Sarah Corbett charts and celebrates twentieth century women poets, and encourages young women writing now to read the work of their poetry mothers and grandmothers
When I was growing up and learning about literature, I didn’t encounter any women poets until I did A levels at the local college. At school in North Wales we only read male poets: Dylan Thomas, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, R.S. Thomas – poets I am grateful to being introduced to, but no women. The effect of this was that, after I had assigned the poets a place at the right hand of the gods (encountering poetry for me was nearly always a transcendent experience), I was left out of this Olympus. Not only could I never reach such heights, but I was, as my teenage body never tired of reminding me, female.
An enlightened A level teacher gave us poems to read and discuss without assigning an author, specifically to obscure their gender. Here I read Stevie Smith, Marianne Moore and, most importantly, Sylvia Plath. Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’ and ‘Elm’ were the first poems (after Hughes’s Crow) that I felt I got entirely inside of, or that got inside of me. But these were poets who existed at a distance, already dead. I had no real concept of the living poet writing now. Although Hughes was still writing and publishing, with Birthday Letters as yet in the future, I had no idea of this, and by the time my first collection, The Red Wardrobe, shared the T.S. Eliot shortlist with Birthday Letters, it was too late to meet Hughes in person.
It wasn’t until the third year of my undergraduate degree at Leeds University that I was introduced to the concept of ‘contemporary’ poetry, through Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Penguin, 1982). Out of twenty-one poets represented, only five are women: Medbh McGuckian, Penelope Shuttle, Carol Rumens, Anne Stevenson and Fleur Adcock. Heavily marked and underlined in my thirty-year-old copy are Shuttle’s ‘Three Lunulae, Truro Museum’, Adcock’s ‘Against Coupling’ (starred!) and ‘The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers’, and Stevenson’s ‘The Marriage.’ Shuttle’s and Adcock’s poems still leave me thrilled and breathless, and it astonishes me how these poets have not become major national figures.
This array of subjects – a focus on the female embodied experience, in particular sexual power and the possibilities it gave women for freedom through transgression – were to fuel my own early poems
I can only guess now at the essay question I was attempting to answer but tantalising clues remain; notes on the poems remark on fertility and the body, women’s sexuality, power and transgression. Underneath Shuttle’s poem I’ve written, “transcendence outside time – revelation” as the speaker in the poem leaves the museum and enters “the thin gold / remains of autumn.” In pencil on the page, I’ve tried to work out the rhyme scheme of Rumens’ sonnet ‘The Freedom Won by War for Women’, a Petrarchan sonnet with many half rhymes I can now see with my practised eye, although at the time it clearly eluded me. This array of subjects – a focus on the female embodied experience, in particular sexual power and the possibilities it gave women for freedom through transgression – were to fuel my own early poems, and emphasises the influence this encounter with these poets had on my nascent ambition. Still, the notion of a contemporary poetry as a living, continually evolving river of poets and poetry, a river I, a young woman from an obscure background, could join, was never mentioned; it was something I was going to have to find for myself.
It was through reading Medbh McGuckian that I came across Eavan Boland. This discovery, and the controversy that surrounded The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (ed. Seamus Deane, 1990), which failed to publish one contemporary Irish woman poet, pivoted my undergraduate dissertation, initially on poetry and politics in Seamus Heaney, towards Boland and her contemporaries, and helped to define how I read poetry from that point onwards. At the time, Boland’s work was obscure. My dissertation supervisor (an Irish poetry ‘expert’) had never heard of her, and it was my dad who was to ring around Ireland’s libraries and second-hand bookshops to hunt down any work by Boland in print. I now own three very rare and fragile editions of The War Horse, Night Feed, and In her Own Image (with drawings by Constance Short). In many of these poems, and of the poets mentioned above, I can hear the echo of Sylvia Plath and these lines in the opening poem appear to address Plath directly:
In a nappy stink, by the soaking wash
Among staked dishes,
Your glass cracked,
Your luck ran out.
(from ‘Tirade for the Mimic Muse’)
Although Plath’s influence is heavy in Boland’s early work, by the publication of Night Feed (1982), she had found her territory and her voice. But it was thrilling to find Plath here, and to start to trace a lineage of twentieth century women poets that took me to Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and feminist poets and activists such as Judy Grahn and June Jordan.
I may get away with appearing well-informed these days, but back then, in the late eighties and early nineties, I was fumbling my way forwards in the dark. There was no internet, I had no access, yet, to the ‘poetry world’ such as it was, and I didn’t know anyone who was writing poetry seriously until I was introduced to the Leeds women’s poetry collective Airings, who published some of my first poems and gave me critical feedback and encouragement. It was perhaps they who put me onto the new wave of women’s contemporary poetry. Again, it was through anthologies such as The New Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1993) that I came across, for the first time, work by Carol Ann Duffy, Lavinia Greenlaw, Kathleen Jamie and Jo Shapcott, poets I was to follow assiduously throughout their developing careers. More important though, was Linda France’s Sixty Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2003) which was, as France points out in her introduction, ‘a necessary sister volume to The New Poetry’ (France, pg. 14), and which gave a far broader picture of contemporary women’s poetry in English, including poems by Moniza Alvi, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Sujhata Bhatt and Grace Nichols. Alvi’s The Country at My Shoulder (Oxford University Press, 1993) encouraged me to explore lyric lucidity and attention to language, whilst poems such as Bhatt’s ‘White Asparagus’ gave permission to flood poems with a specifically female, body-centred eroticism:
Who speaks of the green coconut uterus
the muscles sliding, a deeper undertow
and the green coconut milk that seals
her well, yet flows so she is wet
from his softest touch?
