The Poetry Of Feminism... Or Vice Versa

July 25, 2007
Aditi Nadkarni

Since my train of thought has been chuffing along these lines for a while, this article too is about the F-word that seems to be raising many hackles: "feminism".

Mind you, this particular article will be difficult to comment on for all and sundry. This brand of feminism is reserved for those among us who find their periodic escape into the world of poetry. This brand, people, is for those of us who find metaphors in cinema, analogies in nature and can be found squatting in the dusty aisles of a library, lost, among the pages of a voluptuous volume. Or are just plain high on something spectacular.

While the political world goes by labels and propriety, the literary realm and especially that of poetry adheres only to the unfettered wings of imagination. In this post, I attempt to summarize a few female poets whose work became, for me, a quintessential paradigm of feminine emotions, experience and emancipation.

Why female poets only, you ask? Well, being a woman and a poet at that, it is inspiring to examine the works of those that came before me and bore the discontent that change frequently summons. This list will include some unfamiliar names and is restricted by the fact that I cannot possibly have a lengthy compilation in one article:

Christina Rossetti: When I was six, my mother was researching frantically for her English literature thesis. I could hear her read verses out loud trying to find patterns and themes in the poetry so she could begin the bulk of her work: analysis.

The first piece of poetry that held my attention was Daughter Of Eve by Christina Rossetti. At six, it was only the rhymes that caught my attention, like a song would.

"A fool I was to sleep at noon,
And wake when night is chilly
Beneath the comfortless cold moon;
A fool to pluck my rose too soon,
A fool to snap my lily"
It took me ten more years and a heartbreak to fully grasp the poem that spoke in such poignant stanzas of a woman’s regret. I have moved away from lyrical poetry since then but the quality of Rossetti’s poems makes its way occasionally into some of mine that give in to meter. While contemporary female poets define the feminist voice by a stark and blatant quality, Rossetti’s poems used subtlety as was appropriate for the times. The themes of some of her poems however were not.

When I grew older, my favorite Rossetti poem became No, Thank You, John in which a woman determinedly turns down the romantic overtures of a young man, offering him instead a friendship.

"In open treaty.
Rise above
Quibbles and shuffling off and on
Here's friendship for you if you like;
but love,
No, thank you, John."

I often contemplate about what Rossetti’s psyche might’ve been while penning these verses at a time when women were defined by marriage proposals and suitable alliances. The undertones of female emancipation are present in this poem where a woman makes her choice, her preference known loud and clear.

Emma Lazarus: Even as I type her name and remember her beautiful sonnets, I am reminded that today (July 22nd) is Emma Lazarus’s birthday. One of my earliest experiences of nineteenth century American poetry came when I read one of the Lazarus sonnets, The New Colossus. Lazarus’s personifications gave birth to a strong, inspiring and clear feminine voice to the famed Statue Of Liberty,

"A mighty woman with a torch,
whose flame,
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome;
her mild eyes command"
Poetry, they say, is a slave to interpretation and when I came upon this poem yet again, this time engraved on a miniature statue in a souvenir shop, it was at a time in my life when the verses meant a lot more in the context of female liberty. In Echoes, she sums up a woman’s struggle and her triumph beautifully:
"Upon my Muse's lips, nor may I cope
(Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope)
With the world's strong-armed warriors and recite
The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the fight"

Yossana Akiko: When I first read an English translation of Akiko’s poems I was frustrated at not knowing Japanese. Silly as it may sound, I could not stop wondering how much had been lost to translation in the plainly stated female experiences. There was no lyrical music to this poetry, I thought, but there was so much truth that it resounded just as music would’ve.

In her poem Labor Pains, Akiko describes the experience of childbirth and the solitude of a pain that has no partakers. Following is an excerpt:

"There is only one truth
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad;
real, no sham about it.
With the first labor pains, suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone that I am."
I think even if the balance of male versus female suffering comes to an unlikely equipoise, the pain of childbirth will still tip the scale in the favor of a woman.

Lucille Clifton: There isn’t a feminine encounter that Lucille Clifton has not owned in her honest and humorous contemporary style. Her poems celebrate everything about being a woman from menstruation to hysterectomies. She describes the young spirit of a girl that refuses to give in to age in There Is A Girl Inside:

"There is a girl inside
She is randy as a wolf
She will not walk away
And leave these bones to an old woman"

Eunice Desouza: One of my favorite poets, Eunice Desouza, used unstated humor and satirical undertones in poems that detachedly expose some of the Indian protocols that bind even the working class women among us who pretend to have broken free. In Marriages Are Made she writes about the details of an alliance that provide an exaggerated though funny view of an arranged match:

"My cousin Elena is to be married
The formalities have been completed,
her family history examined for T.B. and madness
Her father declared solvent/ her eyes examined for squints
her teeth for cavities
her stools for the possible, non-Brahmin worm
She's not quite tall enough and not quite full enough,
(children will take care of that)
Her complexion it was decided would compensate,
being just about he right shade of rightness
to do justice to Francisco X. Noronha Prabhu,
good son of Mother Church."

