Unlike the situation of only a few decades ago, the position occupied today by women poets in American literary culture is so prominent, the range of their subjects and styles so wide, that it has become virtually impossible to make any generalizations about them or their work except to note that in diversity must lie strength. Indeed, the women poets who win the major awards and garner the most serious critical attention are, like their male counterparts, graduates of university writing programs and employees of the same and are thus subject to the same career pressures—the urgent need to publish in quantity to satisfy department heads, promotion committees, and deans—that currently afflict most contemporary poets. It is absurd for any American poet, male or female, to complain that opportunities for publication, receipt of grants, or employment might be limited by such matters as gender, sexual preference, ethnic background, or even the subject matter about which he or she chooses to write. There are over three hundred university creative writing programs in this country and something like ten times that number of magazines publishing poetry. When the year’s output of new poetry books comes rolling in, as they have each December since 1987 when I began to write “The Year in Poetry” for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, it is a sure bet that at least half of them will be written by women.
If, however, we go back into the not-so-distant past, we find that this fecundity is relatively new, for it is easy to pigeonhole the select few women poets who were appearing in the poetry anthologies of the 1940’s and 1950’s, most of which seem to have been edited by the same hand, that of the ubiquitous Oscar Williams. Of course, Emily Dickinson is represented, usually the sole representative of women of the 19th century, but there is a gap of about thirty years between her birth and that of the next small cluster of women. These poets fall into two classes. The first, which includes Marianne Moore, H.D., and Amy Lowell, comprises a small number of poets of major status who either were present at the birth of modernism or grew up during its first two decades. H.D. was a college friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and Lowell became such a great popularizer of Pound’s imagist strictures that her epigones were often referred to as “Amygists.” Moore, unquestionably the greatest of these and a major stylist by almost anyone’s reckoning, was the influential poetry editor of The Dial and, in her twilight years, became something of a media celebrity, sought out by the Ford Motor Company to assist in naming a new car (which, alas, ended up as the Edsel!) and, on another occasion, trading rhymes over lunch with Cassius Clay. All three of these poets were born in the 19th century; despite their influence, the next generation, those born roughly between the turn of the century and 1930, did not come close to reaching the same heights. If we are to take the eleven poets of this century treated in the PBS Voices & Visions series as representing the accepted canon, then only Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) measures up.
But these were by no means all of the women poets on the scene. A second group, predominantly lyrical in their mode of expression, had even higher visibility, fulfilling in more traditional manner the public expectations of the role. Edna St. Vincent Millay, the quintessential Greenwich Village Bohemian, soared to-the best-seller lists with slim volumes of sonnets marrying conservative technique to the ethos of what used to be called the New Woman. Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale, Léonie Adams, and Gene Derwood (Mrs. Oscar Williams)—all little read today—reached a considerable public and surely inspired many an imitative sonnet penned by sensitive teenage girls in the hinterlands—Anne Sexton was one of them—whose only exposure to serious poetry came through popular magazines and anthologies edited by those two poetic Barnums, Williams and Louis Untermeyer. Read today, however, they seem decidedly lace-curtain, the last inheritors of the genteel Victorian traditions of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Only Millay still receives a grudging page or two in most modernist anthologies.
How much the role of the woman poet has changed, and in such a short span of time, might best be demonstrated by a bit of personal experience. Some fifteen years ago I participated in an informal group of six or seven poets that met monthly in the living room of one of the members. I suppose that the group did not differ much from hundreds like it; the members would distribute copies of their poems, read them aloud, and then, between the passing of onion dip and the pouring of wine, discuss their strengths and weaknesses. The workshop-cum-group-therapy approach to everything, from psychotherapy to poetry, has become a commonplace in contemporary American society, and it is rare to encounter an adult who is not a past or present member of some kind of support group.
This group, however, was far from unsophisticated; one member was a retired professor of creative writing who had recently produced a chapbook, and all of the other members have gone on to publish either individual collections of poetry or substantial numbers of poems in periodicals. The group was also fairly well balanced by age, gender, and (insofar as I can judge) sexual preference and contained at least one bona fide member of a minority group. I mention all this merely to underline the significance of an exchange that occurred at one of the meetings, an incident that reveals much about the directions that poetry by women has taken in recent years.
