We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Carnival of Feminists and Anthologies · 23 June 06

Dear Harriet,

Imagine my delight when I read in Yvette’s journal that I had made the Carnival of Feminists for a third time! The readers over there liked my Women’s faery poetry. Encouraged by this inclusion and praise, I thought I’d ignore the lightning and thunder going on in this hot June night at midnight (which may result in an electricity outage at any moment), and go on to write to you about two anthologies of women’s poetry I read this past week.

On Wompo a few (more than two) members came onto the list and said how they cherished the first collection. Its full title is Contemporary American Women Poets, the editor, Tooni Gordi. It’s "Issued under the Auspices of THE SPINNERS, A Bi-Monthly of Women’s Verse. At the bottom: "None of These Poems Has Appeared in Any Anthology." The publisher was Henry Harrison, Poetry Publisher, 430 Sixth Avenue, NYC.

I noticed an oddity as the way it was cited had two different titles—and two different editors. When I went online to look into the book, I discovered (as is common for most books) the descriptions offered by the booksellers were so vague as to be useless, and it seemed there were two books. I bought the cheaper one, only to discover later (through emails on Wompo), there had been a first edition of this book (around 300 odd pages), and it had been successful enough (I don’t know the criteria for success) that a second one twice the size was published. I never did discover if the second edition was the one cherished or the first.

At any rate, when it arrived, I had in my hand a copy of the first edition, an aging beat-up book. The paper is cheap, but the binding strong. It’s a dark ugly blue. Very wide pages. The most minimal of introductions, and in the back the poets named in an index and where their poems are placed under their names in the index. The poems are not arranged by poet, nor can I see any themes that link them. Perhaps the editor herself arranged them according to some personal criteria now lost to us.

So here is a labor of love by an editor who worked for a magazine long ago defunct.

In the introduction the usual unnecessary defense is that women are simply left out of all the published anthologies except for the tiniest number and here are poems by 1311 living poets. (Men don’t defend themselves for producing anthologies of all male writers or male writers with one or two women.)

For a poem to get in the poet had to be alive. Dismayingly too even in this short piece the editor feels it necessary to refute the latest sneer of someone in a journal also long forgotten, and we hear about "honorable" men of "integrity" and "innate nobility" (really) who honestly believe women’s poetry inferior, and to Edith Sitwell’s comment women lack the physique to write greatly (get that), Max Eastman’s replay, the "problem" is women "lack tenacity of ambition. They do not care enough about being great poets." Again as in the 19th century when women didn’t go out to work since they wouldn’t own their income or control it, why be tenacious of ambition if your art is regarded as "biodegradable1". I’m afraid the physical nature of this book brings that word to mind.

I really began to be curious, though I admit when I saw so many poems squeezed on each page, all helterskelter in arrangement it seemed, I thought it will be historically interesting but filled with maudlin poetry.

Historically interesting it is, but the poems are splendid, moving,
very great. I mean it. Poem after poem is astonishingly good. Yes a few duds here and there. One embarrassingly bad because it makes transparent a stance relentlessly determined to despise anyone who is not religious or idealistic and determined to live life in terms of sentiment or just plain "gush" (but remember Armstrong on the fiercely laconic).

Many poems in this volume are fiercely laconic. There is hardly any satire; some are about politics, but to a woman they are all fiercely against the war coming up. This is 1937 and the atmosphere is darker than our own today—bad as it is with the sadistic Bush and his delusional thugs in charge.

The book does reflect the era and also how women were regarded. In the introduction there is stated as if it were simple truth that men are concerned with politics and war and commerce and women are not (really a close restatement of Anne Elliot’s comment long ago in Persuasion). Clearly women die and are very concerned. They have no power over these things that are inflicted on them is what should have been said and might be today.

They are mostly openly emotional, many lyric. They conform to l’ecriture-femme, but that’s but one aspect of them. And only one poet among them all is known today.

I sent but one, a sonnet, to my friends on WWTTA:


         (Dark walkers, ghosts, a Navajo superstition)

Shun the steep mesa where the sun has beat
Upon the yellow tufa till it burns,
And seek no footholds worn by vanished feet
On ledges where the rock-trail climbs and turns;
For in the cool of blackened caves one sees
Disjointed bones beside a broken bowl,
A man’s scattered trinkets that he won or stole,
Now bear away with you no single bead,
Nor pause a curious moment to remark
The serpent symbols of the painted screed,
But flee the evil walkers-in-the-dark.
Else nightly wake to serpent eyes a-gleam,
Your cold limbs shuddering at the tchindi dream

        by Margaret R. Richter

The chindi is a ghost of a dead person, somehow connected to a child, a revenant who is malevolent and returns to avenge some offense. So we may link the above poem, typical of this 1937 anthology to a very popular genre (for readers and writers) for women from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century, the ghost story. Here’s a late 19th century picture which is an equivalent of the kind of surface pictures women create in ghost stories, whether of the 19th century or imitating them:

Marie Konstantinovna Bashkirtseff (c. 1858 – 1884), The Umbrella

So this sonnet roots itself in the imaginative terrain of ghost stories—a genre women often turn to.

