Women of Words
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Poetry by Women
Women poets, like men, write about many things. Arguably, however, women write with more emotion and empathy toward themselves and their subjects, and, in doing so, create themes by which they can be identified. One category that poetry written by females fits into is everday life. Women often write about very common things and put them into new perspectives. Some of examples of this type of poetry include "The Voice of the Grass" by Sarah Roberts Boyle, "The Brass Pot and Stone Jugg" by Anne Finch, and "A Pin" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Women are also avid commentators on social and historical events and situations. Their poetry reflects this in poems such as "This is a Photograph of Me" by Margaret Atwood, "Bohemia" by Dorothy Parker, and "Recipe of the Holocaust" by Antonia Williams. Women also seem to be concerned with the legacies they leave behind after they die. Some poems written about this are "A Little While" by Sara Teasdale, "Last Words" by Amy Levy, and "If I can stop one heart from breaking" by Emily Dickinson. All of these poems were written by women. The women were from different places, times, and backgrounds, yet they carry through their poetry these three ideas or themes.
In the poem "The Voice of the Grass", Sarah Roberts Boyle makes good use of personification. The grass "creeps" everywhere, a phrase that is repeated throughout the poem. This work is, perhaps, representative of life, itself. It describes the grass as being everywhere, silent, unseen, but always present. The symbol of omnipresence is not only in the words themselves, but in the manner they are written. The phrase
"Here I come creeping, creeping everywhere" (1)
is repeated at the beginning and end of each of the seven stanzas. It is a constant all the way through the poem. Even
"When you're numbered with the dead/ In your still and narrow bed" (32-33)
the "grass" is still present, indicating to the reader that life, even when a person dies, continues. Boyle makes the point at the end of the poem that "grass" glorifies the One who created it. The reader deduces that, in a similar way, life is meant to glorify its Creator.
"The Brass Pot and Stone Jugg" by Anne Finch also exhibits personification of ordinary household items. The poem is very rhythmic, having about eight syllables in each line, which makes it flow easily. This is a clever poem which brings to life a brass pot, which is tired of its tedious life as a pot and is trying to convince the jug to run away with it:
"let us instantly be going,/ And see what in the World is Doing" (11-12)
The pot is an interesting representation of Finch, herself, because it refers to a desire to make a life change-- perhaps a society change-- away from the total repressiveness of the society against women writers and poets. The jug might refer to the men of the society who were content to stay the way they were. This is implied when Finch describes the jug:
"The bloated Jugg, supine and lazy,/ Who made no wish, but to be easy,/ Nor, like its Owner, e'er did think/ Of ought, but to be filled with Drink" (13-16)
Finch was born in the mid-sixteen hundreds, a time when women were not encouraged to write poetry or fiction. Possibly, because she was of nobler blood, she was able to devote more of her time to writing, where other women of her day did not have the time to spend on such trivial activities. Even though she did write numerous works, Finch spent most of her life writing under a pen name. The use of common items is what places this one of Finch's poems in the category of everyday life.
Like Finch, Ella Wheeler Wilcox uses an item well known to people, especially women, in discussing a situation which concerned her. This use of the "pin" makes the narrative humorous and accurate. In this poem, which has a very consistent rhyme scheme and rhythm, Wilcox describes a person in her life, who is like a pin. This motif is evident throughout the poem:
"She is always bright and smiling, sharp and pointed for a thrust;/ Use does not seem to blunt her point, nor does she gather rust" (33-34)
The woman she describes is painted as "sharp" and "pointed", while the antonyms placed very near those descriptions are "blunt" and "rusty". Wilcox cleverly illustrates her feelings about this woman by using words that describe the common object, a pin.
Women seem to have opinions on any historical or social event they witness. Particularly, women are interested in feminism in varying degrees. An example of this type of poem is "This is a Photograph of Me" by Margaret Atwood. This poem, at first glance, is merely a spooky narrative about a photo taken of a person after they are already dead. In, itself, it is a well- written poem, consisting of seven stanzas of differing lengths. The poem draws the reader in, leading to the middle of the poem where the poet makes her chilling revelation. The reader's interest then carries them to the end of the poem. Atwood, however, was possibly making a statement about women in a world dominated by men. The lake in which the persona drowns could possibly be an image of men who "drown out" the voices of women. Atwood suggests this when she writes:
"It is difficult to say where/ precisely, or to say/ how large or small I am:/ The effect of water/ on light is a distortion" (19-23)
Though written in free verse, the poem is well-constructed. When the reader first reads the poem, it creates a feeling of empathy. Upon further examination, though, the reason for the emotional response becomes blurry, and the reader is forced to read the poem several times before a true understanding is reached.
