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Defining Women: Empowerment and Change in American Poetry
Poetry capable of inspiring change not only communicates the slick and tender pulse of a surface wound, it connects to the universal nerve of tremors and feelings, connecting wires, vessels, and shifting cells. Poets are transmitters of the human condition. They initiate and inspire change to transcend their time, their poems added to anthologies and their lines recited by literary scholars and avid readers. Some poets are popular during their lifetimes, like Phoebe and Alice Cary, while others like Emily Dickinson guarded a hidden, folded genius, breathing a quiet verse that grew in universal popularity helping to establish the root of American poetry after her death.

Women like Phillis Wheatley laboriously claimed a place for women’s poetry. Even if their voices only contained a partial truth of their own experiences, as Alice Walker points out in the essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” from her 1984 book with the same title, Walker further shows us that Wheatley represented a learned kitsch that “had held Phillis up to ridicule for more than a century.” A slave in the 18th-century, Phillis Wheatley absorbed language and ironed the statuesque ideal of liberty into her poetry. Her popularity led to her eventual freedom, though she remained sick and poor until the end of her short life. The New York Public Library’s digital Schomburg website reminds us that “Phillis Wheatley became the first African living in the British colonies to have a book published, and the second American woman to have a book of verse published.” Instead of creating an imaginative and prolific change in poetry, Wheatley’s achievements concern the poetic rite of passage that she represents. As Alice Walker writes in her essay, “It is not so much what you (Phillis Wheatley) sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song.”

Emily Dickinson, the “Belle of Amherst,” wrote poetry, much of which remained private until her death, during the mid-19th century. Regarded by many as the co-inventor of American poetry¹, Dickinson invested her poetry with metaphysics and a “liquor never brewed” that ferments in the creative imagination. This sentiment and sensibility of Dickinson’s poetry influenced the forthcoming poets of the American literary canon, including William Carlos Williams.² While Dickinson did not initiate or stimulate social change and/or a transformation of poetic form within her lifetime, she communicates the mind’s timeless discovery of wild, divine depths and the mischievous, transcendental verses between human nature and Nature. In the century following Dickinson’s life, her poetic dashes and emphasis through capitalization did agitate the poetic form(lessness). For these reasons and more, 20th-century American writers, scholars, teachers, and students ingested Dickinson’s fascicles with an insatiable appetite.

But popular poetry often did inspire social change in 19th-century America. Abolitionist poetry became popular in the foreshadowing turmoil of Civil War. Best known for her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, Phoebe Cary captures 19th-century humor concerning the socially accepted notion that unmarried women have a bleak and tragic place within the social hierarchy. However, the reader can sense a serious tone behind the veil of humor that reveals how Cary and other 19th-century women tried to slant the biased perspective that women needed a husband in order to fully experience life. The narrator of Cary’s poems “Shakesperian Readings”, “When Lovely Woman,” and “Lovers” mocks the culturally-prescribed, stereotypical social roles expressed in male-based formal literature.

The exceptionally popular abolitionist, suffragist, and African American poet Frances E. W. Harper (often called “the Bronze Muse”) read her poems during anti-slavery lectures. Harper composes a serious verse that represents the dichotomy of darkness and light, of innocence and war, of past and present. The short rhythm of “Bury Me in a Free Land” allowed people to remember the recitation of freedom’s voice. Frances Harper connects to the global suffrage movement in her poem “Ethiopia” during which the country metaphorically becomes a woman who yanks “(t)he tyrant’s yoke from off her neck” and symbolically frees herself to speak (line 5). Frances Harper gives voice to a universal hope for a future “freed from chains” where “laughing children play” (9, 1).

Written on November 22, 1873, another abolitionist and poet Rose Terry Cooke reminds women to wear “shoes of swiftness” concerning the Suffrage movement in the poem “Justice”.

