Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry, The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence to write in 2018 but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of the world’s youth revolution, 1968. Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were women. At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry. I think that was a pretty widespread view.
Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little iron, its logo.
I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me. Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.
I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books to help me build my self up. I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been with me through nearly forty years reading. I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my hand.
I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was it.
Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs). Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.
The Doubt of Future FoesThe doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sowShall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employTo poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.
It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.
I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing. I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.
Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,For whom Fresh pains he did Create,And strange Tyrannic power he showed;From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,Which round about, in sport he hurled;But ’twas from mine he took desireEnough to undo the Amorous World.From me he took his sighs and tears,From thee his Pride and Cruelty;From me his Languishments and Fears,And every Killing Dart from thee;Thus thou and I, the God have armed,And set him up a Deity;But my poor Heart alone is harmed,Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.
Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.
What would happen if one woman told the truth abouther life?The world would split open
Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.
And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.
I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.