TCS: We Have Howled for It – Poetry by Women Who Don’t Write Like Men

Good Morning!

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Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning
a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.

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They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”

– Emily Dickinson

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I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by wedding planners, dieting, in shapewear . . .

– opening line of Howl, by Amy Newman


In the bad old days before the Second Wave of Feminism, smart women were told they “think like a man” – as if only men could make intelligent conversation – a subtle put-down disguised as a “compliment.” Women who were writers were frequently divided by masculine critics into two categories: “feminine” writers who were therefore automatically inferior to male writers, and women who “wrote like men,” and were therefore unnatural examples of their sex.

One of the tools of “Women’s Liberation” was journal-keeping, writing down one’s thoughts, experimenting with language. A number of women who became feminist writers and poets started this way. But feminist writing goes back a lot farther than the 1960s, or even the 1860s.

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Aphra Behn, one of the earliest English-language women writers to earn her living with her pen, wrote this poem in the 1600s about the Double Standard.


Love Armed

by Aphra Behn

Love in fantastic triumph sat,
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flow’d,
For whom fresh pains he did create,
And strange tyrannic power he shew’d;
From thy bright eyes he took his fire,
Which round about in sport he hurl’d;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the amorous world.

From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee;
Thus thou and I the God have arm’d,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor heart alone is harm’d,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free.


“Love Armed” from Selected Poems of Aphra Behn – Fyfield Books, 2003 edition

Aphra Behn (1640–1689), English author; as a young woman, she worked as an “intelligence gatherer” in the Netherlands for King Charles II, using the code name ‘Astrea.’  When the time came to return to England in 1666, her pleas for payment got no response, so she had to borrow the money to pay her fare. Back in England, the King and his underlings continued to ignore all her requests to be paid. By 1668, she was thrown in debtor’s prison. Since the prison did not provide food or much of anything else to the prisoners, most 17th century women in her situation wound up bartering their bodies for survival. But Aphra Behn launched her writing career while in the prison, and was on her way to becoming one of the most influential Restoration era playwrights, and a famous – and sometimes infamous – poet and novelist.

In 1677, she wrote in The Rover:

Pox of Poverty, it makes a Man a Slave,
Makes Wit and Honour sneak, my Soul grow
lean and rusty for want of credit.

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Carolyn Kizer was very much a writer of Feminism’s Second Wave, but she was also a student of history.


Pro Femina

by Carolyn Kizer

ONE

From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.
How unwomanly to discuss it! Like a noose or an albatross necktie
The clinical sobriquet hangs us: codpiece coveters.
Never mind these epithets; I myself have collected some honeys.
Juvenal set us apart in denouncing our vices
Which had grown, in part, from having been set apart:
Women abused their spouses, cuckolded them, even plotted
To poison them. Sensing, behind the violence of his manner—
“Think I’m crazy or drunk?”—his emotional stake in us,
As we forgive Strindberg and Nietzsche, we forgive all those
Who cannot forget us. We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it.

While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,
Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.
Some who sat quietly in the corner with their embroidery
Were Defarges, stabbing the wool with the names of their ancient
Oppressors, who ruled by the divine right of the male—
I’m impatient of interruptions! I’m aware there were millions
Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen,
Who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.
I’m not concerned with those cabbageheads, not truly feminine
But neutered by labor. I mean real women, like you and like me.

Freed in fact, not in custom, lifted from furrow and scullery,
Not obliged, now, to be the pot for the annual chicken,
Have we begun to arrive in time? With our well-known
Respect for life because it hurts so much to come out with it;
Disdainful of “sovereignty,” “national honor;” and other abstractions;
We can say, like the ancient Chinese to successive waves of invaders,
“Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance
In a more temperate climate.” Give us just a few decades
Of grace, to encourage the fine art of acquiescence
And we might save the race. Meanwhile, observe our creative chaos,
Flux, efflorescence—whatever you care to call it!

