Gendered modernism

With the exceptions of Marianne Moore and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), women poets of the modernist era have not fared especially well in accounts of American literary history. Not only has the importance of women modernists often been overlooked by male poets and critics, but it was at times deliberately suppressed by male writers who were threatened by the entry of women into the world of literary high culture. When women poets made a concerted attempt to compete in the literary marketplace, they risked being dismissed as "poetesses" or "sweet singers" rather than treated as serious artists. As feminist critics have argued, the invention of modernist form by male authors was in part an attempt to "rescue" literary writing from what they saw as the "effeminacy" of late-nineteenth-century literature. The effort to distance modernism from the "feminizing" influence of women writers can be seen in Pound's dismissal of Amy Lowell's Imagist poetry as "Amygism" and in Eliot's 1922 claim that "there are only a half dozen men of letters (and no women) worth printing."

In recent years, however, women poets of the 1910s and 1920s have begun to receive a more appropriate share ofcritical attention. Both Moore and H. D. have been canonized as major poetic modernists, and each has been the subject of numerous critical studies. Gertrude Stein's writing has been recognized as a crucial contribution to experimental modernism as well as an important influence on the postmodern writing of the Language poets and others. The work of women poets such as Louise Bogan, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Laura Riding Jackson, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie - often neglected by anthologists and critics in the past - has been rediscovered by readers and critics less under the sway of high modernist tastes. The writing of African American women poets such as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina Grimke, and Anne Spencer is now beginning to be explored (see chapter 6). And the work of populist women poets such as Genevieve Taggard and Lola Ridge is at last beginning to attract a greater amount of critical attention.

In this chapter I focus on two main groupings of women poets: the traditionalists, here represented by Millay, and the experimental modernists (Lowell, H. D., and Moore). While the experimentalists engaged in formal and linguistic innovation rivalling and at times exceeding that of their male counterparts, the traditionalists made use of more conventional forms such as the sonnet, within which they could explore their personal experiences as well as their gendered position in society. Alicia Ostriker has contrasted these two distinct styles, arguing that the first group wrote a "formally innovative and intellectually assertive" poetry that avoids direct forms of autobiography, while the second group wrote in a manner that is an "extension and refinement of the traditional lyric style," concentrating their poems on states of "intense personal feeling."1

While this distinction is for the most part a valid one, it should not be seen as marking an irreconcilable opposition between two kinds ofpoetic writing by women of the period. In fact, the concerns of the two groups were by no means mutually exclusive, and there was significant overlap between them. Both groups were clearly concerned with the issue of gender and its implication for the production ofliterary texts. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar make clear in their comparative study oftwo such apparently opposite poets as Moore and Millay, even women from very different poetic camps were connected in their attempts to "translate the 'handicap' of'femininity' into an aesthetic advantage."2 Poets from both groups also struggled to find precursors at a time when few women poets provided usable models. H. D., Millay, and Teasdale all looked to Sappho for inspiration, and it was largely women poets like Lowell and Taggard who made possible the critical revival ofEmily Dickinson in the 1920s. Further, women modernists ofboth groups sought to reimagine from female perspectives the kind of mythic structures used by male poets like Pound and Eliot: mythic figures such as Cassandra, Medusa, Artemis, Penelope, Helen, and Eurydice became important poetic personae for modernist women poets.

Another unifying trait in the poetry by women of the period was a deep ambivalence about traditional constructions of gender. Women poets turned to various forms of androgyny as a way of negotiating between the narrowly defined cultural space traditionally available to women writers and the desire to be taken seriously as poets in a male-dominated literary world. At various points in their careers, Lowell, H. D., and Wylie all adopted masculinized or androgynous personae as a way of expressing their frustrations with their cultural positioning as women poets in the early twentieth century, and in texts like "Patriarchal Poetry" (1927), Stein exposed the gendered biases built into the very structures of language and thought.

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