(from ‘White Asparagus’)
It’s this poem, I’m sure, that sits obliquely behind my own ‘Green Rose’, a poem about an abortion, from my second collection, The Witch Bag (Seren, 2002), ‘You are my daughter of the green rose, / you demand water daily. You root, / put out leaves to catch my rain.’ (Corbett, 2002).
If I was consciously imitating (I would do reams of ‘exercises’) it would be from Keats or Hopkins, Wordsworth or Bishop (I spent half a year writing endless – awful – villanelles) but I wrote ‘Venus on her Birthday’ directly after reading Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’:
This is my big day.
Here I am, blushing,
a sherbet and cream harlot
blown in on a seashell.
Have I missed something,
cold as alabaster as I am?
I crave a muscular warmth,
a hand reaching out, sighing.
Instead, it’s raining roses,
their wet scent staining the light.
They are bloodless, washed out versions,
a silence for shouting.
On the shore a man paints.
With his brush poised, he waits, waits.
(from ‘Venus on her Birthday’)
The poem is an echo, perhaps, answering Duffy’s poem, and the boldness and political assiduity of her early work gave me courage and certainty to pursue poetry at a time when I was directly involved in environmental and left-wing activism. It wasn’t until my ‘breakthrough’ poem ‘The Red Wardrobe’ that I felt I had found my way to my own poems in my own voice, but what was present in reading and responding to these poets was an environment of encouragement, through reading and discovery, that gave permission for my own work to emerge.
In the mid 1990s someone passed me a leaflet about The Arvon Foundation, and with a bursary (I paid the remaining £150 fee at £10 a week) I was able to attend my first creative writing course. The tutors, poets Susan Wicks and Moniza Alvi, were the first living, published poets I’d met; my feeling on returning from that week at Arvon was of my skin being lined with gold. Susan Wicks remained a mentor and support for many years, and she directed me early on towards the Eric Gregory Awards (which I was awarded in 1997 for The Red Wardrobe), and the MA in Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia. Wick’s eighth collection, Dear Crane (Bloodaxe, 2021) is testament to her continuing achievement – there’s no one who quite matches Wick’s magician’s blend of lightness and lightning-struck revelation.
I imagined myself surrounded and supported, generations of women poets standing behind me as I sat at my desk and worked into the small hours, lost in the revelatory, the transformational, art of poetry
It would be hard to say these days that women poets are underrepresented in publishing or on prize lists (although this obscures the struggles women still face in building sustainable careers in writing, and further obscures class and economic privilege). I’m continually nourished and inspired by the new generation of women poets, Liz Berry reciting her Forward prize-winning poem ‘Republic of Motherhood’ at the Royal Festival Hall, Victoria Kennefick’s stunning debut Eat or We Both Starve sending me to revise a batch of new poems, and Naush Sabah’s energising editorship of Poetry Birmingham. However, with a prevailing insistence on the new (and often the young) poet, and the sheer volume of poetry published, we are in danger of losing the work of the generation of women poets who were coming to prominence in the nineteen eighties, nineties and early two thousands. No artist exists or emerges in a vacuum, and all those oppressed fighting for a voice have needed first to reclaim a heritage. If successive generations of poets fail to read and celebrate the work of their poetry mothers and grandmothers, they not only lose a vital heritage, they in turn condemn their own work to future obscurity.
In her introduction to Sixty Women Poets Linda France underlines the importance of “charting and celebrating what can be seen as a renaissance in women’s poetry.” (France, pg. 18). I count myself lucky to have been emerging as a poet at the time of this renaissance. It was in the work of these poets that I began to see that I could also find a voice, and a place for that voice; ‘I can do this’, I recall thinking (and have since heard and read of other women poets thinking the same). I imagined myself surrounded and supported, generations of women poets standing behind me as I sat at my desk and worked into the small hours, lost in the revelatory, the transformational, art of poetry.
Sujhata Bhatt, ‘White Asparagus’, The New Poetry, Bloodaxe, 1993, p. 241
Eavan Boland, ‘Tirade for the Mimic Muse’, In Her Own Image, Arlen House, 1980 p.11
Sarah Corbett, ‘Venus on her Birthday’, The Red Wardrobe, Seren books, 1998 p. 51
Sarah Corbett, ‘Green Rose’, The Witch Bag, Seren, 2002, p.9
Linda France, Introduction, Sixty Women Poets, Bloodaxe 1993, pp 14, 18
Penelope Shuttle, ‘Three Lunulae, Truro Museum’, in The Penguin book of Contemporary Poetry (eds Blake & Morrison), Penguin 1982, p. 164