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Sentimentality, Misogyny and New Zealand’s Women Poets

6th Oct 2014

Janet Frame
I share a house with a silversmith, from whom I’ve commissioned a necklace. “I want it to read poet,” I said in excitement, then paused. “No. Poetess.” 

A mere fifty years ago, this label was less a point of pride, and more a curse. Because my small country, the first in the world to give women the vote, has a tradition of neglecting women poets...

New Zealand’s literary history is relatively young, but has been dominated, from its inception, by men. I should emphasize that by literary history I’m referring to our post-colonial literature, which is far younger than our Maori oral tradition.

I wonder if hanging ‘poetess’ around my neck is a shackle my forebears would shudder at. Poets like Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde, Blanche Baughan and even the more famous Janet Frame.

Poets who were dismissed by their male counterparts as sentimental, steeped in cliché and preoccupied with the saccharine, which, according to essayist Leslie Jamison ‘is our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste.’

“Little winds of dawn come gently to them,
All the living stars, the other stars.
Dim rains passionate with scents bedew them,
My brother stars,
A
nd I go, lonely.

Steadfast and clear their shining —
Are the shadows, and the song of the wind’s pining
For ever, mine only?

The Desolate Star – Robin Hyde
From: Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde, edited by Michelle Leggott (Auckland University Press)

The importance of our women poets is now acknowledged, but only in hindsight. Just a handful of women were published prior to 1960 – to mixed reviews – in few journals and anthologies. Indeed, as late as 1973, a particular anthology featured only a sole woman poet.

The period I’m discussing is, of course, post-war. In a society that had recently suffered atrocities in stark contrast with the ideals of humanity, a return to the nuclear family and, for women, a reestablishment of the traditional role of wife and mother was prevalent in the minds of much of our population.  

Maori poets, women poets and especially women Maori poets were not offered the right to belong to their home, while the white guys stomped the beach and wrote like they were conquering the foreshore and every tree beside it.

But that’s not enough to hang a misogynist national literature on. I believe the neglect, as always, come from a place of fear. How do you control something if you’re afraid of it? You dismiss it. You devalue it.

Women such as Hyde and Duggan made frequent, veiled allusions to the female reproductive organs, such as Duggan’s ‘sorrow as rich as a pearl in a shell,’ a beautiful image, which layers the transformation from grit to gleam upon the direct comparison to female genitalia. There is power in discussing the uniquely feminine, but in dismissing such work as excessively sentimental, it was excused from the literary canon, and thus diminished.

Many of our men did produce excellent work, which I admire and read to this day. But to be accepted, it was all about muscle in all the right places: a sense of place, an emphasis on the concrete and a flex of belonging. But only the right kind of belonging.

Maori poets, women poets and especially women Maori poets were not offered the right to belong to their home, while the white guys stomped the beach and wrote like they were conquering the foreshore and every tree beside it.

“Lord, mind your trees today!
My man is out there clearing.
God send the ships fly safe.
My heart is always fearing.

If he came on me at nights,
We’d know, but it is only –
We might not even hear –
A man could lie there lonely.”

The Bushfeller – Eileen Duggan
From: An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Wellington: Oxford University Press).

One of New Zealand’s most celebrated women poets is Fleur Adock. Adock’s poem Cattle in the Mist stands as a testament to the pain of adolescence, from which I think our literature is only just emerging. “Wherever I happen to live,” she said, “I have always felt some residual feeling of being an outsider. But now I wonder: has being a woman contributed to this?”  

“Such feeble daughters – couldn’t milk a cow
(watched it now and then, but no one taught us).
How could be hold our heads up, having never
pressed them into the flank of a beast
and lured the milk down? Hiss, hiss, in a bucket:
routine, that’s all. Not ours. That one missed us.”

Fleur Adcock –  Cattle in the Mist
From: Essential New Zealand Poems selected by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell (Random House New Zealand)

Her ‘otherness’ is central to this piece, which reflects on memories of her father. The maternal aspect of milking a cow, and its link to breast feeding, ‘missed us.’ The most feminine facets of dairy farming (udders, midwifery, milk-yields and mastitis) are driven back into the mist. Adcock wrote in a time when women were more readily accepted, but her ability to hark back to the neglect of the past is important.

Some months ago the Stella Prize tweeted “If men read more books written by women, the world would be a better place. #discuss.” I replied: “if books by men and women were considered (canonically) equal and thus more books by women were read, the world would be better.” So it goes with poetry.

It’s the twenty first century and we’re still playing catch-up. Adcock appears to know what she’s missed as a daughter of this masculine inheritance. It’s only by acknowledging these women poets of the past that we can move forward, as their legacy. 

Leslie Jamison, the defender of saccharinity, asks us to ‘crash into wonder… to feel swollen by sentimentality and then hurt by it.’ So I’ll wear my ‘Poetess’ chain with pride. It’s my generation’s turn now, not just to write poetry, but to stand for it.

There is still work to be done. The Maori lyrical tradition of waiata, or song, is not yet properly acknowledged by our literary canon. To stand for poetry we have to stand for equality within its ranks, and to look forward, I think we have to look back.

To Duggan, Hyde and Adcock so many other women that were likely dismissed categorically, I owe the pursuit of my passion. For them, I am a proud poetess. 

“Risk your life for them
Up the sharp hills
In the teeth of the wind
If you love me
Bring me daisies
That I will cram
In a bright vase
And marvel at”

Bub Bridger – Wild Daisies
from: Essential New Zealand Poems selected by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell (Random House New Zealand.

 

 

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