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

Poetry and a Picture: Virginia Woolf · 10 October 06

Dear Harriet,

We’ve been having such a good time on WWTTA (Women Writers Through the Ages @ Yahoo) all summer and now into autumn reading Virginia Woolf.

The last two weeks Judy Geater has contributed poems to Woolf. Last week a short perhaps unfinished poem (a work in progress which appeared on authorsden.com) by Nicky Goodman:

Virginia Woolf

One stone in your pocket must have been for Vita,
the one you dance through a century of leaves,
falling for her, waiting in the mud-grass of home.
Did someone call you a Pointillist writer, each ball
of light weighed in mass? I am afraid they painted
impressions of you, pointless really, flecks left out;
Mrs Dalloway without Sackville-West, too much
amber filter on the banks of the river, too little red.

by Nicky Goodman

Judy thought the poem Goodman sad and about Woolf’s drowning,
and Fran liked it for "what it had to say on the patchiness and one-sidedness of the passionless/passionate Woolf debate. I liked the lines "I am afraid they painted/impressions of you, pointless really, flecks left out …"

And this week a long one by a Canadian poet, Bronwen Wallace, who died in 1989.

A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf

This started out as a simple poem
for Virginia Woolf you know the kind
we women writers write these days
in our own rooms
on our own time
a salute a gesture of friendship
a psychological debt
paid off
I wanted it simple
and perfect round
hard as an
egg I thought
only once I’d said egg
I thought of the smell
of bacon grease and dirty frying-pans
and whether there were enough for breakfast
I couldn’t help it
I wanted the poem to be carefree and easy
like children playing in the snow
I didn’t mean to mention
the price of snowsuits or
how even on the most expensive ones
the zippers always snag
just when you’re late for work
and trying to get the children
off to school on time
a straightforward poem
for Virginia Woolf that’s all
I wanted really
not something tangled in
domestic life the way
Jane Austen’s novels tangled
with her knitting her embroidery
whatever it was she hid them under
I didn’t mean to go into all that
didn’t intend to get confessional
and tell you how
every time I read a good poem
by a woman writer I’m always peeking
behind it trying to see
if she’s still married
or has a lover at least
wanted to know what she did
with her kids while she wrote it
or whether she had any
and if she didn’t if she’d chosen
not to or if she did did she
choose and why I didn’t mean
to bother with that
and I certainly wasn’t going
to tell you about the time
my best friend was sick in intensive care
and I went down to see her
but they wouldn’t let me in
because I wasn’t her husband
or her father her mother
I wasn’t family
I was just her friend
and the friendship of women
wasn’t mentioned
in hospital policy
or how I went out and kicked
a dent in the fender of my car
and sat there crying because
if she died I wouldn’t be able
to tell her how much I loved her
(though she didn’t and we laugh
about it now) but that’s what got me
started I suppose wanting to write
a gesture of friendship
for a woman for a woman writer
for Virginia Woolf
and thinking I could do it
easily separating the words
from the lives they come from
that’s what a good poem should do
after all and I wasn’t going to make excuses
for being a woman blaming years of silence
for leaving us
so much to say

This started out as a simple poem
for Virginia Woolf
it wasn’t going to mention history
or choices or women’s lives
the complexities of women’s friendships
or the countless gritty details
of an ordinary woman’s life
that never appear in poems at all
yet even as I write these words
those ordinary details intervene
between the poem I meant to write
and this one where the delicate faces
of my children faces of friends
of women I have never even seen
glow on the blank pages
and deeper than any silence
press around me
waiting their turn

by Bronwen Wallace

Of Bronwen Wallace’s poem Judy thought "the last part of the poem is the best, where it starts to talk about the things which haven’t changed since A Room of One’s Own." I thought it glorious in its simplicity. I am glad Wallace named Jane Austen too.

In case we hadn’t heard of Bronwen Wallace, Judy found a mini biography of Wallace on Wikipedia:

Bronwen Wallace (26 May 1945 ­ 25 August 1989) was a Canadian poet and short story writer. Wallace was born in Kingston, Ontario. She attended Queen’s University, Kingston (B.A. 1967, M.A. 1969). In 1970, she moved to Windsor, Ontario, where she founded a women’s bookstore and became active in working class and women’s activist groups. In 1977, she returned to Kingston, where she worked at a women’s shelter and taught at St. Lawrence College and Queen’s. She wrote a weekly column
for the Kingston Whig-Standard. In 1988, at the University of Ontario she was a writer-in-residence. Her collections testify to her social activism involving women’s rights, civil rights, and social policy. A primary focus of her work was violence against women and children.

In a series of letters published in 1994 as Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987, Wallace and poet Erin Mouré discuss feminist theory. Mouré defends the language philosophers (particularly Wittgenstein) who demonstrate that our speech, and the concepts expressible in language, governs our knowledge and actions. However, Wallace disagreed that language-centred writing rescues women from the patriarchy, claiming that it can be easily co-opted by patriarchs. Society’s use of politically correc language bears this out. Wallace believed that by engaging her readers in the issues of violence, she could provoke change in the reader and hence in society.

Wallace died of cancer in 1989. Her first and only published
collection of short stories, People You’d Trust Your Life To, was
published posthumously in 1990. The Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award, funded by friends of the poet and the Writers’ Trust of Canada, is an annual prize given to a young, promising poet or fiction writer who is under the age of 35 and unpublished.

