what's this ?
what's this ?
excerpts here
excerpts out
peer review
Click on a tag above to see relevant excerpts from this site.
Click on a tag above to see relevant excerpts from other articles in the mesh.
Search this article for any word:

In 1973, Florence Howe and Ellen Bass published No More Masks!: An Anthology of Poems by Women. The anthology has come to signify, in recent literary history, the coalescence of second-wave feminism and mainstream American poetry. In this respect, it might be said to "represent" literary feminism of the 1970s in the way that Alain Locke's The New Negro is conceived as "representing" the Harlem Renaissance. This representative burden impacts how the anthology is received and read, both in this and its subsequent editions. As Howe anticipated in her Foreword to the first edition, the anthology's "literariness" risks being displaced by its sociocultural role(s). "Is this a political or a literary document?" Howe asked in 1973, going on to conclude that "it is neither one nor the other, and yet it is always both." This panel will consider the cultural, political, and literary significance of this document: What it reveals and, perhaps, conceals about feminist and other poetic values of the 1970s; how it has influenced the ways in which anthologies, particularly those among whose stated goals is "poetic change," are constructed; and the ways in which it stands up under the scrutiny of postmodern approaches that are all-too-often dismissive of feminist discursive practices of this decade. Florence Howe will also attend and respond to the papers at the end of this session.


Where Was Our Avant-Garde: No More Masks! and Experimental Traditions.

Whereas the leading experimental poetry of the sixties focused on experiments in form and language, the poets engaged in or arising from various feminisms of the time defined experiment much more broadly. In addition to making room for "writing the feminine" or "breaking open forms" we also considered speaking from perspectives normally marginalized in both mainstream and avant-garde poetics (for example, the experience of women, lesbians, or African-Americans) a form of experiment too. This necessitated also a renewed attention to the traditional forms, in that the forms change when the life experience and the perspectives change, or when people not previously "entitled" to using them appropriate them. For example, the sonnet sequence, as used by Gwendolyn Brooks or Marilyn Hacker, is transformed by the different range of experience for which these poets appropriate it. Consequently, although not avant-garde as groups such as Language Poets or Black Mountain Poets defined the term, No More Masks! was indeed avant-garde in its attention to poetry on the margins of the conventional thought of its age.

Anthology of Seeds: No More Masks! and the Reflective Power of Editing

My presentation will discuss this pioneering anthology as an influence on a new kind of poetry anthology based on the spiritual power of identity and feminist principles of inclusiveness. Drawing on the tradition of women's poetry anthologies since the 19th century, on conversation with No More Masks! editor Florence Howe, and on my own experience editing numerous anthologies, including an anthology of women poets, I will discuss how the tradition inspired by No More Masks! foregrounds the creative power of editing to both reflect and create poetic change.   UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MAINE

ABSTRACT:This paper will attempt to look at No More Masks! through a postmodern lens without succumbing to high theory's tendencies to dismiss such second-wave feminist projects on aesthetic and/or epistemological grounds. As early as its opening dedication, the first edition of No More Masks! invites contemplation on the relationship between poetry and politics. The dedication, reading "to our sisters / in jail / underground / at war / whose lives are their poems," allows for at least two, quite opposing, readings. It can be understood as suggesting that, while poetry can be metaphorically connected to "lived" political and politicized experience, it must not be conflated with such experiences, as long as there are real women in prison, in hiding, or at war. Alternatively, the metaphor itself — "whose lives are their poems" — might be understood as privileging poetic engagement insofar as "lives" is the vehicle rather than the tenor of the metaphor. While placing this kind of pressure on an anthology's dedicatory language may be— and probably should be — seen as undue, the exercise dramatizes the sort of indeterminacy and skepticism postmodernism brings to bear on projects like No More Masks! — and, more generally, on feminist projects like this anthology that are understood to base themselves on "liberal political theory." As Jane Flax has argued, "postmodernism is threatening to some feminists [. . .] because it calls into question the belief (or hope) that there is some form of innocent knowledge to be had." One of the Liberal Enlightenment values adopted by mainstream feminists, the belief in "innocent knowledge," is, according to Flax, the misguided assumption that reason will uncover a set of truths that, when put to practice, will lead to an equitable and life-affirming distribution of power. A key strategy in this paper will be to self-reflexively apply postmodern critical approaches to this landmark feminist document. In other words, the paper will linger on and second-guess its own critique of the anthology's invocation of "innocent knowledge", in order to displace and reformulate critical assumptions and criteria that frequently work to undermine women-centered writing movements. 