A prolific and widely-read author, Cooke published poetry and short stories in Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner’s Monthly. She is a contemporary voice for women in the Suffrage Movement. In “Justice”, written during the Reconstruction years, she reminds women to set their sights on a legal and political balance: “to make for truth a level sway” (11). In the lines, “The fillet of my slavery/I tread beneath my steady feet”, Rose Terry Cooke reacts to the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave African American males the right to vote in 1870, fifty years prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote (13-14). Cooke wanted to elevate the status of women without leaning on the platform of men. She longed to see the collective strength of women, as the poem “Justice” reveals.

We can see the germinating seeds of collective strength in the poetry by African American women during the Harlem Renaissance. Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Jessie Redmon Fauset voiced the intimate concerns of African-American women. They and others like Angelina Weld Grimke, Anne Spencer, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson were the first African American women to versify their intimate concerns and more specifically African-American female experiences concerning the social constraints of childbirth, motherhood, relationships with men, and the availability of social roles approximately thirty years prior to the start of the American Civil Rights Movement. In “Black Woman”, Georgia Douglas Johnson’s narrator pleads with an unborn “little child” to “be still” and “(d)on’t knock at my heart” (lines 1, 15, 9). In light of the “monster men/Inhabiting the earth,” the woman does not want to “give…birth” (lines 13-14, 16). In “Black Woman”, the reader hears the fear of a potential mother who lacks the freedom to choose her fate. Johnson communicates the sense of hopeless dread that results from living in the “alien cage” that has captured her culture and gender in “The Heart of a Woman” (6). For Johnson, the future progress of artistic achievement among African-American women depends upon freeing and awakening the heart that “tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars” (7).
In the poem “Dead Fires”, Jessie Redmon Fauset appears to shout about the hopelessness concerning progress. The complacent attitude concerning civil rights causes Fauset to view her time and place in history as a “gray calm” without the passion to agitate change (4).

Gwendolyn Bennett’s “Quatrains” furthers the feeling of physical limitations while revealing the expanse of creative desire: “Brushes and paints are all I have/To speak the music in my soul” (1-2). However, in “Quatrains”, Bennett discovers artistic expressions in common natural elements. She finds it “strange that grass should sing” and that snow offers a “swift surprise” (5, 7). While the momentum of creative and social change for African American women may be “slow” as the snow in Bennett’s poem, the genius of their contributions introduced an inspirational beauty into the poetic literary tradition.

A popular poet beginning in the first quarter of the 20th-century, Marianne Moore received nodding notoriety from many of her literary contemporaries like Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. In “Poetry”, Marianne Moore emphasizes and appreciates straight-forward language and imagery. Interested in scientific observation, she writes that people need to observe and learn about “the bat/holding on upside down…/…elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll(…)the base-/ball fan, the statistician” in order to fully appreciate each form of life (15-17, 20-21). Poetry requires the same deliberate appreciation. Moore writes “…we/do not admire what/we cannot understand” (13-15). She gives the reader the “raw” quest of discovering poetry as well as the “genuine” truth that is her inner self—a person intensely interested in both animals, as evidenced by her many visits to the Bronx Zoo, and sports, as her loyalty to the Yankees proves. In “The Fish”, her careful, detailed descriptions of “…ink-/besplattered jellyfish, crabs like green/lilies, and submarine/toadstools…” reveal that these forms of life suffer “All/external/marks of abuse…” such as “dynamite grooves, burns, and/hatchet strokes” (22-25, 26-28, 33-34). Published three years after World War I, Moore’s details of suffering in “The Fish” metaphorically reflect the human condition and highlight the destructive beauty of war upon the innocent. Not only does Moore mirror how modern warfare and cultural cruelty harms humankind, but more importantly she reminds us that the waves of change swell from the undercurrents of the past. Through Moore’s thoughtful observations, we see that the life forms under the sea, literally and symbolically beneath the surface, experience suffering as a result of mankind’s experiments and ignorance (i.e. “abuse”). Moore’s poetical attention to detail and direct honesty influenced future women writers like Elizabeth Bishop and Annie Dillard.