At the end of this poem I didn't know whether to laugh at the absurdity of this process or to lament at the accuracy of its description. Her voice to me sounds liked a female Nissim Ezekiel.

Kamala Das: I grew up not liking the candor in Das’s poems at all and somewhere along the line fell in love with that very style. The nakedness of her words and the detached insolence of her poetry is not always easy to relate to. As a poet, it took me years before I could be that honest with myself and incorporate my innermost thoughts into my own poetry.

In The Looking Glass she uses an intriguing apparatus, lending the stoic face of self-control a mask of womanly submissiveness. Self-empowerment does not mean control over the other but over oneself, this poem tells me. Following is an excerpt:

"Getting a man to love you is easy
Only be honest about your wants as Woman.
Stand nude before the glass with him
So that he sees himself the stronger one
And believes it so, and you so much more
Softer, younger, lovelier."
When I first read this poem, I was quite young and the true meaning of this poem was lost on me. In fact, when I first found this poem it had been scribbled in one of my mother’s old notes and I had no idea who the poet was. The probability of my mother having come up with those lines had made me cringe.

Then years later I found this poem again online and saw meaning that I hadn’t seen before. Age had matured my analysis. “Stand nude before the glass with him” it says, not “Stand before him”. For a woman to be honest with a man about her needs, she has to first see those needs herself.


In the compact list above, I leave out greats such as Sexton, Plath, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove and others. Even my own favorite, Mirabai, whose verses I have been translating from the perspective of sensuality rather than religion, didn’t seem to belong to this list. There may be more that I do not know of. I will be more than happy if readers share their own favorites and add to this list.


Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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July 25, 2007
01:31 AM

When you go through the entire gamut of the feminists poetry as narrated here, you find an insatiable urge to give expression to an imagined sense of helplessness by the modern women. In spite of being educated and financially independent , you find feminists clinging to the idea of themselves being the eternal victims who should wallow in self pity. In fact they want to be eternally glorified in their status of the utterly depressed and oppressed. This is their identity and they do not want it to go.

July 25, 2007
01:35 AM

Well, we are the "all and the sundry" and we are commenting on this article, a'int we?

Aditi Nadkarni
July 25, 2007
02:17 AM

Fundoo: Thank you for your prompt comments! Which one of the above poets do you find "lamenting" over the victimhood/ helplessness of being a woman? Please, if you could take the trouble, be explicit about the metaphors of "oppression", "victimhood" etc that I may have missed in above excerpts. I'm really very curious.

Sudhir: Well, I wasn't haughtily stating the likelihood of "all and sundry" commenting but expressing my doubts about their being "able" to make "relevant" comments (i.e: comments in line with the post).

July 25, 2007
04:23 AM


we see with two eyes...do we see differently with one or the other eye?

reams have been written about poetry...what prompts thinking a certain way...what acts as catalyst...how the thought nurtures, ferments and regurgitates in the alleys and byways of the sub conscious...how and when it decides to show up on the page (or the screen)...

...i do not know if poetry can be written pulling out a blank sheet...au contraire...the poem writes itself

one must detach the self

only then a smile becomes a smile --- be it playing on a newborn's lips or on the serene face of the deceased --- be it on the face of a human being (regardless of age, gender, ethnicity) or as perceived on the face of an animal or image)

why must innate expressions of joy, sadness, introspection be divided by gender, language, nationality?

is it (our) conditioning? sense of balance? learning?

* * * *

...would like add three strong voices in addition to kamala

...from urdu fehmida reyaz and kishwar nahid and from sindhi attiya dawood ...they have been keeping the flame alight in the relatively (more) repressed clime across the divide....if you search the annual of urdu studies link on my blog you can find more about them and the translations of their writings in english (it is a bit cumbersome)

* * * *


please do not suggest i turn this into a post....suitcase-syndrome affliction etc. etc. :)

July 25, 2007
10:10 AM

Masculist Poetry
Family Court
by Lee Morgan

I saw a man today
walking along the street
with one eye closed
holding his sobs back behind his grimace.
Breathing through a small hole that he would allow of his mouth,
to stop the sobs from bursting out
his body hunched as if to hold them down inside his gut.
The bag he carried low at his side
seemed to weigh a ton.
As he walked passed I could really connect with his pain
I wanted to stop him, hold him,
so he might cry on my shoulder
and not feel so alone.
or maybe he was a one eyed hunch back with a heavy bag
and it was me projecting this onto him,
so I would not feel so alone with my pain.