PANEL (Poetry of the 1970s Conference, University of Maine, June 2008)


"In jail / underground / at war": No More Masks!, Praxis, and Postmodernism

Ellen McGrath Smith, University of Pittsburgh

In the wake of poststructural theory and the assimilation of theoretically-informed poetic values and practices by the so-called mainstream, it has now become a commonplace to speak of the unfortunate division of American women's poetry into two irreconcilable modes: the expressivist mode, regarded as having dominated during the Second Wave of feminism; and the "innovative" mode, in which feminist praxis is said to be enacted at the level of form rather than of content. This dichotomy has become reified throughout contemporary criticism; it circulated with increasing ferocity and accruing validity during the 1980s and 90s, as various critics and poets looked back on the trends of the 1960s and 70s to form inevitable retrospective narratives that continue to both enable and limit our understanding of the poetics and practices of these decades.

This narrative of dichotomy, however, is not unique to feminist criticism. As we moved through the 1980s and 90s, it was voiced within various critical arenas and indeed had inscribed itself overarchingly in discussions of male-authored poetries, be they in the mainstream or on the margins. With respect to mainstream, male-dominated poetries, works such as Charles Altieri's Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, and studies by Jonathan Holden (especially The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric and Style and Authenticity in American Poetry) voice a growing suspicion that the poetic license for a certain seemingly sincere, present, whole, and direct type of poem and poetic subject was due to expire. On the margins (but increasingly moving toward the center), poets and critics associated with the Language-oriented poetry took the reservations of Altieri and others in a more positivist direction by declaring language itself as the only site for political change. In "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis," Andrews leaves little room for doubt that "writing as politics" must replace "writing about politics," with the implication that politically efficacious writing must contain "a certain illegibility within legibility" in order to dismantle the status quo and force a new kind of reading that would ipso facto further progressive goals(24, 25). The fork in the road of poetics, it would seem, has been stuck right where the New Critics left it: in the artificial division between form and content. Even if we give it a more structuralist and French accent via Roland Barthes, we still have see this narrative underwriting his distinction, in S/Z, between the "writerly" and the "readerly" text — a binary that can't escape being analogous to . . . there it is again. . .form and content. Here is how Barthes defines the "writerly" (or the scriptible): "The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages"(Miller 5). The lisible, or readerly text, is, by contrast, legible by dint of its conventional accessibility; moreover, it is read and, to some extent, has been composed, as a coherent and completed product, constructed to defend its own logic, to announce, through its apparent seamlessness, that its meaning is an autotelic force operating within an economy of forces (Barthes 162). To put this into the language of "the American grain," this division is also the one separating — not without venom — the William Carlos Williams of Spring and All from the T.S. Eliot of The Waste Land; undergraduate complaints notwithstanding, the latter was, to the former, so legible and accessible, so naively mimetic and expressive, as to earn the invective "[TRADITIONALIST] OF PLAGIARISM"(Williams, "Spring and All," 97).

If this is the main divide among poets of the long twentieth century, a division that proponents of the "well-wrought urn" may have tried to bridge, then we have reason to be wary of its invocation in the name of "feminist writing." Yet it is all-too-frequently invoked. Here are some instances, chronologically:

Kathleen Fraser, in 1989, reflecting on her formation as a feminist experimentalist in the 1960s and 70s:

The women's movement came on strong, and poetry was at the center of it. Finally, one imagined, there would be a warm room where the multiple styles of women's minds and bodies and poetic languages could flower. But, in fact, something else happened. There were political needs — raw, bottled-up feelings wanting out — and a call for the immediately accessible language of personal experience as a binding voice of women's strength. Many women focused on the poem as a place for self-expression, for giving a true account, for venting rage, and for embracing sexual love of women. (24)

The English poet Caroline Bergvall, in a 1993 essay:

