The Traditions in English


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The Ecstasy of Influence: Inspiration and Mentorship among Women Writers

Questions for Discussion, Writing and Research

1. Not all such tributes were complimentary, of course. There is a prescient irony to the eighteenth-century lyric poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s plaintiff opening lines of her poem “The Introduction” (NALW1 238):

Did I my lines intend for public view,
How many censures would their faults pursue,
Some would, because such words they do affect,
Cry they’re insipid, empty, incorrect.
And many have attained, dull and untaught,
The name of wit only by finding fault.
True judges might condemn their want of wit,
And all might say they’re by a woman writ.
Alas a woman that attempts the pen
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed. (1–12)

Indeed, the line “the name of wit only by finding fault” serves as an indictment of the satirists of the age, epitomized by Finch’s poetic contemporary Alexander Pope. Nor was Finch unjustifiably paranoid; instead we might read her poem as a poignant prophesy, for Pope parodied her in a play (coauthored with John Arbuthnot and John Gay), Three Hours after Marriage as Phoebe Clinket, a foolish woman with literary pretensions. While Finch could foresee herself as the butt of jokes and caricature during her lifetime, I doubt she would imagine being belittled by later women with literary ambitions. Yet when Sylvia Plath, herself a female poet trying to make her way in a male-dominated profession, played the part of Phoebe Clinket while on Fulbright at Cambridge, she dismissed the character for her “high-flown and very funny ambitions to write poetry.” We have no reason to believe that Plath knew of the character’s origin, nor is there any evidence to suggest she had read Finch’s poetry herself. While Finch’s work would be celebrated by such figures as Wordsworth and Woolf, there is an almost tragic irony in the fact that Plath would accept Pope’s mocking portrayal rather than discover a pioneering woman poet. What do you think accounts for this missed opportunity? Why does Plath fall victim to the reigning belief during the period that women didn’t write prior to the nineteenth century, and if they did, their work was but a poor imitation of their male contemporaries? How does this example epitomize the pitfalls inherent in traditional canon formation?

2. Read Welsh poet Dilys Laing’s poem dedicated to Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, “Sonnet to a Sister in Error” (NALW2591). Unlike Plath’s inadvertent dismissal of Finch, Laing’s poem is sympathetic to Finch, recognizing

                             . . . The same tether
galls us. To be a woman and a writer
is double mischief, for the world will slight her
who slights “the servile house,” and who would rather
make odes than beds. . . . (10–13)

What do you think Laing means in the poem’s last line: “Separate in time, we mutiny together”?

3. Both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath expressed concern that in their attempts to become female poets they might be compared to Edna St. Vincent Millay (NALW2 444). How do you account for their anxiety? What does it suggest about Millay’s contemporary success and popularity that Plath and Sexton regarded her as the personification of what it meant to be a female poet?

4. Feminist scholars have tried to recover the work of early women writers, such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, bringing their lost works back into print and re-evaluating the literary worth of their writing. Contemporary women writers have also been instrumental in bringing to light neglected works by women writers who had fallen out of print. Tillie Olsen (NALW2 659) happened upon a lost manuscript in a secondhand store in Omaha when she was in her early twenties, and in so doing, rescued Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills (NALW1 1105) from being permanently forgotten. Recognizing in Harding Davis a strong working-class voice who captured life in industrialized nineteenth-century America, Olsen later convinced her friend Florence Howe, at the newly established Feminist Press, to bring the book back into print. Olsen was also instrumental in recovering Agnes Smedly’s novel Daughter of Earth, among others. Alice Walker (NALW2 1295) championed the work of Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (NALW2 347), whose work was long out of print and who was buried in an unmarked grave. In her essay “Searching for Zora,” Walker chronicles her experience searching for Hurston’s grave in order to erect a headstone; later, she edited a collection of Hurston’s work. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was another author whose work was forgotten and out of print for half a century. Why do you think these women’s works, some of which we now consider essential to the literary landscape, such as Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God or Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (NALW1 1392), fell out of fashion? What does their disappearance and re-emergence suggest about the politics of canon formation?

5. Pioneering scholar Patricia Beer simultaneously pokes fun and makes a cogent literary argument in her poem “Transvestism in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë” (NALW2 886). In A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature, famous wit Dorothy Parker has some fun with predecessors like Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Sand (NALW2 489,490). What kind of familiarity with the original subject do such works assume? What does this move to satirize such writers and / or their works suggest about the position of those writers’ works in the canon?

6. Marilyn Hacker’s poem “Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found” (NALW2 1269) is dedicated to Julia Alvarez, the Dominican-American writer quoted above. Read Hacker’s poem, which is a tribute to female literary and artistic trailblazers. What do you suppose Hacker is searching for in her litany of lesbian and feminist foremothers? How does the poem create a community of past “women-worthies” along the lines of Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies?

