Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Robert Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as herself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)


  1. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 14, 2010 at 12:34 am

    ‘A short song of congratulation’ (for Max Beerbohm on his 75th birthday)

    by S.C. Roberts

    Undetected, five-and-seventy
    Hurrying years at length are flown;
    Fame and leisure, friends in plenty,
    Dear Sir Max, are now your own.

    Loos’d from editorial tether,
    Free to satirise or write,
    Keen as rapier, light as feather,
    Grant us still some rare delight.

    All the faithful Maximilians,
    All disciples everywhere
    Relish your remarks to millions,
    Spoken mainly on the air.

    Gratefully we beg to tender
    Birthday greetings to the speaker,
    Greetings due from many a sender–
    Not forgetting dear Zuleika.

  2. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 27, 2010 at 5:07 pm


    By Stephen Dunn

    When the neighbor’s drapes are open,
    I’m not “like” the kind of man
    who refuses to put down his binoculars
    so that their steamy, good time
    can remain his as well. No,

    I’m exactly that kind of man,
    wary of anyone who’d turn away
    mid-view, skedaddle off to a room
    that overlooks, say, a pond.
    I’m so tired of superior smiles.

    Something I’m unaware of is likely
    governing me, which doesn’t excuse
    these dark, bottom-feeding things
    I tend to let rise into daylight.
    I’ll take discredit for all of them.

    Nevertheless I wish to be true to life,
    though not entirely to the one I live.
    When in trouble I’ve been known
    to give myself some wiggle room,
    to revisit that once important sliver

    of moon that slid across the Bay
    to our table back when we were in love,
    to even change our names. In the world
    of feelings, aren’t attractive opposites
    always nearby? — dogwood blossoms,
    for example, and the springtime puffery

    of rhododendrons trumping the memory,
    at least for a moment, of that heat
    my binoculars brought close.
    Life itself is promiscuous. It feels right
    to place a few renegade details together,
    let them cavort. A moment later,

    it feels right to discipline them,
    smack them into shape — the pink cadillac
    that motored by while I was eating macaroni
    and cheese, the meteor that fell
    at a terrible speed and dissolved into darkness,
    that apology on the tip of my tongue.

  3. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    July 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    As poetry gushed from that sacred place,
    “My scarriet runneth over,” she primly said.
    “Everyone wants to comment, it seems,
    On my modest but life-giving maidenhead.”

  4. Noochinator said,

    September 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Don’t know if he was a believer
    (Mr. John Cheever)
    But when it came to women
    He sure had “the fever.”

    An excerpt from ‘Bullet Park’ by John Cheever

    Nellie was frying bacon in the kitchen and he kissed her and embraced her passionately. Nailles loved Nellie. If he had a manifest destiny it was to love Nellie. Should Nellie die he might immolate himself on her pyre, although the thought that Nellie might die had never occurred to him. He thought her immortal. The intenseness of his monogamy, the absoluteness of his belief in the holiness of matrimony, was thought by a surprising number of people to be morbid, aberrant and devious. In the course of events many other women were made available to Nailles but when some ardent divorcee, widow or wayward housewife attacked him, his male member would take a painful attitude of disinterest. It would seem to summon him home. It was a domesticated organ with a love of home cooking, open fires and the thighs of Nellie. Had he any talent he would have written a poem to the thighs of Nellie. The idea had occurred to him. He sincerely would have liked to commemorate his spiritual and fleshly love. The landscapes that he beheld when he raised her nightgown made his head swim. What beauty; what incredible beauty. Here was the keystone to his love of the visible world.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    September 5, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    “Had he any talent he would have written a poem to the thighs of Nellie.”


    Why are the poets ashamed? It is the prose writers who are ridiculous.

    But the humble finally triumphs. Better to be ridiculous and humble than merely ridiculous. Better to say you cannot write the poem in an orgy of plain prose than to write that poem. We are all simple folk telling stories at last.

  6. Noochinator said,

    November 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

    If It All Went Up in Smoke

    by George Oppen

    that smoke
    would remain

    the forever
    savage country poem’s light borrowed

    light of the landscape and one’s footprints praise

    from distance
    in the close
    crowd all

    that is strange the sources

    the wells the poem begins

    neither in word
    nor meaning but the small
    selves haunting

    us in the stones and is less

    always than that help me I am
    of that people the grass

    blades touch

    and touch in their small

    distances the poem

  7. Noochinator said,

    November 26, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    88 Lines About 44 Women

    by The Nails

    Deborah was a Catholic girl,
    she held out to the bitter end.
    Carla was a different type,
    she’s the one who put it in.
    Mary was a black girl,
    and I was afraid of a girl like that.
    Susan painted pictures sitting down
    like the Buddha sat.

    Reno was a nameless girl
    a geographic memory.
    Cathy was a Jesus-freak,
    she liked that kind of misery.
    Vicky had this special way
    of turning sex into a song.
    Kamala who couldn’t sing,
    kept the beat and kept it strong.

    Xylla was an archetype,
    the voodoo queen the queen of wrath.
    Joan thought men were second best
    to masturbating in the bath.
    Sherri was a feminist,
    she really had that gift of gab.
    Kathleen’s point of view was this:
    take whatever you can grab.

    Seattle was another girl
    who left her mark upon the map.
    Karen liked to tie me up,
    and left me hanging by a strap.
    Jeannie had this nightclub walk
    that made grown men feel underage.
    Mary Ellen who had a son
    said “I must go,” but finally stayed.

    Gloria the last taboo
    was shattered by her tongue one night.
    Mimi brought the taboo back
    and held it up before the light.
    Marilyn who knew no shame,
    was never ever satisfied.
    Julie came and went so fast,
    she didn’t even say good-bye.

    Well Rhonda had a house in Venice,
    lived on brown rice and cocaine.
    Patty had a house in Houston,
    shot cough syrup in her veins.
    Linda thought her life was empty,
    filled it up with alcohol.
    Katherine was much too pretty,
    she didn’t do that shit at all. (Uh-uh. Not Katherine.)

    Pauline thought that love was simple,
    turn it on and turn it off.
    Jean-Marie was complicated,
    like some French filmmaker’s plot.
    Gina was the perfect lady,
    always kept her stockings straight.
    Jackie was a rich punk-rocker,
    silver spoon and a paper plate.

    Sarah was a modern dancer,
    lean pristine transparency.
    Janet wrote bad poetry
    in a crazy kind of urgency.
    Tanya Turkish liked to fuck
    while wearing leather biker boots.
    Brenda’s strange obsession
    was for certain vegetables and fruit.

    Roweena was an artist’s daughter,
    the deeper image shook her up.
    Deedee’s mother left her father,
    took his money and his truck.
    Debbie-Rae had no such problems,
    perfect Norman Rockwell home.
    Nina, sixteen, had a baby,
    left her parents lived alone.

    Bobbie joined a new-wave band,
    and changed her name to Bobbie-sox.
    Eloise, who played guitar,
    sang songs about whales and cocks.
    Terri didn’t give a shit,
    was just a nihilist.
    Ronnie was much more my style,
    she wrote songs just like this.

    Jezebel went forty days
    drinking nothing but Perrier.
    Dinah drove her Chevrolet
    into the San Francisco bay.
    Judy came from Ohio,
    she’s a Scientologist.
    Amiranta here’s a kiss,
    I chose you to end this list.

  8. Noochness said,

    January 24, 2011 at 1:20 am

  9. Marcus Bales said,

    January 24, 2011 at 2:32 am

    Advice to Young Ladies
    AD Hope

    A.U.C. 334: about this date,
    For a sexual misdemeanor which she denied,
    The vestal virgin Postumia was tried;
    Livy records it among affairs of state.

    They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
    The charge arose because some thought her talk
    Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
    Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.

    The Pontifex Maximus, summing up the case,
    Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
    To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
    She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.

    What then? With her the annalist is less
    Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
    Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare —
    I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,

    Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
    To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
    A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
    Had fair trial, then they buried her alive.

    Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark;
    A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
    Preserved the body they did not wish to die
    Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.

    How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
    Spirited girls who would not know their place,
    Talented girls who found that the disgrace
    Of being a woman made genius a crime.

    How many others, who would not kiss the rod,
    Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
    Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
    Husbands, St. Paul declared, rank next to God.

    Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
    That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
    Tacitus, writing after both had died,
    Showed that whole fabric rotten, through and through.

    Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
    Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
    From great defects of policy — perhaps
    The cause is sometimes simpler than they think.

    It may not seem so grave an act to break
    Postumia’s spirit as Galileo’s, to gag
    Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
    Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.

    Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
    For having shackled the enquiring mind,
    Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
    Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?

  10. R. Farr. said,

    January 24, 2011 at 4:59 am

    Advice to Lady Young

    Hope D.A.

    A.U.C. 334: about this date,
    For a sexual misdemeanor he denied,
    The vestal virgin Poster MB was tried;
    Livy records me among affairs of state.

    Declared innocent, let off: judged to be
    Perfectly pure. The charge arose
    Because men thought my talk too witty
    For a grrl, my eyes, my walk; a woman
    Too lively, clothes too smart to be demure.