One of the members had written a poem that contained in the title the word “poetess,” apparently used without irony. The other members made some comments on such matters as line-breaks and punctuation, but no one, male or female, mentioned “poetess” until I suggested to the author that he was likely to give offense in certain circles if he used it, that, in fact, he would be lucky to escape alive. I held no particular case for or against the word per se—is “actress” any worse?—and as far as I was concerned it summoned up only the faintly ridiculous specter of some pale young thing dressed in black declaiming breathless quatrains to the moon—the female equivalent of Ernie Kovacs’ “Percy Dovetonsils.” On the other hand, several women academics of my acquaintance had recently made it clear that they considered the term not only quaint but sexist as well. My friend seemed genuinely surprised to be told this, and even the women in the group seemed to have no strong feelings on the subject, a reaction it is almost impossible to imagine today.
When, exactly, did women poets stop thinking of themselves as poetesses? Or did they ever? My edition of the OED contains one citation that is anything but pejorative: “Among the ancients Sappho . . . was called ‘the poetess,’ as Homer was called ‘the poet.'” Nevertheless, most of the examples in Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage mention its history of giving offense, with one commentator noting its “suggestion of tepid and insipid achievement” and another its connection with “female ghetto poetry.” Interestingly, one of the last notable uses of the word occurs in the Voices & Visions segment on Sylvia Plath, when she speaks in an interview of Anne Sexton as “the American poetess . . . who writes about her experience as a mother . . . who has had a nervous breakdown.” At other times, Plath mentioned her own desires to become “the Poetess of America,” which is perhaps to say that she felt herself to be in serious competition only with other women poets, the most prominent of whom she referred to as that “little, round and stumpy” Adrienne Cecile Rich.
Since Plath and Sexton are the twin cornerstones upon which contemporary American women’s poetry has been built, we must gauge their reputations carefully. Measured solely by the effect of their careers on other writers and on the course of literary history, they must be ranked among the most influential artists of the century. Yet theirs is an influence that rests more on the iconic significance of their lives than on the intrinsic value of the work they produced. Less than thirty years after Plath’s suicide in 1963, five book-length biographical works and an even greater number of critical studies have appeared. Sexton, who killed herself in 1974, has spawned a like amount of criticism, and Diane Wood Middlebrook’s recent biography has produced as much controversy as any similar recent study of a politician or celebrity in its reliance on material that has traditionally been off limits to the biographer. In the popular mind, at least, Plath and Sexton are forever linked as the two most important female members of the so-called confessional school of poetry.
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton met in the spring of 1959 when they both participated in a creative writing seminar run by Robert Lowell at Boston University. On several occasions they shared cocktails after class, where, as Sexton characteristically put it, they “would talk at length about our first suicides.” Thereafter, they corresponded from time to time, exchanging poems and news, and, after .Plath’s death. Sexton published a rather self-serving elegy addressed to her (“Thief!—/ how did you crawl into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long.”) in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of 1966, Live or Die. But beyond this acquaintance, they shared few similarities either in their lives or in their poetry.
When they met, Plath, with degrees from Smith and Cambridge, was a driven perfectionist who had been consciously preparing herself for a literary career since her early teens. Married to British poet Ted Hughes (now Poet Laureate), she strove to excel in several roles—poet, wife, mother-to-be—and, in many ways, seemed the embodiment of the all-American overachiever, the grown-up version of the little girl who always has her homework. Sexton, on the other hand, was a middle-class housewife with a history of emotional problems who had recently begun writing poetry on the advice of her psychiatrist. Lacking an adequate formal education, she was a poetic autodidact whose talents did not find expression until she had two daughters and was nearing the end of her 20’s. Plath, living in England with only one volume of poetry and a pseudonymous novel published during her life, had barely begun to reach her public when she killed herself at 30, whereas Sexton, with major prizes, honorary degrees, and seven volumes of verse published by the time of her death, tasted about as much celebrity as America is likely to lavish on a poet. Plath’s suicide was long premeditated—she had failed in one attempt, treated as fiction in The Bell Jar, during the summer after her junior year in college—and was probably spurred by the stresses wrought by a marital separation, the demands of two small children, and a host of physical and psychological ills. Sexton, her children grown and her long marriage ended at her own instigation, was addicted to alcohol and pills and seemed a burnt-out case many years before her actual death. The likelihood was small, given the negative critical response to her volumes after Live or Die, that she would ever again write at her best.
