‘Humming an entirely different tune’?
A case study of anthologies: Women’s Poetry of the 1930s
When I edited Women’s Poetry of the 1930s (1996) I had to confront the problem that gender operates as a method for selecting but not for evaluating writers. With any anthology, the organising principle, whether thematic, chronological, or culturally determined, operates primarily as an instrument for identifying suitable texts. Additionally, of course, it involves the politics of selection: as one recent editor observed, ‘There is no avoiding the fact that making an anthology is an act of criticism’ (Lucie Smith 1985). The tendency of reviewers to debate inclusions and omissions, rather than the poems, indicates how quality control is assumed in the editor’s role. The political tension with women-only anthologies is that the encased female solidarity is intended to counteract the uncertain status of the woman poet but at the same time draws attention to it by appearing to ghettoise her. For this reason, established writers like Laura Riding, Kathleen Raine, Elizabeth Bishop and Sheenagh Pugh have notoriously refused to be in them. As Germaine Greer comments on these refusals: ‘No black poet would care or dare to deny his or her race in such a way’ (Greer 1995b: 7-8). Women also object to the gender emphasis in the critical reception to their poems: ‘I hate that expression, "woman poet". It’s as though we were a separate section . . . We are reviewed together in the newspapers, while the men are treated individually’ (Duffy 1990: 61). Here, Carol Ann Duffy points out that women poets’ peculiar disaffiliation from each other is attributable to their longstanding and persistent negative cultural representations. To counter the reductive and negative myths of the homogenised ‘woman poet’, editors of women’s anthologies, myself included, insist on the stylistic and vocal diversity of their poets, but diversity works as a judgement on the collective work rather than on the individual poem.
While working on the anthology and other similar projects, I have switched theoretical positions, largely due to the critical reception of women’s poems. Initially, I respected the discomfort which most women professed to being classified by gender. Now, as I have explained elsewhere, I believe that there needs to be some consensus about the aesthetic distinctiveness of women’s poems (Dowson 1999). As Alicia Ostriker observes, ‘to say that poetry by women is ungendered is to classify it as male’ (Ostriker, 1987: 8-9). Sean O’Brien suggests that the current consensus is that gender separatism is unnecessary and undermining:
There have always been women poets writing in English. Their difficulty has been in getting the fact acknowledged - and then ensuring that it is remembered. . . . From the stand point of the present it looks as if a scaffolding of assumptions about women’s writing has recently been removed - for example, that the woman poet is in some sense peculiar or a special case - and the power and range of woman poets has been made plain. (One sign of the confidence of women poets is the debate over the value and effectiveness of women-only anthologies.) (O’Brien 1998: xxxiv).
The idea that segregated collections are passé is appealing but the evidence from contemporary reviewing, along with the evidence from literary history, tell us that without a distinct literary terminology for women’s poetry, it will continue to be measured by men’s and judged negatively in relation to it.
Carol Ann Duffy would seem to have won enough awards to be secure in literary history but some reviews, which future historians will assume to be the contemporary consensus on her work, stumble for a suitable vocabulary. Note how impressions about Duffy’s personality slide into judgements upon her poetic style in these male-authored reviews:
Composition is to be found in Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry . . . but it is infrequent. What we have more often in its place are poetic moments. . . unsustained by finished craft or diligence. . . . One wants more from poetry than whinges . . . The personae here are too many, I would contend, and indicate a dissipation of personality, a loss of focus on moral concerns, a loss of responsibility (Milne 1995: 157-8).
There is often a felt need to reproduce a common cultural experience which can bypass both feeling and intelligence, and can end up merely as babble and mimic (Reid 1992/3: 36).
[Carol Ann Duffy’s italics] lean towards the demonstrative and the hysterical (Sansom 1995: 20).
In her introduction to one of the newest women-only anthologies, Making for Planet Alice (1997), Maura Dooley observes: ‘Women are published, read and heard, but their work is not discussed. Until their work is considered and written about consistently, seriously and undifferentiatingly by the major literary journals of the day, their poetry will not have a future as part of the main canon of English Literature’ (Dooley 1997:12). Dooley is right about the power of reviews but it is precisely ‘differentiating’ reading which is required if women are not to remain marginal to literary history.