And thus far only one poet among them all is known today: Muriel Rukeyser who was 21 when she wrote the magnificent few that appear here. Poet after poet did not appear anywhere in the various databases of information about writing I have available to me from GMU. These databases often include the most minor of prose writers.

Meanwhile over on Wompo the people appear to be excited since this year the Poet Laureate chosen was someone called Lucille Clifton when they fully expected Adrienne Rich. Someone said she could not be chosen for her poltics are so openly liberal (how about decent, humane) and she is an unashamed feminist. Oh dear. Militant too. And poems about women’s lives very prosaically and truthfully. She’s an open lesbian too. Someone said Carolyn Kizer was once poet laureate, but an official list of poet laureates omitted her name.

I wrote on ECW that the process of winnowing out the best from the lesser and bad has not begun for 18th century drama; it has hardly begun for women. Germaine Greer in her TLS column on how women’s writing has been treated as biodegradable art is right1: women’s poetry is just dismissed by those who count (men and their complicit or coopted women). So who would bother pay sufficient attention to distinguish the good from bad, and keep printing the good.


This good poem comes from the second anthology of women’s poetry I dipped into this past week:

But He Says I Misunderstood

by Alice Notley

He & I had a fight in a pub
5 scotch on the rocks 1 beer I remember
only that he said, "No women poets are any
good, if you want it
Straight, because they don’t handle money" and
"Poe is greater than Dickinson"
Well that latter is an outright and fucking untruth

6-line stanzas

Open though some?
And he forgot to put my name on our checks
He went to get the checks however
He had the checks to deposit in his name
He’s older & successfuller & teaches because
When you’re older you don’t want to
scrounge for money besides it gives him
a thrill he doesn’t too much acknowledge,
O Power!

So I got pregnant
I hope not last night now
I’m a slave, well mildly, to a baby
Though I could teach English A or
type no bigshot (mildly) poet-in-residence like him
Get a babysitter never more write any good poems
Or, just to
Scrounge it out, leave him. All I can say is

This poem is in the Mainstream American Tradition.

         (from Incidentals in the Day World, 1973)

The anthology was published in 1998, and its title is Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women; the editor is Mary Margaret Sloan, and the publisher Talisman in Jersey City, New Jersey. Most of the women in it that I’ve looked up in the Literature Resource Center at the GMU databases are in there.

I won’t buy it because at least 1/3 is to me unreadable, or maybe I should put it I don’t have the patience to read it. Many of the "poems" are put in such non-traditional configurations, and are presented so incoherently, they look to my eyes incoherent—as they rarely have stories. They come with designs on the page, & various marks (lines, dots, squiggles); they are placed sideways or at odd angles. It reminds me of when I went into the Tate or go to the Modern Museum in NYC and see what’s called performance art on films or huge mechanical things sprawled on the floor and am told it’s art. The latter leaves me cold and bored; these poems look solipsistic and self-indulgent (like the 2nd half of Ulysses or all Finnegans Wake). I can’t read Ginsburg’s Howl.

At the back are essays by some of the poets & feminist essayists. Some are coherent, particularly one by Alice Notley where she argues (I think persuasively) that the center of literary tradition, Homer, and all the descendents in epic and poetry are male-oriented and male-dominated stories where women are things. She inveighs against the attempt by women to re-draw or re-see these figures as she says they are so unreal and exist as figments to flatter and fit into men’s universes. Really it’s an argument remade from the one we find in A Room Of One’s Own. Mocking these figures doesn’t help (say Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife—no poetry by Duffy here as the volume is all American) as they in themselves (everything about them, the circumstances, descriptions) simply internalize male privileges and interests as unchanging universals.

I know no one will probably ever explain to me why women read male oriented 19th century literature, immerse their minds in it when it is at even its most misogynist. I sometimes think the argument is you can’t ignore it (I’ve seen the same argument for trying to rationalize the Bible or argue with stupid arguments taken from it), but then in your private time no one is really paying attention or forcing you.

It might seem that this Moving Borders is a liberated anthology at long last. When I started to look at the women’s lives, I saw no such thing. Alice Notley is the ex-wife of Ted Berrigan, a much more successful writer. He has had the high university positions (and she didn’t), many awards (and she didn’t) and his contacts help her. Since Jim and I own so many books, some of them carelessly picked up at library book sales, we have a book of poems by Berrigan. We have nothing by Notley and I never head of her before.

