Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation
Annie Finch is a contemporary American poet whose work is deeply engaged with the connection between feminism and formalism. This essay, “Female Tradition as Feminist Tradition,” which was published in her essay collection The Body of Poetry (2005), traces the historical and psychological paths that have drawn contemporary women poets toward the use of traditional formal structure, despite a lack of critical and theoretical attention.
Finch first locates her work within the historical context of women writing in form. She asserts the feminist aspect of utilizing traditional formal structure and pattern in the face of a history that has often spoken against—and over—women’s voices. Finch observes that unlike male poets, women poets do not have a canon of established female formal poets against whom to define themselves. Rather, a contemporary feminist formalist has only a few models, such as Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, and Lydia Sigourney. Finch sees this dearth of imposing voices as an opening, stating, “Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages.”
Turning to the psychological aspect of what motivates contemporary female poets to choose to work within received forms, Finch extends the argument of formalism’s structure as ultimately freeing to include a feminist vision. Speaking from her observations of the poetics of the women who contributed to her first two anthologies of formal verse, A Formal Feeling Comes (1994) and An Exaltation of Forms (2002), Finch says that “writing within the boundaries has released them into boundarylessness; that the challenges left by history have released them into the future; that embracing the female poetic tradition has been, for them, a meaningful form of feminist innovation.”
In addition to drawing on her own experience as a feminist poet engaged with formal structure, Finch’s extensive work as a poet, editor, and critic dedicated to bringing formalism into discussions of women’s poetry led her to found WOM-PO, the national listserv for the discussion of women’s poetry, in 1997. She currently lives in Maine, where she directs Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
Even at this late-postmodernist moment, when self-defined innovative poetry needs to build on a long tradition of previous self-defined innovative poetry, such poetry still defines itself in opposition to tradition. With an inheritance of genuine innovation, of poets who did everything they could to be different from any of their forebears, how does a poet today define writing in traditional form as innovative? I have long intuited myself as an innovative poet, against all apparent common sense, but I didn’t consciously trace out this aspect of the path that led me to traditional form until I was invited to participate in the Barnard Conference on “Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women.” In contextualizing my choices for the conference I began to realize, paradoxically and somewhat to my own surprise, that the choice to use poetic form, including traditional poetic structures, was in fact the most innovative choice I could imagine having made as a female poet. This is not to say that there could not be an innovative male formalist writing today; but I know that I would not be writing as I am if I were a poet who identified with the male poetic tradition.
A decade ago I began to edit the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes because I wanted company, to know that there were other forward-looking, progressive, feminist women who felt the same desire for repeating pattern—not necessarily excluding traditional kinds of pattern—as an essential part of a poem’s structure. My desire was hard to accept for me, and, as I discovered editing the book, hard for many of the other women poets as well. It could easily appear, on the surface, that traditional form would be the worst choice for a woman poet today, being a tradition in which countless misogynist poems have been written; being a tradition that evokes numberless painful historical memories; being a tradition in which most of the poems women have written were erased and forgotten, let alone disrespected. Why would any contemporary woman poet willingly go back to revisit that poetic territory?
Not knowing why I or any of the other women poets who eagerly contributed to my book were so drawn to palpably symmetrical structure, and eager for new ways of conceptualizing my desire, I searched for contributors from the broadest aesthetic, cultural, and political range, and ended up with sixty women of many cultures and ages and quite a large range of poetics (though, in spite of looking hard, I did not find as much work in experimental formal traditions as I would find for a subsequent anthology, An Exaltation of Forms, a decade later). To edit an anthology of women writing in form seemed like an eccentric idea at the time, and in spite of the extensive work I put into the book, I have still been surprised to see what a significant effect it has had subsequently on its contributors, and, further, on the idea of formalist poetry in general.
The reason for this impact, I think, is that my anthology reached ahead; it was chasing after existing poems and classifying them as it went, rather than finding poems to fit an older, preconceived idea. On the other hand, the process of editing an anthology, particularly an anthology focused on an ambiguously defined category such as formal poetry, forces the anthologist to draw certain lines. Though these lines may seem rather random at first, in order to stand up to the trials and pressures that an extended, complex editing process imposes, eventually they must take on the role of solid and meaningful boundaries. So, in the end, they become definitions.
The process of editing A Formal Feeling Comes forced me to jettison my previous idea of “a formal poem.” For the purpose of justifying my inclusion of the poems I had discovered women actually were writing in form, I developed a new definition which was, at the time, an unprecedentedly broad way of conceiving of traditional formal poetics. I defined a formal poem as a poem that “foregrounds the artificial and rhetorical nature of poetic language by means on conspicuously repeated patterns,” a poem structured by the conspicuous repetition of any language element. The book included poems structured by the repetition of vowel and consonant (rhyme), accent or rhythmic pattern (meter), phrase (refrain or anaphora), line (chants, pantoum, and blues), and larger-scale pattern (stanza), as well as by the repetition of procedural processes such as puns. Yes, this definition provided an innovative way of looking at traditional poetic form in 1993. But A Formal Feeling Comes has had an impact, even more certainly, because of the broader sense in which form itself is innovative for women right now. At this point in poetic history, form addresses two important problems for women simultaneously. One is historical, the other psychological.
The historical problem is that contemporary women poets do not have a long and powerful female formal tradition to rebel against. The only women’s poetic tradition that has been influential during out century is the free-verse tradition that followed on Modernism. Dickinson is an anomaly, influential only because of her perceived affinities with nonformal Modernist and postmodernist poetics. Women poets who are drawn to palpable structures and who identify with female traditions must look away from the handful of canonically accepted female poets in the search for our foremothers. Writing in form is for us not a matter of going back to the past, reasserting an archaic power structure, meekly treading on territory already claimed by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth.
Instead, we reclaim, glorify, and build on the problematic and less fully developed promise of Bradstreet, Wheatley, Sigourney, and legions of even less-known poets, lost poets, unpublished poets, oral poets. