On Poetry and Culture Shock

Women and poetry

I thought that, because today is the international Women’s Day, I would post a poem from a different woman poet every day of the week. The problem is, I hardly ever read (or enjoy) poetry written by women. Chronologically, my list of adored women novelists starts in Jane Austen, two centuries ago, and then there’s the Brontës and plenty of 20th century ones. But poetry, not really. I find the discovery surprising. Why aren’t there more excellent female poets, if there are plenty of excellent women writers? I think these are some of the reasons:

  • Women not being allowed to learn to read and write. This applies mostly to the times in which only the upper classes wrote. So, upper-class women with artistic inclinations before the late Middle Ages might have learnt to compose poetry, but not write it.
  • Women being able to read and write, but not receiving any further education. This applies from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century.
  • Women receiving some education, but not in the fields that everyone around them considered relevant for a poet. This is relevant most of all in the Renaissance and the couple of centuries that followed: 16th to 18th centuries. The idea is that women did not know much about classical antiquity or dead languages, and the current trends of the time were for poetry that imitated classic models. Therefore, women who wanted to express themselves poetically knew that their message was faulty.
  • Women being told that having ovaries is an obstacle to good writing. Read the introduction to The Madwoman in the Attic if you want more information, as I can’t say anything you won’t find there.
  • Women who finally can write and feel confident about their skills don’t turn up until the last couple of centuries. Hardly anyone can make a living out of poetry, and besides, someone who is painfully earning the right to be heard would rather write about stuff more immediate that lyrical poetry. Novels are ideal: wide readership that can provide an income (writers need to eat too), and a way to express ideals and at the same time tell stories.
We don’t really have valid reasons for the near absence of truly brilliant poetry by women over the last century or so. I imagine they exist, but I have hardly heard of them. I’ll keep looking for the best, no matter if the writer came with an uterus attached or not. I hope you enjoy the absolutely biased selection of poems I’m preparing for the rest of the week.

4 comentarios

Anónimo -

por qué no nos dejamos de gilipolleces de \"literatura de muejres\" y empezamos a hablar de buenos o malos escritores(y escritoras,que ya se que eres una machorra politicamente correcta).me parece que te jode que muchos de los libros que te gustan esten escritos por hombres.eso es lo que hay,lamefelpudos

Crafty Green Poet -

Hi Nia,
Yes you're right - historically its more difficult. There's Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rosetti and er, anyone else? And Christina Rosetti isn't great, though some of her poems are.... How many poems by the great Anonymous were written by women - that would be an interesting question to investigate!

La Guiri -

Hey Juliet - I know there must be excellent women poets out there! The problem is I don't know them, so thank you for pointing some out to me. I have a couple of novels by Atwood yet unread, so if I like them, I'll investigate the poetry.

What really pains me is that as far as I know there aren't any female equivalent of the "dead white male" poets I find truly great. There is not "To Her Rush Lover" for each "to his coy mistress", there isn't a female Keats, and so on. It is more a grief for a loss of potential through the centuries, because I refuse to believe that women are mentally very different from men. If there aren't known women poets, it means they existed but were lost.

Crafty Green Poet -

Hi Nia - there are excellent female poets! How about Margaret Atwood (quite simply the greatest living poet writing in English, even though she is better known for her novels), Ruth Padel, Jackie Kay, UA Fanthorpe? Then less well known there would be Vicki Feaver, Rebecca Elson (who sadly died far too young) and many others!