The ascribing of a specific meaning in American poetics to female voice and female language coincided with the emergence of the American second-wave feminist movement. Although this movement had important poetic precursors—poets such as Elizabeth BISHOP, H. D., Amy LOWELL, Mina LOY, and Marianne MOORE had long been concerned with questions surrounding gender and the role of the woman poet—attention to the specifics of a female voice and a female language gained real critical and creative momentum in the postwar period. The second-wave feminist movement, heralded by the publication of such works as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, brought about profound changes in American society's organization of, and attitude toward, gender difference. Feminist critics and activists resisted the division between public and private and exposed the patriarchal assumptions that supported a broad host of male-dominated cultural practices in the workplace, the family, education, religion, medicine, and sexuality. The discovery of a woman's individual voice and the production of a collective woman's language were both vital to these processes. One of the first woman poets to be identified with this historical and aesthetic moment was Muriel rukeyser, whose influential poem "The Poem as Mask" (1968) articulated the divisions— "myself, split open, unable to / speak, in exile from myself"—that the discovery of a woman's voice and language was intended to heal.
This emergence of a female voice in American poetry can be traced to three broader shifts in post-World War II American poetics. First feminist poetry was assisted by the move in American poetics toward open form and free verse. The poet Adrienne rich famously described how her early work was written with the "asbestos gloves" of formal constraints that she eventually had to discard in order to find a voice and a language that could speak "to and of women" in poems written from a "newly released courage to name, to love each other, to share risk, and grief and celebration" (176). The need for this voice is suggested by the angry frustrations of such poems as Rich's 1968 "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," which ends with an inelegant faltering—"the typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning, I cannot touch you and this is the oppressors language." Rich demonstrates the productive possibilities of a female language in the fluid and tender eroticism of "Twenty-One Love Poems" (1977), which frankly articulates lesbian desire. Rich was also an influential figure for combining poetic writing with prose and feminist theory, and her critical work includes seminal essays, such as "Of Woman Born" (1976) and "Compulsory Heterosexual-ity and Lesbian Existence" (1980).
The second important influence on the development of a feminist poetics in the late early 1950s and early 1960s was the increased attention paid to the role of the poets themselves within their poems. sylvia plath and Anne sexton worked with the poet Robert lowell in the mid-1950s and were influenced by his move, in the collection Life Studies (1959), toward what has been since labeled confessional poetry. Sex ton and Plath provided intimate and painful insights into the visceral frustrations and contradictions of midcentury femininity in marriage, motherhood, sexuality, and poetic ambition. Plath's posthumously published collection, ariel (1965), was influential for its rendering of the pychological struggle for a female voice. In poems such as "Ariel," "lady Lazarus," and "daddy," the authorial voice is forged from a fusion of the extremes of femininity. The sexualized climax of the poem "Fever 103," for example, describes the poet as a "pure acetylene / Virgin / attended by roses." The combination of autobiographical honesty and open form that these poets pioneered for a feminist poetics is evident in the work of later poets, such as Louise glück and Sharon olds.
The third development in American poetry that contributed to the development of a female voice was the changes in the public circulation of poetry, initiated by movements such as beat writing in the 1950s and then by the antiwar and civil Rights movements in the 1960s. These movements, within which women poets, such as Diane di prima and Denise levertov, were active, highlighted the public possibilities of contemporary poetry through readings, performances, and the distribution of broadsides and small poetry journals. Feminist poetry, in such works as Judy Grahn's The Common Woman (1978), sought to use the female voice in poetry as a basis for the collective empowerment of a female audience. Women's poetry was important in these contexts, as Kim Whitehead has recently suggested in The Feminist Poetry Movement, for its direct contribution to the public life of the feminist movement as it sought to become a site of cultural production. Whitehead demonstrates the ways in which feminist poetry's sensitivity to the "matrix" of poetic meaning allowed it to serve "as a kind of political clarion call to women to take notice and take action; the consciousness-raising groups and organising cells of radical feminism proved to be especially fertile grounds for preparing women to hear this call" (18).
