Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath—Bryn Mawr class of 1909, Vassar class of 1934, Smith class of 1955—educated women of three generations who achieved preeminence as poets. That sounds like a circumlocution. It is a circumlocution, but I feel I would betray the spirit of Moore and Bishop by calling them women poets. Moore was a feminist, a suffragette, a Woman Who Did.1 Although it appears that marriage was never one of her ambitions, as it happened she made the sacrifice or renunciation common among the women of her time who had a vocation. She was drawn to the avant-garde, to modernism in the making, and if her creations are strikingly impersonal (so that even a poem purportedly about her father turns out to be a fiction), that impersonality is not untypical of modernism. Utterly original, she was at once recognizable as a fellow spirit and equal among the likes of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams.
With Bishop we encounter an emancipated woman for whom men were only intermittently “in the picture.” In her youth she formed friendships with strikingly intelligent non-marrying women and their mothers: Margaret Miller and her mother, Louise Crane and hers, Marianne Moore and hers. She had modest independent means, and therefore was not subject to either of the conflicts between marriage and writing or between writing and a career—her desperate conflicts lay elsewhere. Plath, when she came to read Bishop, did so with great admiration: her “fine originality, always surprising, never rigid, flowing, juicier than Marianne Moore, who is her godmother….”2 Godmother is a good term for that relationship. But who would Bishop’s peers have been? They would have been anyone of her generation, regardless of gender. Robert Lowell was the poet she measured herself against, whose triumphs sometimes inspired in her a sort of generous envy and sorrow.
With Plath we encounter a character entirely different, a “poetess” who sees herself as the latest in a line of poetesses, and who sees her rivals in art as women. It is hard to imagine Moore or Bishop writing anything remotely like this:
Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions). Who rivals? Well, in history Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay—all dead. Now: Edith Sitwell and Marianne Moore, the aging giantesses, and poetic godmother Phyllis McGinley is out—light verse: she’s sold herself. Rather: May Swenson, Isabella Gardner, and most close, Adrienne Cecile Rich—who will soon be eclipsed by these eight poems: I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift, wanting only to train and teach it—I’ll count the magazines and the money I break open by these eight poems from now on. We’ll see…3
She was in her mid-twenties when she wrote this, and the…
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