[. . .] it remains a fact that the great majority of feminist literary criticism is still suspicious of experimental writing and tackles with more eagerness ideas of representation than ideas of displacement. It is also for this reason that feminist writing per se is still primarily associated with works of clarity of intent before stylistic audacity. (30)

Rachel Blau DuPlessus, in her often-quoted "For the Etruscans":

[. . .] the woman finds she is irreconcilable things: an outsider by her gender position, by her relation to power; may be an insider by her social position, her class. She can be both. Her ontological, her psychic, her class position all cause doubleness. Doubled consciousness. Doubled understandings. How then could she neglect to invent a form which produces this incessant, critical, splitting motion. To invent this form. To invent the theory for this form.

Following, the "female aesthetic" will produce artworks that incorporate contradiction and nonlinear movement into the heart of the text.(8)

And, finally, we have Joan Retallak's (1994) explorations of this division in ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)" —

It has been assumed, in a culture that ties knowledge and freedom to self-empowerment, that the power of women, like that of everyone else, lies conceptually in the right to self-definition; politically, in the right to self-determination. Add the two together, divide by "I", and you get self-expression [. . . .] But suppose we think of self-determination in art as invention, where the power lies in creating not just a self [emphasis added] but language games and forms of life that draw on public knowledge and exploration of otherness, thereby re-forming, by their very active presence, the public sphere? (349)

As brilliant and important as I consider Retallak's hybrid essay to be, some of the logic deployed therein eventually turns back on itself, as does so much of the logic we are tempted to exercise at the edge of the form / content divide. Yes, her critique of liberal humanist innocence, a critique she shares with Jane Flax, is enlivening and dynamic, particularly in its concern that valuing accessibility and legibility in women's poetry risks reinscribing the very ideologies, hierarchies, and schematics that have oppressed and marginalized women. She rightly observes that

it has been a general practice to evaluate feminist writing in terms of its developed and un(der)developed images of women — to praise poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Audre Lorde, Sharon Olds. . .for the courage of their content — how their writing exposes previously underexposed negatives, female experiences persistently devalued, suppressed, repressed in a world dominated by male logics and values. (349)

The dark side of this practice, Retallak notes, is that it has served in its turn to marginalize work by women "whose projects have been dedicated to something other than bringing about 'therapeutic' exposure"(350). With Flax, Retallak posits the notion of "exposure" as carrying inside itself the assumption that there is a pure truth underneath certain cultural obfuscations and that this truth can be unearthed. Indeed, one might even see the title of the Howe and Bass anthology, deriving from a poem of that name by Muriel Rukeyser, as subscribing to that wish for the True, the Real, or the Authentic Feminine to be unmasked. In valorizing such a quest without re-imagining entirely new structures, Retallak's argument continues, one is merely infusing an existing structure of oppression (i.e., language, syntax, forms) with new content. To do so would be to admit to a kind of failure on feminism's part, a failure that Retallak sees as a weakness in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Arguing that there is no stepping outside of patriarchal structures, Butler, according to Retallak, sees the feminine as "'sub-text,' either subjugated or subversive (reactive) to the master-narrative"(346); as such, writing by women can only mirror, in positive or negative terms, the status quo. To Butler's assertion that "the critical task is [. . .] to locate strategies of subversive repetition," in the form of irony, parody, or Irigarayan mimicry — Retallak sounds the alarm, and the alarm is not so different from that raised by Andrews against content-focused political poetry, or that raised by Williams against Eliot's thoroughly-modern mimesis. And here is the problem: Retallak herself is involved in "subversive repetition" in that, within the sphere of women-authored poetry and criticism, she mimics what is, at least in general conceptual form, the same critique being leveled in both the male-dominated mainstream and margins.

In the process of burning-in this generalist-cum-feminist critical truism, the 1973 Howe and Bass anthology, No More Masks!, has frequently been yoked to retrospective generalizations about the privileging of expressive modes in Second-Wave feminist poetry and beyond. Here, more recently, is Jennifer Ashton's recapitulation of the narrative in her summation of No More Masks!' editorial purposes: It "is interested in delivering poems in which women expose, question, and resist the social performances and facades — the masks — that otherwise constrain their self-expression"(215).

