Do I Write as a Woman Poet, or a Poet who is a Woman?
When I was a child, I thought of poetry as one of the common idioms of life. My mother’s father wrote sonnets, and she and her sisters wrote occasional verse for various occasions; my father’s grandmother’s father published a book of poetry, and my father edited the literary magazine at his high school and college, and wrote reams of poetry to fill out the empty pages, when necessary. As soon as I could write, I started keeping a journal and duly wrote reams of poetry to fill out the pages. One of my first immortal lines was about Thanksgiving: “We are having turkey tonight, / And then going to the big fight,” as if it were a family tradition to attend competitive boxing after Thanksgiving dinner – but this dire fiction gave me the rhyme!
As I continued to scribble (so Jo March would put it), I read the works of Louisa May Alcott. In fifth grade, my friends and I spent every recess writing up and practicing a play based on Little Women, which we performed at the end of the school year; every one of us wanted to play the role of Jo, the scribbler, but my cousin Trish got the part. I read all the Brontës and wondered what a moor looked like, those vast expanses they were free to wander. I read a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and dreamed of playing the piano really well and living in the Village. And in Louis Untermeyer’s wonderful Golden Treasury of Poetry for children, with illustrations by Joan Walsh Anglund, I read Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Genevieve Taggard; my parents gave it to me for Christmas the year it was published, in 1959. And a bit later on, in Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry, which my mother won as a prize at Pembroke College in 1943, I read Louise Bogan, Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Edith Sitwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, mixed in with everyone else, but specially focusing my attention. None of them seemed to make an issue out of being a woman in their poems, though Edna St. Vincent Millay did write:
Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard?–
“What a big book for such a little head!”
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink.
Oh, I shall love you still and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more;
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.
So it seemed unproblematic to me that people wrote poetry, poetry was part of life, and poets were both men and women. It didn’t occur to me that being a poet and being a woman was in fact an issue until, while in my twenties, I began to meet some prominent women poets. I wrote about, and visited, Barbara Howes in Vermont, Julia Randall in Maryland, Josephine Miles in California, and Katerina Angelaki-Rooke in Greece. One thing I noted was that they were all people who stayed close to home: Miles and Angelaki-Rooke (who is still alive and well and living in Athens) had serious physical disabilities, but Howes and Randall were (I think) just reclusive and a bit alcoholic. Among them, there were only two children: Howes had two sons. In my thirties, I met Maxine Kumin, who not only had two children and two grandchildren, but wrote poems about them; however, at that point she too was a homebody, except when she was on tour reading her poetry—but that was business, to support her farm in New Hampshire.
The womanhood of being a poet started to seem problematic to me, in two very different ways. The Homeric tradition of poetry that we have inherited gives us Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon; my only interest in war is to figure out how we human beings can learn to stop waging it. But Homer also gives us Odysseus, who offers a really interesting model of how to grow up, by leaving home, encountering other cultures and divine and monstrous creatures, and then returning, ‘plein d’usage et raison,’ as Du Bellay once wrote. So I often thought about Penelope, who stays home, and Odysseus, who gets to have adventures, and decided that a woman poet ought to be able to wander around the Mediterranean too. Thus in my first book, The River Painter, after three poems about Chinese painting, the first section is called “The Voyage Out”: I went all the way from London to Athens (I was going to continue to Istanbul, but a cholera epidemic had broken out there), and up to the North Sea, and over to Finisterre in Normandy on my bicycle. The best parts of the trajectory were on boats: I love ferry boats!
On the Ferry, towards Patras
Corfu appears, and then the distant blue
Draws her away again: uncertain hours
As time begins to drown in voyaging.
No talk, no books, no breakfast taken late.
The sea, divided, falls behind the boat:
I see that blue laid back on darker blue
The way Odysseus must have, when his mind
Was emptied of its cleverness at last
By ten years’ wandering. His thoughts are mine,
An island without houses, flocks or trees,
Undressed of all its causes. Memory
Slides by like waves against the running prow.
What memories could wake my tiredness?
The clothes upon my back, unspoken words
I always bear, or wounds from an embrace
Too often entered, now are all I own;
Along my flesh I feel them hardening,
A frieze that tells the future as the past
And scrolls my progress roundly on my breast.
I cannot keep my secrets to myself.
I am the figure of the ship, and where
I’ve traveled, where I go, what I will do,
Assail and tear aside the simple blue.
Rather world-weary for a twenty-something–but it captures the way that sailing to Greece was embodied, literary, and geographical, as well as a transport of spirit. The second section is called “The Return,” but it is a rather ambivalent return: I really wasn’t ready to come back home, wherever that might have been, when I wrote that poem!
Here is another poem, written forty years later: I still love ferry boats!
The Tallinn Ferry
The ferryboat from Helsinki to Tallinn
Passes small islands into the open sea,
The Baltic. Brackish, neither sweet nor salt,
It plays congenial host to microscopic
Flora and fauna flourishing only here.