7. Women writers of earlier periods also had significant friendships or mentoring relationships. The eighteenth-century British travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (NALW1 266) was an important patron (or matron?) to her friend Mary Astell, providing financial support for her friend’s writing even though Astell was from a lower social class. Astell returned the favor by writing the preface to a collection of Lady Mary’s letters, inviting other women to “be pleased that a woman triumphs” (NALW1 261). How do such friendships subvert social class and other systems of inequality that might otherwise separate women?

8. A more contemporary literary friendship bloomed between confessional poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who met in one of Robert Lowell’s poetry seminars at the University of Massachusetts, and who used to go to a bar after the seminar to discuss their mutual suicide attempts. Read Sexton’s poem “Sylvia’s Death” (NALW2 923). How does that poem provide a different kind of tribute to a fellow poet, not someone that came before and paved the way, but someone who was a contemporary and a personal friend? How would you characterize the longing the poem conveys? Muriel Rukeyser’s short poem “The Power of Suicide” (NALW2 648) is also read as a response to news of Plath’s suicide. The poet May Sarton also memorializes a famous suicide in her 1953 poem “Letter from Chicago” (NALW2 642), recalling how four years earlier she heard the news of Virginia Woolf’s death.

9. Read Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay’s poem “The Three Emily’s” (NALW2 596), the title of which references both nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson and British poet and novelist Emily Brontë, as well as the Canadian painter Emily Carr. What do you think it means that Livesay starts the poem lamenting “These women crying in my head / Walk alone, uncomforted” and ends “I am the one/ Uncomforted”? How does Livesay characterize these “three Emily’s?” What do you think the individual women mean to the speaker? What do they represent? How would you characterize their haunting?

10. Like Livesay’s move to celebrate the work of a visual artist, Emily Carr, one of the Emily’s in the poem above, American poet Muriel Rukeyser writes of the inspiration that she has taken from the life and work of German artist “Käthe Kollwitz” (NALW2 649), whose searing images of women and children were a powerful endictment of the Nazis and a voice of resistance and conscience within Germany during World War II. What do you make of these poems’ move to reference earlier female visual artists, rather than women writers?

11. Read Amy Lowell’s poem “The Sisters” (NALW2 137), which begins: “Taking us by and large, we’re a queer lot / We women who write poetry. And when you think / How few of us there’ve been, it’s queerer still” (1–3). In the poem Lowell goes back through time to imagine conversations with some of her poetic forebears: Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. She ends the poem imagining future women poets imagining such a conversation with her:

I only hope that possibly some day
Some other woman with an itch for writing
May turn to me as I have turned to you
And chat with me for a brief few minutes. . . . (168–171).

What do you make of the longing in the poem to constitute a female poetic lineage to which to belong? How does Lowell characterize her meeting with the individual poets? What do they individually seem to represent to her? Lowell was from a wealthy, patrician Boston family. Her father was on the board of MIT, and her brothers included a president of Harvard University and the founder of the Lowell Observatory at Harvard . The family also was a literary one; Amy was cousin to both the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell and to Robert Lowell, who founded Confessional Poetry and had both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton as his students. Amy Lowell is generally considered an Imagist poet, and she befriended another female imagist, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) (NALW2 280) and championed her poetry, including her in anthologies and publishing a critical work celebrating both H. D. and the emergence of Imagism in the United States. How does Lowell’s support for H. D. underscore the theme of “The Sisters?”

12. Read American poet May Sarton’s poem “My Sisters, O My Sisters” (NALW2 638). In the first section of the poem, Sarton references Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, and Sappho in an attempt to consider her own creativity, calling them all “we who are writing women and strange monsters” (25). What do you think Sarton means by such a description? A few lines later she says, “To be through what we make more simply human, / To come to the deep place where poet becomes woman” (29–30) and also reclaims the sun, long associated with the masculine principle (since Apollo was the sun god and Greek god of poetry), as “the feminine power” (34). What do you think she means?

13. Australian poet Judith Wright appropriates the title and lines from an Emily Brontë poem of the same name in her poem “‘Rosina Alcona to Julius Brenzaida’” (NALW2 729). Her invitation, “Come in, dead Emily” (37) recalls a scene in Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights when the spirit of the lost Catherine Earnshaw scares the narrator Lockwood by rattling on a window to come into her old room where he is sleeping. What do you think Wright hopes to achieve in invoking the spirit of Emily Brontë?

14. Wright also dedicates a poem in the Anthology to her fellow Australian poet, the Aboriginal activist and writer Kath Walker (aka Oodgeroo Noonuccal). Read both Wright’s poem “Two Dreamtimes” (NALW2 730) as well as Noonuccal’s own work (NALW2 828). How might we read Wright’s poem as an acknowledgment of and corrective to the colonial legacy of white privilege? How does the friendship that Wright’s poem celebrates serve as an act of resistance against that legacy?

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