My work on the 1930s shaped my thinking about the processes of literary history in relation to a defining aesthetic of women’s poetry. I concluded that value is constructed by the concept of consensus and that the apparent consensus that women cannot write good poetry means that women formulate strategies to avoid gender-association. They hide under the male-associated qualities of intelligence, metrical prowess or interest in public affairs. Their negotiation with the language, forms and subject matter of male literary traditions is what constitutes one aesthetic but has been interpreted as mere imitation. Robert Graves identified a ‘false ring in the work of almost all women poets’ because they faked male poetry (Gilbert and Gubar 1988: 152). Germaine Greer endorses Graves’ negative view but explains the bind for women:
Either they must impersonate the muse herself or impersonate the male poet. Impersonation of the muse leads to a carelessness disguised as rhapsody; impersonation of the male leads to bombast and literature about literature. . . . One way of crawling out from under the oppressive poet-muse construct is to see oneself as a creature of a different kind, not a poet but a poet-ess. The poetess accepts that she must display characteristics associated with femininity such as "delicacy, modesty, charm, domesticity, hypersensitivity and piety" (Greer 1995: xv).
Greer is referring to pre-twentieth century writers, but twentieth-century women articulated the same simultaneous exclusion from a masculine tradition and alienation from a feminine one. Eavan Boland records that a male-formulated tradition offered her ‘War poetry. Nature poetry. Love poetry. Pastoral poetry. The comic epic. The tragic lyric . . . but not the name of my experience, of what I felt and saw.’ On the other hand, ‘feminism had wonderful strengths as a critique and almost none as an aesthetic’ (Boland 1995: 23, 236). The two alternatives of ‘male impersonation’ or writing as a ‘poet-ess’ constitute the two main categories of poetry by women. The gender-distinctive aesthetic of the first group, where women disguise themselves as men, is in their strategies of self-masking. There is also often an implicit female perspective under the wraps of masculine language. The second type, the overtly woman-centred poems, negotiate with the feminine ideal head-on but have yet to be consensually rated because they require gender-specific critical terminology and men to adopt a woman’s or a feminist reading position. These are, however, arguably the more successful for being more aesthetically liberated.
‘"This is so, isn’t it?"’: Value by consensus
F.R. Leavis observed that a concept of value is usually the consensus produced by the language and tone of critical reviews: ‘Essentially, a critical judgement has the form, "This is so, isn’t it?"’ (Leavis 1986: 277). In looking back at the period when he edited Scrutiny (1932-9), Leavis refers to the practice of reviewing as ‘clique-and-mode and time-serving’ (Leavis 1986: 241). During the nineteen twenties and thirties, anonymous reviewing and the use of the first person plural, as well as the rhetorical assumptions identified by Leavis, suggested an invisible but monolithic body of judges, beside which women in particular were dwarfed or ignored. These self-appointed custodians of (high) culture were especially jealous about guarding poetry because it was held as the most rarefied genre. For example, ‘The Poetry of Women’, a review of three new books of poetry in the Times Literary Supplement in 1920, indicates the way in which men’s anxiety about women’s new political freedom was projected on to the reception of their poems:
Literature which answers to every change in the social life of a people, has already begun to register the fact of woman’s emancipation. The ideal of self-expression, which has supplanted self-sacrifice as the aim of the modern woman, has possibly brought with it as many abuses as it has banished. . . . Certainly, the result in literature may not at first seem very happy. As we contemplate the profusion of modern fiction with women’s names on the title page, we may reasonably fear for the welfare of art smothered between the smatterings of science and the anarchy of instincts. . . . But though we allow the novel to be abused in the interests of sex propaganda, lyrical poetry, by the very strict limits of its constitution, will permit no such transgression. (TLS, 9 Dec. 1920: 810).
