Shining Performances

Consorting with Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets
by Deryn Rees-Jones, 298pp, £10.95; Modern Women Poets edited by Deryn Rees-Jones, 416pp, £9.95; both titles published by Bloodaxe Books

It was exciting to receive this book of essays and its companion anthology. Rees-Jones is an ideal author and editor of the subject matter, too:  a critical thinker as well as a poet in her own right. Consorting with Angels is not a volume that makes a particularly easy read, especially for non-academic readers; which in some ways I admire (Bloodaxe have published a number of unapologetically academic titles on modern poetry), but in other ways I think rather a shame, because there is a great deal of interest here - biographical, anecdotal, thematic and critical, to appeal to the general reader.

It is an ambitious project, and certainly does justice to the poets who are included. There are some great vignettes in here, and enough names to enrich anyone's knowledge of women poets. A prevailing concern throughout the book is that of fashioning a place for the woman poet in a male-dominated tradition, in (certainly in the first half of the twentieth century) a male-dominated world. One aspect of this is a literal engagement with fashion and self-fashioning; with Edith Sitwell in particular, Rees-Jones explores the elegant artifice in dress and performance which became the hallmark of this poet, particularly after the Faćade years of the 1920s (interesting to hear too that Sitwell's favoured method of performing Faćade
was through a sengerphone, a kind of loud hailer, and often behind a screen). It is as if the indefinite parameters of her position as a woman poet must be masked or bolstered either by a contrived absence on stage, or by a larger than life stage presence. Sitwell loved to play and parody (Tennyson in 'Sir Beelzebub' crossing the bar floor), but was also aware of her modernist contemporaries, Gertrude Stein in particular. 'Women's poems should above all things, be eloquent as a peacock... there should be a fantastic element, a certain strangeness to their beauty' wrote Sitwell in 1925. I'm still not entirely convinced as to the quality of Sitwell's poetry per se, but her sense of performance, of rhythmical play, of a subversive surrealism (though she disliked the movement) do anticipate - perhaps influence - later women poets, searching for ways of articulating female psyche and soma in their writing.

Performance and play recur in the poetry of Stevie Smith, whose preferred costume was disingenuously girlish. Smith famously decorated her poems with faux-naēve drawings, some of which are reproduced in both critical text (which made me smile) and anthology. Rees-Jones gives her work careful consideration though confesses herself less than enthusiastic about Smith's child-like stage presence. Her analysis of the dramatic monologues is perceptive and is a welcome reminder of Smith's elusive cleverness. Rather than using dramatic monologue merely to subvert our expectations of (often oppressively gendered) myth and fairy tale, Smith is idiosyncratically successful at planting uncertainties in monologist, interlocutor and reader. 'What is that darling? You cannot hear me? / That's odd. I can hear you quite distinctly' says Rapunzel's ardent lover in 'The Afterthought'. Rees-Jones highlights just how prevalent ghostly voices and tragi-comic mishearing are in Smith's verse: a subtler poetic quality than the straightforward revisionist use of myth and monologue of later poets. I spotted a misquotation from 'Not Waving But Drowning' (and later one from 'Daddy' in the Plath chapter), which niggled a bit, but didn't spoil the substantial thinking going on here.

Plath is the subject of the third, also substantial chapter: can subtlety be part of the poetics of this iconic writer who champions poetry as a 'fist that stuns and excludes? There is an inevitable garnering of previous critical opinions here, but new to me were Plath's interest in Sitwell, and admiration of Smith (she wrote a fan letter); yes, the endless self-questioning of the journals, the tortuous attempts to retrieve and repel Plath's ghostly father-figure; all receive analysis; but also an interest in and palimpsest of allusions to surrealism proper (including the conceptualisation of the body as machine parts), and this was an aspect of Plath which I found refreshing; a missing piece of the jigsaw - or the twist that threw Plath's poetic jigsaw into sharply disrupted relief. Rees-Jones suggests that we could distinguish between the child acting (or acting-out) of Smith, and the adult performance concerns of the suicidal Plath. However, she admits this would be a neat but artificial line, and I tend to agree. The next chapter, on Sexton, continues to explore performance, as a necessary device to offset the raw material of the confessional poem. Sexton is pivotal too as the author of the 'Consorting with Angels' 'title' poem; the startling dismantling of the female body ('I was tired of the gender things'), the narrator instead taking on an alien, dream like form, inspired by angels, 'no two made in the same species... / each one like a poem obeying itself'. A strong stand indeed for resistance to categorisation.

Of course, it is virtually impossible to write - or read - a book such as Consorting With Angels without attempting some kind of categorising of its material. The later section of the book unavoidably slips into more groupings of names, as Rees-Jones explores the chief concerns of contemporary or near-contemporary women poets, but she keeps the differences between voices clear enough. Dramatic monologues are very much to the fore. But Feaver's are arguably more complex and involved than Duffy's comic subversions (with which I agree). Selima Hill is something of a one-off, though her affinity to surrealism becomes stronger as her work develops, and this places her in the general trend of surrealist writing Rees-Jones identifies as a woman-poet strategy. A more concrete grouping (ironically) is suggested by those poets who feel themselves 'uncategorisable' regarding nationality, linguistic affiliation: Kay, Alvi, Lewis et al. These end-of-the-volume essay chapters are informative - as is a fascinating reading of Medbh McGuckian's Freudian sources (literally Freudian: she uses phrases from Freud almost verbatim). Lavinia Greenlaw ('science poetry', but more than this) and Alice Oswald - the label of 'nature' poet would clearly not do her justice, nor does Rees-Jones attempt to apply it - finish off the book.

A treasure house of names and nuances then; but I missed much acknowledgement of linguistically experimental strands of Veronica Forrest Thomson, Denise Riley and the like (though these two do make welcome entries in the accompanying anthology). In an area of poetry that is both innovative and marginalized, women are still in something of a published minority, though anthologies such as Reality Street's 1996 Out Of Everywhere
helped to broaden the readership of innovative poetry by women. That anthology included names from America as well as Britain, and this pinpoints another absence for me: surely if Sexton was a major influence on British women's poetry, in these days of increased communication, there could be a little more examination of poetic cross-fertilisation between America and Britain. A mention of Guest or Hejinian would have been welcome. Of course, selective essays and anthologies cannot cover everyone and everything, as Rees-Jones is the first to admit. And yet, and yet... it might have been possible to take a few more risks. So do buy these two volumes, but make sure you take further reading risks yourself.

Regarding the anthology; I thought Modern Women Poets
made an inspiring introduction - or new perspective - on many of the poets represented. Useful to cross-refer from the critical book (though I would have liked a more extensive selection of Plath, Sexton and Smith), and also a nice introduction to each poet with biographical sketch and critical quotations. There is a downplaying of linguistically innovative work, but not a total absence. Rather more ironically, Elizabeth Bishop (who stipulated her work was never to be presented in women-only anthologies) is represented merely by a paragraph of critical comment: her work the absent, influential centre of the whole project, in a way. Rees-Jones couldn't put herself in the anthology either, of course - but she has made an impressive critical contribution nevertheless.

Finally, also published by Bloodaxe alongside these two books is Eliza's
Babes, an anthology of 'four centuries of women's poetry in English', edited by Robyn Bolam at £10.95. Another good resource book which helps to widen the historical poetic canvas.

          © Sarah Law 2006