Only here. The sunset shines behind us
And lights the northern dome of heaven slantwise
As if dusk were midday, which it is,
Almost, in summer near the Arctic Circle.
This boat reminds me of another ferry
I boarded more than forty years ago,
From Brindisi to Patras. A southern sea
With the same perfect circle at the edges
Thanks to our finite eyes, the curvature
Of almost perfect earth, that oblate sphere,
The same slate blue at evening, but another
Dark-eyed man was waiting on the shore,
Hidden behind the folded wing of years.
For hours there is nothing on the horizon.
It’s just a circle, as the river of time
Is just a line: fixed banks or flowing stream?
The line witholds its secrets, like the circle.
Then gleams arise, the facets of a cliff,
The windows of a city, the shimmer of ships
Moored close together round a crescent harbor.
And so my vanished loves sometimes appear
At sunset, as the ferry veers towards home.
But now I have a home, and indeed know how to find my way back to it, every time. So here is a variant poem entitled “Ithaka,” where Penelope’s role is transformed.
Penelope held off her ravenous suitors
By promising, tomorrow and tomorrow,
She’d finish lost Ulysses’ winding sheet.
The Greek text says that she composed in light,
And analyzed in darkness. Woven figures
unravelled are not quite analysis,
Rather a woman trying to understand
The altitude and basis of her island.
All day Penelope addressed the warp,
Her shuttle a small craft with two directions.
All night her solitude relit the torch.
To analyze is to set life in question,
Despite the crush of suitors at the door,
The cold synthetic wave raking the shore.
My favorite philosopher, Leibniz, says that analysis is the search for conditions of intelligibility, which I suppose even homebodies can pursue. However, I still think that living reflectively at home goes better if you have been able to transport yourself far away first: admittedly, what counts as distance is not always measured in miles. I put this poem at the beginning of my edited collection of essays, The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. I am fond of her because she wrote memoirs and novels as well as important philosophical texts, like W. E. B. Du Bois.
This brings us to the second issue. Not only did a woman poet seem to have trouble travelling, she also seemed to have trouble being a mother. The most financially successful woman in my family was my aunt Dottie, Dorothy Skerrett, who was (I think) the first woman stockbroker in Philadelphia: some money she left me allowed me to go to Europe when I was in my twenties, bless her. But everybody assumed that for that very reason, she couldn’t possibly marry. When I got married, late in life, my beloved aunts asked me if I planned to continue teaching. I was a tenured professor at Penn State with half a dozen major grants and two and a half books: yes, dear aunts from another era, I wanted to go on having a professional life! So when I started having (and adopting) babies, I asserted my right to have them, professionally, in the form of poems. (I also taught a course on Children and Social Justice.)
Among the great passions celebrated in the Western poetic tradition, licet or illicit romance between enamoured adults perhaps ranks highest, along with the tragic passions of hatred, fear and rage that lace the poetic dramas about war and intra-familial strife that Aristotle charts so well. And there is the passion for God which rises into ascendency in the Middle Ages, raising a rainbow of devotional poems from Boethius to Dante to Donne and Herbert. But when I was around forty, I discovered another passion whose effects were overwhelmingly powerful and also almost universal, but found almost no poetic expression at all in the Western tradition. This struck me as bizarre. I discovered this passion when my first child was born. Looking down at my son Benjamin, I was surprised to learn that I was in the company of another human being for whom I would cheerfully and without reflection give my own life, and for whom I would probably kill. I had never felt that way before. Not only did I suddenly experience some affinity for the lioness, I felt as if some great lioness of the spirit had picked me up by the scruff of the neck and set me down in another country. (See, there are many ways of traveling.)
Since then, three more babies have been placed in my arms, two by social workers and one more by a nurse, and each encounter delivered the same rough shock, the same transport. I wrote poem after poem, as they grew up, to testify to this new world, but I felt as if I were writing almost in a vacuum. The poets I most loved and memorized and learned from – Keats, Baudelaire, Housman, Auden, Yeats, Cavafy and Seferis – had almost nothing to say about children. The woman poets of the twentieth century whose work inspired me, Millay, Teasdale, Wylie, Bogan and Bishop, were similarly silent on the subject. But then there was Maxine Kumin! Here is her grandson:
Noah, at Six Months
While, this rainy summer of 1990
The swollen pond pushes past its spillway,
Bean seeds rot in their rows and lilacs
Bead up but drop their thousand
Lavender nubs unopened,
One silvery baby named Noah
Is almost sitting alone now.
He sucks his fingers like ten tarts.
Through drool and Bronx cheer
He crows, inventing speech.
A river of vowels starts,
Broken here and there by the chance
Rapids of new consonants.
We kindle a fire in the parlor stove.
The farmhouse steams with the smell
Of damp wool recurling
Its filaments, like family feeling.
