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Revealing The History Of Womens Poetry English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1850 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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1. 'Twentieth-century women poets are acutely aware of their poetic grandmothers.' Do you agree? Discuss a selection of poems in support of your argument. The place of women's writing within the poetic tradition has always been one of great uncertainty. Women's poetry has frequently been marginalised, and it has even been suggested that the '"woman poet" is a contradiction in terms.' [1] As a result, there is little wonder that Elizabeth Barrett Browning questioned 'where are the poetesses? …I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none' [2] . Despite this seeming lack of tradition in women's poetry, it appears that by the twentieth century, such 'grandmothers' are beginning to gain recognition. This is largely evident throughout the writing of the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, as her poetry can be said to exemplify the developing awareness of the 'poetic grandmother' in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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In Carol Ann Duffy's early career, an awareness of the absence of female tradition is apparent. 'Alphabet for Auden' [3] , published in 1985, responds, as the title suggests, to the male poetic tradition. As well as this, it appears that lines within the poem refer directly to those within the male tradition. This is visible as the speaker asks 'Four o'clock is time for tea, I'll be mother, who'll be me?' (ll.9-10). These lines appear to parody those found within Rupert Brooke's 'The Old Vicarage' [4] . It can be said that by doing this, Duffy acknowledges the male tradition and uses it in order to express the dilemma of the woman writer. The question 'I'll be mother, who'll be me?'(l.10) is hugely significant, as it establishes a problem of female identity. It suggests that women are unable to be both a mother and a poet, and therefore heightens the sense of absence of poetic grandmothers.

As the poem progresses, this sense of tension between the two traditions is developed further. The speaker states 'Here we go again. Goody. Art can't alter history.'(l.13-14). The tone appears satirical and even mocking, suggesting that perhaps the poetic voice disagrees with Auden's suggestion that 'poetry makes nothing happen' [5] . Duffy responds even further to this contention as the speaker states 'Verse can say I told you so but cannot sway the status quo' (ll.29-10). Once again, these lines parody, and could even be said to mock Auden's. Although it appears that at this point there is a lack of female tradition, it is evident that Duffy is aware of the situation of the woman poet. In another poem from her 1985 anthology, Duffy addresses the idea of the poet directly. In 'Head of English' [6] , the speaker prepares the class for what seems to be a mundane visit from a poet. However, within the poem are the lines 'We don't want the winds of change about the place' (l.20-1). Once again, these lines can be seen an acknowledgement of the situation regarding poetry. As the tradition is presented as static and favouring men, Duffy illustrates this problem and even appears to portray a sense of optimism. This is visible in her poem 'Talent' [7] , as the persona asks 'You want him to fall, don't you? I guessed as much; he teeters but succeeds.' (l.5-6). Although the word 'he', is used, it is evident that this poem illustrates a success against the odds, which is perhaps a comment upon the future of the women's tradition.

As Duffy progresses in her poetic career, it can be argued that an awareness of the 'poetic grandmother' is furthered. Her poem 'Mrs Lazarus' [8] , was published over a decade after 'Alphabet for Auden', and can be said to look back to Sylvia Plath's poem 'Lady Lazarus' [9] . Although 'Lady Lazarus', was published in 1962, the fact that Duffy is now able to refer to a 'poetic grandmother', is significant. Both Duffy and Plath's poems portray a biblical story from the perspective of a woman. The way in which each does this signifies the extent to which the position of the woman writer has changed. In Plath's poem, the speaker describes her grief, stating 'They had to call and call And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.' (ll.31-2). This image is not only horrific, but perhaps illustrates the darkness in Plath's personal life. Duffy's poetry, however, appears to be able to present emotion and ideas in a less confessional manner. In 'Mrs Lazarus', the persona describes 'I had grieved I had wept for a night and a day over my loss' (ll.1-2). Although simple, theses lines portray a sense of grief that transcends the personal, allowing readers to identify with her words.