I have given emphasis to the final sentence to draw attention to the critic’s value system: his antipathy towards women’s entry into the élite company of poets and his inability to relate to the poetry under review produce the ‘resistant reading’ to which I shall return. His subjective alienation from the experiences in the texts—The House, by Gladys Mary Hazel, Poems of Motherhood, by Dorothea Still, and The Verse Book of a Homely Woman, by Fay Inchfawn—is voiced as a universal critical judgement. Similar resistant readings proliferate in the history of women’s writing, and poetry in particular. Such initial critical responses turn out to be knee-jerk, but they perpetuate the unconscious tradition that women are not as good as men at poetry. As Edna Longley observes on twentieth-century anthologies, ‘Superficial first impressions turn into lazy received opinion, then into academic dogma that roots like couchgrass.’ For example, ‘partial and polemical versions of the 1930s and 1940s have eroded a historical sense of the modern movement’. (Longley, 1996: 8-12)
Thanks to recent revisionary histories we know that thirties writing was diverse, but the current pluralistic inclusiveness has still not challenged the hierarchy when it comes to value. Women’s Poetry of the 1930s was positively reviewed in terms of its cultural revelations but a question mark hangs over the literary significance of the poems: ‘these remain glimpses, never the sort of sustained finished achievements that would demand a wholesale reshuffling of the 1930s canon’ (Fiennes 1996) or ‘Not even Dowson’s younger writers seem aware of Modernism . . . . a few have noticed Auden’ (Rumens 1995/6: 23). As Stan Smith states, however, with reference to the 1994 ‘New Generation’ poetic drive, ‘Poetic movements have been manufactured before. The "Tragic Generation" of the Nineties and the "Auden Generation" of the 1930s were both in part successes of publicity and self-advertisement’ (Smith 1996: 306). I have a high regard for Auden’s poetry; my quarrel is with the way in which literary historians and reviewers persist in making him a metonym for 1930s poetry. As Adrian Caesar puts it, ‘Since about 1975, critics and literary historians have often agreed to define Auden by the use of the words "the 1930s" or vice versa’ (Caesar 1991: 2). The term ‘Audenesque’ continues to be insistently waved as a wand of aesthetic magic: ‘To say that women produced some fine and much interesting poetry during the Thirties is not, of course, to claim that their works constitute a mine of forgotten or undiscovered gems which outshine the poems of Auden and Co.’ (Montefiore 1996: 115). The political activities and poetry of women like Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, Naomi Mitchison, Nancy Cunard and Stevie Smith illustrate that to be measured by the so-called ‘Audenesque’ and found wanting is unjust and inappropriate because what is perceived as common to thirties poets is not necessarily best exemplified by Auden. Furthermore, they, along with other women, represent the more complex cultural cross-currents of the period.
Challenging the consenus: reviewing the 1930s
Although ‘Audenesque’, in its literal sense of describing Auden’s poetry, includes a body of homosexual post-Romantic poems, it has not been associated with the gender issues which dominated the decade. However, following the popularity of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and the attendant pamphlet ‘Tell me the Truth About Love’: 15 poems by W.H. Auden (Faber 1998), in the national consciousness the ‘Audenesque’ has become associated with love. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’/ ‘Stop all the Clocks’, which the film made famous, was written around 1936, ‘Lullaby’ in 1937, ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’ in 1938, and ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ in 1940. These register the preoccupation with the personal which is the counterpart to thirties political writing. The woman-centred poetry is part of this other, but still mainstream, literature and has been a lamentable absence in previous histories of thirties writing. It is an important cultural record of women’s consciousness during this period of changing gender roles and ideologies about marriage. Following the First World War, women were, of course, in the majority and between 1928 and 1934 there were twelve law reforms concerning the rights and protection of women and children. The Matrimonial Causes Act in 1937, which widened the door for divorce, was surrounded by controversy. Issues concerning women’s roles and women’s rights were dominant in parliament, literature and domestic discourse. Contemporaneous journalism and fiction suggest that most women had a complex relationship with these changes. For the woman poet, her sensitivity to the suppression of women was at odds with the demands to assume the disguise of the male poet in order to avoid the charges of femininity.
Retrospective critics and editors, implicitly or explicitly, but nevertheless collectively, manufactured a void of poetry by women in the 1930s. As indicated in the anthology, however, there were about twenty poets who published at least one collection and many, like Elizabeth Daryush, Lilian Bowes Lyon, Ruth Pitter, Kathleen Raine, Laura Riding, Vita Sackville-West, E.J. Scovell, Edith Sitwell, Stevie Smith and Sylvia Townsend Warner, had successful publishing histories. Their difficulty was in being well-reviewed. So powerful are critical reviews in influencing reader response that in order to justify getting them back in print, I initially marshalled any contemporaneous testimonies to the poems’ worth or later verdicts of ‘neglect’. In other words, I used an inherited judgement as an indicator of some consensus about the poetry’s value. This meant accepting Leavis’s ‘consensus’ by a ruling literary establishment. It did not accommodate unpublished, uncollected or woman-centred poems. These had novelty value and the heroic status of the forgotten and marginalised but not literary credentials. From my trawls through the literary periodicals and editors’ introductions to the decade’s anthologies I realised that there was no fixed standard by which poetry was measured and by which women’s poetry was rejected. The rationale for my anthology, then, was to demonstrate the stylistic and ideological diversity of the poetry of the period and also of the women’s poetry in order to contest the myths of an identifiable ‘thirties’ poem, by which all others were measured, and of a ‘woman’s poem’ which perpetuates prejudice against poems by the individual poet.