The narrative has, thankfully, been questioned, enriched, and given plot turns by critics who are reluctant to divide writing by women in absolutist terms. For instance, in this century, Linda Kinnahan and others position a cluster of women experimentalists in-between accessible expressivism and a male-dominated avant-gardism that would do away altogether with the notion of a lyric subject. The rationale for finding such a via media has to do with the acknowledgement that, since women's material relationship to subjecthood has never been an ontological or epistemological "given", a poetics of the feminine that did not grapple with subjectivity in a manner different from that of male authors risked paradoxically reinscribing the phallogocentrism that so many experimental poets claimed to undercut. Another angle in the narrative is the insistence on "the female signature". In this formulation, it matters that the author of a given text is a woman. This approach is in some ways a reaction to the notion, by Julia Kristeva and others, that poetic language, or more specifically, language that is "other" in relation to symbolic and logocentric discourse, is by nature "feminine", even when it is executed by a biologically male writer like James Joyce. Such a notion, according to Marianne DeKoven, "appropriates women's writing to an ostensibly genderless but actually male discourse"(79). To some extent, recent anthologies featuring "innovative poetry by women" claim to make good on honoring the "female signature."

In her problematization of what she sees as the now-reified category of "innovative poetry by women," Jennifer Ashton, though falling into false dichotomies herself (woe to any of us who stand at the edge of this divide!), demonstrates how futile and unproductive this narrative of division has proven to be. In "Our Bodies, Our Poems," a 2006 review-essay that triggered much debate among feminist poets and critics, she charges proponents of innovative women's writing (including Kathleen Fraser, Linda Kinnahan, Julianna Spahr, Claudia Rankine, and Stephanie Young) with a new kind of écriture-féminine brand of essentialism that is no less reductive than the brand of essentialism attributed to so-called 70s feminist-expressivists. She notes that,

if the editors of [1970s] collections like Rising Tides and No More Masks! sought to strip away facades and masks, anthologies like Sloan's and Rankine and Spahr's [that gather innovative writing by women], along with the poets whose work they promote, have explicitly celebrated masks as ways of pointing to the performative condition of any gendered situation. (221)

Indeed, the ensuing responses to Ashton's essay show that there are definitely flaws in her arguments and premises, but what I see as salient is her main point: that there is reason to be concerned about any gathering of women-authored poetries that are marked or said to be marked by some common, and therefore potentially essentialist, feature.

The second salient point to take away from Ashton's essay is not necessarily one that Ashton intended. She argues that the gathering or categorization of innovative work by women can only mean that the editors assume that certain types of writing necessarily emerge from one's bodily sex and cultural gender. She leans on this fallacy as her bottom line, even in a later response to "Numbers Trouble", a piece by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young that takes issue with Ashton's original premises and conclusions.

It is at this moment in the seemingly endless life of this form / content, innovation / expression debate that we arrive at the issue of No More Masks! and the way it has been retrospectively positioned in feminist literary history. Its frequent citation as emblematic of a so-called instrumentalist-expressivist feminist poetic completely obscures the degree to which work we might rightly call "innovative" is contained within its pages.

To begin with, the Howe and Bass anthology opens with work by the very women modernists that so many language-oriented and experimentalist poets — male and female — claim as predecessors: Stein, Moore, H.D. What is even more striking is that these poets appear alongside women who, now or at various points in literary history, have been dismissed — again, by male and female poets alike — as mere popular poets or, even worse, "poetesses". Say what you will about the feminist projects of the 1970s, but there is something more than just delightfully eclectic about finding excerpts from Stein's Tender Buttons and Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded in the same neighborhood as work by Elinor Wylie and Phyllis McGinley, the latter of whose work could be found in the pages of mid-twentieth-century ladies' housekeeping magazines. What is this something more? Most obviously, it has to do with the fact that these three poets' work occupy quite different places along the form-content, writerly-readerly, innovative-expressivist spectrum — and it is their co-presence in an anthology like No More Masks! that recasts these binaries as points along a spectrum rather than brinks on the edge of a divide. In this recasting, it is no longer as feasible to make claims as to which women-authored poetries are more authentically "feminine" — be that the Kristevan choric feminine, the Butlerian subversive feminine, the "feminine" vouchsafed by the "female signature," or the sexual-confessional feminine.

