An obvious way in which the content of women's writing might be expected to differ from that of men's would be by virtue of the experiences it records. Men's and women's biological experiences are different. Historically the differences have been emphasized and supplemented by marked differences in upbringing, education and pursuits. It is understandable that Jan Montefiore, in her lucid book on Feminism and Poetry, should use the phrase 'Poetry and Women's Experience' as a subtitle for her introductory chapter (Montefiore, 1987, pp. 1-25). To the extent that the point is still valid in the second half of the twentieth century, it might be worth considering poems such as Sylvia Plath's 'Morning Song' or 'Cut' as examples of a domestic women's poetry. But the statement of domestic location or occupation is hardly interesting in itself. Most readers would claim that there is far more to Plath's rendering of female experience than this: that she manages to convey with absorbing complexity the experience of a woman interacting with her environment while at the same time undergoing a period of intense suffering. This would be true of the poems mentioned, and the point could be amplified by a reading of some of Plath's more sexually explicit poems — 'Poppies in July', for instance, in which the speaker refers to the flowers as 'little hell flames', as 'wrinkly and clear red like the skin of a mouth', and as 'little bloody skirts'. Here, as Montefiore (1987, p. 17) observes, the speaker luridly evokes the power and danger of sexuality through associations of whorishness, lipstick, menstruation and deflowering. The poem ends with the speaker's wish that she could distil the opiates of the poppies, and thus find tranquillity without their frightening redness ('But colorless. Colorless.'). This, as much as anything, makes it seem natural to regard the poem as a representation of female experience. But equally important, as Montefiore points out, is the traditional association of women's sexuality with flowers. Women's writing is bound to operate in relation to traditions which have been predominantly shaped by men, and this complicates any account of women's poetry which privileges the idea of experience.
Nevertheless, the very consciousness of this fact may enhance women's writing, a point made by Marianne Dekoven in relation to a much-anthologized poem by H. D.
(Hilda Doolittle), a co-founder with Ezra Pound of Imagism. 'Sea Rose', like 'Poppies in July', makes use of the traditional flower imagery, this time in the time-honoured form of the rose, emblem of feminine beauty. But the opening lines of the poem contain what Dekoven calls 'a jarring invocation' (Dekoven, 1999, p. 189):
Rose, harsh rose, marred and with stint of petals, meagre flower, thin, sparse of leaf
Dekoven comments on the way in which the vocabulary employed here contradicts 'the opulence, the concupiscent lushness, of conventional images of the rose' (ibid, p. 190). She places this observation in the context of a discussion which demonstrates the innovativeness of modernist writing, especially modernist writing by women, in subverting gender stereotypes. 'Sea Rose' is a very good example, since it is so fully at one with the Imagist injunctions about brevity, concision and rhythmic accuracy. Indeed, its language could be seen as referring to these ideals, and thus, by its mingling of topics, as suggesting a new, modern female sexuality.
'Experience' is a broad term, of course. It can suggest the relative amorphousness of unreflective response; but it can also point to the direction taken by a life, or given to it. Autobiographical writing, in the widest sense, is an obvious example of the shaping of experience; and so is any writing that seems to be offering a view about the emergence of identity. For many women critics and writers it is important to keep in mind the way in which writing can offer a means of reflecting on female identity. Montefiore (1987, p. 18) gives the example of a poem by Alison Fell, 'Girl's Gifts', which offers a glimpse of a girl's relationships with older women, and by implication of the importance of these relationships to the forming of a woman's identity. Equally relevant would be a poem such as Denise Levertov's 'Hypocrite Women', which reflects on the weaknesses to which mature women may be vulnerable. Considerations such as these predominate in the mode of criticism to which Elaine Showalter, in her essay 'Towards a feminist poetics', has given the name 'gynocritics': that is to say, criticism which focuses on women's writing and on the value it has for the writer (Showalter, 1979, p. 25).
Toril Moi has analysed the inconsistency, imprecision and confusion to which an emphasis on experience, such as is to be found in Showalter's essay, may be prone: the text tends to be ignored, becoming merely a transparent medium for experience; theory is overtly rejected as 'male', but ends up being reintroduced in a haphazard fashion (including via the work of male theorists) (Moi, 1985, pp. 76-7). But, as Moi concludes, 'what "knowledge" is ever uninformed by theoretical assumptions'? A major part of the constitution of feminist criticism over the past thirty years or so has been strongly theoretical, not least in the shape of that body of work which can be encapsulated in the phrase 'French feminism'. Furthermore, theory assumes that experience cannot even be relied upon to understand itself. A major topic addressed by theory is ideology: that is to say, the socially dominant forms of thought which may be providing an unconscious shape and structure to what seems like the freedom of experience. Feminist theory addresses this topic; and French theory, in particular, may have a special interest for the student of poetry, since it lays a strong emphasis on types of language use which could be called poetic.
For the Marxist—Feminist Literature Collective (1978), whose work was accomplished in the 1970s, but whose influence is still discernible, the study of the gender ideology of texts must work in tandem with the broad social critique and analysis offered by Marxism. In particular, they draw insight from the work of the French Marxist literary critic Pierre Macherey, a follower of Louis Althusser. The traditional Marxist view is that the dominant forms of thought in any society reflect the interests of the dominant social class. These interests will take their specific shape from the dominant mode of economic production in that society. This means that the way any society thinks about itself and the world will, to a significant degree, be independent of individual will and will thus be unconscious. Fredric Jameson uses the phrase The Political Unconscious as the title of one of his books, and he is indebted for his detailed analysis to Macherey, who employs the image of a broken and distorting mirror to convey the selective blindness of ideology. There are two overlapping ways in which this conception is of use to socialist— feminist criticism of the kind practised by the members of the Collective: first, in providing the conceptualization of the general ideology of a society; and second, in suggesting that attitudes to gender are shaped in like manner by selective blindness. My own book on modern poetry, Reading Twentieth Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects, though not of a notably feminist cast, emerges from the same kind of theoretical ambience, in that it attempts to add some of the insights of Marxism to certain observations about gender. It argues that the concentration of the appearance of objects in much twentieth-century poetry, from Pound to Heaney, can be seen in terms of the Marxist concept of alienation, but it supplements the point by adding that this concentration is also seen by many male poets as an arena for self-conscious virtuosity, and even as a sign of masculine virtue (Larrissy, 1990).
There is another obvious way in which the notion of ideology is relevant to the question of gender, and that is because of its use in the phrase 'patriarchal ideology'. This may sound like a dogma. Yet, by its very nature, it cannot merely be an external body of imposed thought. For a dominant ideology infects those whom it oppresses. Much feminist poetry has been concerned not just with an attack on the presumptions of patriarchy, but with 'consciousness-raising' for women. This concern may overlap with the emphasis on women's experience; but it may also give evidence of an awareness of the complex problems involved in the attempt to assert the value of women's experience. Claire Buck notes, for instance, that Denise Riley's poem 'A note on sex and "the reclaiming of language" ' explicitly addresses 'the dangers of assuming any kind of authenticity about women's experience or about a utopian ideal that postulates an essential femininity undistorted by patriarchal impositions' (Buck, 1996, p. 95).
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