Aditi Nadkarni
July 25, 2007
11:29 AM

Hi Temporal, thank you for the beautiful words! The above post was originally written for a poetry workshop I was attending. Coincidentally I found it a few days ago after almost a year of having written it. In fact, surprisingly, Kishwar Nahid's name had come up during discussions. A Muslim girl in the workshop was working on translating some of her Urdu poetry to English (it had already been translated but this girl felt that the translations hadn't done justice to the poetry). The others I have not read but will definitely check out your blog.

You said: "Detach from the self". I have tried that before. I am a confessional poet where the self is the subject of poetry/ revellation and detachment from the self has often led me to a serious writers' block :D

You ask why innate expressions of Joy/ sadness/ life etc should be divided based on gender. I don't know if its conditioning or sense of balance with respect to the actual perception of ideas but mostly I wonder if its perspective when it comes to the interpretation...meaning does one see disparity where one should've seen uniqueness. For example, I think there is great mystery in trying to imagine the thoughts, the pysche of the opposite sex. What a man could day about love will probably be different than what a woman would. While a man could pen down the enigma of female beauty, female poets describe male sexuality with as much orginality. That uniqueness of perspective is beautiful to me.

#5 Siffer: Thank you for sharing that poem.

My own favorite poem about masculine sexuality is from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browing (a collection that I feel best addresses the unification of genders):

"The man, most man,
Works best for men, and, if most men indeed,
He gets his manhood plainest from his soul:
While, obviously, this stringent soul itself
Obeys our old rules of development;
The Spirit ever witnessing in ours,
And Love, the soul of soul, within the soul,
Evolving it sublimely."

July 25, 2007
11:49 AM

Aditi & temporal,
This is one area where I allow myself to be parochial: I would any day read Urdu poetry over English.
temporal, why leave out my all time favorite Parveen Shakir?:)

July 25, 2007
01:30 PM

Aditi - i'm a shocking dilettante when it comes to poetry (prose all the way!) so a couple of names on your list were unknown - such as Akiko. I have to find out more :)

That said, my all time fave is Anne Sexton. Kind of safe and predictable perhaps but I do love her with all my heart.

Temp - i'm just glad to see you again :)

Aditi Nadkarni
July 25, 2007
04:58 PM

PH: I enjoy Urdu poetry as well but am mostly restricted by my limited understanding of the language. There is a form of poetry which fast becoming popular in contemporary English styles: it is called English Ghazals. Some beautiful ones out there. I have been experimenting with this form myself and might just decide to put up some of my own if I get adventurous :)

Amrita: Sexton! Yes! One of my favorites too. Sexton is quite a daring choice actually (people usually go for Plath but Sexton is the bolder one amon the two, I feel). In fact her poetry is one of the most baring/ revealing narrations that not everybody can digest. It is as honest and as confessional as one could get. My fav was "For My Lover Returning To His Wife"

"She is so naked and singular,
She is the sum of yourself and your dream,
Climb her like a monument, step after step,
She is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor,
I wash off"

Simple words and very little adherence to form...she redefined confessional poetry with her matter-of-fact candor.

July 25, 2007
09:17 PM


A Muslim girl in the workshop was working on translating some of her Urdu poetry to English (it had already been translated but this girl felt that the translations hadn't done justice to the poetry).

if help is still needed put her in touch with me

... I think there is great mystery in trying to imagine the thoughts, the pysche of the opposite sex. What a man could day about love will probably be different than what a woman would. While a man could pen down the enigma of female beauty, female poets describe male sexuality with as much orginality. (sic)That uniqueness of perspective is beautiful to me.

i rarely write short stories and even more rarely in the first person...but once i wrote a longish short story where the protagonist was a dying women ...couple of folks who did not know me insisted only a woman could have written that story...took it as a backhanded compliment


temporal, why leave out my all time favorite Parveen Shakir?:)

guilty as charged!....aditya please make note of parveen too


you are doing fine here kiddo!

Aditi Nadkarni
July 25, 2007
09:30 PM

Temporal!!! Its Aditi not Aditya :D Hmm, should I take that as a back-handed compliment :)

July 26, 2007
04:12 AM

ms aditi nadkarni:


will you buy extended sleep deprivation this time?

(caveat: may be bad memory next time...slip of fingers...mix up...in short am bad with names...till i settle on a comfort-zone name like ams or suj or dee)


July 26, 2007
07:49 AM

Lovely, lovely post! Thank you for the poems. My favourites are Plath and Sexton though. And what about Margaret Atwood? Here's one of hers:

Marriage is not
a house, or even a tent

It is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back, where we squat
outdoors, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived
this far

we are learning to make fire.