And in terms of political practice, the less feasible it is to make such claims, the better. As I mentioned earlier, proponents of feminist innovation who, with Retallak, make omnibus and disparaging references to "the current pantheon (the new old-girls canon) of received feminist writers"(357) help to narrow the gate for canon inclusion of women even as the male canon continues to enjoy a wider range of contrasting poetries. One huge flaw in Ashton's "Our Bodies, Our Poems" is her stated claim that the numbers disparity between men and women in poetry publication, faculty appointments, and so on, has been corrected since the 1970s, when part of the pragmatic function of women-only anthologies was to redress those disparities. Without going into the numbers here, Spahr and Young were right to object to Ashton's assumption, which is simply and flatly incorrect. As long as the numbers tilt toward male poets, even as at least as many if not more women are actually producing poetry, there will be a more acutely-felt contentiousness among women about recognition and canon inclusion. Subscribing uncritically to the narrative of separation only helps to sift out women on so-called aesthetic grounds even as male poets enjoy a wider range of aesthetic diversity because of their proportionately larger share in legitimizing literary venues.

Consider, for example, a young feminist graduate student who reads the various 1980s and 90s scholarship valorizing "feminist innovation" (in a way that more often than not is fated to be framed as "auxiliary to" this or that manifesto-driven male counter-poetry). She reads, say, Mary Margaret Sloan's 1998 anthology, Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, along with Kathleen Fraser's "The Tradition of Subversion," Retallak's ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM," and some great theoretically-informed feminist criticism of contemporary and modernist women poets. Along the way, she learns that there were strategic but ultimately transient reasons, during the 1970s, for feminist poetry to be clear, accessible, etc. The narrative begins to tell itself. Won't this grad student be surprised to go to the 1973 No More Masks! and find that Kathleen Fraser's early work is included there? That Adrienne Rich's "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," with its self-consciously fragmented female speaker, is no more or less legible than Fraser's "Poem in Which I Accept My Legs"? How does one label as transparent Susan Griffin's "Song My", with its multiplicity of voices and perspectives, intrusion of popular culture into "reality", and its jarring parenthetical accumulations? Maybe the grad student looked at No More Masks! in search of straw-women poets to use in a paper echoing the claim, fed to her in recent decades, that not only was seventies feminism na´ve and governed by a touchy-feely rhetoric that, next to the rigors even of an Irigaray, sounds windy and hollow, but that it was also the seedbed of directly autobiographical declamatory poems (which apparently are OK when coming from male beat poets or their nerdier language-oriented successors). Maybe she did find a few straw women in No More Masks! but not without having to blind herself to what (else) is found there.

My point is this: prevailing literary theories and approaches of any time period — be they poststructuralist or New Critical — have, in the formation of women poets and critics, led many to disown the work of prior women poets. Anne Sexton's and Sylvia Plath's education under poets like Holmes and Lowell necessarily led them to disown, and both quite adamantly, any connection they might have to female precursors like Edna St. Vincent Millay. The stakes are quite high and are as politically implicative as you can get: surely as political as rupturing syntax, using white space, or saying the word "cunt".

Works Cited

Ashton, Jennifer. "Our Bodies, Our Poems." Review-essay of Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the   Innovative Necessity; Linda Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse; Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, eds., Women Poets in the 21st Century. American Literary History 19 (2007): 211-31.

Andrews, Bruce. "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis." The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990.  23-32.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Tr. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bergvall, Caroline. "No Margins to this Page: Female Experimental Poets and the Legacy of Modernism." Fragmente 5 (1993): 30-38.

Dekoven, Marianne. "Male Signature, Female Aesthetic: The Gender Politics of Experimental Writing." Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. 72-81.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "For the Etruscans." The Pink Guitar. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Flax, Jane. "The End of Innocence." Feminists Theorize the Political. Ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Fraser, Kathleen. "The Tradition of Marginality." Frontiers 10.3(1989): 22-27.

Howe, Florence, and Ellen Bass. No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Kinnahan,Linda. Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2004.

Retallak, Joan. ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds). Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 344-77.