Just as powerful as the feminist movement is the idea of racism. Extreme racism, especially, seems to create an emotional and creative response among women. The Holocaust, one of the most extreme acts of racial violence in the history of the world, is a great inspiration to many writers, artists, and poets. One such poem is "Recipe of the Holocause" by Antonia Williams. Williams cleverly uses something many women understand, a recipe, to commuicate her analysis of this event. The poem is short and concise and reads very much like a recipe. She uses terms that are familar to those who read recipes. For example, Williams writes:
"Garnish with unceasing sadness" (13)
when telling how the families and friends of the Holocaust victims felt after their loved ones were so brutally killed. Her poem is a simple one, written in uncomplicated blank verse. It is not long-- there are only six stanzas. Yet Williams manages to communicate empathy to the reader, finishing with these instructions:
"Just don't be afraid to cry and mourn./ For remembrance is the final part of the recipe" (23-24)
Women poets do not always make such somber allusions in their works. Some women choose to write about things that are less important, yet still influential to the world around them. Dorothy Parker wrote "Bohemia" about one of these cultural happenings. Ther term "bohemian" refers to anyone who has artistic or intellectual tendencies and scorns conventionality. Parker criticizes this in her poem. A woman in 1928, when this poem was written, surely would be shocked, and possibly offended, by the lifestyle of people living in the bohemian way. Certainly, Parker's critique seems negative:
"Playwrights and poets and such horses' necks/ Start off from anywhere, end up at sex./ Diarists and critics, and similar roe/ Never say nothing, and never say no" (5-8)
This poem is very short, but its one stanza communicates Parker's feelings regarding Bohemia. She ends it be implying that she would much rather see someone who is living by society's standards than someone who does not:
"People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;/ God, for a man that solicits insurance!" (9-10)
Women as writers show some concern about the legacies they leave behind when they die. Some, like Emily Dickinson, feel compelled to leave behind a life of positive impact. In her short poem "If I can stop one heart from breaking" she submits that if she can only help one person she has not lived for nothing. The two opening lines sum up her sentiment:
"If I can stop one heart from breaking,/ I shall not live in vain" (1-2)
Dickinson's careful rhyming further demonstrates her commitment to this idea. She uses only two rhymes in the poem, making it sound accented and memorable. Although it is a poem of few words, Dickinson packs meaning into it. She ends it with the repeated thought:
"I shall not live in vain" (7)
Sara Teasdale perhaps agrees with Dickinson that one should live a life that positively affects other people, but she recognizes that the influence of her life lasts only a short time after she is gone. Her poem "A Little While" compares her life to waves in the ocean:
"As spun foam lifted and borne on/ After the wave is lost in the full sea" (3-4)
The poem is only two stanzas, which have four lines each. The poem, possibly, echoes the message of its words. It is small and short-lived, but its meaning is strong while it lasts. Teasdale, like Dickinson, uses careful rhymes to allow the poems to be easily read and understood. She is successful in creating an accessible idea, for the reader is able to process the imagery in Teasdale's words. Her legacy is whatever it is, and her impact will last only a short time before it goes
"Back to the nothingness that is their home" (8).
Amy Levy, conversely, seems to regard death as the very end of someone. Her poem "Last Words" appears to suggest that it is irrelevant whether one is a friend to someone or an enemy, because when they die it does not matter. The poem has the feeling of apathy, or perhaps some desperation, about the subject of death. She, too, uses precise rhymes, as is a common trend when writing along this theme. Levy uses the word "vain" twice, which further emphasizes her thoughts, which, unlike Dickinson, are negative toward life:
"This dreary day, things seem/ Vain shadows in a dream" (23-24)
Women poets are particularly adept at sharing emotion and personal thoughts. They make clever use of the influences they have on hand, which allows the reader to relate to the poetry in a unique way. Although anyone can enjoy these poems, a critic could submit that women poets write best for other women. Themes of ordinary objects, social events, and life and death seem to be most common among women, and this could be futher evidence to support the idea that women write for women better than men write for women.
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