Joyce Nower Sept 3, 2008 20:06:21 GMT 2
Post by moira on Sept 3, 2008 20:06:21 GMT 2
NEO-ROMANTICISM IN FEMINIST POETRY OF THE ‘70’s AND ‘80’s
by Joyce Nower
The term “romanticism” conjures up a picture of an heroic individual, perhaps a poet, confronting an overwhelming force, such as nature (Shelley), a wounded ego (Byron), God (Dickinson), commercialism (Baudelaire), or bourgeois sexual taboos (Millay). The “hero” sometimes identifies with the force, sometimes demands to be recognized by it, frequently declares war on it, and often adopts all three stances. These stances are not a mere literary pose; they represent a struggle towards personal freedom.
Emerging from the struggle is a Vision of the Good, or of Justice, or of Beauty, as well as a fresh relationship between the Force and the Self. The past, often conceived of as a more innocent and spiritually rich moment, is used as an arsenal of imagery to defend the present struggle. These elements of romanticism are found in the nineteenth century “Romantic Period” in England, in the symbolist Decades in France, and even in the “Beat” poetry of the post-World War II period. But I find particularly interesting the fact that the very same elements can be identified in the feminist poetry of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the decades that hereafter will be credited with producing a body of “neo-romantic” feminist poetry.
Feminist “neo-romanticism,” however, not only follows the usual outlines of the struggle towards personal freedom mentioned above, but in its particulars, expresses the unique collective experience of women trying to throw off the internalized as well as external straightjacket of patriarchal control. The main stages of this struggle are Self-Discovery, Recognition of the Self-in-the-World, Solidarity (a theme which, we will see, tempers the standard “romantic” notion of alienation, and implies, furthermore, solidarity with Nature and with Daily Life), Recovery of the Past, Woman as Myth and Reality, and the Vision of the Good.
The paths to Self-Discovery are numerous. One kind of Self-Discovery can be seen in Rochelle Owen’s “The Power of Love/He wants Shih (Everything)” (No More Masks, p. 240). Here the poet lays bare the misogyny behind the veil of “love” as the male speaker says: “Her love for me/ is my weapon… .” In Olga Broumas’ poem “Maenad” (Beginning With O, p. 17), Self-Discovery follows an examination of the deteriorated relationships between women, whereas in “Amazon Twins” (Ibid., p 7), it is part of the discovery of sexual desire between the poet and her lover.
Almost as popular a theme as Self-Discovery is the Recognition-of-the-Self-in-the World theme: personal statements, it is discovered, are public; i.e., political. In Adrienne Rich’s “Love Poem #21” (The Dream of a Common Language, p. 35), the poet imposes herself on the pages of cultural history. Standing beneath the brooding moonlit Stonehenge, she observes: “I choose to be a figure in that light,/…a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.”
In contrast to the conventional “romantic” alienation of the poet from the material world and from the “masses,” the feminist poet is alienated only from those people (frequently men) and structures (probably “male”) which inhibit humane relationships. Potential alienation is short-circuited by a sense of Solidarity with other women (and with those men who have earned the right to be respected) as well as with Nature and with the details and objects of Daily Life. Audre Lord’s poem “A Woman Speaks” (The Black Unicorn, p. 5) exudes the feeling of Solidarity: “I have been woman/ for a long time… .”
I have been told that a sense of closeness to Nature characterizes some of my own poetry. In “Carpentry” (Year of the Fires, p. 63), Solidarity with Nature is expressed when, by chance, I jam my arm into a gopher tunnel running the length of the root of a pepper tree, “and lying down against the soft earth” wait “for the graft/to take place… .” Solidarity with the details of Daily Life characterizes much of Kathleen Fraser’s poetry. In “Personal Values (New Shoes, p. 63), a prose poem, the readers find, lovingly mentioned, a porcelain sink, a stove, a radio, a flashlight, mystery books, and other homey objects recalled from childhood experiences. The poet does not inveigh against the tyranny of things; rather, she invites the reader to witness their beauty and utility.
In addition to the above themes, feminist poets of the 70’s and 80’s participated in the recovery of the Past, its rich historical and mythical components providing a landscape of images for them. Good examples of this are Jean Tepperman’s “Witch” (No More Masks, p. 33), Carolyn Kizer’s “Hera, Hung From the Sky” (Ibid., 169), and Audre Lorde’s “For Assata” (The Black Unicorn, p. 28). References to witches, Olympian goddesses, African Amazons, and Western heroines, indicate a recovery of an historical-mythological past which allows us to project ourselves with greater authority onto the world scene, and confirms a present identity with a visible and useable past. These projections are indeed “romantic” in the sense that the Female assumes heroic and mythic proportions. Or, as we used to say as children, we made ourselves “larger than life and twice as real.”
One final aspect of the neo-romantic feminist poetic – and possibly a more far-reaching one – is an identification of “female” values. Adrienne Rich’s “Love Poem #6” (The Dream of a Common Language, p. 27) identifies these values as trust, sensitivity, compassion, practicality, healing, and self-control. These values constituted a feminist Vision of the Good, not grounded in abstractions, but grounded in the experience of nurturing. Why was this exploration of values a “romantic” one? Because it did not take into account our Medeas and Tembandumbas. That is, the exploration resulted in a highly selective perspective which assumed as universal the superiority of the oppressed (women) over the oppressors (men). Nevertheless, this time romanticism served well the cause of an evolving better reality. For although men have for eons used these female values to justify our traditional roles, we feminists used them to corroborate the righteousness of our struggle for a fully realized life.
Whether or not women are indeed the keepers of nurturing values, whether or not our mythological-historical heritage is ultimately useful in confirming female identity, whether or not feminist poets tend too readily to ignore the tyranny of things and the destructive aspects of nature, the fact remains that the neo-romantic themes of feminist poetry of the Seventies and Eighties were grounded in the experiences of a very large number of women. The fact remains, also, that feminist neo-romanticism, as defined in this article, served an important corrective to the imbalance of women’s lives brought about by cultural negation. So, too, the fact remains that as women poets grapple with these themes, and more, they are still taking all women into the intellectual and artistic mainstream, where we will remain with our eyes open and our spirits independent – sorting out the disparities between “what is” and “what should be.” Thus does a literary tendency –neo-romanticism – serve a socially useful end.
© Joyce Nower 2008
This paper is a personal rumination, but clearly not just about myself. It is, to use your phrasing: “a remembrance, appreciation, evaluation,” not of an individual poet, but of a specific time and place in the development of women’s poetry in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I would be happy to answer questions that might arise.