TWO

I take as my theme “The Independent Woman,”
Independent but maimed: observe the exigent neckties
Choking violet writers; the sad slacks of stipple-faced matrons;
Indigo intellectuals, crop-haired and callus-toed,
Cute spectacles, chewed cuticles, aced out by full-time beauties
In the race for a male. Retreating to drabness, bad manners,
And sleeping with manuscripts. Forgive our transgressions
Of old gallantries as we hitch in chairs, light our own cigarettes,
Not expecting your care, having forfeited it by trying to get even.

But we need dependency, cosseting, and well-treatment.
So do men sometimes. Why don’t they admit it?
We will be cows for a while, because babies howl for us,
Be kittens or bitches, who want to eat grass now and then
For the sake of our health. But the role of pastoral heroine
Is not permanent, Jack. We want to get back to the meeting.

Knitting booties and brows, tartars or termagants, ancient
Fertility symbols, chained to our cycle, released
Only in part by devices of hygiene and personal daintiness,
Strapped into our girdles, held down, yet uplifted by man’s
Ingenious constructions, holding coiffures in a breeze,
Hobbled and swathed in whimsy, tripping on feminine
Shoes with fool heels, losing our lipsticks, you, me,
In ephemeral stockings, clutching our handbags and packages.
Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking,
In need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware,
Keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces.
Look at man’s uniform drabness, his impersonal envelope!
Over chicken wrists or meek shoulders, a formal, hard-fibered assurance.
The drape of the male is designed to achieve self-forgetfulness.

So, Sister, forget yourself a few times and see where it gets you:
Up the creek, alone with your talent, sans everything else.
You can wait for the menopause, and catch up on your reading.
So primp, preen, prink, pluck, and prize your flesh,
All posturings! All ravishment! All sensibility!
Meanwhile, have you used your mind today?
What pomegranate raised you from the dead,
Springing, full-grown, from your own head, Athena?

THREE

I will speak about women of letters, for I’m in the racket.
Our biggest successes to date? Old maids to a woman.
And our saddest conspicuous failures? The married spinsters
On loan to the husbands they treated like surrogate fathers.
Think of that crew of self-pitiers, not-very-distant,
Who carried the torch for themselves and got first-degree burns.
Or the sad sonneteers, toast-and-teasdales we loved at thirteen;
Middle-aged virgins seducing the puerile anthologists
Through lust-of-the-mind; barbiturate-drenched Camilles
With continuous periods, murmuring softly on sofas
When poetry wasn’t a craft but a sickly effluvium,
The air thick with incense, musk, and emotional blackmail.

I suppose they reacted from an earlier womanly modesty
When too many girls were scabs to their stricken sisterhood,
Impugning our sex to stay in good with the men,
Commencing their insecure bluster. How they must have swaggered
When women themselves endorsed their own inferiority!
Vestals, vassals, and vessels, rolled into several,
They took notes in rolling syllabics, in careful journals,
Aiming to please a posterity that despises them.
But we’ll always have traitors who swear that a woman surrenders
Her Supreme Function, by equating Art with aggression
And failure with Femininity. Still, it’s just as unfair
To equate Art with Femininity, like a prettily packaged commodity
When we are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret:
Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.

But even with masculine dominance, we mares and mistresses
Produced some sleek saboteuses, making their cracks
Which the porridge-brained males of the day were too thick to perceive,
Mistaking young hornets for perfectly harmless bumblebees.
Being thought innocuous rouses some women to frenzy;
They try to be ugly by aping the ways of men
And succeed. Swearing, sucking cigars and scorching the bedspread,

Slopping straight shots, eyes blotted, vanity-blown
In the expectation of glory: she writes like a man!
This drives other women mad in a mist of chiffon.
(One poetess draped her gauze over red flannels, a practical feminist.)

But we’re emerging from all that, more or less,
Except for some ladylike laggards and Quarterly priestesses
Who flog men for fun, and kick women to maim competition.
Now, if we struggle abnormally, we may almost seem normal;
If we submerge our self-pity in disciplined industry;
If we stand up and be hated, and swear not to sleep with editors;
If we regard ourselves formally, respecting our true limitations
Without making an unseemly show of trying to unfreeze our assets;
Keeping our heads and our pride while remaining unmarried;
And if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes
And defect to the typewriter. And if mothers, believe in the luck of our
children,
And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.