The first biographical study of Plath was A. Alvarez’s memoir in his best-selling 1971 study of writers and suicide, The Savage God, published the same year as the first American edition of The Bell Jar. Five years later appeared Edward Butscher’s full-length biography, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, the first of five books on Plath that were to meet with varying degrees of resistance from her estate, which was controlled by her husband and his sister, Olwyn Hughes. Because of opposition from the estate, Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography of 1987 is almost devoid of quotations from Plath’s published writing, as are two further studies published in 1991, Ronald Hayman’s The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath.
To this date, the only biography to have the full cooperation of the Hughes family is Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, which credits Olwyn Hughes to the degree that Stevenson calls it “almost a work of dual authorship.” Because Stevenson had permission to quote at will. Bitter Fame is the only one of these books to integrate fully Plath’s poetry with the parallel events she notes in her journal and in her letters to her mother, both of which have appeared in selected editions. Depending on the reader’s predisposition to view Plath as either a hapless victim of a ruthlessly dominating husband or as an incarnation of a first-class bitch-goddess, one can find a Sylvia for almost any occasion in these books. Butscher’s book focuses on Plath’s childhood and on the trauma of her father’s death when she was eight, an event that Butscher regards as the key to understanding both her life and her poetry. “Daddy,” of course, is her best-known poem, and even though little in it can be taken as fact it provides us with insight into the way in which Plath equated her husband’s abandonment of her with the crushing loss she experienced in her childhood. Wagner-Martin, on the other hand, gives us a proto-feminist Sylvia, one who might have survived if only she had been able to find a nurturing sisterhood to give her aid and comfort during her year of the pig. In Wagner-Martin’s view, the tone of Plath’s poetry is not so much irrational wrath as righteous indignation. Anne Stevenson’s Sylvia, by several lengths the juiciest portrait of the five, is an obsessive termagant, constantly demanding the full attention and ardor of her exasperated, compliant husband and throwing embarrassing little suits when she does not get her way. Stevenson appends three short memoirs by acquaintances of Plath—Lucas Meyers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy—and they go a long way toward displacing what Stevenson labels as two misconceived views of her life and character: one that sees her, in W.S. Merwin’s words, as “the pathetic victim of [Ted Hughes’] heartless mistreatment” and another, which wishes to “assess her contribution to the feminist movement as being politically of the same order as that, say, of Adrienne Rich.” Depending on which version one reads, either St. Sylvia or St. Ted emerges as the protagonist of the mystery play.
The two studies of Plath that appeared in 1991 do not add much in the way of substance to this twisted hagiography. Hayman’s book, in its very tide, tells us where his true fascination with the subject rests, and the result reads like one of those Jim Bishop The Day . . . Died books. Hayman refers to a mysterious man in a dark suit who appears at the inquest following Plath’s suicide and even assigns sinister motives to such trivial matters as Ted Hughes’ errors in dating poems by Plath that have appeared in her posthumous collections. Alexander’s Rough Magic is the New Age version, replete with portentous tarot readings, creepy Ouija sessions at home with Sylvia and Ted, and the implication that the abusive (in this version) Hughes’ penchant for posthypnotic suggestion might have led to Plath’s suicide. All these books lack is a bloody finger pointing to possible CIA involvement in Plath’s death; I would not be terribly surprised to hear that Hayman’s and Alexander’s books have been optioned by Oliver Stone for Sylvia, a bio-pic starring Meryl Streep and Mel Gibson; or that yet one more “definitive” biography is in the works, this one by Kitty Kelley.
Neither Anne Sexton’s poetry nor her life is likely to draw this level of attention. Her poetry, which is generally more accessible than Plath’s dense texture of sonic richness, mythical allusions, and autobiographical subtext, does not demand a great deal of exegesis and often borrows shamelessly from other poets, including Plath. Compare “My cheeks blossomed with maggots. / I picked at them like pearls” from Live or Die with Plath’s “They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” from the earlier Ariel. Because Sexton is so relentlessly autobiographical—”confessional,” in the most plebeian sense of the term—there is not a great deal of mystery about the sources of her poems, even though a biography may salve the reader’s curiosity by filling in names and dates. Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton does a great deal of that but otherwise can never quite transcend the fundamentally dreary suburban routine of cocktails at five and fisticuffs by eight—no matter how often punctuated by hectic and boozy reading tours, numerous short-term affairs and subsequent nervous collapses, and fleeting moments of acclaim—that emerges as the dominant chord in Sexton’s marital life.