Aditi Nadkarni
July 26, 2007
09:52 AM

#12 Temporal: No problem...I'm pretty bad with names myself.

#13 Anindita: Glad you liked the post! I'm just so glad people are bringing in new names. I feel like a kid whose being told about all these different types of candy that is out there :D Love Atwood. Her style has that humor too which I like, my fav being "Marrying the Hangman"

"My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
which cannot be believed and which are true. They
are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
they have not yet happened to me, they have
happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
unbelief with horror. Such things cannot happen to

Haunting poetry and gets one's attention immediately.

July 26, 2007
02:39 PM

folks, may i? here is an ogden nash

Bas Ben Adhem

My fellow man I do not care for.
I often ask me, What's he there for?
The only answer I can find
Is, Reproduction of his kind.
If I'm supposed to swallow that,
Winnetka is my habitat.
Isn't it time to carve Hic Jacet
Above that Reproduction racket?

To make the matter more succinct:
Suppose my fellow man extinct.
Why, who would not approve the plan
Save possibly my fellow man?
Yet with a politician's voice
He names himself as Nature's choice.

The finest of the human race
Are bad in figure, worse in face.
Yet just because they have two legs
And come from storks instead of eggs
They count the spacious firmament
As something to be charged and sent.

Though man created cross-town traffic,
The Daily Mirror, News and Graphic,
The pastoral fight and fighting pastor,
And Queen Marie and Lady Astor,
He hails himself with drum and fife
And bullies lower forms of life.

Not that I think much depends
On how we treat our feathered friends,
Or hold the wrinkled elephant
A nobler creature than my aunt.
It's simply that I'm sure I can
Get on without my fellow man.

July 26, 2007
02:53 PM

one more?

What Almost Every Woman Knows Sooner Or Later

Husbands are things that wives have to get used to putting up with.
And with whom they breakfast with and sup with.
They interfere with the discipline of nurseries,
And forget anniversaries,
And when they have been particularly remiss
They think they can cure everything with a great big kiss,
And when you tell them about something awful they have done they just
look unbearably patient and smile a superior smile,
And think, Oh she'll get over it after a while.
And they always drink cocktails faster than they can assimilate them,
And if you look in their direction they act as if they were martyrs and
you were trying to sacrifice, or immolate them,
And when it's a question of walking five miles to play golf they are very
energetic but if it's doing anything useful around the house they are
very lethargic,
And then they tell you that women are unreasonable and don't know
anything about logic,
And they never want to get up or go to bed at the same time as you do,
And when you perform some simple common or garden rite like putting
cold cream on your face or applying a touch of lipstick they seem to
think that you are up to some kind of black magic like a priestess of Voodoo.
And they are brave and calm and cool and collected about the ailments
of the person they have promised to honor and cherish,
But the minute they get a sniffle or a stomachache of their own, why
you'd think they were about to perish,
And when you are alone with them they ignore all the minor courtesies
and as for airs and graces, they uttlerly lack them,
But when there are a lot of people around they hand you so many chairs
and ashtrays and sandwiches and butter you with such bowings and
scrapings that you want to smack them.
Husbands are indeed an irritating form of life,
And yet through some quirk of Providence most of them are really very
deeply ensconced in the affection of their wife.

Ogden Nash

Aditi Nadkarni
July 26, 2007
04:47 PM

Temporal Saab, you chose a wonderfully fun poet to reference! Thank you for sharing those. When I was a kid, Nash is all I ever read. Legend is I would say the Common Cold verse to our family doctor:D (Go hang yourself, you old M.D, You shall not sneer at me. Pick up your hat and stethoscope,Go wash your mouth with laundry soap) Hehee. Such pretty sing-song verses.

Here's my favorite in line with the theme(I think you will like it):

A Lady Who Thinks She Is Thirty

by Ogden Nash

Unwillingly Miranda wakes,
Feels the sun with terror,
One unwilling step she takes,
Shuddering to the mirror.
Miranda in Miranda's sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty.

Shining like the morning star,
Like the twilight shining,
Haunted by a calendar,
Miranda is a-pining.

Silly girl, silver girl,
Draw the mirror toward you;
Time who makes the years to whirl
Adorned as he adored you.

Time is timelessness for you;
Calendars for the human;
What's a year, or thirty, to
Loveliness made woman?

Oh, Night will not see thirty again,
Yet soft her wing, Miranda;
Pick up your glass and tell me, then--
How old is Spring, Miranda?

July 27, 2007
05:42 AM


Time is timelessness for you;
Calendars for the human;
What's a year, or thirty, to
Loveliness made woman?

well said by the bard!

ps: the only sahib in our family is father;)

yours humbly....t

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