ANNIE FINCH • featured poet
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        • Poetess
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        • Mowing
        • Chain of Women
        • A Wedding on Earth
        • Final Autumn
        • Two Bodies
        • A Carol For Carolyn
        • Paravaledellentine:
            A Paradelle
        • Louise Labé –
          • Sonnet 10
          • Sonnet 13
          • Sonnet 14

          • Sonnet 16
          • Elegy 2

CRITICAL ISSUE winter 2002
 The Poetess in America
  — by Annie Finch

— page 3

Form and the Poetess

        Poetess poetry often makes use of poetic forms that were easily imitated by people without access to much formal education, a group which included most women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Laura Mandell has pointed out the influence of class and gender considerations on such stylistic choices.  Ballad stanzas and iambic tetrameters and trimeters were akin to the popular ballad forms familiar to people of the working classes.  Many poetesses did not have access to the money and time necessary to learn thoroughly the most prestigious poetic meter, iambic pentameter, whose mastery involved reading and studying books by canonical male poets.  This fact alone helped until recently to bar poetesses from the canon of respected writers, a view which John Crowe Ransom made explicit by claiming, in his essay on Dickinson, that she never achieved true greatness as a poet because she did not use iambic pentameter.

        Though many poetesses, notably Maria Brooks, Lydia Sigourney, and Phoebe Cary, did write some poems in iambic pentameter, most favored other meters, including ballad stanzas, anapests, and trochees.  These meters have had a much longer life in oral poetic tradition than in written poetry, and they were frequently used in children's and popular poetry through the mid-twentieth-century.  Because of their association with oral tradition, such meters have often not been varied as subtly as is iambic pentameter, a fact that added to the feeling that poetess's poetry was not as metrically complex as Romantic poetry.  

        Aside from its insistent meters, one of the key formal aspects of Sentimentist poetry is its free use of repetition.  Repetition is an oral-based poetic technique, undermining the primacy of written over heard language and reminding the eye of the ear’s primacy.  It pulls the reader down from the vicarious bardic literary perch and into the preliterate, childlike, even nonhuman body. The very same qualities that make obvious verbal repetition anathema to the post-romantic twentieth-century reader are the qualities that make it such an integral part of the successful Sentimentist lyric.  Repetition’s qualities of unself-consciousness, physical pleasure in form, orality, and slowness of texture are all qualities intrinstic to poetess's poetry generally.   They connect a Sentimentist lyric to its roots in folk and oral-based poetry.

        Repetition can function at its most effective to render language unfamiliar and to lend words a totemic power that is not based on their representational powers.   Sara Teasdale's “Let It Be Forgotten,” for example, uses a subtle texture of repetition to enact the process of forgetting, giving the very word "forgotten" a reified presence through insistent repetition and finally covering up the word itself, like the forgotten thing, in snow:

“Let It Be Forgotten”
Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten forever and ever,
Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.
If anyone asks, say it was forgotten
Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
In a long forgotten snow.

        The word “forgotten” occurs four times in the first stanza, along with one forever” and one “fire.”  The second stanza has only one “forgotten” and one “fire.”  One “flower” and one “footfall” take the place of two of the forgotten “forgottens”; one “forgotten” is buried in snow in the final line; and the final “ forgotten” from the first stanza has, indeed, disappeared without a trace. Teasdale's poem shows an achievement on a literal level of linguistic tangibility, of "opacity," to use experimental poet Charles Bernstein's term.

        Repetition in Sentimentist poems appeals to the reader's sense of space, being, and unindividuated consciousness rather than attempting to satisfy desires for discursiveness and a distinct romantic subjectivity.  In Teasdale's “Night Song at Amalfi,” for instance, the device of repetition links the speaker viscerally with the sky and the sea, echoing through the heart of the poem like a vacuum.  At the same time it allows a new mood to enter the poem, as the tone of the concluding question changes from plaintive to defiant in the echoing silence following the repetitions.  But it does all this without words, because repetition is, paradoxically, a wordless technique.

Night Song at Amalfi

I asked the heaven of stars
What I should give my love—
It answered me with silence,
Silence above.
I asked the darkened sea
Down where the fishers go—
It answered me with silence,
Silence below.
Oh, I could give him weeping,
Or I could give him song—
But how can I give silence
My whole life long?

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