Another way in which Duffy's poetry illustrates the development of the women's tradition, is in her representation of the female body. Once again, in 'Lady Lazarus', Duffy's 'poetic grandmother', uses an almost confessional persona. The speaker asks 'Do I terrify? The nose, the eye pits […] The sour breath' (ll.12-15) and describes 'my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade' (ll.4-5). The use of such shocking imagery to describe the female body is vital. Although the images appear to be related to Plath's personal suffering, they also signify important issues surrounding women's poetry. To be female in a world of poetry dominated by men was limiting. Therefore, Plath's disturbing illustrations of the female body can be viewed as a representation of the frustration she felt at the constraints that came with being a woman. In light of these ideas, the representation of the female body in Duffy's 'Mrs Lazarus', illustrates a change in the poetic landscape. The persona describes how she 'ripped the cloth I was married in from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed […] till my hands bled.' (ll.2-4). The language here does appear shocking and violent. Nevertheless, once again it appears that Duffy is portraying a wider sense of grief that goes beyond her personal experience. Despite the apparent development in the women's tradition, it still appears that there is a sense that men are still in control. Toward the end of 'Mrs Lazarus' the speaker describes how 'He lived. I saw the horror on his face […] my bridegroom in his rotting shroud.' (ll.36-8). This could be seen as a final suggestion that women are never free from the constraints of men. Even so, it is still apparent that at this stage in Duffy's poetic career, an awareness and engagement with the 'poetic grandmother', is developing further.

As Duffy's career enters the twenty-first century, a major development in the awareness of the 'poetic grandmother' is visible. In 2009 she was appointed the first ever women Poet Laureate, and described how 'what my appointment celebrates is the contribution of the great women poets.' [10] This acute recognition and awareness of the poetic grandmother is mirrored throughout one of Duffy's most recently published poems 'Premonitions' [11] . Dedicated to a fellow female poet, it can be said that this poem retraces the steps of the women's tradition. In the opening lines, the speaker describes 'We first met when your last breath cooled in my palm like an egg.' (ll.1-2). This line could be seen as a metaphor for the legacy of women's poetry which is left behind once the poets are gone. The image of the egg is interesting, as it symbolises a sense of rebirth and therefore continuation of the legacy. The speaker describes their 'sudden wish- though I barely knew you- to stand at the door of your house' (ll.10-12). Once again, this line could be viewed as a metaphor, as the speaker looks to a time when although 'poetic grandmothers', were longed for, they were not so evident.

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As the poem progresses, the persona describes how they 'saw you open the doors to the gift of your garden.' (l.18) This is perhaps an allusion to the new ideas women's poetry has presented. The imagery of opening doors, also, could illustrate a change in perception of women's poetry, as the 'poetic grandmothers', become more prominent. Duffy's poem presents a direct allusion to Plath's 'Lady Lazarus', which is visible as the speaker describes 'ash hair flare and redden' (l.34). In 'Lady Lazarus', women were portrayed as being restricted by their sex. However, it is possible to see 'Premonitions', as a sort of remedy for this restriction. It allows the idea of being both a woman and a poet to be celebrated as women are no longer restricted to one single role. The final lines of 'Premonitions', appears to present a sense of optimism for the future of the female tradition. The speaker describes 'Then time only the moon. And the balm of dusk. And you my mother.'(ll.37-8). The reference to the moon suggests once again a rebirth of ideas, and continuation of the tradition. The final word 'mother', resonates and can be said to portray a final sense of gratitude and celebration.

It can be said that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, an awareness of the idea of 'poetic grandmothers', has developed considerably. Adrienne Rich once described the twentieth century as 'a time of awakening consciousness' [12] , for women's poetry, and such a contention can be traced throughout the writing of Carol Ann Duffy. When 'Alphabet for Auden', was written, at the beginning of Duffy's career, the presence of such 'grandmothers', was difficult to detect. However, it is evident that a great change has occurred. The appointment of Duffy as the first female Poet Laureate signifies the extent to which women's poetry has developed. In all, it is clear that in the present day, not only are women poets aware of their poetic grandmothers, they are able to respond to them and continue the legacy of female poetry.

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