“Pro Femina” from Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, © 2001 by Carolyn Kizer – Copper Canyon Press

Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014), poet, essayist, and translator; first editor of the journal Poetry Northwest (1959-1965). Her first poetry collection, The Ungrateful Garden, was published in 1961. She next got a job through the State Department teaching in Pakistan (1964-1965), then was the first director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts (1966-1970). She won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Yin, three Pushcart Prizes, and the 1988 Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize.

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Sometimes, history as written by men leaves out some pretty important details. I wrote this poem about a missing detail.


To the Disputed Woman Who First Graced the English Stage as Desdemona

by Nona Blyth Cloud

December 8, 1660 – A woman– likely Margaret Hughes, but possibly Anne Marshall – appears on an English public stage as an actress for the first time, in the role of Desdemona in a production of Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’

How careless men are with our histories!
How easily one pretty face confused for another.
Perhaps they were so beguiled

By a glimpse of feminine ankle,
Or the sighs raising your womanly bosom,
They never noticed your face at all.

Even now, the first thing ‘historians’ tell us
Is whose mistress you probably were.


© 2016 by Nona Blyth Cloud

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Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” It was sometimes an uncomfortable mix, but here she combines them into something older and greater than the sum of her parts.


A Woman Speaks

by Audre Lorde

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

“A Woman Speaks” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, © 1997 by Audre Lorde – W. W. Norton and Company

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was an American writer, poet, feminist, lesbian, librarian, and civil rights activist. She was born in New York City, the daughter of a father from Barbados, and a mother from Grenada. Her poems and prose largely deal with issues related to civil rights, women, and the exploration of black female identity. Her first poem was published in Seventeen magazine when she was still in high school. She became an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press in 1977, and a co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980. She survived breast cancer in 1978, but died at age 58 of liver cancer in 1992.

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Meena Alexander’s poem is about the real cost of treating women as commodities.


from Raw Meditations on Money,
1. She Speaks: A School Teacher from South India

by Meena Alexander

Portions of a mango tree the storm cut down,
a green blaze bent into mud
and they come to me, at dawn

three girls from Kanpur, far to the north admittedly
(we know this from national geography class,
the borders of states, the major cities).

They hung themselves from fans.
In the hot air they hung themselves
so that their father would not be forced to tender gold

he did not have, would not be forced
to work his fists to bone.
So that is how a portion of the story goes.

Slowly in the hot air they swung, three girls.
How old were they?
Of marriageable age certainly.

Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, something of that sort.
How do I feel about it?
What a question! I am one of three sisters,

most certainly I do not want father to proffer money
he does not have for my marriage.
Get a scooter, a refrigerator, a horde of utensils,

silks, and tiny glittering bits of gold
to hang about my ears and throat.
Gold is labor time accumulated . . . labor time defined.

Who said that? Yes, I am a schoolteacher, fifth standard
trained in Indian history and geography,
Kerala University, first class first.

The storm tree puts out its limbs and
I see three girls swinging. One of them is me.
Step back I tell myself.

Saumiya, step back. The whole history
of womankind is compacted here.
Open your umbrella, tuck your sari tight,

breathe into the strokes of catastrophe,
and let the school bus wait.
You will get to it soon enough and the small, hot faces.

See how the monsoon winds soar and shunt
tropic air into a house of souls,
a doorway stopped by clouds.

Set your feet into broken stones
and this red earth and pouring rain.
For us there is no exile.


“1. She Speaks: A School Teacher from South India” fromRaw Meditations on Money” in Quickly Changing River, © 2008 by Meena Alexander – Northwestern University Press

Meena Alexander (1951-2018) born into a Syrian Christian family from Kerlala, South India; Indian poet, scholar and author; when she was a small child, the family moved to Khartoum, and she attended school there, then enrolled in  Khartoum University when she was only 13, studying English and French Literature. She graduated in 1969, and moved to England, where she earned a PhD in English from the University of Nottingham at age 22.  She moved to India, where she published her first three books of poetry: The Bird’s Bright Ring; I Root My Name; and Without Place. After a year as a visiting fellow at the Sorbonne in 1979, she moved to New York, and became an assistant professor at Fordham University. Over the years, she taught at several New York Universities before becoming a full and later a Distinguished professor at the City University of New York. She published six more books of poetry, two books of literary criticism, two books of lyric essays, two novels and a memoir. Her best-known works are Illiterate Heart and Raw Silk. She died of cancer in New York at age 67 in 2018.