Recent literary historians like Adrian Caesar have convincingly deflated the myths about Auden’s founding of a political coterie who attempted to revolutionise the British class system through revolutionising art. These myths were also countered by Auden himself, by other protagonists like Stephen Spender and by second generation thirties poets such as Julian Symons. Taken collectively, the implicit criteria for classifying a poem as ‘Audenesque’ include: the influence of modernism (undefined); evidence of political commitment as long as it is mitigated by aesthetic evocation; realism; contemporary diction; a blend of public and personal rhetoric; stylistic variety. These qualities are not, however, best epitomised by Auden. As Auden pointed out, in his poetry he aestheticised poverty: ‘When an artist writes about the slums or disease or Hell, it is quite true that he wants them to be there because they are his material, just as a dentist wants people to have decaying teeth’ (Auden 1936: 359). In England and the United States, the effort to devise a more colloquial way of speaking was part of the general drift of poetry towards ‘realism’ (Perkins 1976: 306) but in this area too Auden admitted to failure: ‘Personally the kind of poetry I should like to write but can’t is "the thoughts of a wise man in the speech of the common people"’ (Auden 1936: 360). As for political commitment, Geoffrey Grigson, who helped to promote Auden and Spender through New Verse, maintained the sanctity of art above politics and purported that New Verse was humanist and apolitical.
‘Modernism’ is frequently implicated in the concept of ‘Audenesque’, but D.E.S. Maxwell points out that ‘much of what was prized as formal innovation was in fact unusual mainly in its sentiments.’ The sentiments were mixed feelings concerning the democratisation of culture: ‘the thirties poets thus faced a conflict between their inherited concern (bourgeois) for aesthetic standards and their acquired knowledge (Marxist) that this was vain self-indulgence [and] while the convergence of poetry and politics gave a sense of direction it did not, then, produce conformity’. Maxwell also observes that some of the most interesting poems are the ‘categorically propagandist poems’ where ‘Party zeal well outruns aesthetic decorum’ (Maxwell 1969: 46). These were not, however, written by Auden. The accelerating influence of Freud and Jung meant that psychoanalysis was incorporated into the idiom of thirties intellectuals and following the Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 they were inspired to find new forms for representing the unconscious and dream images. A.T. Tolley points out, however, that Auden seemed to be untouched by surrealism; rather, ‘what the "Auden generation" responded to most strongly in their poetry was not the economic dereliction of the time, but the passing of the upper-middle-class liberal culture from which they came’ (Tolley 1993/4: 11-13). Adrian Caesar concludes that ‘It is Auden’s appeal to the liberal middle-class conscience which dominates the literary history of the period, not some timeless standard of poetic craftsmanship’ (Caesar 1991: 38). Liberal humanism masquerading as left-wing ideology has thus transposed into literary value. While the totemism of Auden persists, however, the extent and significance of the real left-wing writing by both men and women are still not recognised.
The metonymic meaning of ‘Audenesque’ - the attempt to maintain modernist principles of impersonality and linguistic economy while developing a more democratic aesthetic - is more readily identified in male poets like Roy Fuller and Clifford Dyment and in the women whom I selected. I realised the contradiction of using the terms of the model I was wanting to challenge and there was an argument for not using the 1930s as a framework at all since periodising tends to exclude or marginalise through hegemonic reduction, but the traditional foundations are to some extent shaken by adding women. They are particularly disturbed by the poems which centre on women’s experiences and perspectives and which do not easily connect with those by an upper-middle-class homosexual public-school liberal male. I made the case for the cultural value of poems by the fact of their publication. I also wanted to demonstrate that they were neither intrinsically ‘inferior’ nor ‘good’ simply by being woman-authored. Some poems could initially be evaluated in terms of the consensus, that is orthodox thirties subjects; others required a woman-centred critical terminology in order to avoid negative comparisons with male poets. A woman-centred critical terminology also accommodated a re-reading of the pseudo-masculine poems as women’s texts.
‘Ungendered’ poetry and a female aesthetic
In selecting and evaluating the first group, that is more public thirties writing, I drew upon the familiar vocabulary of reading the period’s literature to demonstrate the ways in which women qualified for inclusion. I chose poems about social inequalities, the Spanish Civil War and the impending second world war. These prove women holding their own through avoiding gender distinctiveness. Kathleen Raine was the most published woman during the nineteen thirties - Grigson printed more of hers than Auden’s poems - although, and no doubt because, she was not politically motivated. If anything she identified with Conservative principles. In common with their contemporaries, the correspondence, journals and literary papers of poets like Valentine Ackland, Frances Cornford, Ruth Pitter and Anna Wickham, added to the living testimonies of Anne Ridler, Naomi Mitchison and E.J. Scovell, indicate that they too revered T. S. Eliot and aimed to be stylistically innovative while also attempting the new realism. Like their male counterparts, they often had sympathies with both radical and reactionary ideas about art. Their commitment to democracy, which was strengthened by the rise of fascism, is reflected in their experiments with colloquial speech and their representations of injustice. Stevie Smith is orthodoxly ‘thirties’ in articulating a liberal humanism but her stylistics are unorthodoxly radical. The most authentic left-wing writing is by Naomi Mitchison, an active socialist, and by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, energetic members of the Communist party.
