ANNIE FINCH • featured poet
        • page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

        • Poetess
         1 2 3 4 5 6

        • 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


The Poetess in America

            In the nineteenth century, the term "poetess" was typically a conventional compliment to, or acknowledgement of, any female poet's femininity.  During the twentieth century it became more often a label of contempt and condescension.  In the twenty-first century, the word "poetess" has taken on an objective literary meaning for the first time.  It has been revived to delineate a specific poetic tradition in which many women poets, and some men, have taken part (see Davis, Finch, and Mandell, 2003).  This poetic tradition involves particular techniques and strategies that are markedly different from those of the Romantic and post-Romantic poetic traditions.  In this essay,  I will use the term Sentimentism to refer to the poetic techniques and conventions developed by the poetesses, in order to clearly distinguish their methods and aims from those of poetic Romanticism.

            The lineage of the "poetess" in America includes such poets as Lydia Sigourney, Frances Osgood, Elinor Wylie, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anna Hampstead Branch, Louise Imogen Guiney, Frances Harper, Babette Deutsch, Louise Bogan, Emma Lazarus,  Leonie Adams, and many others.  The poetess tradition has also affected or influenced the work of such poets as Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore, and more recently, poets as different as Carolyn Kizer, Louise Gluck, Lucille Clifton, and Jorie Graham. Since the Romantic and post-Romantic poetic traditions have dominated American poetry since the early nineteenth century, to consider poetess's poetry in its own terms is both a challenge and a source of great potential rewards.   Though the techniques of repetition and conscious artificiality in Sentimentist poetry can strike contemporary readers as unnaturally simple, if the poems are read as they were meant to be read—slowly, with an open heart, and listened to with the body as well as the mind—it is possible for even highly educated contemporary readers to experience the appeal that has kept the poems of such writers as Teasdale and Millay alive and well-loved for decades after the works of more sophisticated poets have been abandoned.

            Unfortunately many of the most important works by the nineteenth-century poetesses, such as Lydia Sigourney's  Selected Poems (1800) and Frances Osgood's Poems (1850), were out of print during the entire twentieth century.  The best primary source for nineteenth-century poetess's poetry is thus two recent anthologies:  Cheryl Walker's American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century and Joan Sherman's African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century.

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