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Women and Poetry

In response to:

Cutting the Marble from the October 4, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

About Rosemary Tonks’s review [NYR, October 4, 1973] of Diving Into The Wreck by Adrienne Rich—how it aggravates me! What does it mean to say “It is not, regretfully we admit it, the ideal classical modern line, which can do every kind of work and for which we are searching; the one with which we can talk and think”? I’ll tell you what I think it means—that R. Tonks has her personal standards and Rich’s poetry doesn’t qualify. Too bad, I think it wrong not to let the reader know at once if the writing is poetry (authentic voice) or if it is not (contrivance). It’s hard to guess from this review which it is; and many other important considerations for a periodical like this one are quite lost. I object for those readers who are women and who particularly want and need to be in touch with the poetry which speaks and thinks from our anguish and outrage, the same which bewilders and frightens us unless it forges something we can use—something that can help us. R. Tonks only hints at the content of Diving Into the Wreck, as if it might be unseemly or old hat. Yet the poems are forged directly for our needs, from blood and sweat and many hot tears, which is the way it must be if it is to midwife our own passionate thought.

Yes, semblables, it is poetry and should be eaten like food seasoned with bitter herbs. It should be reviewed from a feminist outlook, and given close attention, for this is an important collection. Rich has been seeking the stream of her own life and consciousness as a woman for a good many poems over the years. Now she’s far down stream and into the river. She sees what she sees and it is man the wrecker and woman the wreck. This isn’t news, but only the authority of the artist can make us believe that what she sees is what is there. This truth will not be revealed until everyone understands it through feeling it—and we don’t yet, neither men nor women.

She sees also the androgyne, seems to wish the androgyne in her psyche into real life. This is something new and very difficult to talk about. Poetry serves us well here, although other feminist writers and some men are trying to talk about it.

But I must finish with R. Tonks. She says, “We may perhaps conclude that the basic fault of this book lies in the nature of a subject matter already familiar being joined to impersonality of presentation; the result is abstraction or politics.” It really hurts that a woman would say this about another poet; but worse, that it’s so far off the mark. Poetry does implicate politics—politics at the deepest level—and this is why the poetry of women is so fascinating and vital in our age. The deepest level—and who will find the courage to dive? Who does?

I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

* * *


This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he….

It is the androgyne who speaks. Perhaps it has always been—the only one able to master his, her means so as to speak both to men and to women with authority. I wonder if R. Tonks takes for impersonality the voice of authority, the authority of the artist, for there’s nothing impersonal in the imagery. I look for it and I find instead images swarming to their work from everywhere; news items, personal bits of the present, the past, dreams, memories, fantasies, quotations from the famous and from friends. All are engrossed by the artist in her impassioned necessity. There’s no other way to say these things and it’s why we need and honor the artist who can strike sparks from the overheated iron of our consciousness as she does it for herself. We see by the light of these sparks what has been dark…

Jane Gapen

Monticello, New York

Rosemary Tonks replies:

I understand Miss Gapen’s feelings, but one must do the job in hand, which is to review a book of poems. If one wrote only about the subject matter of some of these poems, then that would be very much less than is required of a review of poetry.

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