This essay is based on the version published in The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (University of Michigan Press, 2005). I updated it with several edits, based on a renewed conversation about these issues on the WOM-PO listserv, on January 8, 2016.
This open letter was originally sent as an email in reply to a passionate plea from a young poet, Mira Rosenthal, to the Wom-Po (Discussion of Women's Poetry) listserv.
Your remark, "But I am left with the perennial question: why are male poets deemed the major carriers of the poetic lineage?" breaks my heart and fires up my spirit. It breaks my heart to see how frustrated you are with your education in poetry, and to realize how little things have changed in the twenty years since I entered the same graduate program in creative writing where you are now enrolled. And it fires up my spirit to recognize how much I now know to tell you about how to change that situation. The answer to your "perennial question" is surprisingly direct and challengingly simple: "The reason (white) male poets are deemed the major carriers of the poetic lineage is because they have worked hard for centuries to make it so, through the acts of criticism that create poetic lineages."
By criticism I mean the entire literary apparatus of reviews, anthologies, journals, histories, panels, conferences, encyclopedias, and textbooks. Critical context is created not only through political power but also through such numerous small acts of persistence, arising out of individual faith and will; openness to carrying on legacies; and cooperation and teamwork. To edit, write, and otherwise create this apparatus is creative and fulfilling work in itself and tends to enrich a poet's poetry. As Eliot pointed out long ago, poets who create a context of other poets, both precursors and contemporaries, in turn strengthen their own work. So, now that women poets are in a position to do some of this work, why are we so reluctant to exercise our fledgling literary powers?
Young poets are often disillusioned by the careerism they see at work in some of these endeavors. I know firsthand how depressing it is to see poets blindfolding themselves to work they don't choose to understand, or blackmailing others to make sure the work of their buddies is included in anthologies. Yet a fierce loyal and self-preserving instinct in male efforts on behalf of each others' work makes itself felt in honorable gestures as well as the dishonorable ones; watching them at work over the past two decades, I have learned great admiration for the generosity of spirit, loyalty, courage and energy that it takes for them to create poetic traditions. It is ironic to learn from their example, since theirs are the same traditions that oppress and ignore women poets now, in the classroom and out of it. Still, we can follow the best of their models in learning how to weave our own critical contexts. We have no other choice, if we are to create thriving traditions of our own.
The reason your professor, Mira, found it so simple to "draw a clear connection from Stevens to Ashbery," and to "leave women out" of that tradition, is that he was following the line drawn by Harold Bloom, following on Stevens' and Ashbery's own critical work and that of their students, friends, colleagues, and supporters over many decades, drawing in turn on the critical work of numerous, mostly white male, critics. The reason your professor would talk only "of Creeley or Olson's use of the modernist project of making a new measure" is because both Creeley and Olson set out their ideas of the measure in their own critical prose. Then their students wrote about it, and other poets and/or critics picked up their ideas and reprinted them in critical anthologies, and other poets and critics wrote books about them, and other poets and critics finally put the ideas into textbook form easily accessible to your professor.
In short, the secret knowledge that answers your question is that critical context creates the perception of literary tradition. Many poets understand this instinctively but others, including many women, are slower to see it. Along with the huge explosion of women poets since the 1960s, there has been a not-nearly-as-large corresponding surge in editing and critical work by women poets. Oddly enough (or not so oddly), the exact era during which women have come on the scene in great numbers is the time during which professional critics have mostly taken over the job of poetry criticism from the former tradition of poet-critics.
Perhaps women have been crippled somewhat by the example of our foremothers, including the only nineteenth-century woman poet who is currently canonized. Dickinson made sure people knew she wrote, sent her poems around to friends, prepared bound books, and must have known perfectly well they would be published. But she made sure to act conventionally ladylike about their reception, as if she were simply waiting to be discovered. Phillis Wheatley, Anne Bradstreet, Louise Labé and numerous other female poets only saw print as surprise gifts from friends. Such reticence was for most of our history a badge of honor; as women we stagger under the long tradition of "reluctant prefaces" that have graced and burdened so many books by women poets. You know, Mira, the kind that begin, on gilt-edged paper, with such remarks as (if I may lampoon them a bit): "I wrote these little verses spontaneously, amid the burdens of a household, and it is only because I am worn down by the constant urging of my friends that I am finally, with reluctant blushes, bringing them into the open air . . ." Contrast this stance with that of, for example, Whitman, who published his own book and then reviewed it for good measure.
