Infinite Differences

Women's Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack (Seren)
Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets,
edited by Carrie Etter (Shearsman)

Here we have two recent anthologies of poetry by women, both of which are edited by ex-patriot American(s) and which are intriguing for their different perspectives. Women's Work is an enormous tome featuring a vast array of poets, mainly twentieth century writers, which unsurprisingly includes many Americans. The material is mainly from a wide mainstream section but includes a lot of names I'd not previously come across, often those working in the USA. It features introductions by both editors and Eva Salzman's long essay - split into two parts - deals primarily with defending the notion of 'a women's anthology' at a time when many might argue there is no longer a need for such gender division. It's a convoluted argument, bringing in many strands and although I think Salzman makes her case effectively - the percentage of women to men in mixed gender anthologies, and indeed in other forms of publishing, notably ezines and paper mags, is very much in favour of male writers - there are inevitably dangers in such demarcations, namely the possible accusation of self-imposed ghettoization. Nevertheless, this is an impressive achievement, a majestic book which is custom-made for dipping into rather than reading in large chunks. It is organised in terms of subject eg. History, Politics, War, Society and in this sense is comparable to Peter Forbes' enormous twentieth century compilation, Scanning the Century.

Part 2 of Salzman's introduction to
Women's Work gives an effective potted history of the development of 19th/20th century poetry in English, with particular reference to women's writing. As this vast book contains material by around three hundred poets it's impossible in a relatively short commentary to give a worthwhile overview, save to say that its organisation by theme throws up some interesting juxtapositions. This is a feast of a book which includes the big names such as Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith and Emily Dickinson while tipping its hat towards the more experimental end of the 20th century - Lyn Hejinian and Lorine Neidecker - and bringing in a host of new names. If the essential aim of this book is to posit an 'alternative canon' suggestive of the breadth and quality of modern poetry written in English by women then it's undoubtedly a qualified success and Salzman is certainly upfront about her polemical engagement in this project. She's a pretty spiky polemicist at times which adds to the flavour of the book and no doubt raises hackles! Questions of taste aside - I'd have definitely left out some of the light verse, Wendy Cope wouldn't have made it in my version of events, for example - I think this book is an effective addition to the anthology project and although I would argue with elements of the introduction and with certain of the inclusions it's a compilation I'm sure I'll dip into again and one which I think ought to be widely available.

A few further observations: it was good to see Rosemary Tonks included, an unusual voice in British poetry who seems to have disappeared from view, it would have been nice to have had a couple more of her poems in this book. Although I knew that Margaret Atwood wrote poetry, I hadn't previously read any and I'll certainly be looking out her collections when I get a chance. I thought that I knew Christina Rossetti's work pretty well but I was surprised to discover here that she'd written the lyrics for 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter'. I'm also a great fan of Edna St.Vincent Millay, whose work I think has been under-rated through the years. My only other negative criticism is that it would have been nice to have had a wider selection of material (at least from
some of the chosen poets) but I guess this is the nature of the beast. This would mean either including a lot less writers or making the book three times as long! Overall, this is a cracking anthology which has taken a lot of time and effort to produce and which ought to stimulate some useful debate!

Carrie Etter's selection is much more focussed; there are only 25 writers, for example and these are primarily working within the UK. Her introduction is much shorter and her argument is essentially that here lies a largely undiscovered group of women poets, working in various ways at odds with British mainstream writing, although she is wary of over-polarising such limiting distinctions. Although she has positive points to make about the Salzman/Wack anthology  (published a little earlier) she also suggests that the work included by less orthodox writers - she cites Lyn Hejinian and Fanny Howe here - is not typical of their writing and that the two anthologies may therefore have a somewhat different 'target audience', always allowing for inevitable overlap. While she also suggests that perhaps women have not been entirely welcome within the British non-mainstream (Robert Hampson is cited here in a positive sense) she generously cuts across her own polemic by quoting Geraldine Monk, who feels that 'there weren't that many women interested in experimentation'.

Anthologies are inevitably idiosyncratic beasts and this one is no exception although there is an underlying rationale to Etter's selection. The organisation of the book is in terms of age, a method which produces some interesting chance meetings. I'm unsure yet if any other generalities can be deduced from this (questions of influence, perhaps?) but the method seems a novel one and is probably as good as any other. I won't be able to discuss all 25 writers but I can say that I found a considerable quantity of quality writing in this book, which covers a wide range of methods and approaches, alongside some material which I wasn't so sure about. Perhaps I should start with some favourites. Several of the writers here produce work which is related to landscape, in various ways, and there seems to be an interesting correlation between witty language and 'open spaces'. Frances Presley's work here is as much to do with the space on the page as with Exmoor (one of her other subject areas) and she combines the sound aspect of language with the speed of utterance as indicated by line spacing and across-language jesting:

     the monocle de mon oncle

     monkey     une

     the monkey's uncle

     ape uncle

     learn to ape, boys

     the monkey is the wit

             (from 'Learning Letters')

Harriet Tarlo mixes quick-witted, cinematic snapshots and strange jump-cuts in 'Inside Story' yet is also capable of sheer wordplay pleasure as in this extract from 'A Spoon for Stein':

     around its filling is a centre throw it a spoon
     is a missile hit and miss a spoon a mush onto and
     of banana rice pear chicken potato apple
     again spoon spoony tune let it go throw

I've written at length about Elizabeth Bletsoe's work elsewhere but it's worth pointing out again that the sheer pleasure in reading her work comes from its mix of  registers, its variety of diction and the exceptional way in which she fuses experience with learning and makes it all appear so easy and as natural as breathing. Her work is rich and highly-textured and although complex never obscure or unrewarding:

                                                                                   Paths of observance
     newly laid through  contusions of aster, sedum & verbena
     helmeted with bees; offertories yielding a roman tessera, three pebbles
     from Chesil Bank & a tennis ball. A smell of burning moxa. Sulphur
     being ground with mercury to form vermilion; glazed with madder,
                (Roddock, Robin
(Erithacus rubecula)')

Denise Riley's work has undoubtedly been influential to a younger generation of writers and it's good to see some of these influences at work in this anthology. Her work combines that rare thing, a strong interest in the lyric voice alongside a sophisticated awareness of language fuelled both by a deep involvement with various forms of theorising and also, strangely perhaps, by what I can only call a common-sense approach. As I read her work I find I'm pulled along by its pleasures while at the same time questioning her thinking and often pulled up short by something I'm not sure about. Sometimes you want to go back and think about what's caused the 'obstruction', more often, perhaps, you are simply pulled into the next sentence or phrase and keep going to ensure your pleasure fix. Riley is a writer who makes 'thinking' in poetry a respectable pleasure, something to be valued for itself yet her work is never stuffy or 'resisting' in a clogged or unpleasant way - you just want it to go on and on:

     And I must trust that need is held in common, as I think it my duty to.
     That every down-draught's thick with stiffening feathers
     with rustlings from pallor throats
    as the air hangs with its free light and its dead weight equally

This is a little like Prynne yet it's lighter and its questioning mode has a more breezy lyric touch, mixing abstraction with lyric imagery. It's not as 'over-the-top' or quite as 'tongue-in-cheek' as John Ashbery can be yet neither is it as clotted or as full of resistance as John Wilkinson often is!

Sophie Robinson is the youngest poet in the anthology and one of those who I would say has been influenced by Denise Riley's work. She is one of the better poets in the recent Bloodaxe anthology
Voice Recognition. This is poetry which is extremely sophisticated and rich with literary tradition yet oh-so-easy on the ear:

     Thump me restlessly against the darkling
     Drum of your disquiet, pulse-rattle and
     Wheeze a werewolf-hungry eye a
     Stormy pounding chromosomal ache a
     Scratch of needy charm neglected, named &
     Filed away waiting, charring itself to ruin
    To spoil in the zombie-fleckered dankness,
              ('Glisten, Glisten, glisten, glisten'
                after John Keats & Adrienne Rich)

I liked Zoe Skoulding's meditations on time and architecture, where the language becomes akin to archaeological research, questioning and not entirely sure of itself although not entirely unhappy with uncertainty. This kind of tentative exploration feels very attractive and there's a tautness to her writing which contradicts the apparent caution. Frances Presley's work has a similar feel and this sense of 'unsureness', of everything being open and unresolved combines a phenomenological,
critical approach with a descriptive lyricism.

Emily Critchley appears to be another poet who has been influenced by Denise Riley, in that a critical, philosophical questioning of language sits alongside a lyric sensibility and lo and behold the two manage to get along okay. There's a questioning, inner-voice which is, nevertheless, a public voice which airs doubt and embraces complexity and is also very playful. Enjoyable and impressive.

Isobel Armstrong and Wendy Mulford both incorporate collage and working with existing texts into their method and both are, to differing extents, critical writers (in the sense of their work having a political element) who are also interested in the lyric voice. Mulford's open-field poetics force the reader to focus intently on individual phrases and highlight the text's rhythms while Armstrong's more openly political poetry fuses landscape (of both page and 'actual' place) with critique in a cut-up snapshot fashion.

I enjoyed the textures of Marianne Morris' poetry which seem to revel in the excess of seasonal consumerism - 'Christmas the warm cacophony of spend' - while retaining an apparently aloof yet critical distance. Perhaps this suggests that the power of the (Western) individual in a global economy is limited to observation - 'That selective economic resistance is jokes. That nothing can stop the buyer'.  Not that I'd want to put words into her mouth, so to speak, but the alienated 'objectivity' of this writing appeals to me. Carrie Etter's 'inner-dialogue' mixes resonant lyric phrasing with careful observation and reflection, where feeling is central but filtered through cognition and understanding. It took me a while to appreciate the quiet nature of this writing but I'm getting there! I'll have to try much harder with Caroline Bergvall's work here, though I have enjoyed some of her previous writing and Anne Blonstein's poetry didn't do it for me either, though again, I have found previous work by her stimulating. Frances Kruk's visceral experimentations worked for me at times but I didn't really get Sascha Akhtar's 'distilled essences', despite trying quite hard. This is likely to be my fault rather than hers. I found Lucy Sheerman's 'reconstructed fragments' intriguing, resonant and taut and while the meaning is never fully 'recoverable', as she suggests, there's a haunting quality to this writing, which also appeals.

This is an intriguing collection of work which makes widely available an area (or areas) of contemporary British poetry hitherto accessible mainly through magazine or web publication.  I wouldn't say the differences between the poets in this book are exactly 'infinite' but there is a pretty clear difference between the bulk of the poetry here and that of the material in
Women's Work. Which poses the still interesting question of whether it's possible for poetries which appear so different and are coming from such different 'philosophical' places, to talk to each other. One hopes the answer to this question might yet be yes. Carrie Etter has given reasons for the non-appearance here of Geraldine Monk and Maggie O'Sullivan but it would have been nice to have seen Helen Macdonald's work included. Nevertheless, this is a fine effort which helps to map out the contemporary terrain.

               © Steve Spence 2010