Valentine Ackland’s ‘Communist Poem, 1935’ is typical of thirties poems which balance political polemic with lyricism and the associated combination of regular versification with a demotic register:
"What must we do, in a country
. . .
What’s in a word? Comrade, while
still our country
(Left Review, Vol. 1, No. 10, July 1935: 430. Dowson 1996: 32)
The speaker’s gender is indeterminate and it is difficult to distinguish this as a woman’s poem. It does not immediately require a radical shift in the dominant reading position which is implicitly male, although the political engagement requires a shift in the perception of women and more particularly the woman poet. However, when compared with similar woman-authored poems a female perspective can be identified in the genuine revolutionary impulse and detachment from the old way. There is none of the nationalistic nostalgia associated with Auden. As Virginia Woolf pointed out, women were alienated from militaristic patriotism: ‘"Our country’" [a woman] will say, "throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions."’ (Woolf 1938: 197). Ackland’s poem thus contributes to and extends canonical thirties poetry but had lain uncollected. Its publication in Left Review has cultural significance in that it represents the paper’s radical edge and the involvement of women in shaping it. In fact, Ackland and Warner found that Left Review was disappointingly liberal and inappropriately dominated by poets ‘from Oxbridge or Chelsea or Bloomsbury’ (Branson and Heinemann 1973: 299).
In ‘Some Make This Answer’, which begins ‘Unfortunately, he said, I have lost my manners’, Sylvia Townsend Warner dramatises her preoccupation with gender politics, as well as with the class war which was magnified in Spain in 1936:
Admittedly on your red face or your
(Left Review, Feb. 1936, p. 214. Dowson 1996: 155-6)
Their non-fiction polemics and lesbian love lyrics register that being a woman was clearly a complex issue for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. As poets they were acutely gender-conscious but aesthetically preoccupied with avoiding both the personal and propaganda. Literary criticism needs to recognise the gender-distinctive perspective even in the apparently genderless writing. It is the ironically inferred but unsymbolised discourse which projects Stevie Smith’s exposé of voyeuristic male modernism in ‘Salon d’Automne’ (1937):
One thousand and one naked ladies
Although ostensibly gender-free, Stevie Smith’s linguistic daring is an aspect of her anti-conventionality which includes her opposition to conventional prescriptions of femininity.
Woman-centred poetry, literary value and the female aesthetic
It is easy to become defensive about poems by women which deal with personal relationships but representations of the home and marriage relations are as culturally significant as the Spanish Civil War. Following the psychological disturbances and social upheavals of the First World War, the private life became a subject of national importance. The introduction of the wireless to many homes also dissolved the distinction between public and private experiences. Alison Light argues that in much interwar literature ‘the place of the private life and what it represented became the subject of national and public interest and found new literary forms.’ In women’s fiction, particularly, a sense of ‘history from the inside’ gained new significance (Light 1991: 4-5). The woman-centred poetry provides a body of writing which opposes the growing influence of popular romance caused by the influx of Hollywood Films, Mills and Boon and women’s weeklies. As intellectuals, the poets may have been dissociating themselves from popular culture but also challenging the influential ideals of these fictions.
Readers of Women’s Poetry of the 1930s have often found the woman-centred poems to be the most interesting because the subject matter is new to the canon of thirties poetry but, as previously stated, their significance in literary terms is questioned because they do not readily equate with the established canon of texts. What this means, as I found when trying to classify the poems, is that it is hard to make connections between poems which depict the experience of being a woman and those which are only more central to the decade’s poetry because they are the ones we know. In Leavisite terms, they do not achieve the consensus verdict. One of the most popular poems in my book is ‘Woman at Home’ by Vere Arnot. Popularity, of course, can negate literary value because it is the wrong kind of consensus. Nevertheless, the poem provides the pleasure of identification for many contemporary women readers:
They come in,
Yet to-night she could drown them
Ah! she is vain; she is sick;
Oh! She is half-mad tonight,
(Time and Tide, July 11, 1936. Dowson 1996: 186-7)
Initially, I introduced the poem with the disclaimer that it was ‘amateur’ but a useful foil for the more ‘professional’ writing of the rest. I am grateful for the reader of the draft manuscript who pointed out that my defensive dismissal of its status was presumptuous and counterproductive to my project. Printed in Time and Tide, the poem suggests that the frustration with domestic slavery, couched under a cheery vocal register, was widespread. It connects to writings like The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield or Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver. In these popular serials, the narrative tones are suspiciously stoical in their accounts of the trivial routines of women, and tread a fine line between light entertainment and satirical parody. Following the First World War, middle and upper class women who had tasted the excitement and independence of paid employment were forced to give it back to the returning men and revert to domesticity. Some women colluded with the official ideologies of conventional femininity while others fought against them, especially the large number of single women. Many experienced conflicting impulses towards and against the traditional roles of wife and mother.
