The Poetry Of Feminism... Or Vice Versa
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,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.
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"
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.
Quibbles and shuffling off and on
Here's friendship for you if you like;
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,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:
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome;
her mild eyes command"
"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 truthI 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.
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."
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 easyWhen 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.
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."
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.
The Poetry Of Feminism... Or Vice Versa
- » Published on July 25, 2007
- » Type: Opinion
- » Filed under:
Author: Aditi Nadkarni
- Subscribe to RSS 2.0 feeds for:
- » Comments on this article
- » Culture
- » Media: Journalism
- » Politics: Freedom
- » Culture: Sex
- » Culture: Social Issues
- » Culture: Poetry
- » Culture: Philosophy
- » Culture: Women
- » Culture: The Writing Life
- » Culture: Language
- » Culture: History
- » Culture: Education
- » Culture: Books
- » Culture: Arts
- » Desicritics.org articles by Aditi Nadkarni
- » All Opinion articles
- » All Desicritics.org articles