And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 22. februar 2012

Four Female Poets - an introduction

As followers of this blog will know I am an avid reader of poetry and I have in the past five years accumulated a meager library of verse, chiefly in the English tongue. Quite recently it occurred to me that this library has a preponderance of male poets and I soon realised how very unfortunate this is. I should point out from the very start that when discussing poetry I am in most cases very reluctant to engage with gender issues and especially demarcations drawn along gender lines. When discussing poetry I prefer to use the following categories: poetry that engages me, poetry that fails to engage me, well-wrought poetry and lesser poetry (I very rarely come across bad poetry so that is a spare category). Obviously a poetic work must be placed in two of these categories and this is why "gender" is mainly a non-issue when I talk about poetry: a poem either engages me or fails to, it is either a well-composed opus or the work of a less competent hand. It does not matter to me whether a particular sonnet is composed by a man or a woman as long as it engages me or as long as it is well-wrought.

However, I once attended a lecture on poetry held by a postdoc in classical studies at the university in Trondheim, and she pointed out that due to the underrepresentation of women in world poetry it would sometimes be profitable to group these female poets together and consider them not only as poets but as women. As a history student I do of course agree with this, especially since dealing with Medieval history has made me very alert to the male - and I avoid "masculine" on purpose - dominance in literature throughout history. Women were not absent from poetic discourse, however, and we have a number of well-known, lesser-known and unknown female poets ranging from the near-legendary Enheduanna and well into our own time. Nonetheless female poets have been outnumbered and overshadowed for centuries, and for a historically-minded poetry enthusiast as myself this has resulted in a library underrepresented by women since the periods I take most interest in were times when women rarely were able or allowed to engage in public poetic discourse, or public discourse of any kind for that matter.

In order to rectify this lack of knowledge I have recently started to explore the writings of female poets, and in this blogpost I would like to present four female poets whom poetry enthusiasts should get to know: Mary Wroth, Aphra Behn, Carol Ann Duffy and Vicki Feaver. I have chosen these four poets because I am sufficiently familiar with them to select poems to include in this blogpost. The pictures are all from wikimedia.
Lady Mary Wroth (1587?-1651/53)

Born in an age when women were positioned largely where their male family members or acquaintances put them, Mary Wroth was very well placed for her creative qualities to thrive. She was the daughter of Robert Sidney and the niece of Philip Sidney, both poets and noblemen, and her marriage with Robert Wroth brought her in contact with the court of James I where she later befriended Ben Jonson.

Mary Wroth is of great literary significance. She was the first known Englishwoman to write a romance - the scandalous Urania - and a sonnet sequence. This sequence includes a corona of sonnets called A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love. This is a particularly demanding arrangement where the last line of the first sonnet serves as the first line of the second and so on, and it illustrates Wroth's great versatility as a poet. The first sonnet of the corona is a particular favourite of mine.

In this strange Labyrinth how shall I turne,
Wayes are on all sids while the way I misse:
If to the right hand, there, in love I burne,
Let mee goe forward, therein danger is.
If to the left, suspition hinders blisse;
Let mee turne back, shame cryes I ought returne:
Nor faint, though crosses my fortunes kiss,
Stand still is harder, allthough sure to mourne.
Thus let mee take the right, or left hand way,
Goe forward, or stand still, or back retire:
I must these doubts indure without allay
Or helpe, but trauell finde for my best hire.
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move,
Is to leave all, and take the threed of Love.

Aphra Behn (1640?-89)

Little is known of Aphra Behn's early years and her adult life is somewhat shrouded in speculations of her possible role in espionage during her 20s. She was an avid writer and began a career as playwright about 1670. Her risquè comedies met with popularity in the Libertine atmosphere of the day, but unsurprisingly this attracted criticism of varying ferocity as well. Aphra Behn was an influential writer and female playwrights of the turn of the century acknowledged their debt to her. She received, however, little praise from the major male literary figures of the 18th century, largely because her plays were considered too little feminine.

My personal favourite of Aphra Behn's poems is The Disappointment, a mock-pastoral translated from the French, akin to John Wilmot's The Imperfect Enjoyment. Since this particular poem is a little too long to be included here, I will instead present Love Armed, a very well-wrought love poem.

Love Armed

Love in fantastic triumph sat,
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed,
For whom fresh pains he did create,
And strange tyrannic power he showed,
From thy bright eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But 'twas from mine, he took desire,
Enough to undo the amorous world.

From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee;
Thus thou and I the god have armed,
And set him up a deity;
But my poor heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free.

Vicki Feaver (1943 -)

I became aware of Vicki Feaver thanks to the blog The Cantos of Mvtabilitie, one of the few I follow, and I was immediately struck by the beauty of a strophe from The Gun, a poem printed in her 2006 collection The Book of Blood (Jonathan Cape Publishing). The beauty of the concluding lines were so haunting that I immediately purchased the book and read it.

Since the poem is fairly recently published I am hesitant about quoting it in full, and I will be content with the final strophe, the one which made me eager to explore Feaver's poetry in the first place. The poem in its entirety can be read here.

I join in the cooking: jointing
and slicing, stirring and tasting -
excited as if the King of Death
had arrived to feast, stalking
out of winter woods,
his black mouth
sprouting golden crocuses.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)

Carol Ann Duffy is an important figure in the history of British literature for being the first female - and first openly gay - poet laureate, a position she assumed in 2009. Duffy has been noted for her re-establishment of the dramatic monologue as a device of lyric poetry, following the footsteps of Robert Browning. My favourite poem so far is Anne Hathaway, a monologue by Shakespeare's wife based on his will that left her the second best bed. This poem was printed in The World's Wife (Picador) from 2000.

Anne Hathaway

'Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed ...'
(from Shakespeare's will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he'd written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer's hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love -
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

4 kommentarer:

  1. Takk! En fin introduksjon til poeter jeg ikke hadde vært så mye borti før.

    Jeg ble sittende og lese eksemplene av Aphra Behn og Anne Hathaway høyt for meg selv, og det er et tegn på at du gjorde gode valg.

  2. Dette gjer meg svært glad. Litt av føremålet med denne bloggen er nettopp å syne fram små ting som kanskje ikkje alltid er so kjent utanfor England, og det er svært kjekt når dette kan vere opplysande. Eg har dessutan byrja å gjere meg kjend med Jane Griffiths, og eg kan absolutt anbefale hennar dikt òg sånn apropos kvinnelege poetar.

  3. I do indeed and again I thank you for introducing me to her. I purchased Book of Blood shortly after the discovery and i found it very English and delightfully so.