Let's agree to differ about the muse. I think we're really talking about
two different things anyway.
So let's talk about women being excluded because they're women. As a
decidedly obscure poet who's been around for what begins to be a very long
time, on the left margins but somewhat connected to what passes for a
mainstream, I've never seen it. I'm talking about the US, where the
complaint is also made, and I'm talking of course about the present and the
First to some specifics. A comparison of the careers of Rukeyser and
Stevens isn't quite fair as an example. By 1923, when he was 44, his
reputation had been established with the publication of Harmonium. That was
during the brief springtime of modernism in the US, after which the
dominant culture went back to sleep. Muriel didn't publish her first book
until 1939. Stevens stayed out of politics. Muriel was an activist.
And of course back then the professoriate and the critical establishment
was almost entirely male. Now women faculty are plentiful in both lit and
creative writing programs. And criticism is dominated by two women, Helen
Vendler and Marjorie Perloff. So what rewards poetry offers in the real
world are being redistributed. But women in these positions of power
haven't rallied to Muriel. If they did her relative (relkative to Stevens)
obscurity would be erased overnight.
To digress for a moment, Sandra Alcoser, a decidedly conventional poet,
happened upon the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, a truly obscure poet until
very recently, a couple of years ago and fell madly in love with it. It
seems an improbably passion for her, but there it is. She's since written
articles, appeared on panels at conferences, and presented the work to her
students. Nobody stopped her because she was promoting a woman poet.
OK, back to Rukeyser. In 1975 I put together an enormous reading (huge
audience, live radio broadcast) of six poets, four of whom were and are
major figures: Muriel, Joel Oppenheimer, Rochelle Owens and Charles
Reznikoff. Rezzie, then I think 81 (he died the following year), had been
"rediscovered" a couple of years earlier by Black Sparrow, in those years
before Bukowski a decidedly marginal affair. For decades he had been
self-publishing his books--he couldn't give them away. Like Muriel he had
been a victim of the red scares. Understand that nobody talks about these
things except in relation to the movies, academia, and the state
department. It's even dropped out of the history of organized labor except
for specialists. So it's not surprising that it's rarely brought up in
relation to poets, real or obscure. While he was self-publishing Muriel was
publishing with Harper, Scribners, etc, and Rezzie, who, like Muriel, has a
devoted following, is hardly common knowledge, even among poets. Joel,
despite a pretty bad biography a couple of years ago, remains obscure.
Rochelle, who I think is one of the most interesting poets around, couldn't
find a publisher for her selected until I came along, and Junction Press
isn't likely to make anyone famous.
Gerald Stern is, in the manner of poets, famous. Adrienne Rich is famous (I
agree with you about her poetry, by the way. I once heard her at a reading
bemoan the fact that her sons, the older then 15, were not daughters.
Warmed the cockles of my heart). Neither are fit to wipe the shoes of any
of the above.
I have no explanation, but I doubt that now, at this moment, gender is the
determinative factor in the making of reputations. If it is I want to see
the mechanism. Let's say I remain skeptical, but wouldn't mind being convinced.
Where it has functioned is in the makeup of groups self-named for the sake
of promotion. Some reputations (none of the above) have been fostered in
this manner, and women haven't seemed to form these as readily as men.
Black Mountain, New York School, Language, etc. I've remained outside
By the way, except in her sex life (we didn't know each other well enough
to talk about it, but let's assume that she was 100% straight) Muriel was
as "masculine," as the term is used, as Stein.
At 06:55 PM 5/5/2003 +1000, you wrote:
>At 11:55 PM -0700 5/4/03, Mark Weiss wrote:
>>Alison: I appreciate what you're saying, but I think you exaggerate some.
>>Men and women have tended to use the imagery of feminine fertility for all
>>sorts of things for a long time--fecund nature, for that matter Mother
>>Nature. The idea of giving birth to art is hardly dependent upon the idea
>>of the muse, nor is it necessarily theft.
>Well, we'll have to agree to differ on that, Mark. I am not
>exaggerating, but it would take a book to say why. The idea of
>giving birth to art is an idea which was seized on and used by the
>Romantics and, yes, it is closely connected to the idea of the Muse,
>and it is closely linked to the idea of the exclusively male artist.
>(The appropriation of female fertility into a male figure is much
>older than the Romantics, but I am talking about that). I am not
>seeking a "victim" status for women. I am trying to make clear a
>particular paradigm, which is quite specific and very well
>documented, that has been used against women poets, both in their
>lifetimes and afterwards, for some hundreds of years. The only
>reason for it that I can see is to preserve poetry as a male province.
>At 11:55 PM -0700 5/4/03, Mark Weiss wrote:
>>Mary Shelley doesn't seem to have been
>>a victim of the muse. Only idiots buy the ubermensch stuff at this date,
>>and not too many of those. Many are edited out of the picture for a time
>>or forever, for a variety of reasons or just because of dumb luck--to
>>ascribe this in the case of women to some kind of male conspiracy seems a
>>bit over the top, especially in the modern period. Muriel Rukeyser, for
>>one, never lacked for major publishers (the editors were almost invariably
>>male). In the wake of the early days of the feminist movement she became a
>>very minor celebrity--at readings (she read in various of my reading
>>series' several times in her last decade) a small group of younger women
>>>would gather around her--but she had never been invisible. Neither
>>>was I think you
>>>get my drift. I don't think any one of them worried a lot about the muse.
>You are of course talking about exceptional women; but let's look at
>them. Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecroft's daughter, which gives
>her a rather unusual heritage for the time: she was unusually aware
>of the issues of gender. Muriel Rukeyser is by no means listed as
>one of the "greats" of 20C American poetry (in the way for example
>Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell or any other number of recognisable
>names are) despite the fact that the best of her poetic achievement
>places her there squarely. It is said of Rukeyser that her poetry
>suffered because she was a single mother; I have often wondered why
>her simultaneous persecution as a communist in the McCarthy era is
>never considered as a factor in her years of silence. If a man was
>in the same position, a sole father and a persecuted political
>activist, the focus would be on the presecution; the emphasis because
>she is a woman is to focus on her personal life and to forget to
>mention her public life.
>HD is considered a minor and often eccentric figure compared to her
>contemporaries and suffered from some (to say the least) harshly
>dismissive reviews from Randall Jarrell, whom I otherwise admire,
>because of the female focus of her later poetry (Trilogy and so on).
>HD was most certainly concerned with the idea of the woman poet and
>the muse. Gertrude Stein could be admitted through the paradigm
>because she was a "masculine" woman. Adrienne Rich (who doesn't
>compare with Rukeyser, imho, not that it's any disgrace) rose on the
>wave of feminism, and much of her work, both poetic and theoretical,
>deals with the dilemma of the female subject and its relation to the
>Yes, men too suffer from obscurities, but not just because they are
>_men_; it is because they embrace a then unfashionable mode of
>writing, or some other thing to do with their work. What I'm talking
>about is not a conspiracy so much as a cluster of prejudices or
>predelictions which are sadly still extant and in some places still
>dominant, and which affect both the perception of women and women's
>perception of themselves.