A direct description of social duplicity can also be discovered in the first wave of poetry created by Gwendolyn Brooks. In the poem “The Lovers of the Poor”, Gwendolyn Brooks illumines the differences between the white women, whom she titles “The Ladies”, and “The worthy poor” in a Chicago “Slum” (1, 24, 92). Her poem displays the dynamic social gap between the white women who “look,/In horror, behind a substantial citizeness/Whose trains clank out across her swollen heart./Who, arms akimbo, almost fills the door./All tumbling children, quilts dragged to the floor” (56-60). The black mother blends into her landscape of “The soil that stirs./The soil that looks the soil of centuries”, while “the Ladies” are “Keeping their scented bodies in the center/Of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall,/They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall,/(…and)Try to avoid inhaling the laden air” (95-97, 100). To Brooks, “The Ladies” are not a part of this Chicago community, even if they live in a city with the same name. She names their city by listing wealthy suburbs, china patterns, clothing designers, and furniture. Published in 1981, “The Boy Died in My Alley” creates an allegorical and painful scene of universal disconnection, according to Brooks. Every boy involved in tragedy and violence could be “this Boy” who creates a “red floor” on the “alley” (16, 40). As a poet, Brooks represents the subtle difference between seeing and feeling. In her later poetry, she uplifts the vivid, detailed contrasts about race and place and impulsiveness in her poetry. As Kenny Jackson Williams points out in his essay, “Brooks’ Life and Career”, Gwendolyn Brooks chooses to uplift the creative endeavors of people in the Black community through her many workshops and group programs.

One of the first poets to include when discussing the initiation or stimulation of change whether socially, politically, or poetically should be Adrienne Rich. Often, she is labeled a lesbian poet, feminist, political poet, and Jewish poet; however, Rich writes a poetry that emphasizes her individual separateness and that communicates her ability to see the detailed needs of other people. She communicates the intimate mind, the questings of an individual through sexuality, poetry, race, lifestyle, and desire. In the first stanza of “Diving into the Wreck”, Adrienne Rich makes words and phrases describe not only a literal diver, but the poetic process. The poet reads “myths”, observes the details of life and the self with the “loaded…camera” of the eye, and finally carves out the details, raw moments, with “the edge of the knife-blade” that seems well-sharpened given that the poet “checked” it prior to adding “body-armor” along with “absurd flippers” and the “grave and awkward mask” (1-3, 5-7). In the final stanza of the poem, Adrienne Rich and the reader resurface along with the same images from the first stanza. She appears to communicate that an individual’s experiences contain mysteries that are the true poetry. And that in this instance, poetic experience does not contain the purpose of naming the poet just as the sea’s unbiased candor can only be heard in the waves. “Diving into the Wreck” along with other poems like “Yom Kippur 1984″ communicate Adrienne Rich’s search for the time “when we who refuse to be women and men as women and men are chartered,/tell our stories of solitude spent in multitude/in that world as it may be, newborn and haunted…” (84-86). Rich communicates a need to go beyond labels by valuing her personal “solitude.”

The women poets of the late 20th-century seem aware of an artistically transcendent, collective spirit. They use labels to emphasize creative individuality, the personal “I” narrative and feeling. This voice searches for unique similarities and differences, not hackneyed attempts to capture depth. However, their poetry often resists that voice in the process of telling others’ stories.

Sylvia Plath gives us the pain of the world, coupled with her inner turmoil, through her mysterious confessional poetry. However, her poetry does not stop the “I” in order to take up the “we” or “you.” The poem “Lady Lazarus” gives us the closest images to Plath: scenes of theatrical revival and death, a “shriek” and “ash”, the art of dying as a “miracle”, and the loneliness of being a blessed “valuable” (69, 72, 55, 6. She humorously dances with “death” in many of her poems. Plath’s poetry goes beyond the famous confessionals of personal, often violent, disturbances from her past and points to her tragic future.

