Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Saturday Review, 1952: Do Women Make Good Poets? by Rumer Godden

Up in the attic I found, in a stack of yellowing magazines, a Saturday Review dated January 5, 1952 which featured a cover article by Rumer Godden: Do Women Make Good Poets? (You can read the complete article online; the first two pages are here, and the third here, page 39.)
There are many women writers who write good prose; in the novel especially women are the equals, if not the betters of men. Why have not more of them written good poetry? 
Woman is emancipated now. She can vote, she can own property, she can work -- though not on equal pay; almost all professions are open to her if she can find the means to follow them. Then why does she so seldom follow that of the poet? The woman poet has always been a rarity; she is still rare today, yet all she needs is a few pieces of paper, a pen... and herself. Is it that last that balks her?
She explains her concept of self as hindrance to women poets:
The womanly woman is beset with little [little has been clarified earlier as meaning personal and intimate - MrsDarwin] visions, and the poet needs a large vision. She is attached, and the poet must be detached. A poet must have the power to inhabit space, to float, to disappear, like Ariel, in an essence of himself; most women are too personal to disappear. Fo all woman's emancipation, for all the professions she may follow, she is still trammeled by herself. Ann [sic] Elliot's cry from the heart is still the cry of most women: "We live at home... (even if we are not there, even if we are out following our bent as lawyer, doctor, economist)... our feelings prey upon us." Ann Elliot is still right; it is, and always will be, very difficult for a woman to free herself, to leave the walls and hedges of her home, to escape whole from her feelings. 
But, surely, feeling is the first essential for a poet? It is the first, but only the first. The rest must follow, and too often a woman can travel no further than the range of her own feelings.
Rumer Godden, a gifted novelist, is no tool of the patriarchy, so as much as phrases like "little vision" may cause a knee-jerk reaction, it's worth parsing out what she is saying. To have a personal or intimate vision is not a sign of inferiority or a mark of weakness, nor is "most women are too personal to disappear" a pejorative statement; often those acclaimed for their large vision have lost sight of essential humanity. If women are responsible for much writing that is sentimental, schlocky, or trite -- "as warm, as sensuous, as easy as theatre organ music, syrupy sweet", as Godden says of the "poetesses" who stand in contrast to the serious woman poet -- it is men who tend towards writing that is impersonal, devoid of human characteristics and feeling, whether action-packed or abstract. As it is, many men who pride themselves on their hard rigorous writing would do well to remember that since God is both Love and Truth, any feats of cold logic which despise mercy as weakness and emotion as pathetic are little more than exercises in intellectual sterility. But such men do not tend to write poetry.

Speaking of Christina Rossetti, for whom she has great admiration, Godden says, "In the end, she married only her poetry, she lived with it, keeping herself for it. It is this, this wholeness of gift, this dedication, that marks the true poet; and I think this is the reason that so few women attain this stature."
A woman, leading a woman's life, can never be whole; she is constantly drained in a way that a man is not.To write a poem is an experience into which the whole of the poet must go; in it he must be reborn and one cannot be born oneself if one is continually giving birth. This is what a womanly woman does; she spends her days creating and re-creating...
Godden does not contend that a woman with a family is necessarily cut off from the poetic muse, but she does believe that
The woman poet is more set apart from other women than the male poet from other men. No doubt women despise her because she is not deft. She is often a little inept, clumsy about the practical things of life... The woman poet has nothing to say to other women, except through her poetry. In proportion to her power she eschews herself with male detachment; she must consent to be unwomanly, she must consent to be apart. She may not like her loneliness, particularly when she is young. Perhaps it is that that gives to the best of her work a power of penetration, a pathos, that is like an inner voice, a voice like light rising from the sound of the poem, from the exquisite shell of its texture and shape.

The rest of the magazine is a fascinating glimpse of literary life in mid-century America. The whole can be viewed here, ads and all.  Of course there are many worthwhile articles, but I was particularly intrigued by the quality of the personal ads, compelled by space constraints to assume a Twitter-esque brevity:
ENGINEER, young, naive, moderately sincere, slightly weary only trees and mountains, would eagerly correspond carload lots female correspondence. Box 755-J 
SLICK WRITER needs young man assistant 20-28 years, with serious ambition to write, college and research experience preferable but not necessary. Opportunity for expense-paid travel, independent assignments, U.S.-foreign. Complete resume, photo if possible. Immediate. Box 760-J 
IS THERE mature male seeking feminine and interesting correspondence? Box 765-J
MATURE GENTLEMAN interested in music, theatre, cooking, ordinary pleasures, invites correspondence with lady. Box 792-J 
YOUNG MAN, music lover, avocations audio engineering, furniture design; seeks exhange of ideas and suggestions for better design of audio equipment and furniture with young lady of like enthusiams. Box 784-J 
GENTLEMAN, adventurous, bored, will not answer dull letters. Box 795-J 
WOULD VENTURESOME lassie escape boredom corresponding mature but audacious male with widely diversified interests. Box 796-J


Literacy-chic said...

