Not to sound like an angry feminist, but at times reviewing recent American poetry books can feel like a sentence in witnessing a lot of privileged white male self-obsessed navel-gazing. Look at the nominees and judges for the National Book Award for the past fifty plus years—there have been one or maybe two women nominated per year out of five nominees who are mostly white men. The numbers are the same when it comes to the judges each year as well. The many volumes of poetry published every year increasingly include more women, but let’s face it folks, men still dominate. Thankfully,Honor Moore has edited the smart and comprehensive collection Poems from the Women’s Movement. This collection not only compiles the poems of important female writers from the 1960s to the 1980s, such as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, and many more, but also challenges the reader, male or female, to think for themselves and to find their own voices as the poets in the collection have.
In her humorous and fascinating introduction to Poems from the Women’s Movement, Honor Moore describes New York during the Women’s Movement and shares her own personal stories of involvement. She describes moving to New York City in 1969 and abandoning her college sonnets for “poems out of my own anger and 23-year-old unhappiness.” She talks about quitting graduate school and getting involved with the feminist movement by holding speak-outs about women’s issues that were reported by the Village Voice. She also muses about how she and other women of the era began to think and read differently as they shared their secrets of rape, abortion, motherhood, and career aspirations, and a new female literary consciousness emerged. Her stories add a more personal element to the collection and make her excitement palpable to the reader about to encounter the poems she selected.
The collection, of course, begins with Sylvia Plath, but quickly switches from Plath’s female isolation to female poets who are in conversation about different women’s issues and finding their own voice. Through this conversation they simultaneously support and identify with each other as well as challenging each other to take the fight for equality further.
Muriel Rukeyser writes iconic powerful lines in “Kathe Kollwitz”:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.
And then takes the conversation further eluding to the consequences of female isolation:
I’d rather be Muriel
Than be dead and be Ariel.
Rukeyeser suggests Plath had another option besides suffering and suicide. That option seems to be women beginning to band together, no longer keeping their secrets or poems in bureau drawers but sharing them and gaining power through this dialogue.
This collection deals with all of the traditional women’s issues: patriarchy, rape, and motherhood, and career aspirations; thankfully with a sense of humor on occasion. Alta writes in her short poem “Miscarriage”:
let’s try again
lots more where that came from
don’t say “lost” the baby,
sounds like you misplaced it.
“let’s see, i had it here
a couple of days ago…
In Moore’s own contribution to the collection, “Polemic #1,” she throws the gauntlet down writing:
Write poems women
I want to
I have seen you watching,
holding on and
I see your lips moving.
This could be said not only to women, but to all poets challenging the status quo of modern American poetry. This National Poetry Month we have been gifted by the unique voices in Poems from the Women’s Movement, voices discussing important issues passionately: a much needed shot in the arm of the, at times, bland American poetry scene. Women are still struggling with equality in the workplace, juggling career and family life, dealing with rape and abortion, and having a voice in a patriarchal society. This relevant collection illustrates how far women have come but also how far they still have to go.
On April 23rd, The Library of America and Academy of American Poets will host a free reading in honor of the release of Poems from the Women’s Movement featuring Honor Moore, Toi Derricotte, Susan Griffin, Erica Jong, Eileen Myles, Fran Winant, and other special guests at Saint Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY at 7pm.