets are the ones bluntly waving their dicks around—you know, metaphorically.
One wonders what the reaction would be if the situation were reversed—if women writers took to penning short, inelegant strophes about their wet vaginas. There are, of course, women who do write about their sexuality, but I’d quietly suggest that it’s executed in a way that is far less lewd and on-the-nose, and therefore transgressive in a way these poems utterly fail to be. If I wrote so bluntly about my cunt, about how many people I’d slept with, or what those interactions looked like—if that was the only content in my poem—I’d be at best ignored, and at worst dismissed and decried as a hack with a gimmick. We put the burden of context and meaning on women in a way we seem not to with contemporary male poets.
Look, write about your cock. I don’t care. I’m sure it’s really great, and you probably have a lot to say about it. Shine on, you crazy diamond. But when those dick-poems migrate into the realm of the muse, when they become not just poems about your body, but poems about my body too—or about the nebulous body of the feminine “you,” with whom I am forced to identify—then, then I have a problem.
This problem is perhaps best exemplified in the book Alt Lit author peterbd wrote by/for/with (it’s unclear which) accused abuser Janey Smith/Stephen Trull. The book, titled We’re Fucked, was a litany of sexual vignettes wherein peterbd forced Janey Smith’s theoretical penis inside a whole host of characters. Except, of course, that they weren’t characters: they were real people, male, female, transgender, and non-binary folks whose identities were appropriated without their consent. “What was the purpose of this…but to indulge Smith/Trull’s own sense of toxic masculine entitlement?” asks poet and activist D. Dragonetti in this article, published on the now defunct HTMLGiant, “The juxtaposition of the likenesses of prominent minority writers…with this presumptuous premise…is demeaning and explicitly misogynistic.”
And it’s not an isolated incident. The Alt Lit scene is rife with abuse accusations, many of which intersect with the art produced by the (predominantly male) authors within the scene. When poet Kat Dixon came forward earlier this year to speak out against her former boyfriend, poet and novelist Gregory Sherl, she noted that Sherl’s third collection, Monogamy Songs, read as a confessional tell-all of their relationship, masked behind the ‘universal’ (read: male) “I.” And readers loved it. Sherl seemed so sensitive, so in touch with the feelings patriarchy tells us men aren’t supposed to express, and women need to shut up about.
Going back through Monogamy Songs, in light of the numerous allegations made against Sherl, is like reading a handbook for misogynistic sad-boys, a DIY guide to abusing your lover—poetically. Dixon, who had to fight to have her real name omitted from the book, tweeted excerpts with commentary:
There are boundaries placed on what women can speak about, boundaries dictated by the supposed universality of the “I” that speaks. The academy insists that when we say “I,” what we really mean is us, and us is never exclusively female—sometimes, it’s not female at all. I must be mindful of the male reader, because the male reader dominates the literary landscape, large as a monolith, eclipsing everything in his sight.
Male poets are under no such pressure to keep the “I” universal for women. Instead, they’re encouraged to aggressively exert their emotions, their sexuality, their literary bodies onto the page, and often, onto the women they write about. What do I do about that? How can I feel comfortable in my own “I” when it has such a heavy history of excluding and oppressing my identity? How can I write, when I am so frequently consigned to muse, and to the muse’s 21st century counterpart, the sexualized body?
“Write about suicide,” my professor said, because as an older, white, cisgendered male poet, it was impossible for him to see that gender had anything to do with the divergent reactions to Lowell and Sexton’s work. Plath’s suicide was, for him, far more worthy of class time than was an analytical deconstruction of her poems. Women writers have fought to call themselves poets. They have fought to be seen as more than the muse, and they have fought to wrest “I” back from masculine discourse. It’s exhausting, sometimes—all this fighting. We tread and we retread old battlefields, waging wars with words in the classroom and on the page, and as soon as it seems like we’ve made a little progress—BAM, some entitled male poet is attempting to strip away our agency. Again.
But we keep at it. We teach our children and our students and our friends and our peers how to be better readers, better humans—how to think critically about the media they consume. We stand up to our teachers, to our editors, to our colleagues—to the people who tell us we are not entitled to our own “I.” And we write. Oh, God, do we write.
In A.D. 100 Sappho wrote “This will I now sing deftly/to please my girlfriends.”
And that is universal enough for me.
Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches freshman composition and works as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work appears in Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Curbside Splendor, and she tweets @whodreamedit.