The feminine tradition of shyness, in concert with the "I don't think, I'm an artist" post 1960s MFA mantra, has discouraged contemporary women poets from feeling comfortable writing about their own work, let alone adopting the critical confidence necessary to reconfigure canons. We are used to others having the critical power, and so we await a Higginson, or a Vendler, to discover us. But that is self-limiting. Are male, or male-identified, critics really going to discover us the way we could discover ourselves? Perhaps that they owe us that; after all, women have long nurtured male poets. And of course, many do discuss women's work. But we are likely to wait too long a time if we are too proud or "ladylike" to get our hands dirty digging down into the roots of poetic tradition and replanting our own chosen lineages there.
When I edited A Formal Feeling Comes I found it hard to persuade many of the women poets who contributed, even prolific women poets, to commit a word of criticism to the page, even though the statements were about their own work. Some agreed only after I offered to take dictation during phone interviews. I listened to insecurities and fears about writing critically so often that I began to expect such responses. One poet explained her reasons: "Men are more comfortable saying things and then changing their minds. I'm afraid to write down my thoughts about poetry because I'm afraid I won't be able to change my mind; I don't feel I have that privilege." Writing about the work of other women poets, which is the real key to changing the notions of poetic traditions, was harder still for these women. In spite of some change in the subsequent decade—especially through Language poetry, with its foregrounding of noncanonical ideas and its rich tradition of critical work by women—there is still, as you know all too well, Mira, very far to go.
One of the probable reasons that women poets have tended to stay away from critical endeavors is that, like our poetess foremothers, we are afraid that they are too closely tied to what someone recently called on this listserv, "the shmoozing and the deal-making and all the rather icky stuff that needs to get done, I guess." But criticism allows us to find a way to think about poetry that we can believe in, and that in turn can give one more ability to negotiate the "icky stuff." Like changing the diaper of a human being you love, the icky stuff can actually be satisfying if you are motivated by passion, if you have a way of thinking about poetry that you care about, and if you realize how important and necessary all this work is to allow the poetry you care about, including your own, to bloom fully.
The key to making the leap, in my experience, is the realization that poets and poetry will never exist in a critical vacuum, even if we try to pretend that they do. Criticism is like politics: if you don't make your own you are by default accepting the status quo and are finally yourself responsible for whatever the status quo does to you. And, while criticism's effect on the individual creative process is open to debate, it is clear that criticism is crucial to the life of poetic traditions—the ways in which we find, appreciate, and pass on poems. In this sense, criticism is to a poetry as air is to a noise: it allows it to be heard; and even if we can't see it or feel it, it is there, shaping how we hear. Criticism is to poetry as water is to fish; it allows movement. Criticism is to poetry as sun is to trees; it feeds growth and change. Criticism is to poetry as oxygen is to food; it allows digestion. And criticism is to poetry as traditions are to a family; it creates self-knowledge.
Being active in poetry criticism is one of the best ways to carve out an idea of poetry firm enough to stand up to the public demands of a career as a poet. Many admirable poets have discovered this truth before us, whether they put their criticism into essays, as did Milton, Shelley, Sidney, Eliot, Arnold, Williams, Stevens, Bishop, Zukofsky; or into their letters, as did Keats, Hopkins, Barrett Browning, Dickinson, Frost, Olson; or into marginalia, as did Blake; or into reviews, as did Poe, Bogan, Crane, Moore, Lowell. If more kinds of poets can discover this truth and get the criticism into published form, mainstream white men will no longer be the sole "major carriers of the poetic lineage." But if we women poets continue to consider ourselves superior, or inferior, to all these necessary and generous literary endeavors with which male poets and their friends and admirers have been occupying themselves for centuries, we will have only ourselves to blame if we are written out of HIStory once more.
Yours in (her)story,