For such a fat book as Moving Borders is, there are far far fewer poets than in the 1937 volume so this next statement is anecdotal. I looked up several lives and found repeatedly versions of Georgia O’Keefe’s story and what Germaine Greer says was typical of women artists: the woman is making her way through her connection (sexual and familial) with a man or family group (which mostly comes down to the same thing) with connections and fame or authority or money.

I do like Notley’s poem very much and should say that while the poems in the 1937 volume coulc be ridiculed for their open emotionalism and do not tell the literal circumstances (prosaic) that make for misery and lives and reality, Moving Borders’s poems really do. We see this in Notley. No more masks. Insofar as these women in Moving Borders can (well the ones I can read), they have no veiled imagery.

From all the poets I read I bought one book, an older collected verse volume by Lorine Neidecker. She reminded me of Basil Bunting: she was relentlessly honest, not for sale, not even for rent. I will try to devote a Tuesday on WWTTA in future to her. She did end sadly—very poor and alone.

Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (1878 – 1942) Windy Doorstep


1 See Germaine Greer, "A biodegradable art," Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 1995.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Joyce on Wompo:

    "Thank you Ellen for going on in depth about this book. Mostly you’ve said what I wished I had time to say. And the poem you chose—It was my next choice for presenting on FF (but for time, time). I found it so lovely, and so forlornly forgotten. Well, forlornly is maybe over the top…

    Congratulations on your acquisition.

    chava    Jun 23, 5:36pm    #
  2. From Fran on WWTTA:

    Thank you for the poem, Ellen, that anthology sounds fascinating.

    If you were more of detective or sci-fi fan you would probably have come across chindi legends by now, as they’ve become quite a popular ingredient.

    Here’s a link to a little background, though I wouldn’t vouch for its total accuracy – from what I’ve read elsewhere, for example, a skinwalker is not a type of chindi, more a shape-shifting shaman, though definitely bad news, too:))


    Sylvia    Jun 23, 5:38pm    #
  3. From Wompo:


    I love The Descent of Alette, especially because in it I think Notely takes up her own gauntlet from the essay in Moving Borders: she reclaims narrative (epic, at that), but, rather than being imagined and spoken for, the female archetype imagines and speaks for herself.


    Ellen, et al.

    I second The Descent as well as an older book (Vehicle Editions; hard to find) and Close to Me and Closer (O Books). Mysteries of Small Houses is also a beaut. That and Descent should be easy to find.

    Happy reading!—Hadara

    I’ll third and fourth Notley’s Descent of Alette(Penguin.) (A collected works is due out this fall from Wesleyan, I believe.) Add Disobedience, for all its feist and sarcastic anger and authenticity – "a poet’s life as a woman in France, turning fifty," as the book jacket notes.. She’s won the LA Times Book Prize for poetry, the Shelly Memorial, Academy Awd from Academ of Arts & Letters, was a finalist for the Pulitzer …

    [& Ellen – she’s by no means known only by her poet husband(s). There were two – both now departed – Ted Berrigan (whose collected she recently edited,) and Douglas Oliver.]

    her bio notes "she has never tried to be anything but a poet." I personally love that line. :)

    Sylvia    Jun 23, 5:41pm    #
  4. You note that the mood in 1937 was darker than in our own day, and I don’t doubt that, at least here in the U.S. where there is so much denial. How long will it take for people to recognize what global warming will do to us? Why aren’t people everywhere organizing protests against government inaction?
    bob    Jun 25, 10:12pm    #
  5. Bob,

    Most people only see and care about what affects them directly, and the technologies of our existence and the sorts of jobs they do insulated them more.

    I feel that in the later 1930s it seemed to these American women the war was about to affect them directly.

    Sylvia    Jun 26, 12:38am    #
  6. Re-reading your entry as I usually do, I want to say how engaging it is to read. But your reference to Lucille Clifton confuses me. She was poet laureate around 1980, a stylistically ground-breaking poet who used ordinary language intensely, an African American who wrote about women’s issues as well as race. I don’t know why anyone on Wompo would object to her.
    bob    Jun 26, 9:34pm    #
  7. Dear Bob,

    This shows how out of it (the world) I can be. I thought they were talking about this year's poet laureate, and didn't know Lucille Clifton is African-American.

    They objected to Adrienne Rich not getting or never having gotten the prize. In my view she’s written some of the greatest poems of the 20th century, as good and better than anything Eliot (to take a comparative male figure) wrote. However, she’s overtly political and radical and probably that’s why she was not awarded the prize ever.

    Among men, my favorite 20th century poets include Anthony Hecht, William Empson and Robert Graves (for a few startlingly great ones), John Hollander. I have favorite translators too: e.g., Allen Mandelbaum’s Virgil and Dante and Salvatore Quasimodo (he won the Nobel Prize sometime early in the 20th century).

    I agree with Jim though (and have written about this on this blog) that we should talk of great poems and not fetishicize individuals or "rate" them too seriously. It leads to silly talk.

    Sylvia    Jun 27, 6:39am    #

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