In speaking about the poetry, I often link ‘Woman at Home’ with ‘Boats in the Bay’ by Winifred Holtby, also printed in Time and Tide:
I will take my trouble and wrap it
in a blue handkerchief
I will take my trouble and drop it
into the water
(Time & Tide Feb. 18, 1933. Dowson 1996: 67)
Neither poem has Leavis’s ‘consensus’ value since they were published in a woman-driven journal, had no reviews and remained uncollected. Their literary merit cannot be defined in terms of established male thirties subject matter or perspective although there is some stylistic commonality in their ease with colloquial diction. Both are valuable cultural records since they register the sense of isolation and frustration depicted in much interwar women’s writing. Both poems speak to the present-day reader and provide the pleasure of identification. If judging the poem by traditional ‘literary’ standards, I have to say that whereas Arnot’s poem is unambiguous and linguistically confined, Holtby’s is more skilfully lyrical because its metaphorical coherence paradoxically provokes multiple associations.
In order to avoid the literary/cultural opposition, however, I can reformulate the critical framework by a common aesthetic of women’s poetry which consists of an interplay between the official public discourse of the text and its evocation of unarticulated resistance. This is what Cora Kaplan describes as ‘the relationship between the imaginative act and the dominant ideology’. (Kaplan 1984: 64). The metaphorical coding and colour symbolism in ‘Boats in the Bay’ and the elliptical textual gaps and exclamation marks in ‘Woman at Home’, conceal as much as they reveal of a troubled psyche. Such obscuring typically signifies a condition which cannot be exchanged for the currency of available language. The imagery of a below-surface-level despair echoes other poems of the period and connects to a historical line of women’s poems. It prefigures Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ and is reminiscent of nineteenth-century writing like Christina Rossetti’s ‘Confluents’.
rivers seek the sea,
The imaginative processes involved in these lyrics allow writer and reader some aesthetic consolation for the pain of loss, sadness or frustration. The lyric’s avoidance of rational discourse provides the freedom to investigate women’s social contexts and to depict alternatives to domestic confinement or patriarchal law. Stevie Smith’s ‘Marriage I Think’ challenges the silencing of women in the protective guise of an innocent’s idiom and childlike rhyming:
Marriage I think
(Dowson 1996: 147)
Anna Wickham uses the male monologue to investigate the psychology of domestic conflict:
hit her in the face because she loved me.
The interface of fantasy and realism in the construction of dramatised personae in these extracts illustrate the imaginative and aesthetic potential of the lyric. The non-particularised situations and emotions cross cultural divides between poets, poet and reader or reader and reader. Since the poetry allows some expression of women’s non-symbolised experience, it requires a critical response which is attentive to these negotiations between the symbolised prescriptions about women’s social functions, which includes their low status as poets, and their not-yet symbolised identities.
Conclusion: gendered criticism and literary value
In arguing for the value of inclusive representation which can accommodate the range of voices which emerged during the 1930s, I support Caesar’s elision of cultural and literary significance, based on the consensus of ‘writers and readers’ rather than the conservative literary establishment of the time:
I am not very much concerned . . . with judgements about "literary value". . . I take it that the poetry dealt with here, since it was published, was of some "value" to both writers and readers, and therefore had a relationship to people’s experience in the decade. And it is this breadth that I am anxious to articulate. I am not at all concerned with the construction of league tables, in displacing Auden by Dylan Thomas for instance. On the other hand, I am anxious to call into question the political and aesthetic ideologies which have elevated the liberal Audenesque with its uneasy combination of Georgian and Modernist influences, at the expense of other modes which do not share that comfortable and comforting middle ground (Caesar, 1991: 4).