Today Fran also posted about Edna O’Brien, who wrote a play called Virginia, and about Woolf’s chequered life, art and working habits:

"The youngest daughter of a dogmatic, Victorian father, Leslie Stephens, she lost her mother, her brother, and her half-sister while still young and these deaths made terrible breaches on her psyche … In recent times she has become a legend and like all legends she is both adored and reviled. Many who take their raucous or partial stance in the vilification of her have not always gone to great pains to read her … Tragic [her life] was, but it was also rich, dauntless and exhilarating; and her march toward suicide, which entailed walking across meadows in Sussex and bidding good day to farmers that she passed, was both brave and devoid of self-pity.

Her (Woolf’s) method was to take moments and split them into a myriad of sensations, finding, or searching for all their several and separate components just as a scientist might split and examine an atom. The breaking down of the whole in order to reach the essential was the obsession of this woman who so dreaded emptiness that she felt guilty if she did not fill in her diary each day along with conceiving her prose.

With regard to her writing, Virginia certainly never learned to practice equanimity. Like most professional writers, if she was well, she went into her room and sat down to write her novel with the daily regularity of a stockbroker who commutes every day between his house in the suburbs and his office …"

Later this week I’ll send along another poem, one I’ve recently put on the list, "The Hours" by Mark Doty, on watching the filming of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (a rewrite of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway whose working title was "the hours").

In the meantime I’ll close with a poem appropriate to Wallace’s poem, one which makes me think of Woolf writing as well as her many images of lonely, aging, powerless and often money-poor women, e.g., in The Years the poignant discarded servant, Crosbie: Vanessa Bell’s Interior, with Housemaid:



Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I was just thinking, some of the people who comment on your blog are friends that you met on the internet, and others are friends that you met in person. So, which one am I?

    I’m a friend from the internet, because I communicate with you from the internet, and the internet is how we became friends. But I met you in person, so that makes me an in person friend, and I think the fact that your daughter is my in person friend means that you can be considered an in person friend, too.
    Jennica    Oct 12, 10:52pm    #
  2. Dear Jennica,

    You are both, and all three. I met you first on the Net when you began to respond to my blog. Then I met you in person when I came to Sweet Briar. And I feel I know you because you lived with Yvette for a year.

    Every single one of the people who are my friends on this blog I met for the first time in cyberspace. I have met a number in person but most at the most 3 times, most more like 2. Only Angela R did I live with for 2 weeks.

    Sophie    Oct 12, 11:29pm    #
  3. Do you have in person friends who don’t comment on this blog?
    Jennica    Oct 13, 11:31am    #
  4. Yes. But it depends what you mean by friend whether I have any one who lives in Virginia. I have colleagues at GMU who probably would call me a friend but I’d say we are acquaintances. I could not call on them to help me; I do know a couple of adjuncts personally (women and around my age). None read this blog. I don’t know if they come to the Net often or not.

    I have a few old friends in New York City. Two I can name whom I’ve seen and corresponded with, and a couple more who would remember me. They were real deep friends at one time (say four altogether). They do not read this blog that I know of.

    Then I have a few people I’ve met a couple of times in person who are Net friends offlist and only read this blog on occasion and then rarely or don’t comment on it; some are the lurker type (they tend to be strongly reluctant to write in cyberspace and perhaps elsewhere too).

    And then quite a number of Net friends or perhaps acquaintance is the better term (but whom I've talked to for real or seriously at some point), and who don’t comment but who write me offlist. Sometimes I put their comments on the blog—always with their permission first.

    I have no genuine woman friend in Alexandria. I did at one time, a very good friend who was the mother of a girl who was for a while a good friend of Laura's. That's how we met: waiting for both children at ballet, and then Laura made a friend of Katie so I made a friend of Katie's mother. Mary Lee was her name and she was a great help. She found me a decent sitter for $1.00 an hour; she told me about a pool that was inexpensive and I and my children were eligible to join. Another shorter-lasting friendship happened the same way.

    A third friend I met at AU. She invited me to join a Literary Translator's Association. Then one day when she called and I told her that AU had taken let me go (taken the one section away from me I'd gotten during a riff), she suddenly turned cold and distant and dropped me on the phone. I was astonished. I was no longer an adjunct but to be an adjunct did not seem to me anything prestigious. She had herself stopped teaching at AU and so lost the adjunct position where I originally met her. Looking back and remembering how she told me she planned every second she was in the classroom and disliked teaching intensely, perhaps she was let go. But she knew the position is paid a derisory sum. To this day I remained puzzled. Perhaps she dropped me for some other reason. Her behavior did though seem to be a response to the news I had lost that job.

    Nowadays my best friends are people I email daily with on the Net or once a week and whom I’ve met several times. The funny thing is I’ve met my English friends more often than my American ones.

    I have one woman cousin who remembers me and who I remember and realize I have an abiding relationship with based on memories; we don’t exchange Xmas cards because she is blind. She did phone me on 9/11/01, and then I understood we had a bond and meaningful relationship. I had never forgotten her either. I've not seen her since I was 13. She is just my age. She is uneducated, not even a high school diploma and so probably would not get involved in the culture of the Net that I do.

    Sophie    Oct 13, 11:59am    #

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