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Lucia Trent on Women Poets

Aren’t Women Better Fitted than Men to be Poets?

The wonder with a woman working in the arts is the same as that with a performing dog, not that she can do it well or ill but that she can do it at all--the world may have outgrown such colossal exhibitions of masculine vanity as this famous remark. But even today our critics speak a bit condescendingly of "our women poets," saying that some woman poet has a "high place among women poets" as if to imply that such a standing need not be very high and that on the whole women poets are inferior to their singing brothers.

Some people still insist on insulting a woman poet by the term poetess which smacks of the parlor tricks taught to the Victorian jeune fille to raise her price in the marriage market. Shades of lavender and lace mitts! Just as women had to struggle for the franchise, they still must fight for equality in the creative arts. Individuals may win a high place, but their womanhood is still largely looked upon as a handicap. The workshop or the temple of poetry should not be a Quaker meeting house where the sexes are herded apart.

Just as the worst enemy of public welfare is the public, so the worst enemy of the creative woman is all too often her ungifted sisters. The domesticated woman frequently seems to bear a grudge against those who endeavor to create something more than a meal or a dress. The creative woman may be fully as good a wife, mother and housewife--probably better because more sympathetic with her children and husband than mere housewives who are "the wives of houses, not of men." But she is apt to be looked on askance for making her horizons wider than the walls of her home.

But it is not only the homebody who is likely to stone the feminine poet but also the dabbler, the lady on the fringe of some literary set, the hanger-on whose desire it is to run her fingers through the mane of every new literary lion. In both cases one suspects a defense mechanism. The latter type often maintains that women may excel in the interpretive arts and advises their confining themselves to this sphere. They fail to realize that womanhood may be made an asset rather than a handicap. They seem unaware of women's especial closeness to the great creative sources.

Many women poets themselves make this same error. Many women who think themselves feminists prove to be very bad feminists indeed by trying to be unfeminine. They question men's superiority by their words but seem to try to prove it by their lives through the subtlest form of flattery: imitation. Thus, book after book by our women poets can only be recognized as a feminine product by the name on the title-page--and some women poets even take masculine names or hide their sex behind initials.

There is no reason why all the poems by a woman should reflect a definitely feminine outlook upon life and deal with themes which men are less fitted to handle. But a woman should not have to dress herself or her work in masculine attire to mingle on an equal footing with her brothers in a democracy of art.

There are two dominant types of women's poetry today. There is poetry of the type just mentioned, not distinguishable from men's. Lola Ridge writes strong-brained, strong-armed poetry rich in vigor and almost too racy in crude imagery, Babette Deutsch creates work that is always meaty and often glittering although sometimes far-fetched. Hortense Flexner builds gaunt structures of song. Miriam Allen deFord swings muscular cadences. These and other women poets show a strength far outrivalling that of many leading men poets. But their strength is that of men rather than of women. They usually lack tenderness and the primal strength of a maternal outlook upon life.

Their work is immeasurably more significant, however, than the dainty, silvery tinkle of trivial verse which trickles from the pens of the large majority of our women poets. They are content in the role of minor melodists. Their loquacious stream purls its placid way, too shallow to bear any appreciable cargoes of thought. They are too legion for names. Though they may sing as women and write of feminine interests, it is as wholly conventional women absorbed with tea-table topics. The little house upon the hill with delf-blue china neatly stacked upon its shelves and pretty mignonette along its garden walks is, after all, shared by both wife and husband, by both she who hands the bill for all this and he who foots it.

But there is a third group, very much in the minority, neither mannish nor fenced in by prudish prejudice or cowardly conventionality. The few but vital members of this group realize that women's life moves closer to fundamental rhythms and deals more directly with human needs and human suffering, facts which should stir their work with "the mightier movements, winds and rivers, life and death" and advance their poetry. For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of woman.

The experience of maternity makes a woman reach out beyond self to the child. It leads her through the shadow of death to bring birth. She is forced to learn unselfishness -- a basic requirement for true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life. Her sacrifice for new life both in bearing and rearing children helps fit her for the poet's post as prophet and as interpreter of the future to the present. Her preoccupation with children also helps her fill the poet's role of giving voice to the inarticulate.

Yet women do not have to be mothers in order to deal more directly than most men with lives rather than things, with vital values rather than abstractions. But one would expect such women as are mothers to express such an emotional and physical crisis in their lives as pregnancy and to perceive and convey its spiritual symbolism. Why boast of a lack? And yet some of the mannish women poets boast of their freedom from maternal shackles while the conventional women poets turn their backs self-righteously on the miracle of pregnancy and scorn the few women who write reverently and honestly of pregnancy and the "sacrament of sex."

In a contest we ran in Contemporary Vision for poems on pregnancy the winning poem and the majority of the most profound poems were by men. This does not mean necessarily that men are better poets or better equipped to handle this theme, but that women are more inhibited as yet.

If women's poetry is to make a serious and individual contribution, should not women poets be more concerned with the problems and pleas that lie closest to their own domain? Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood. Then and only then is it sordid. Yet only a handful of poems, and those mostly by men, have been written in the fight for this social need.

Motherhood which cares only for its own young belongs to animalbood rather than true humanhood. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom it is now the fashion to dismiss as Victorian, voiced a profoundly stirring protest against child labor, a poem which should silence forever those who fatuously insist that poetry cannot be propaganda. Her poem was influential in mitigating the evil in England.

Our age is faced with a great crisis. We are threatened with another war which may annihilate whole countries, engulfing the world in the greatest calamity it has ever experienced. Millions of lives of men, women and children are threatened with destruction. Surely the voice of women poets should be raised more widely and ringingly against war in which sons they have suffered to bear may be murdered that a few may mint money from their blood. Moreover, it is assured us that in the next war there will be no noncombatants.

Women are taking their parts bravely as women and as human beings in other fields. Why not in poetry? Let us have poems that strip off masks of hypocrisy and sham, poems for the advance of women, of labor, of all humanity! Let there be a larger battalion of women singers marching as standard-bearers of a more decent civilization!

From More Power to Poets. Copyright 1934 by Henry Harrison.

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