Significantly, Caesar implies that ‘a relationship to people’s experience in the decade’ constitutes value. However, the exclusion of woman-centred poems from his and other histories, as well as from anthologies, indicate that there is an unacknowledged hierarchy of subject matter which devalues women’s experience and the traditionally feminine schema of the personal or domestic.
While poetry institutions and journals, literary history, criticism and reviewing are male-dominated, women’s poems will receive resistant readings. These accrue the value of an apparent consensus. While these remain the dominant reading position, literary women also adopt them. For example, in her review of my book, the contemporary poet Kate Clanchy concluded that ‘young men have always been better at grasping public rhetoric than women’:
This volume may not present serious rivals to Auden and MacNeice in the realm of public affairs, but it does remind us that, even if the boys did outrun the pack singing the loudest anthems, women such as Smith and Cornford were in the same space, but tranquilly off in the outfield somewhere, humming an entirely different tune. (Clanchy 1996)
The ‘different tune’ is implicitly inferior, but the difference is that of experience and perspective - ‘off in the outfield somewhere’ - not of a definable aesthetic standard. As Lynne Pearce puts it:
"Differences" which are presented and authenticated as political and/or aesthetic can often be seen to conceal a differential structural relation to the text that casts them as either "hermeneutic" or "implicated" readers. This is not so simple as saying that readers and critics consciously reach for ideological and aesthetic criteria to disguise or justify their own personal engagement with/alienation from a text (though sometimes it can appear as simple as this), but that the confusion and discomfort resulting from our "implication" might cause us consciously to cling to the security or apparently depersonalised interpretative frameworks. It is, above all, our relationship with the text that we seek to deny or silence as we hastily brush aside the messy nature of our involvement (Pearce 1997: 195).
Sara Mills recommends that we talk about a ‘reading position’ when assessing poems. The best poems may suggest several reading positions through ambiguity, the dialectic of dramatised dialogue or multivocality. However, where the dominant reading position, that is the person whose experience is central to the poem, is female and more particularly feminist, the male reader will be resistant. Mills’ approach negotiates between Jonathan Culler’s theory that men can read as women and some feminist objections to this ‘masquerade’ on the grounds that it reduces woman to a mere construct and does not distinguish between women or between a woman and a feminist reader. (The latter could arguably be male.) To test out her hypothesis that primary textual analysis should identify the subject positions, Mills assesses the reading of a woman’s poem about menstruation by male and female respondents. Significantly, the majority of the females rated the poem because they recognised the speaker’s experience, one finding that it ‘said the unsayable’. Mills concludes:
It can be assumed that the female and male readers have different interests at stake in reading the poem; for most female readers, the subject positions on offer and the classification of the text [as feminist] seemed fairly straightforward. For many of them, the text was "speaking to them"; for the male reader, this process of recognition of the dominant reading seemed to necessitate a resistant reading (Mills, 1994: 38-39).
The point is that the pleasure of identifying with the dominant reading position may be projected as literary value when it concerns male experience but the depiction of female experience or feminist ideology are articulated antithetically to literary value.
Women’s anthologies are still valuable for inviting alternative, feminist, readings of women’s poems. However, as stated at the start, editors of these anthologies tend to substitute ‘diversity’ for value. This lack of classifiability in terms of gender can seem healthy in a pluralistic postmodern culture and enabling to individual creativity. But, as Germaine Greer points out:
Unsurprisingly, the blokes like the girls best when they write like the blokes, and extra-specially when they write about girls the way the blokes do. It suits the male poet to believe that neither sex is specifically intended because it encourages him in his view that his specificity is actually universality. The woman poet who knowingly plays the game is not so much a ventriloquist as a ventriloquist’s dummy (Greer 1995b: 7).
I have argued that this so-called ‘ventriloquism’, that is women’s negotiations with male-associated literary effects, is not imitation but an aesthetic. In the poems which seem gender-indeterminate, that is male, the dramatised speakers, the appropriation and manipulation of conventional forms, language or imagery indicate the woman poet’s relationship to the dominant order which she seems to support. The other, woman-centred aesthetic, frequently signifies the unrepresented or unrepresentable, often through metaphor or elliptical typography which allow for associative, rather than directly linear, narrative. It confronts the cultural imperatives about femininity, including the pejorative assumptions about the ‘woman poet’.
Permission to print ‘Marriage I Think’ and the extract from ‘Salon D’Automne’ has kindly been given by Hamish MacGibbon, for the James MacGibbon estate. Professor Marion Shaw, literary executor of the Winifred Holtby estate, has endorsed the use of ‘Boats in the Bay’.