Vision is necessary for a poet, yes, but I would contest the "large" vision. That is simply a reflection on the particular poetic movements of the time.

It is interesting that her observation centers on the interactions between women and gendered identity. She seems to suggest that there is no "poesie feminine" (like "ecriture feminine")--poetry cannot embody the feminine, so the female poet must become masculine. I wonder what H.D. would say about that? Or Edna St. Vincent Millay?

I had a professor--herself a Yeats scholar--as an undergraduate who made a similar point about creativity. She maintained that a woman's creative impulses tended to be fulfilled by motherhood, and so women did not necessarily remain devoted to writing poetry. I have thought about that over the years, because for one reason or another, I did not remain devoted to poetry as I was before I had my first child.

mrsdarwin said...

Actually, she says what a poet needs "seems to be a peculiar balance of the sexes in each sex, each working on the other to produce a kind of chemistry -- it might be called alchemy..." She maintains that the male poet needs to have an admixture of the feminine, but that, unlike the effect that family and relationships seem to have on women, the male poet has "wives, mistresses, children without impairing the force in his work."

I would argue with your professor that a woman's creative impulses are not so much fulfilled by motherhood as consumed by it. The physical, spiritual, and emotional demands of motherhood drain so much energy from a woman that even when the creative impulse persists, as it does, it is hard to devote enough resources to remain devoted to a discipline as demanding as writing poetry.

As to "gendered identity", here is her comment on modern women poets:

"Most of our modern poems by women poets are like most poems by men and women in any age. There is and always will be among them the rare, the lighted spirit; in this there can be no progress because these heights are not to be measured. Occasionally a true poet is vouchsafe to the world whose quality is timeless, a miracled phenomenon that belongs to every age. He can be man or woman, man-woman, woman-man, and he, or she, is the lonely one, the one apart.

"The Moon is gone
And the Pleiades set,
Midnight is nigh;
Time passes on,
And passes, yet
Alone I lie.

"Sappho is reputed to have written that in 600 B.C."

I was thinking of Godden's remark about women being too personal to disappear as I was writing the post; it took all my discipline to avoid putting myself into it: "Well, I'm no poet of course, but..." I find it hard to write without relating everything back to my own experience. Is that a feminine trait or a personal one? I don't know.

Brandon said...

I found her linking of solitude or isolation with poetry fairly interesting.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Very interesting. I'm going to have to go read the whole essay.

I find myself wondering what Sally Thomas will say.

tdunbar said...

Speaking of Christina Rossetti, I think she's underappreciated: too artistic for Christians and too christian for Artists, so to speak.

Rossetti writes more extensively and deeply about life in Christ than almost any other poet. And often on sonnet form second only to Shakespeare.

Enbrethiliel said...


I should send this to a friend of mine, who became the editor-in-chief of a literary magazine after her predecessor resigned in order to have more time for a new baby. (Yes, they're both women. And I probably didn't need to say so. =P) I know that my friend wasn't happy with the implication that you can have poetry or you can have children, but not both.

Jenny said...

"We live at home... (even if we are not there, even if we are out following our bent as lawyer, doctor, economist)... our feelings prey upon us."

I won't say this always and forever true for all women for I have known women who do not seem to give their children/households a second thought while at work. However I do think it applies to most of us. It is hard to separate one's thoughts from the constant household management task list running in the background. And I don't think most of us want to separate from it despite the lip-service given to "life/work balance," whatever that means.

mrsdarwin said...

E, I don't think that Godden was implying that one can either have children or poetry, but that women poets who have children are following a harder, if more ultimately rewarding path. Also, that women poets who remain unmarried, though choice or necessity, have a talent for transmuting that loneliness into poetic gold.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, I meant that the predecessor's resignation implied that. Godden's analysis is definitely more nuanced. =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Here's a piece I found today about writing and mothering. It's by a novelist, not a poet, but I found the parallels interesting.

MrsDarwin said...


Shannon Hale's piece was interesting, but it didn't exactly touch on Godden's topic. Hale is writing merely about the technicalities of being a mother pursuing some full-time activity -- the scheduling, discipline, balance, etc.-- and her tips and experience, while interesting, aren't necessarily specific to writing. Godden is not so much concerned with the work-life balance of women writing, as she's already acknowledged that there are many women who do excellent writing despite their particular constraints and who, in fact, surpass men in endeavors such as the novel. The quantity of excellent women novelists proves that women can and do find time to write. Why, then, are there so few excellent women poets?

Note that the doesn't ask why so few women write poetry. There are copious collections of mediocre poetry populated by women (and men, of course). But facility with words and ear for the catchy rhyme is not the main attribute of the poet. Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin are remembered as lyricists, not poets, and for good reason. Godden is focused on the specific abstract vision it takes to write good poetry, and whether the personal nature of feminine creativity is conducive to that abstract vision.