Being a woman poet

In honor of Adrienne Rich’s very recent passing, I started reading her collection of essays titled On Lies, Secrets and Silence, which happened to be on my MFA Comps Reading List. When my thesis adviser asked me if I had in mind any questions I wanted to be asked, I suggested something about being a woman writing in a masculine tradition. I write a lot of violent narrative poetry, and my female predecessors are limited to poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich. My poetry itself really follows more the veins of work by Frost (such as “Out, Out–“) and James Dickey (though I was writing this way way before I ever read them).

In her essay titled “Anne Sexton: 1928-1974,” Rich writes, “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” Women destroy themselves through “self-trivialization, contempt for women, misplaced compassion, addiction.” “Self-trivialization”=not taking ourselves or our work seriously enough. Producing work that imitates that of men. Not seeking opportunities for ourselves that we would push others to do. “Contempt for women”=mistrusting other women. Believing women’s desires are secondary to those of men. “Misplaced compassion”=the example she gives is feeling sorry for the rapist instead of the woman who was raped. “Addiction”= addiction to “selfless, sacrificial love,” addiction to depression, drugs, or alcohol, addiction to male approval.

I applied Rich’s idea of women’s self-destructive attitudes to my own work, particularly my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue. One of my most violent poems is directed at the speaker’s mother. In many of my poems that deal with or mention mothers, the mother is absent (emotionally or physically), neglectful, and/or violent. Many of my female characters are passive, constrained by their relationships and their desires, paralyzed in inaction. Two poems that deal with molestation and rape are told from the perspective of the man. In one case, rather sympathetically.

As a “woman poet,” how do I navigate these strong veins of “self destruction”? In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Rich writes of her struggles with finding her own voice and identity as a “woman writer,” while also trying to carry the load of a normal “woman” (taking care of a house and three children). For her, it was a journey. I’m surprised that my work in this manuscript fits so neatly into her ideas of women only being able to be violent against themselves. I’m encouraged, though, by the fact that much of this work is old, that a lot of my newer work doesn’t play into these same ideas of violence between and against women. My awareness of this now also encourages me to keep looking at the models I turn to for inspiration. Are they propagating messages I don’t want to appear in my own writing?

Rich says, “Every woman who writes is a survivor.” The female characters in Predator’s Tongue, despite being mostly passive, are survivors. The quote for my last section is “What matters is what’s left of us,” implying an evolution from trauma to a newly created wholeness.

How does your gender work in your own writing? Does it have a place or is it more subversive? If you’re a woman, do you relate to or rebel against Rich’s ideas of women’s self-destruction?

3 thoughts on “Being a woman poet

  1. interesting blog post. i’ve actually been thinking alot about this lately, especially with Adrienne Rich’s recent passing. I read that book of essays awhile ago; my poems often deal with domestic themes, motherhood, a distinctly female perspective, and sometimes I feel that work by women about the domestic sphere is considered to be a lower class type of poetry (as opposed to things men have been traditionally concerned with, like war and politics). i fear that my work will be unfairly categorized as sentimental because i want to write about things that are relegated strictly to the female experience… and with things like that Vida study coming out, with how few women are published in major literary magazines, it has me thinking about what it is to be a woman writer.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Interesting. I rarely write domestic poems myself, but I’ve always really been attracted to how Sharon Olds writes her domestic poems. They’re always /more/ than just domestic, some larger connection to the outside world or a greater theme. Sylvia Plath’s domestic poems also seem like war poems. They’re vicious and aggressive. Richard Tillinghast actually writes a lot of domestic poems as well. I think work that doesn’t make a “bigger” connection usually gets labeled as sentimental.

      A poet that I was studying with wrote a lot of poems about her young daughter and thinking about her daughter’s ability to one day of children, and I struggled with seeing her references to her daughter’s uterus as not overdone. I can have a big throw-back against poems about menstruation because I’ve read so many that were done badly. I do have the same reaction to poems about having sex. So often it’s done badly (romance novel-ish or shocking for the sake of being shocking).

      I wonder if Plath and Olds chose to write the way they did because it avoided that “woman” label and elevated their work to the standards of what men write about (war in their own context). I don’t know. Something to keep exploring, I guess.

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