UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The poet as woman : shapes of experience, a study of poetic motivation and craft in twentieth century women poets incorporating a select anthology Rosenthal, Helene


The virtual absence of women's viewpoint from the field of poetry and its criticism can be attributed to the subordinate position of women in western culture throughout history. Aesthetic standards, though seemingly comprehensive in their authority, nevertheless reflect this absence, being largely the product of a male perception of reality. Women poets have been discouraged and discriminated against in publication, a situation still not overcome despite current popularity, a result of their achievements in this century. The poetry of women has been seen by most men as unimportant or subsidiary to theirs. A contributory factor is that women have tended to focus on intensely observed personal experience, whereas male poets have been able to identify with the governance of men in dealing with broader issues. Thus, in addition to being held back, women have had to struggle against a lack of understanding and respect for their work. In order to bring about a desired situation in which women can participate with equal freedom and authority along with men in matters pertaining to poetry, what is needed is, first, a recognition that the problem exists, and second, an appreciation of women's literary importance past and present in contributing to aesthetic human experience. This thesis is an attempt to foster such recognition by showing a) that there has always existed, albeit frequently submerged, a distinctly feminine tradition in poetry, and b) that contemporary writing bears out that tradition while carrying it further in response to twentieth-century experience. As described and documented here, this tradition has a separate existence, a viability and its own validity. Part of the problem in extending the aesthetic to include the woman's viewpoint is that dominant trends in our century's poetry reflect the unparalleled technological advances in the culture favoring formalistic concerns and innovations at the expense of women's characteristic concern for meaningful content. The Historical Introduction begins with women's songs in Biblical times, tracing a tradition as it reaches its first peak of individualistic expression in Sappho, is seen in the medieval composition of courtly lays, is manifested sporadically both prior to and towards the end of the Renaissance in Europe, and begins gathering momentum in the seventeenth century. The veritable explosion of poetic energy we are now witnessing is the result of increased activity within the last hundred or so years, during which women have produced an historically unprecedented amount of poetry of high calibre in English, sufficient to permit comparative analysis and evaluation. The Critical Commentary, the major focus for the thesis, is an examination of the quality and range of this body of work as exemplified in the appended Anthology. Consisting of 133 poems, it presents selected twentieth-century work by American, Canadian, English and Australian poets. The poems deal with being a woman, or an artist, or both, giving voice to authentic feminine experience. Because the poets seemingly emphasize content, in its fittest expression, the discussion of the poems, like their organization in the Anthology, is predicated on content-categories derived from a study of themes and subject matters. The conclusion emerging from this tracing of a woman's tradition in poetry and from the close examination of its present flowering is that the voice and perspective of half of humanity is being restored in its more equitable ancient proportion to our culture, with attendant implications in the realms of publishing, editing, criticism, standards and teaching. Findings herein demand that standards of criticism should in all justice encompass the woman's viewpoint, incorporating and giving weight to this tradition, enabling women to be recognized as full equals in all aspects of poetic endeavor.

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