The development of a female voice and a female language in poetry has received much critical attention from a growing academic community of feminist writers and theorists. In the 1970s and 1980s critics, such as Suzanne Juhasz and Alicia Ostriker, read the possession of a female voice in poetry—defying what Juhasz described as the double-bind of the woman poet: "if she is a 'woman' she must fail as a poet; 'poet' she must fail as 'woman'"—as both deeply subversive of the masculine norms of American poetics and as affirming of the alternative possibilities of women (3). These critics were also important for constructing, along with anthologizers, such as Florence Howe, a genealogy and critical tradition for the female voice that was able to incorporate retrospectively the work of earlier poets such as H. D., Emily Dickinson, and Anne Bradstreet. This largely celebratory critical tradition examined the way in which the voice of women poets was used to breach the cultural silences about female anger, female sexuality, sexuality and body, motherhood, and domesticity. A second generation of academic critics, such as Jan Montefiore, drew upon the emerging field of poststructualist theory in order to examine the relationship between women's poetry and the disruptive presence of the "feminine" in language. This shift involved moving away from examining the role of women's poetry in the feminist movement to examining, instead, the philosophical nature of the relationship between language and the subject speaking or being spoken of.
By the mid-1980s, however, feminist critics had begun to question the implications of feminist assumptions about what constituted a female voice or language. The models of identity politics that assumed gender to be either an inherent or homogenous characteristic were gradually reproached for their essential-ist implications—for assuming, to cite an example, that women possessed inherent biologically determined characteristics. In addition to this, models of poetry based on the text, rather than on the voice, began to receive increased critical attention.
The first of these concerns was most clearly articulated by feminist critics seeking to make apparent the implicit racial exclusions of the feminist movement, which had failed to consider sufficiently the distinct experiences of women of color. The work of such poets as Gwendolyn brooks, Lucille clifton, Nikki giovanni, Audre lorde, June Jordan, and Sonia sanchez questioned, in a variety of ways, the assumptions about form, self, community, and gender that had been prevalent in the feminist poetry movement. Although many of these poets were committed to this movement, their commitment was often complicated by an identification with the Civil Rights and black arts movements that emphasized both an alternative set of political priorities and an alternative deployment of voice and language in literature. Jordan's work was influential for creatively exploiting and reconciling the tensions between her feminist perspective and her fidelity to an African-American oral tradition. Poems such as "Getting Down to Get Over" (1973) disrupt narrative and identification in their emphasis upon the complexities of a woman speaker occupying a variety of culturally specific oral registers. Alternatively Chicana poets, such as Gloria Anzaldua and Lorna Dee Cervantes, drew attention to the bilingual and interlingual pressures upon an American female voice. Texts, such as Anzaldua's Borderlands (1987), written in English and Spanish, highlight the limitations of the monolingual assumptions upon which much "American" speech-based poetry was predicated.
Feminist experimental writing in the 1980s and 1990s often emphasized the idea that a female voice and language implied an overly simple understanding of language itself. This writing, which emphasized the complicated meanings available in written language rather than the assumed simplicity of its spoken form, claimed an alternative tradition of feminist poets, one that included modernists, such as Gertrude stein, and objectivists, such as Lorine niedecker. These poets, often associated with the language school, included Rae armantrout, Rachel Blau duplessis, Kathleen fraser, Carla harryman, Lyn hejinian, Susan howe, and Leslie scalapino. These poets share an interest in understanding gender and femininity as things constructed by society rather than as foundations that can be "discovered" through a female voice or language. This writing often relinquished a concern with either the lyrical "I" or the processes of feminine écriture in favor of a more fragmented writing style that was intended to explore the multiple meanings available in language. This writing required readers to be engaged actively in the production of meaning, to pay attention to the visual and material aspects of language, and to question the meaning and assumptions supporting
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