There seem to be fewer female poets than male poets but that’s probably a sexist phenomenon. There are fewer PUBLISHED, FAMOUS lady poets, that’s all. Doing a search there are names that come to the top of the list: Mary Oliver, Jane Hirschfield, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I like to contrast the moderns with the Victorians because they make a little study in how much the world has changed. In 1850, assuming you had spectacular talent, “making it” as a poet was a matter of family connections, money and social place. The Victorians valued depth in education. Dickinson and Browning were well read in Greek Classics (in the original Greek), Milton, Shakespeare, et al. Today, attaining prominence as a poet is a matter of marketing and luck. Podcasts, platforms and persistence. Talent trails behind.
Mary Oliver is regarded as the English speaking world’s most beloved poet. I always think of flying geese when Oliver is mentioned. There’s a reason for that. This was the first poem I heard by Mary Oliver: Wild Geese. It’s a good example of her accessibility. Oliver celebrated nature, including human nature. She had a great eye/ear for the natural world’s subtle beauties.
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Now let’s turn our attention to Emily Dickinson. She was such an interesting person that I feel saddened by the brevity with which I must treat her in this essay. She was the daughter of a prominent lawyer, politician and man of civic affairs. This was Edward Dickinson. He provided a liberal and wealthy environment in which Emily could do pretty much as she pleased. She obtained a first class education at Amherst Academy and Mt. Holyoke, and cultivated friendships with the likes of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emily is famous for her reclusive ways. When she was finished with her education she retired into a world that consisted of her bedroom and the extensive family garden. She maintained vast correspondence with the best minds of the era. She also wrote nearly 1800 poems. A year after her death the first collection of her poems was published and became a huge hit. I find her poems cryptic and timeless. Many of them are just a few lines, and, to tell you the truth, I don’t really understand some of them. I plan to read them again, and perhaps yet again. It seems that she was writing for her own pleasure. There was no thought of an audience. In this way her poems attain a great purity.
I like to see it lap the Miles, And lick the valleys up, And stop to feed itself at tanks; And then, prodigious, step Around a pile of mountains, And, supercilious, peer In shanties by the sides of roads; And then a quarry pare To fit its sides, and crawl between, Complaining all the while In horrid, hooting stanza; Then chase itself down hill And neigh like Boanerges; Then, punctual as a star, Stop—docile and omnipotent— At its own stable door.
It’s important to know that Jane Hirschfield is a student of Zen Buddhism. She was ordained in 2011 at The San Francisco Zen Center. Hirschfield gets irritated, however, when people try to identify her poetry as “Zen” or anything else. It’s just poetry. Winner of so many awards it gets ridiculous, Jane Hirschfield is a kind of poetry goddess of our times. She’s 65 as of today. She may be around for yet a while. Her poetry has a kind of practicality. It deals with familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Her poems are full of dogs and horses, images of man’s interaction with nature. There are musings on the dilemma of living within one’s own mind. I find such questions easy to understand. I, too, am some kind of Buddhist.
Rebus, by Jane Hirschfield
You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.
Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.
This rebus – slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life –
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see.
As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.
The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.
How can I enter this question the clay has asked?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born into an aristocratic English family and received a classical education. Getting such schooling was not a given for women of that age. Usually it depended on the father’s disposition. In Elizabeth’s case, dad was a poet and the family luxuriated in artistic pursuits. Elizabeth was educated alongside her younger brother. No feminist outrages here. The Barretts were extremely wealthy and lived within the intellectual mainstream of the Victorian era.
It all seemed so wonderful until I came to the tragic stories of the Barrett family.
Elizabeth’s brother drowned. Elizabeth came down with tuberculosis and had an accident that permanently damaged her spine. In its way this is typical of upper class Victorian suffering. They suffered extravagantly: people died young, children were scythed down by fevers, chronic brain afflictions abounded. Elizabeth spent the rest of her life on morphine, opium and other such medications. Still, she had the stubborn persistence of all artists and produced a huge body of work. This first poem, below, “How Do I Love Thee” is one of the most famous poems in the world. It is also called “Sonnet 13”. I follow it with “Sonnet 14”.
How do I love thee? or Sonnet 13, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Sonnet 14, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.
Thus we have a painfully brief glimpse into the worlds of some famous lady poets. It’s a rich universe and I feel ridiculous popping these classics out on the page so casually. These women were/are great poets! Profoundly human, they deal with universal themes, the glorious quiz of life on earth. Is there a difference between the male and female poets? Are men better than women? Hell no. Somewhere there’s a planet with six genders, each with distinctive characteristics and functions. They quarrel endlessly about whether a frem is superior to a bloot and why forgles make the best musicians. It’s always the same stuff. Art. That useless but essential stuff: Art. P.S. I think the it’s the werkish who make the best Jerk n’ Jell paddle players.
A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good. His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv.
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