Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Robert Sheppard: A History of the Other part eight

Out of Everywhere: Be(com)ing a Woman Poet

The absence of women writers in the British Poetry Revival has been noted; Horovitz’ 1969 anthology Children of Albion was ‘no more hospitable to women than [Alvarez’] 1962 The New Poetry’ as Claire Buck says, but little has been suggested as to why this was so. One of the five women amongst the 63 poets of Children of Albion, Libby Houston, remembered being involved in Horovitz’ proto-Beat scene and recalled being the only woman to attend readings, a view echoed in Michelene Wandor's memories of a slightly later period:

In the late 1960s-early 1970s I had read my poetry at the very many poetry-reading venues there were but had stopped by choice, since I felt uncomfortable at being (mostly) the only woman poet - the other women around were wives or groupies, and I always felt a bit odd in relation to both camps.

Female audience members clearly were defined in relation to male audiences and male poets. The word ‘groupie’ suggests not just an importation of pop argot, but the adoption of its macho ethos. A groupie is there to have casual sex with the poetry star. Such a scene - and the poetry reading was as vital to the survival of the poetry as print - would be prohibitive for a woman writer or audience member. Readings were often held in pubs, traditional male territory; the potential childcare problems of attending readings, let alone going on ‘tour’, must be recalled too. A telling anecdote of Houston suggests that women were expected to play other familiar roles.

I could flash a smile, dress up, being a woman part of the act which belonged there. When Horovitz and [Pete] Brown set about starting a reading agency, Poetry in Motion ... eyebrows were raised at me, the woman ... to run it.

If sexism was rife through the Underground – and I have heard a senior British poet say, with relish and regret, that there was a ‘lot of leg-over’ in the 1960s - it is not surprising that aspiring women poets of the 1960s and 1970s turned to the women's movement for an audience, although the movement was not unequivocally receptive. Wandor recalls political attacks on poetry as ‘moribund’, so it is small wonder that, as Claire Buck states,

The poetry that flourished within the context of the new women's movement was characterized by a clear fidelity to its political ideals translated into a poetics concerned with cultural critique, an accessible language and form, and the expression of women's personal experience.

Clearly distinct if not distant from the work dealt with here, some of this work was collected in The New British Poetry (1988), but while its feminist section was slim on the grounds that women were also represented in the black writing and the two sections which are more my concern, Mottram’s British Poetry Revival section has only two women poets out of its 25, Denise Riley and Wendy Mulford. Linguistically Innovative Poetry by women has not fared much better; Edwards’ section, ‘Some Younger Poets’, has four women out of 18 poets, and Conductors of Chaos, a similar anthology edited by Iain Sinclair showcases only five women out of 36 contributors.

However, in the 1990s, there seemed a genuine paucity of British experimental women writers. When Maggie O’Sullivan, who was only too keen to redress this imbalance, edited Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK in 1996, she could only find nine British poets to join the remaining 21 from across the Atlantic.

Out of Everywhere therefore features a large selection of North American, mostly language, poetry. It is interesting to see that, by 1996, it was possible to place British work alongside North American work in the same context, for example, to put Bergvall’s performance work next to Rosmarie Waldrop’s extraordinary series of prose texts ‘writing back’ to other texts. Such work is located outside of most gatherings, and discussions, of women’s poetry, despite its importance for certain questions concerning women’s writing, such as French feminism’s identification of a specific écriture feminine. O’Sullivan's introduction quotes the words of ‘an unidentified audience member’ at a Waldrop talk who noted how such linguistically innovative work by women is doubly excluded from the institutionized marginality of feminist poetry or from Gilbert and Gubar style anthologies. The comment provides O’Sullivan’s anthology with its title: ‘There’s an extra difficulty being a woman poet and writing the kind of poetry you write: you are out of everywhere (laughter).’ This ambivalent evocation of both inclusion and exclusion is apposite. O’Sullivan points out, perhaps a little too stridently, that

Excluded from ‘women’s canons’, such work does, however, connect up with linguistically innovative work by men who have themselves also transcended the agenda-based and cliché-ridden rallying positions of mainstream poetry.

As early as 1984, O’Sullivan and Geraldine Monk launched an attack in an article which prepared the ground for Out of Everywhere. They argue that feminist poetry, far from raising consciousness, is often ‘versified propaganda’ and, more importantly, is being falsely ‘validated as the poetry that speaks for women’. In terms that mirror Buck’s analysis, they argue that

the most effective chance any woman has of dismantling the fallacy of male creative supremacy is simply by writing poetry of a kind which is liberating by the breadth of its range, risk and innovation.... to exploit and realize the full potential and importance of language.

Caroline Bergvall, Maggie O’Sullivan and Geraldine Monk, are featured in both of the 1996 anthologies, as is Denise Riley. Claire Buck argues that Riley, too, was ‘out of everywhere’, because her ‘focus on the poststructuralist concerns of language and sexual difference place her ... in opposition to the main trajectory of feminist poetry in both the 1970s and the 1980s.’ 85 After some years of poetic silence, the genuine and distinctive voice of Riley rose to prominence, with two Reality Street collections, one of new poems, Mop Mop Georgette in 1993, and her Selected Poems in 2000. Among the formal experimentation of Out of Everywhere, her work (which, in any case, has also found itself in the Penguin Modern Poets series), seems muted, the ironical play with voice and self more often attenuated by traditional rhetorical figures; she is often seen as another member of the Cambridge axis. However, the texts are full of evanescent presentations of a far from stable female ego, a voice in which the promises of identity divide and dissolve into the ‘I’ provided by the lyric poetry tradition. She articulates voices (not ‘voice’); most of them want to act out a self-absorbed otherness:

in sleep alone I get articulate to mouth the part of
anyone and reel off others' characters until the focus

of a day through one-eyed self sets in again: go into it.
I must. (CC, p. 393)

The weaving of song lyrics into the text (so that what is quotation and what is not, what is expressive and what is ironic, is unclear) enacts the ambivalent remembering and misremembering of a nostalgic and narcissistic content that the poems themselves appear to offer, as in ‘Lure 1963’:

Oh yes I’m the great pretender. Red lays a stripe of darkest
green on dark. My need is such I pretend too much. I’m
wearing. And you’re not listening to a word I say. (CC, p. 86)

Fashion and emotional excess are intertwined in the word ‘wearing’. Such sartorial disguise and the deference to the ventriloquial articulations of popular song result in the ego singing, rather than talking, to itself.

Next month A History of the Other concludes with a consideration of anthologies and conferences. In the meantime check out the Pores/Readings website Forum on Women Writers for some other views on the matters discussed here.

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