Sunday, December 10, 2006

Helen Vendler, Young Poets, and A Mother Poetics

There is a really interesting article in today's Times's book review about Helen Vendler. I like Vendler. When I was a cheeky twenty-something in Boston, I burst into her office one day to get advice about becoming a successful poet. I don't remember her concrete advice, but I do remember that she said something to the effect that "interesting work can appear out of nowhere." She pointed out a book that she had just gotten in the mail from a poet who went to Boston's Museum School who had had no previous success. Vendler then agreed to let me sneak into her poetics class for free. I went to one or two sessions which were great - then life got in the way. Looking back at this exchange, I was frustrated that I couldn't get her to somehow HELP me, or give some magical advice on how to get "known" as a poet. But, in retrospect, I think she was overly generous by merely inviting me (Joe-Blow off the street) into her office and class.

There are things in the Times article that I agree with, and those I don't. Dare I say it, I am of Vendler's opinion regarding "Edgar Allen Poe & the Jukebox," the posthumously published Elizabeth Bishop book edited by Alice Quinn. Although I believe Quinn had all best intensions, I thought the publication was a little disrespectful. As Vendler points out, "for Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to." To my knowledge, Bishop was an obsessive wordsmith. I once heard a story that she pinned poems to her bullietin board for years waiting for one word to complete them. It is ironic that such an obsessive poet have work published without her stamp. And I think Vendler is right in her discomfort.

I do take issue with the fact that Vendler doesn't review poets under 50 because "They're writing about the television cartoon they saw when they were growing up. And that's fine." Strangely, the only poet Jim & I know of who writes about TV is Robert Pinsky, who is over fifty and moves in Vendler's circle.

I do think it's interesting that Vendler notes a "great lack of poetry about motherhood, though Sylvia Plath, she said 'makes a beginning.'" Poetry about motherhood is something that has interested me in the last few years as I write and read about it myself. I think "great lack" might be an exaggeration, but I think Vendler's on to something.

There is a great history of mother as poet and poet as mother. Levertov, Graham, Mayer, Waldman, Rukeyser, Hillman, Harryman, Howe, Sikleionos, Notrly, Plath, and Sexton all had/have child/ren. And this is just to name a few. But, motherhood is lacking in these poet's (and other's) work. I think this generates from the great Rukeyser quote:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.

I think motherhood as a topic has been ignored simply because it is too loaded. Pre-feminism, women's lives were systematically ignored. But feminism hasn't helped mothers much either. I wonder if some feminists schools look at motherhood as a symbol of patriarcal repression. There is such a backlash against motherhood. it is amazing to me that in 2007 women are still fighting over the concept of mom working outside the home, mom working in the home, and the more oblique catagory of artist-mom. Then, there is the whole "childfree" I mentioned earlier that somehow seems to equate not have children with being a more powerful woman. It's no wonder poets are loath to "go there."

But, some do. One of my favorite poets, Jorie Graham, writes of her daughter Emily in Dream of the Unified Field:

On my way to bringing your leotard
you forgot to pack in your overnight bag,
the snow starting coming down harder.

And later,

You turn the music up. The window nothing to you, liquid, dark,
where now your mother has come back to watch.

The poem begins with a sort of quiet brutalness of motherhood. The dailiness, the labor of keeping up with small things that have been overlooked. It sort of has the feel of the endless failure of motherhood and wanting to do good. Then, in later lines, the mother spies on the daughter. The mother wants to keep that intimacy. Oh, how accurate.

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