Much of poetry seeks to heal alienation and cultural malaise by communicating the depths of the human spirit. We hear the lineage of the collective, narrative voice in Audre Lorde’s poem “Coal”. Audre Lorde tried to break down and overcome stereotypes about her race and sexual orientation. She was a black lesbian with parents whose heritage is from Carriacou Island in the Grenadines. She uses the Carriacou word “Zami” as a title for her biomythography and as “a new spelling of…(her) name.” The word “Zami” calls and conjures up a lineage of womens’ voices whose lifestyle of collective support is an expression of love and art. Audre Lorde places emphasis upon the self in every poem and in every genre. She defies poetic and prosaic forms in order to blend them. She challenges her place in every group while giving the group a place with her voice. With Barbara Smith, she began Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in order to help other women of color. She was a teacher, an activist to help women under apartheid in South Africa, and a stimulant for social change. Like the narrator of the poem “Coal”, Audre Lorde asserts her inner truth. The “I” is the void, the emptiness that is already full when she writes, “I/is the total black, being spoken/from the earth’s inside” (1-3). The earth speaks and claims us all as “I” and releases some of us to “know sun”, to become “young sparrows bursting from shell”, to transform into word “jewels in the open light” (16, 19, 25). Audre Lorde is an earth that gives birth to words, sentences, poems, and stories. She equates the depths and expanse of the earth with tender feelings: “Love is a word, another kind of open” (22). In “Love Poem”, Audre Lorde asks the earth to “(s)peak…and bless…(her) with what is richest” (1). By her descriptions, she makes love to the earth and “swing(s) out over the earth/over and over/again” (18-20). The earth as a metaphorical lover, as a poetic muse, can hold her and offers a density that can contain her desire “over and over again”. While Audre Lorde is known for agitating change by expressing her blackness, her homosexuality, and her feminism, she also creates change by expressing the yearning search for tenderness and love in her poetry and biomythology.

In her comments during the Second Sex Conference in New York on Sept. 29, 1979, (titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”) Audre Lorde says, “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.” Many might mock her combination of “difference” and “connection” as clever irony, and yet her comments transcend her time and place. A few paragraphs later, she adds, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” American poetry has grown to embrace and encompass multi-cultural writers like Ai, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Leslie Marmon Silko as well as writers interested in other places and races of people like Carolyn Forchè and Carolyne Wright.

In her speech “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” delivered in Utrecht, Holland in June 1984, Adrienne Rich discusses how women can empower not only one another but our future selves: “The movement for change is a changing movement, changing itself, demasculinizing itself, de-Westernizing itself, becoming a critical mass that is saying in so many different voices, languages, gestures, actions: It must change; we ourselves can change it. We who are not the same. We who are many and do not want to be the same” (76-77).

In April 2008, National Poetry Month, as if a month could contain the words and phrases that make women bold, sensual, powerful, tender, intimate, and aware—the list of poetic preservation stretches into the long ago scene—the clothes of Shakespeare’s sister enshrined and rotting, alongside the child slaves’ hand-stitched, shrinking, single dress crafted from feed sacks, the ironed Quaker pleats and draping moth-eaten shawls of New England, the sudden Versace, embellished sari, a tailored dashiki, T-length dress hiked her skirt to a mini and pressed palms into pants, slack knickers, until we reach the intricate nakedness of women’s poetry at the end of the 20th-century. But what measure of women and ourselves has learned the lesson, that Audre Lorde states in her dismantling, during this new century with its different wars and abuses, same hopes and charities, and greater “knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives”³?

Do we truly empower one another as different women after all of this defining? I know that our poetry has and does, and that as women we will continue to push beyond the boundaries of limitation.

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Shana Thornton
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/
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  • sav

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