Poetry and the Women's Movement

Honor Moore. Photo by Bill HaywardHonor Moore. Photo by Bill Hayward

An exhibition on view at the Schlesinger features five renowned women poets whose papers are housed at the library. Titled "A Language to Hear Myself”: Feminist Poets Speak, the exhibition will be up until June 17, 2016. The show’s title is a quote from “Tear Gas,” a poem by Adrienne Rich.

Of the five poets—June Jordan, Eve Merriam, Honor Moore ’67, Adrienne Rich ’51, and Jean Valentine ’56, BI ’68—two, Moore and Valentine, are still alive. Moore, the youngest of the group and the author of three books of poetry, recently spoke with the Schlesinger newsletter about her work and her experience editing the anthology Poems from the Women’s Movement (Library of America, 2009).

Newsletter: Let’s start with why you decided to give your papers to the library.
Honor Moore: I was proud to have attended an institution—Radcliffe College—that had a library to celebrate and advocate for the history of women. Since I participated in that history, I thought my papers could be useful.

You gave your mother’s papers to the library as well?
Within my papers are the unfinished writings of my mother, Jenny Moore, who left them to me in her will. She had been a writer as a very young woman and then resumed in her 40s and published a memoir in 1968 called The People on Second Street (Morrow). She died five years later, having begun various writing projects that she left the fragments of to me. I’m now writing a book about her that integrates those fragments.

You have written The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent (Viking/Penguin, 1996), about your grandmother; The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir (Norton, 2008), about your father; and now this book about your mother.
Let’s just hope a trilogy is all it will be.

How far are you into the new book?
I’m hoping that I’ll finish the initial draft by the end of the year.

You have written poetry, plays, and nonfiction.
I wrote one play, which evolved out of poems. I feel that my source is always poetry. My grandmother wouldn’t fit into a poem, and neither would my father. In a way it’s all the same project, but really the tree just grew other branches.

Do you teach poetry or mainly nonfiction?
I usually teach nonfiction. I’m the head of nonfiction in the MFA writing program at the New School.

Let’s talk about feminist poetry. Would you say that it exists today?
When I edited Poems from the Women’s Movement, I thought of feminist poetry as an ongoing phenomenon. The wind of feminism was blowing through all of us, and the women who wrote poems began to write from their centers as women.

I began the anthology with the publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (Harper & Row), in 1966. My intuition was that that was the beginning moment, the originating moment. Jean Valentine says that she had a manuscript prepared at the time which reading Ariel made her entirely rewrite.

The movement of second-wave feminism altered poetry by women in this country and all over the world. Women began to more self-consciously put themselves at the center of their poems and to write about female experience openly and to metaphorize it. I hesitate to use the word “feminist” because, unfortunately, in the public arena it implies merely political. And that’s not all I mean. Of course there is politically feminist poetry, but what has happened is much richer and more complex and nuanced than that language suggests.

The book that won the National Book Award for poetry this year—Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (Knopf, 2015), by Robin Coste Lewis—would not have been written without what began to happen in poetry in 1966. It was a sea change, when women became conscious of writing about their own experience.

That’s not to say that women weren’t writing about their own experience before then. Sappho—the first lyric poet on record—was certainly writing about her experience as a woman. However, subsequent to that, various conventions prevented women from being out there with their feelings and passions and rages and even with certain material.

The poem of mine that I would consider my first “feminist” poem is called “My Mother’s Moustache.” It’s a kind of epic poem about inheriting facial hair from my mother in which facial hair is a metaphor for the ambiguities of a daughter’s maternal inheritance.

That era was the most exciting time. We were a tribe. One was always waiting for the next book by Adrienne [Rich] and the next readings by Muriel Rukeyser and June [Jordan].

POLEMIC #1, by Honor Moore

This is the poem to say “Write poems, women” because I want to
   read them, because for too long, we have had mostly men’s lives
      or men’s imaginations wandering through
   our lives, because even the women’s lives we have details of
come through a male approval desire filter which diffuses
     imagination, that most free part of ourselves.

This excerpt from “Polemic #1” is reprinted from The New Women’s Survival Sourcebook (Knopf, 1975), edited by Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie. Published by permission of Honor Moore.

An audiotape of Honor Moore reading the full text of “Polemic #1” is available in the library’s current exhibition, "A Language to Hear Myself."

FRIEND, by Jean Valentine

Jean Valentine. Photo by Max GreenstreetJean Valentine. Photo by Max Greenstreet


You came in a dream yesterday
—The first day we met
you showed me your dark workroom
off the kitchen, your books, your notebooks.

Reading our last, knowing-last letters
—the years of our friendship
reading our poems to each other,
I would start breathing again.

Yesterday, in the afternoon,
more than a year since you died,

some words came into the air.
I looked away a second,
and they were gone—
six lines, just passing through.

for Adrienne Rich

“Friend,” from Shirt in Heaven. Copyright ©2015 by Jean Valentine, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.


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