Auden, W.H. (1936) ‘Poetry, Poets and Taste’, The Highway (Workers’ Educational Association) Dec. Reprinted in Mendelson, Edward (1977) The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, London: Faber and Faber, pp.358-60.
Boland, Eavan (1995) Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, Manchester: Carcanet.
Branson, Noreen and Margot Heinemann (1973) Britain in the Nineteen Thirties, St Albans: Panther.
Caesar, Adrian (1991) Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Clanchy, Kate (1996) ‘Loud hailers and currant rolls’, Review of Dowson 1996, Independent, 3 Feb.
Dooley, Maura (1997) ed. Making for Planet Alice: New Women Poets, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.
Dowson, Jane (1996) ed. Women’s Poetry of the 1930s, London: Routledge.
Dowson, Jane (1999) ‘"For older sisters are very sobering things": contemporary poets and the female affiliation complex’, Feminist Review Vol. 62, (Summer) pp. 6-20.
Duffy, Carol Ann (1990) Interview in Options, (June) p.61.
Fiennes, William (1996) ‘Beyond the Locker Room’, Review of Dowson 1996, Times Literary Supplement, (1 March).
Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan (1994) No Man’s Land: The Place Of The Woman Writer In The Twentieth Century. Vol. 3. Letters to the front, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Greer, Germaine (1995) Slipshod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, New York: Viking Press.
Greer, Germaine (1995b) ‘A biodegradable art: changing fashions in anthologies of women’s poetry’, Times Literary Supplement, (June 30) pp. 7-8.
Kaplan, Cora (1984) ‘The Indefinite Disclosed: Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson’ in Mary Jacobus, ed. Women Writing and Writing about Women, London: Croom Helm, pp.61-79.
Leavis, F.R. (1986) Valuation in Criticism and other essays, ed. G Singh, Cambridge: Cambridge University press.
Light, Alison (1991) Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, London, Routledge, 1991.
Longley, Edna (1996) ‘Signposting the Century’, Poetry Review Vol. 86, No. 1, (Spring) pp.8-12.
Lucie Smith, Edward (1985) ed. British Poetry Since 1945, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Maxwell, D.E.S. (1969) Poetry of the Thirties, London: Routledge & Kegan.
Mills, Sara (1994) ‘Reading as/like a Feminist’ in Gendering the Reader, ed. Sara Mills. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp.25-46.
Milne, W. S, (1995) Review of Carol Ann Duffy, Selected Poems, (1994. Harmondsworth: Penguin) in Outposts, Issue 180/181 (Spring/Summer) pp.157-8.
O’Brien, Sean, ed. (1998) Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945. London: Picador.
Ostriker, Alicia (1987) Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, London: Women’s Press.
Pearce, Lynne (1997) Feminism and the Politics of Reading, London: Arnold.
Reid, Mark (1992/3) Review of Carol Ann Duffy, Meantime (1993. London: Anvil), Orbis pp.32-8.
Roberts, Michèle (1995) Review of Greer 1995, Independent on Sunday, 17 Sept. pp. 30-l.
Marsh, Jan, (1998) ed. Christina Rossetti, London: Everyman.
Montefiore, Jan (1996) Men and Women Writers of the 1930s: the dangerous flood of history, London: Routledge.
Perkins, David (1976) A History of Modern Poetry. Vol. 2. from the 1920s to the Present Day. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Rumens, Carol (1987) ed. Making for the Open: Post-feminist Poetry, London: Chatto & Windus.
Rumens, Carol (1995/6) ‘Smitchwelby’, Review of Dowson, 1996, Poetry Review, Vol. 85, No. 4, (Winter) pp.23-4.
Sansom, Ian (1995) ‘Wayne’s World’, Review of Carol Ann Duffy, Selected Poems (1993. Harmondsworth: Penguin), London Review of Books, 6 July, p20.
Smith, Stan (1996) ‘The things that words give a name to: The "New Generation" poets and the politics of the hyperreal’, Critical Survey, Vol. 8. No. 3, pp.306 -322.
Symons, Julian (1975) The Thirties: A Dream Revolved, London: Faber.
——— (1987) Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912—1939. London: Andre Deutsch.
‘The Poetry of Women’ (1920) Review of The House, by Gladys Mary Hazel, Poems of Motherhood, by Dorothea Still, and The Verse Book of a Homely Woman, by Fay Inchfawn. Times Literary Supplement, 9 Dec. p. 810.
Tolley, A.T (1993/4) ‘The Thirties: But Whose?’ Poetry Review Vol. 83, No. 4, (Winter) pp.11-13.
Woolf, Virginia (1938)Three Guineas, London: Hogarth Press.
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