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Nikita Gill poses a very good question.


If He Says

by Nikita Gill

If he says your body is ruined
because it has been touched
by another man’s hands
before his,
ask him how many woman’s bodies
have his hands ruined
and what is wrong,
in his mind, with a man’s hands
that they only know
how to ruin a woman’s body
rather than love it?


“If He Says” from Your Soul is a River, © 2016 by Nikita Gill – Thought Catalog Books

Nikita Gill (1987 – ), British-Indian poet and writer, was born in Belfast to Indian parents, while her father, a merchant navy man, was preparing to take his captain’s exams at Ulster University. The family moved back to India when she was a few months old. Though she wanted to be a writer from the age of 12, when her first story was published in a newspaper, her parents encouraged her to seek a more realistic career, so she studied design at university. In 2012, she moved to the UK for her Masters, and began posting her poetry online in 2015. Though her following started with a single reader, she now has over 200,000 followers, several of them celebrities, including Alanis Morissette. Her best-known published poetry collections are Wild Embers, and Your Soul is a River.

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June Jordan’s poem is indeed a howl – of outrage – at the double jeopardy imposed on black women.

Poem about My Rights

by June Jordan

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
alone
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was/wrong
to be who I am
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like the
proof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blackland
and if
after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe
and if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even to
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
and according to the Times this week
back in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problem
and the problem was a man named Nkrumah so they
killed him and before that it was Patrice Lumumba
and before that it was my father on the campus
of my Ivy League school and my father afraid
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
before that
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
boy and that I should have been lighter skinned and
that I should have had straighter hair and that
I should not be so boy crazy but instead I should
just be one/a boy and before that
it was my mother pleading plastic surgery for
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
words
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
me
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
myself
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
be-
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hard-on
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in
cars
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life


“Poem About My Rights” from Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan © 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust – Copper Canyon Press

June Jordan (1936-2002) was born in Harlem, New York, the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents. She was a poet, essayist, teacher, feminist, civil rights activist and self-identified   Bisexual. While the students at most of the schools she attended were predominately White, at Barnard College, “No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force . . . Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America.” She left without graduating, but returned later. Her first book, Who Look at Me, a collection of poems for children, was published in 1969. She wrote 27 more books, the last three published posthumously. Jordan was the librettist for the musical Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. She taught at several colleges and at SUNY at Stony Brook, then founded the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley in 1991. She died of breast cancer at age 65.

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Marie Ponsot passes on her grandmother’s wisdom.


Among Women

by Marie Ponsot

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.


“Among Women” from Springing: New and Selected Poems, © 2002 by Marie Ponsot – Alfred A. Knopf

Marie Ponsot (1921-2019) American poet, essayist, critic and translator; winner of the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Bird Catcher. Among many other awards, she was honored by the Poetry Foundation with the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, awarded to a U.S. poet whose “lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition.”

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Dorothy Parker gets the last word on the delicate femininity that is supposed to be what attracts the male of the species.

Interview

by Dorothy Parker

The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints …
So far, I’ve had no complaints.


“Interview” from The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Brendan Gill, ©1926/renewed 1954 by Dorothy Parker – Viking Penguin

 Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) may be the most quoted – and misquoted – woman in America. Her formal education ended at 14, but she became a celebrated wit. Parker was a founding member of the famed Algonquin Round Table (circa 1919-1929). When the New Yorker debuted in 1925, Dorothy Parker was on the editorial board. As the magazine’s “Constant Reader,” she contributed poetry, fiction — and book reviews famous for  pulling no punches: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” She made four failed suicide attempts, and said in an interview when she turned 70, “If I had any decency, I’d be dead. All my friends are.” In 1967, Parker did die, of a heart attack, at age 73. She bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

She had never met him.

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About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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