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Deryn Rees-Jones’ Burying the Wren is a collection which, in its intricacy, soars like the loud and complex bird song which the wren itself is famed for. The quasi-imagist opening poem ‘Three Glances at a Field of Poppies’ suggests that the natural world might be the primary focus, but as the collection progresses it becomes clear that these glances represent the themes in a metaphysical manner. It is a collection moving from ‘an ache’ through the ‘footfalls of sorrow’ to ‘a life | pushed into form’.
I propose that many writers are distrustful of poetry as a form because it is unsafe and exposing, and ask her if writing should be recommended as an apprenticeship to writing in other forms. ‘Poetry is like being in the Marines. That is, before they let you out as a security guard, if you’ve come through that particular bonfire, nothing can scare you. You become used to economy of expression and that doesn’t happen without it improving the precision of your thinking and that’s why it’s radical’. Radical poetry, in the sense she means here, ‘is the opposite of advertising because there the precision is in the service of selling, and any good poet isn’t the business of selling you a point of view, a good poet is trying to seduce you into another mind.’
Gillian Clarke’s Ice is a collection which suggests that rather than pressing for progress, a return to ‘yr hen iath’s heartload of silence’ (the old language, in this case, the weather) could offer more fulfilling relationships with history, the natural world and each other. It is a book about the reassertion of nature as the power by which life should be lived, and through which art finds its greatest subjects. Just as for Louis MacNeice the snow through the window showed that ‘[w]orld is suddener than we fancy it’, in Clarke’s ‘Snow’ ‘[w]e’re brought to our senses’ by the suddenness of black and white.
There are many notorious cases of poets refusing to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, or publically claiming they dislike the connotations of the term. One such occasion was in a 2006 article in Poetry where three poets, Meghan O’Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser, and Eleanor Wilner noted ‘we all concur that we ought to abolish the unpleasant term “women’s poetry”’. It was against this context of competing, confusing and often damning commentary that I asked three women poets to speak with me about the issue of ‘women’s poetry’. Interview with Kate Clanchy, Jane Yeh and Sophie Mayer. Photo by TerryBrock (Flickr). CC BY-NC 2.0.
The unifying aspect of this study is not just the global appeal of Virgil to women writers, or that he is used in various ways to highlight seclusion and repression of women. As set out in her introduction, the writers discussed represent the culmination and cumulating of a generation of women who studied Latin at school or university, ‘all the more remarkable if we consider how the study of the Classics for so long symbolized women’s exclusion from the education and careers available to men’ (p. 2). While this generational dimension is clearly effective, it does raise the issue that as Classics drops from school and university syllabi, the lasting impact of this study may sadly diminish.
As she claims, ‘[w]hile it may be tempting to recover Marson as a less ambiguous poet in order to secure her reputation within the fields of women’s writing and Caribbean poetry, to read her as somehow fully feminine or feminist is to misrepresent her work and prevent future substantive readings’. For all its contradictions and in all its glorious range, Marson’s work is important and it is with this Selected Poems that we can begin to fete, champion, consider and criticize her once more, rather than unknowingly censor or forget her.
I suspect very few critics would give Hughes merely the ‘nature poet’ moniker; it is a tag which would sit uneasily on him and reduce the other effects in his work. It feels uneasy to Oswald too, she doesn’t feel ‘it fits’ her. Nature poetry can be descriptive, interested in how we work in nature, almost cosy, while she prefers a more unsettled relationship with the natural world. ‘I define nature as that which is other than myself. I’m interested in contacting something that was precisely not me in order to work out what I am… it is about two opposites in dialogue with each other, the human and the non-human, which is why it is quite restless’.
By acknowledging the possibilities offered by expansion of knowledge whether through the limitlessness of space or through the complexity of stem cells, Lewis’s poetry stands on the rift between what we know about poetry and what we don’t know about science. Her poetry ventures out to explore new territory that is not even widely recognised as valid ground for poetry. Her range, as demonstrated above, is massive and has moved from the now largely defunct fax machines to the body’s defenses via space; challenging any accusations that the appropriate subject matter for a woman is frivolous. Her writing also shows an appetite for experiences of the unknown and elsewhere, and considers the rewards of understanding that might follow the action of ‘feeling hungry’ and ‘swallow[ing] the moon’.
Women’s destiny in poetry, Boland now proposes, does not just lie in our present and future, but ‘the past needs us’ too. What a weight to carry. Yet it is with ongoing changes to our definitions of tradition and inheritance that women poets across the generations ‘will be able to befriend one another’, and it is in this way that Boland stretches out her hand and invites us to share the load.
There is no common denominator here, except for the obvious necessary selection criteria. The unique Northern Irish background is still obvious in poems such as Moyra Donaldson’s ‘Ulster Says No’ , Sinead Morrissey’s ‘In Belfast’ and Frank Sewell’s ‘Crumlin’. Beyond this, there is sometimes seems great disparity…