The controversy surrounding the book’s two most startling revelations, that Sexton’s psychiatrist allowed tape recordings of her therapy sessions to be used by the biographer and that Sexton was both victim and instigator of episodes of incest, seems mostly a publisher’s ploy to build sales on Geraldo-style sensationalism. To my knowledge, no literary biographer has ever made use of intimate medical information in this way, but it seems doubtful that Sexton would have wished it suppressed, or at least that is the view of her daughter Linda Gray Sexton, who is also her literary executor. Since Sexton originally saw her poetry as an extension of her therapy sessions and never, to my mind, was able to distance and mythologize herself as Plath did, there is not that much difference between the content of the tapes and that of her poetry. As far as the incest question goes, Middlebrook relies, either naively or disingenuously, on Sexton’s own vague and contradictory stories of childhood cuddling at bedtime with Nana, a great aunt, and on some hazily remembered (“Only later did Linda realize . . .”) episodes related by Sexton’s elder daughter. The latter charges, according to Linda Gray Sexton’s own account, surfaced only when Middlebrook was writing about Mercy Street, a Sexton play about incest: “If I didn’t tell her about this, I would be doing her a disservice.” The claim that Sexton herself had been a childhood incest victim, however, raised the ire of two cousins, who defended Nana in an angry letter to the New York Times Book Review. Sexton, they claimed, was notoriously untruthful in almost every aspect of her life and had such a flair for self-dramatization that one could not rely on her version of almost any event. This view, I must add, jibes closely with that of several of her acquaintances, who have told me that she simply could not be trusted to know the difference between truth and fantasy. Middlebrook, much too eager to portray Sexton as a victim, seems to take too many of her statements without the necessary block of salt.
How influential have the lives of these poets been? Very. A generation of very young women poets has now grown up with Plath and Sexton looming large in the post-modernist canon; it should surprise no one that these poets have assimilated their elders as thoroughly as their mothers and grandmothers might have absorbed Teasdale and Millay. I am looking at the contributors’ notes in the most recent issue of Pulse, Lamar University’s literary magazine, and I note that Stacy Lynette Dickey, a freshman, lists Sylvia Plath as her favorite writer. Here, quoted with her permission, is her poem “I Carved Your Crutches”:
I carved your crutches today With the sharpness of my hands; Split and cut the wood perfectly To your height So you won’t have to adjust them The splinters inserted themselves inside my tender flesh as redness trickled down my hands,
across my wrists,
and changed the whiteness of my shirt
I think my tweezers did the trick,
The soreness escaped my skin
I only hope the wood is dry,
so you don’t stain your clothes.
The apostrophe to the unfeeling other, the notion of the poem as failed gift or tribute (compare “The Colossus”), the references to deformity, the focus on self-inflicted physical pain—these are the touchstones of Plath’s poetry. If this is a love poem (and I think it is) it is love among the ruins of the Western lyrical tradition. Without the long shadow of Sylvia Plath, Ms. Dickey’s poem might have well been yet another variation on the theme of “Love is not all; it is not meat and drink.”
In 1972, responding to a-question in an interview about the differences between poetry by male and female students, Richard Wilbur observed that in his own student days “poetry was associated by some with effeminacy” and that some male poets overstressed their masculinity to reassure both their public and themselves. “There’s none of that any more. I’m very sure it’s possible to distinguish between male and female sensibilities—but I should think that there’s now no subject matter that you would expect to find in a man’s book but not in a woman’s.” What Wilbur, or no one for that matter, could have foreseen is the degree to which women have rejected their own brand of “effeminacy,” that is, the high-toned lyricism of the poetesses of their grandparents’ era. One can scarce imagine a male poet writing a poem about how he and his three-year-old son compare the size and shape of their sexual organs, but that is exactly what Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove does in a poem from her recent collection Grace Notes. Would a male poet dare to write about the joys of [censored]? Read “Love in Blood Time” in Sharon Olds’s The Gold Cell. Would an otherwise straight male poet risk ridicule by writing an extended narrative graphically describing a sexual encounter with a partner of the same sex? Carolyn Forche does, in a book that won the Yale Younger Poets award. With titles like “Menstruation at Forty,” “In Praise of My Uterus,” or “Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” Anne Sexton showed the way to a whole generation of women poets. “If Anne had stuck around another ten years,” said an admiring Erica Jong, “the world might have caught up with her.” Whether Robert Ely will lead a new revolution in poetry by men is yet to be seen, but thus far male poets have largely feared to tread where Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and their followers have been walking for years.