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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Guest Review: Naomi on Women's Work

Katrina Naomi reviews
Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack

This is a whopping great book, twice the size of the last women’s poetry anthology that I read, and features 271 poets. I don’t envy the editors’ task: Eva Salzman and Amy Wack have set out to provide a modern-day canon, and I’m impressed with the variety of poetry which they’ve chosen. Eva Salzman tackles the potential ‘own goal’ of producing a gender-segregated anthology head on.

Her introduction is impassioned and thought-provoking. In my pre-poetry life, I worked as a gender officer. Yet I still found my eyebrows gravitating skywards when I heard of a new women’s anthology. Isn’t this just a teensy bit out of date? But Eva Salzman’s rigorous essay shows why such an anthology is still needed. I won’t rehash all the arguments here, buy the book and read them for yourself - it’s well worth it. But even a cursory glance through any number of anthologies will show that male poets’ work is chosen over women’s. Eva Salzman provides a battery of statistics to prove the point. She concludes by stating ‘many editors (mostly male) […] are simply not familiar enough with women poets. This book, in introducing this part of the canon and re-writing the list of “essentials”, throws down the gauntlet to future critics and editors in the hope they can better represent the true breadth and vitality of the tradition’.

While this anthology includes a wealth of poets that I would hope to find in any anthology, whether gendered or otherwise, including: Eavan Boland, Colette Bryce, Amy Clampitt, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Nual Ní Dhomhnaill, U.A. Fanthorpe, Louise Gluck, Marilyn Hacker, Mimi Khalvati, Marianne Moore, Sharon Olds (more of which later), Alice Oswald, Pascale Petit, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Carol Rumens, Anne Sexton, Stevie Smith and Anne Stevenson, the real interest in Women‘s Work is the discovery of poets that I hadn’t previously read, or knew little about.

In this latter category I would include: Amanda Dalton, Christine Evans, Lauris Edmond, Beth Ann Fennelly, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Ask yourself, ask other poets, male and female, how well do you know these poets’ work? I’ll confess that I’d never heard of any of them before. Here’s a taster, from the opening lines of Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘The Small Vases from Hebron’: ‘Tip their mouths open to the sky/The turquoise, amber,/the deep green with fluted handle,/pitcher the size of two thumbs,/tiny lip and graceful waist.’ From here, the politics of the poem cuts in, culminating with: ‘But the child of Hebron sleeps/with the scud of her brothers falling/and the long sorrow of the colour red.’

The editors have provided a decent-length biography on every anthology poet, so it’s easy to find out more about the poets’ work, publishing record and background. The editors say that they set out to bridge ‘the US, UK and Ireland divides’. While I might quibble about divides, it is true that most of the poets I knew little or nothing about were North American.

On more familiar ground, I was delighted to see recognition of the work of poets whose writing deserves to be far better known, including: Eavan Boland, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Forché and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Here is a central image from Brigid Pegeen Kelly’s ‘Imagining Their Own Hymns’, in which angels ‘are sick of Jesus,/who never stops dying, hanging there white/and large, his shadow blue as pitch’.

The inclusion of Eavan Boland in the list of poets that I feel deserve to be far better known and in the list of those I might expect to see in any anthology is deliberate, and goes to the heart of the reason for this book. Indeed, Eavan Boland has written on the difficulties of being a woman and being a poet in her wonderful Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in our Time. For anyone who doesn’t know her work, I would recommend 'An Elegy For My Mother In Which She Scarcely Appears’ and ‘The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me’. Both are included in this anthology.

Most of the poets included in Women’s Work have just the one entry on which to judge them. This is in contrast to many other anthologies of women’s poetry before them, ranging from Making for Planet Alice (1997) to Salt and Bitter and Good (1975) - one British, one North American. T here are pros and cons to both strategies. Women’s Work provides access to a far larger number of poets. Yet it can be hard to get a lasting impression from one poem. Having said that, the editors have chosen the single poems wisely.

A handful of poets have three or more poems in this anthology, namely: Emily Dickinson, Carol Ann Duffy, Marilyn Hacker, Jane Hirshfield, Phillis Levin, Denise Levertov and Eva Salzmann. I do have some questions about the balance of the anthology. For example, I was surprised to find that Sharon Olds has just the one poem 'I Go Back to May 1937’ and even Sylvia Plath only has two: ‘Lady Lazarus‘ and ‘Sheep in Fog‘.

The editors discuss the issues around the ‘omissions’, some of which are down to cost - putting together an anthology is an extremely expensive exercise - but I also wonder if the editors may have decided that Sylvia Plath, at least, is so well known that space might be given over to lesser-known poets? Still, I really missed ‘Morning Song’, among many others.

However, a much-lamented omission is that of Elizabeth Bishop. It is clear that the editors worked hard to overcome this. It is generally known that Elizabeth Bishop did not want her poetry to appear in gender-segregated books, and this anthology is the poorer for that. However, in a neat move, Eva Salzman sidesteps the problem by suggesting four ‘crucial’ poems that readers should seek out - and here again, the choices are good: ‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘One Art’, ‘The Fish’ and ‘The Fishhouses’; thereby enabling Elizabeth Bishop’s work to be ‘present’, in at least some sense of the word.

There is also frequent reference to Elizabeth Bishop’s work (and to Sylvia Plath) in the introduction, which was insightful and compelling. So the editors have done their best here to square the circle. I expect they are now wishing they’d included a poem or two from the recent TS Eliot Prize winner Jen Hadfield.

I have no complaints about the range, in both content and style in this anthology. This is not specifically ‘feminist’ poetry (whatever that might be). There are poems about love, about children, about the home. I’m also happy to report that there are poems about war, greed and sex. T here are poems about virtually any issue you can think of. The book is divided into 14 sections, some of which are tighter in terms of theme than others.

The ‘themes’ where I found the strongest poems included: ‘The Work of Art (The Arts, Fine and Otherwise)’, ‘The Mechanics of a Body (The Body, Science)’, ‘A Word’s Work (Language and Writing)’ and ‘Insiders, Outsiders (Culture, Heritage, Identity, Displacement & Exile)’. And formalists will be delighted at the range of poetry on offer. There are sonnets by the bucket load.

The anthology purports to feature poetry that should be considered part of the modern canon. On the whole this works, but the inclusion of work from some poets from the early part of the twentieth century or even further back is a puzzle. For the most part these work brilliantly: poems by Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker sparkle in this book. Indeed, Emily Dickinson’s poems crop up with a pleasing regularity throughout the anthology. At six entries, she has been honoured with the largest number of poems by any poet in the book, including one of my favourites ‘341’ or ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes -’. However, try as I might, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnet 43’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ don’t cut it for me as modern poems.

If I do have a criticism, it concerns production rather than content or ideology. This anthology really could have done with another proof before going to press. There are some typos that might have been avoided, and surely will be corrected in the next edition.

I would encourage men and women to read this book. The subject matter is as wide as you can imagine and I’d be amazed if you didn’t come across a number of brilliant poets (or poems) that you’d never heard of before. You might also wonder why that is. If that is the case, then this anthology and its editors will have achieved what they set out to do.

Katrina Naomi Naomi won the 2008 Templar Poetry Competition and the 2008 Ledbury Festival Text Poem Contest. Her first pamphlet, Lunch at the Elephant & Castle is published by Templar Poetry. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She has received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2009.
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