What makes a feminist poet? Is she a feminist who is a poet, like Audre Lourde and Adrienne Rich? Not necessarily. When I looked up “feminist poets” on the Internet I found lists that included Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. As far as I know, neither of those women was ever associated with the feminist movement.
But here we fall into a philosophical argument: is it possible to be a feminist without identifying as one? I think it is. And nowhere is this more evident than in the case of poets who write for and about women. I’m not talking about hearts-and-flowers love poetry or sentimental paeans to motherhood. I’m talking about poetry that describes what it is really like to be a woman. The poet doesn’t have to be a feminist to get inside a woman’s heart, mind and soul and write about what she (or he) finds there.
So we find women on these lists who were never feminists, maybe didn’t even care about feminist issues, but who still were able to access the themes that define a woman’s life: sexuality, gender roles, position in society, relationships, marriage, motherhood, spirituality. Today I’m going to contrast two of my favorites who, although they came from different centuries, both had their fingers on the pulse of a woman’s heart.
The first is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a British poet who lived from 1806 to 1861. I call her a feminist poet even though she was an invalid for much of her life and, on the surface, didn’t accomplish much other than her poetry. She certainly wasn’t an activist of any kind, although she was interested in the world around her. Many people think of her as a Romantic, probably based mostly on her love poems such as the one we are all familiar with that starts: “How shall I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
Browning was married to the poet Robert Browning who wooed her from her invalid bed and talked her into eloping with him. (Her father later disowned her, as he did all of his children who married.) They went to live in Florence where she had their son at the age of 43. (She died when she was 55.) She may not have identified as a feminist, but she certainly “got it” about women in her society. At one point she wrote:
…and is it possible you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more. She had better subside into slavery and concubinage herself, I think…and take no rank among thinkers and speakers.
The second is Anne Sexton, an American poet who lived from 1928 to 1974. She, too, was a poet who didn’t have much, if anything, to do with feminism. Her poetry is often called “confessional.” She was a master at tearing out her own guts and displaying them on the page. Like Browning, she was married (1948-1973) and had children, but it was always her poetry which defined her. It may have saved her, too, for a while: she started to write at the urging of both her therapist and her spiritual advisor, but ultimately committed suicide at the age of 46.
Any woman (or man) who reads Sexton’s poetry can’t help but think more deeply about her themes: religious quest, transformation and dismantling of myth, the meanings of gender, inheritance and legacy, the search for fathers, mother-daughter relationships, sexual anxiety, madness and suicide, issues of female identity. She is, in a way, a spokesperson for issues that concern women. I doubt that she thought of herself that way; her poetry was very personal. But as I learned in writing class, it is often the individual experience that speaks to the general public; the personal is made political, as many feminists say.
The following poems illustrate the feel that these two poets had for the female experience. I chose them for what I see as their similarities, in spite of the fact that they were written over a hundred years apart.
Browning’s is from Sonnets of the Portuguese (written around 1845-46) and is titled simply “VI”:
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand / henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore / alone upon the threshold of my door / of individual life, I shall command / the uses of my soul, nor lift my hand / serenely in the sunshine as before, / without the sense of that which I forbore—/ thy touch upon the palm. The widest land / doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine / with pulses that beat double. What I do / and what I dream include thee, as the wine / must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue / God for myself, He hears that name of thine, / and sees within my eyes the tears of two.
This is an except from Sexton’s “The Touch” which was in Love Poems (published 1969):
For months my hand had been sealed off / in a tin box. Nothing was there but subway railings. / Perhaps it is bruised, I thought, / and that is why they have locked it up. / But when I looked in, it lay there quietly. / You could tell time by this, I thought, / like a clock, by its five knuckles / and the thin underground veins. / It lay there like an unconscious woman / fed by tubes she knew not of…
Then all became history. / Your hand found mine. / Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot. / Oh, my carpenter, / the fingers are rebuilt. / They dance with yours. / They dance in the attic and in Vienna. / My hand is alive all over America. / Not even death will stop it, / death shedding her blood. / Nothing will stop it, for this is the kingdom / and the kingdom come.