    ‘I’, Pontifex Maximus judged the case,
    Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
    Wear less modish and more pious frocks.
    She left reprieved, but in disgrace. With her

    The annalist is less concerned, only me, men,
    Ourselves recording that year of plots:
    quarrels, crimes, Postumia in a dowdy dress,
    her eloquent oratory erased – we stiff mouthed
    and listless in step; saw her strive, give
    eloquent answers, a vestal virgin, knuckled down
    by us dullards who scandalized that town. It was
    not fair, our trial of her we buried alive.

    Bricked up alive in suffocating dark; a ration
    of bread, a pitcher if one was dry,
    a plebian reserve, I did not wish to die
    Until my mind had quenched the final spark

    of stupidity from Pontifex’s male maw, swallowing
    not his lies, a spirited girl who would not know
    my place, who should not have lived as I did,
    Untalented males who found that the disgrace
    Of being a man, made woman’s genius a crime.

    How many others who would not kiss the rod,
    Are bullied, broke and in our domestic shame,
    Pagan or Christian, declared St Paul in a rank

    next to God?

    Livy and Paul, may be never knew that Rome
    was doomed, speaking with pride of Her,
    Tacitus writing after both had died, rent rotten
    the fabric, through and through, of historians

    who spend our lives in propaganda, lavishing ink
    on theories why great empires collapse,
    how commonwealths’ defect of policy — perhaps
    grasping a complex course, simpler than they think –

    It may not seem so grave an act to break
    Marcus Bales Postumia’s spirit, gag Galileo’s
    Hypatia, crush Socrates and drag Joan Terreson
    as Giordano Bruno, to the steak nite at McDonalds.

    Can we be sure? Have more steaks been wasted
    in America than anywhere else, perished, heckled
    the mind, enquiring into s/he marcus b.

    folly less blind, trusted servile womb of our breed
    the unfree men?

    • Noochinator said,

      January 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

      In the depths of my self-made hell,
      I only wish the Jets could flyte so well.

  11. November 30, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Others may strongly disagree,
    But I find this pure poetry:

  12. noochinator said,

    October 16, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Looked at the story
    “Big Blonde” by Ms. Parker—
    Been quite a while since
    I’ve read something starker.

  13. June 5, 2013 at 9:13 am

    A Sibyl of 1979

    The river lay white that afternoon, the highway too—apparently frozen to a standstill. Muriel Rukeyser hobbled to her high window, standing beside me, both of us looking down at the big meat-trucks parked on West Street, empty now but not as they would be after dark, men furtively climbing in and out, walking away fast.

    “Do you ever go to the trucks, Richard—go inside?” her voice close to my ear, low, determined. The question, its very tone, took me by surprise: so she knew what that meant, going to the trucks—even in the dead of winter, the cherished, feckless secret of many who still persisted… And even if she did know, the question surprising: were we on those terms? What terms? “Dangerous, isn’t it—” the voice persistent as she took my arm “doing… what you do, inside there?” Staring down at them, I told her I never went to the trucks. “I’m glad. That’s not a judgment, only relief. Only my own cowardice, really… Dear Richard, I asked you here because I want to give you something you may be able to use. I can’t. When they sent me home from the hospital, after my stroke, it was right here, this computer-thing: supposed to be helpful because it changes what you write so easily, so easily restores what you change… I tried it awhile, but it doesn’t work for me: I don’t need to change things so much any more, not the way you do, my cautious friend. I’m past changing.” About the trucks nothing more was said, and I took the virtually virgin computer home and plugged it in. Nothing occurred, until a few days later, my fingers “wandering idly” (just as in Sir Arthur’s Lost Chord) over the unresponsive keys, these sentences appeared, words she had abandoned, “past changing” now: No thought wakens without waking others… There is one proof of ability, only one: doing it!… The more you love yourself, the more you are your own worst enemy… Seers don’t need to be observers… We keep learning—involuntarily, even—and finally we learn to die. Muriel learned, and died, but reading her words the screen retained —sortilege? poems? I faltered: time was, if you lost even a tenth part of the Sibyl’s leaves, you too would be lost… Was now the time when if you kept even a tenth part you were saved, as a frightened man is saved by words? You will not be deprived because your dreams did not come true, but because you never dreamed. The Sibyl, Petronius reports, could not die, only wither away until she was so small she survived in a leather bottle, pleading for death. Muriel’s bottle was her own body; I bring her words up on that pale, superseded screen where they glow like omens, benefactions: Everything you really possess was given to you.

    A post-script, seventeen years afterwards. The gift I bring would be quite as bewildering to you as that computer: what would you make, Muriel, of a CD claiming to reproduce (on the right contraption) The Song of the Sibyl —words the very ones Aeneas might have heard, music from as late as the Tenth Century?… My offering.

    —Richard Howard (from Talking Cures)

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