INTRODUCTION: AMERICAN WOMEN'S POETRY
& DICKINSON'S LEGACY
by Martha Nell Smith
Page 6Like cousin "Loo," and all of the women mentioned above, they have, from their various perspectives, emphasized the two things I've been remarking upon: 1. As Maxine Kumin makes so clear in the prose poem "The Uses of Emily," no matter how a woman considers herself (as a poet, an artist, like Elizabeth Bishop, not wanting to be sullied by the fact of gender), much of her audience thinks of a woman writer first as a female, and, however mysterious, somehow knowable. No matter how a woman writer exposes the myth of male supremacy and exceeds the social expectations ascribed by the fantasy behind the category "woman," her womanhood is at least to some degree fetishized. Kumin writes, "Emily the doomed, refusing Christ as your personal savior - no wonder father snatched you out of algebra and astronomy - and sat you down at home - anyone could clearly see these intellectual wizardies were weakening the womb." As recently as 1983 a critic argued that many, even most, of Dickinson's excruciating poems about pain and death are about an 1861 abortion he supposes she had. The same critic attaches letter-poems she wrote her sister-in-law after the death of Susan's little eight-year-old son Gilbert to his own desires--"The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled - / How simply at the last the Fathom comes / The Passenger and not the Sea, we find surprises us - / Now my ascended Playmate / must instruct me. / Show us, prattling Preceptor, / but the way to thee! / He knew no niggard moment - / his Life was full of Boon - / The Playthings of the Dervish / were not so wild as his -" Though written in the wake of the Dickinson households' loss of their sprite that had come to bless them, the critic claims these lines utter her grief over the minister he argues impregnated her, saying "If some of the epithets and reflections seem too weighty for a small boy, the poem may contain elegiac speculations that relate to other recent deaths that saddened Dickinson, such as that of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth."3 Whether the woman writing wants it to be or not, gender is a factor in readers' responses, and all of these women in Titanic Operas, as well as those who like Mary Oliver who do not wish to appear in anthologies of women poets, have remarked upon that.
Contemporary women poets repeatedly observe that Emily Dickinson was able to practice the unadulterated, unprostituted art Virginia Woolf dreams about in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. They make this observation even though an obvious fact about Emily Dickinson's staggering rate of literary production and reproduction goes generally unremarked--here was a poet in her early thirties, a time in the life cycle when most settle securely into and commit themselves to their lives' occupations, and she responded by copying out more than 1,200, or two-thirds of her nearly 1,800 known poems between 1858-1865, her late twenties to mid-thirties. Still, as anyone who haunts any of the three Dickinson online discussion lists know, a version of the lovelorn, half-mad poet is still offered as an explanation for her artistic production. Many readers who are becoming familiar with the poems of Susan Dickinson--by and large unpublished until our critical edition on the Dickinson Electronic Archives--are beginning to wonder aloud about another obvious explanation regarding Susan's restrained rate of production that likewise goes generally unremarked but is worth noting if one is to consider gender and poetic praxes. How much did Susan's obligations as wife and mother cut into her work as writer, silence her by forcing her into other daily habits. How much are her silences the unnatural ones that Tillie Olsen decries, the silences begat by "the relationship of circumstances--including class, color, sex; the times, climate into which one is born--to the creation of literature" (xi).
Now the second observation that these women poets repeatedly have made is pertinent to current developments and stases in our culture in general, literary criticism and theory in general and feminist criticism and theory in particular and is the point that could help move us out of critical cul de sacs. 2. All of these women poets talk of the importance of a poet's connectedness, of, as Alice Fulton put it, poems being about something. They each see Emily Dickinson as did Amy Clampitt, who asserted that Dickinson's greatest fear was to pass and leave no trace, and as audience-oriented, as connected to the world, as fascinated by the goings-up and goings-down in the world outside. Ruminating on her, so familiar in literary tradition as the idolized isolata, all emphasized a poet's responsibility to others, the importance of what it is now fashionable and presumably sophisticated to discuss as quaint, naive--the importance of claiming/reclaiming a sisterhood and more--a humanhood. Violence and anxiety are not absent from these responses, but they are not seen as "necessary," "inevitable," the "most complex," or something to champion, even when profound anger is voiced. Like Gwendolyn Brooks exhorting the young, these women, in their various voices and different ways, urge others to beware the "harmony-hushers," for harmony's the "hard home-run." I have been one of those feminist critics who has urged others not to believe in naive sisterhood, who has wondered if it is not sexist in the most traditional of orders for women to urge a faith, a commitment to such connectedness. But these women poets keep reminding me to think, to work harder, to strive for that "hard home-run." Connectedness is not necessarily consensus. Harmony is not the same tune, but melodies blended. Theirs is not touchy-feely sentiment. These women are all valiant and tough-minded. All seem on a quest to reclaim a four-letter word: LOVE.
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