Whose Women’s Movement

What if a woman / is not the moon or the sea?” asks the plaintive speaker in Katha Pollitt’s poem “Metaphors of Women.” This brief but hefty lyric, from the 1981 collection Antarctic Traveller by the poet-turned-journalist and Nation columnist, voices fatigued frustration with the symbols that often stand in for, and sometimes shroud and silence, women. (The moon is big and beautiful, sure, but it doesn’t say much and demands even less.) Pollitt’s speaker asks readers to consider a wider range of metaphor: “Say map of the air,” she suggests, “Say green parabola. / Lichen and the stone that feeds it. / No rain. Rain.” It’s a small poem, but it does a lot of work. It speaks up, it shifts the conversation, and, most essentially, it says “enough.” It says “no.” That is the work of many of the poems in the Library of America’s newest volume in the American Poets Project series, Poems from the Women’s Movement. Edited and introduced by poet and memoirist Honor Moore, the anthology presents a snapshot of feminism’s second wave: women speaking up, coming out, moving on.

Like the historical event-focused volumes that precede it in this series, Poets of the Civil War and Poets of World War II, this collection of nearly 100 poems begs to be read first and foremost as a historical document. Here are lines written at the beginning of a social, political and emotional revolution in the lives of American women in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Here are the second wave’s poet-soldiers, their craft and activism fused and fortified. The title of a Fran Winant poem asks readers to “Eat Rice Have Faith in Women,” while Moore’s own “Polemic #1” begins, “This is the poem to say ‘Write poems, women’ because I want to read them.”

Indeed, there’s a life-or-death urgency behind many of these pieces that feels both real and powerful, propelled by an essential and desperate urge to speak: “i am a woman in ice / melting” reads an untitled piece by Martha Courtot. The poem enacts, through language, the fundamental shift that was at the heart of women’s liberation, a shift signaled by the publication of books like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It was the end of an ice age, characterized by Courtot as a great turning to the light: “i never thought / i’d love the sun again / but now my fingers move / in a panic / of wanting to be burnt.”

Choosing poems written between the posthumous 1966 publication of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” and 1982, Moore attempts to create “a portrait of how the inner lives of women came into language during that crucial decade and a half.” Plath’s “The Applicant,” with its terse and darkly humorous discombobulation of gender roles and its dazzling use of slanted rhymes, begins the collection: “First, are you our sort of person? / Do you wear / A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, / A brace or a hook, / Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch?” To begin with a figure like Plath—a feminist martyr to some, a decadent nihilist to others—is to set the stage for an exploration of not only the social and political complexities of the time, but the emotional terrain women then traversed.

This complexity is the collection’s strongest trait, and Moore does well to include poets who question the assumptions of their peers, including, for example, Muriel Rukeyser’s “Not to Be Printed, Not to Be Said, Not to Be Thought,” a tiny poem that reads in its entirety: “I’d rather be Muriel / than be dead and be Ariel.” In two short lines, Rukeyser calls into question a whole set of assumptions about Plath’s means and motives. More important, though, this little lyric offers a big, courageous (and funny) optimism about the scope of a woman’s options in the world. It’s this kind of poem that makes the collection vibrant and vital, a kind of conversation—an argument.

While the written-at-the-frontlines quality of these poems is valuable and instructive, it must be said that some are simply better than others. The first part of a sectioned poem by Michelle Cliff, “Women’s Work,” conveys not only immediacy and clarity of purpose and voice, but the impeccable imagery and syntax Cliff is known for:

The breastmilk of a scrubwoman mixes with the darkening / water in a galvanized tin bucket—spreads with the suds / across the floor—mingles with the residue of daytime / residents—tracked in.

In “Roman Poem Number Six,” June Jordan conjures an image of a postman working “in a dark room / where there are balancing / scales on every table.” After a keen description, the speaker reflects:

I find it restful / just to watch him making / judgements all of us accept. / ‘But you are sad?’, he asks / me looking up. / ‘The world is beautiful / but men are bad,’ he says in / slow Italian.

Other pieces, while they may achieve the aim of voice, don’t quite achieve their ends as poems. Take, for instance, the following poem by Alta, entitled “Miscarriage”:

let’s try again lots more where that came from ha ha don’t say “lost” the baby, sounds like you misplaced it. “let’s see, I had it here a couple days ago…”

While it’s easy enough to see the goal of this piece, it’s difficult to make an argument for the craft. This poem and others like it seem out of place in a collection whose pieces were gathered, one assumes, from a wide, glittering array of candidates.

But this complaint is perhaps just part of a larger one about the book’s scope. Moore does a good job of selecting poems that showcase a range of stylistic and emotional responses to women’s liberation, and she represents well the experiences and concerns of lesbian poets, but she falls far short of reflecting the many shades of the women’s movement. While the collection contains a handful of pieces by African-American writers (mostly heavyweights like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Jordan), it does worse than make tokens of other women of color: It excludes them entirely.

The collection contains not a single poem by a Chicana or Latina poet (no Cherrie Moraga, no Gloria Anzaldua, no Ana Castillo), a Native American poet (no Joy Harjo, no Paula Gunn Allen, no Ai), or an Asian-American poet (no Mitsuye Yamada, no Nellie Wong). In this sense, Poems of the Women’s Movement duplicates one of the greatest failures of second-wave feminism itself: It focuses too tightly on middle-class white women.

Lorde’s critique of the women’s movement for marginalizing the experience of women of color paved the way for multicultural feminists and helped to usher in feminism’s third wave. Read in this collection’s context, her “A Poem for Women in Rage,” with its image of a white woman “pulling a butcher knife from her ragged pants” and attacking the speaker with “‘You Black Bitch!'” seems outrageously misunderstood.

As a third-waver and a Latina, I was eager to get my hands on this collection, thinking I could hand it on to a daughter or son as a way of helping them understand the experiences of the generation of women that preceded my own. But Poems from the Women’s Movement is cropped too close to show the full picture of the movement itself. In the end, Moore’s selections leave her readers with a skewed sense that the second wave was an event rather than a movement, something accomplished by a group of well-educated white women in New York City, rather than a revolution encompassing Asians and Muslims and Mormons—the great and good “Other” that is the epitome of the American experience.

Carrie Fountain’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, cream city review and Southwestern American Literature. She teaches creative writing at Austin Community College and St. Edward’s University.

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Published at 12:00 am CST