Elevate Difference

Poems from the Women’s Movement

It’s debatable whether collections of work by “women poets” (or, shudder, “poetesses”) are legitimate groupings. I tend to regard these types of collections with a raised eyebrow, imagining a group of women having an outdoor party, having been shut out of some stuffy jackets-required club, now herded together and pushed through the doors all at once to their dismay. But in Poems from the Women's Movement, the poems are linked with a real thread, a socio-political movement, making this anthology a historical, artistic, and literary record of the consciousness of the movement in both its broadness and diversity. 

In a concise, warm introduction that places the poems in a context of not just the movement, but the greater American poetry landscape, Editor Honor Moore, explains that the scope of the volume begins with Plath, whose posthumous Ariel was published in 1966, and ends with the early 1980s. The first poem in the volume, Plath’s “The Applicant,” is a shudder-inducing representation of what the movement fought against: the repeated manipulation of a woman-object in morphing professional and marital tests ending with a repetition of “marry it, marry it, marry it” that is frightening as hell. 

With anthologies always come quibbles of overrepresentation or exclusion (and those more widely read than I can take it up below in the comments), but the former doesn’t seem possible with this smallish volume—under 250 pages all told—and it seems that Moore has taken great care to include poems on diverse topics and poets with varied perspectives. There are poems on previously taboo subjects like abortion, pregnancy, and rape, as well as those that arise from a collective female and simply human conscience. 

Marge Piercy, whose “Secretary Chant” is anthologized all over, is represented not by that poem, but by the more serious “Rape Poem” and the resonant “The Nuisance”—“I want you to want me/as simply and variously/as a cup of hot coffee.” This theme, the want of a woman to be wanted—probably a want of men, too, but perhaps they’re historically less likely to say it—and a can’t live with/without ’em scenario also appears in Maureen Owen’s “Wanting You”: “this need I have to sleep beside you / that has caused all the trouble in my life.” And I can’t stop thinking about the feeling of collective motherhood expressed in Audre Lorde’s “To My Daughter the Junkie on the Train”: 

Little girl on the nod  if we are measured by dreams we avoid  then you are the nightmare of all sleeping mothers  . . .  My corrupt concern will not replace  what you once needed

Reading the poems in this volume feels familial: the secrets and stories within them are directly responsible and continue to nurture the privileges I exercise today, without serious conflict, as a woman, writer, wife, and mother. This great little volume is well designed and full of wisdom, and I’m thankful to have it in hand.

Written by: Jonelle Seitz, July 6th 2009