Shall we say all this is Noah’s marvelous work?
Today in the rain our world is cupped in his arc.
His presence, and his biblical name, provides an arc that allows everyone to ride out the flooding rains threatening her farm on its New Hampshire hillside in the summer of 1990, and transforms his baby-talk into a river of vowels that will one day turn into speech, and then perhaps to art.
The topic of small children for a poet offers, first and foremost, the exploration of a grand passion. Second, it offers a novel way to explore what language means to human beings and the way it constitutes the world, since children show us these pathways by the striking and strange ways in which they learn to talk: this is evident in Kumin’s poem. I echoed it in this one about my first son, Benjamin. (Ben and Noah became friends in college, and are now both aspiring writers.)
The ducks are raucous, flying overhead,
And all the talk you hear is running slower.
You don’t quite get the words,
Not yet, but you can estimate the music.
Anger makes you weep, and a good laugh
Raises your toothless smile.
You stand to look, and listen as you sit
In the laps of people talking,
Wondering what the tides of life can carry.
Your hair is soft as milkweed;
Your father and I caress your head
Whenever we hold you, half unthinkingly,
And you move up against that stroking hand.
Your body curves along us when you’re full
And arches when you’re hungry.
We speak to you by name
And you look sideways, willing but mystified,
Trying hard to grasp at dancing straws,
To sing, to show, to answer, to remember
One by one the grape leaves as they tumble,
Somber oak and yellow jewelweed.
And yet for the most part you soon forget.
And yet I write this down
So you can tell us later what it means.
My voluble, mute son,
Who listen as the birds go storming south,
You know the melody, but not the words.
And here, another expressive and still mute baby, William.
Awake before dawn, William and I sit drowsing,
Lapsed from a dream, louring toward consciousness,
Nursing a little, musing, counting our toes.
There are always ten, no matter where we begin.
Oh, look. He suddenly points at the closed door-windows
That cast over snow, past spindly lank silhouettes
Of maple, oak, black walnut, into the dawn.
On tiptoe, weaving, he runs up close to the windows
Charmed by the panels of gold set high among mullions
Of boles, the roses fastened in tracery-branches.
Yet how the fastening ravels: our matins are sung,
The windows beyond the windows wither away,
And then he returns to my arms asking his questions
In an ancient, unknown tongue. And all of my answers,
Equally enigmatic, are kisses in shadow.
And here is another echo, where finally the baby speaks:
Robbie Discovers Puddles
Standing in his boots, in contemplation,
He watches sun spring off the patch of water,
Then leaps. Both he and I
Start at the burst and magnitude of spray,
Our sudden decoration of muddy droplets.
“Plash,” he observes, correctly, and jumps again,
While overhead a bird
Sings out its two-tone as if in applause.
Acknowledging the call, he answers, “Bird.”
His joy is like mid-February sun,
Snowdrops blooming early,
The irresistible, delicious cry
Plied by the bird above. I do not say,
“Stop it. You’re getting dirty. What a mess.”
My irritable mother-tongue is silenced
By the great flood of light,
Two words uttered truly by my child
Splashing in boots of diamond-studded mud.
And in this one, where my daughter Mary-Frances’ speaking has turned into song:
My girl sings in her room, alone,
One of the thousand songs she knows
By heart, uploaded sideways on her Ipod
Molecule by molecule, soundlessly strung,
Effortlessly flung across innumerable
Times and infinitesimal blue spaces.
So sweet. Her true soprano warbles,
Wobbles, rights itself and then continues on.
Flocks spiralling. How quiet this old house
Will prove in later years, when love
Summons my girl and all the thrushes, starlings,
Finches, doves and waxwings will have flown.
Just a few weeks ago, I sent this child off on her first extended stay away from home, up to Boston for an internship in marketing at TJMax/TJX, for me not only another world but another galaxy. I did my best not to weep as she was preparing to drive away, just as I did my best not to weep at her brother William’s departure to Athens this spring, to study abroad. (I cried pretty hard afterwards though, and wished my mother were still around, so we could commiserate.) William sends regular text messages now from Pylos – Sandy Pylos, where Nestor’s palace overlooked the sea, bits of which are in fact what my son is digging up on a hillside in an olive grove, with archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati. Mycenaean potshards! Back to Homer!
So I feel that I am writing most as a woman, insisting on the fact that I am a woman, when I write as Odysseus, all by myself on boats and trains and planes, or on foot, in the strangest places; and when I write as a mother, fascinated and impassioned by the small people we create and raise, so they will go off on their own adventures, and sing their own sweet and bitter songs.
Emily Grosholz’s recent chapbook of poetry Childhood (Accents Publishing, 2014), with drawings by Lucy Vines, has been translated into Japanese, Italian and French, and has raised over $3000 for UNICEF. The Stars of Earth: New and Selected Poems, with drawings by Farhad Ostovani, was just published by Word Galaxy Press.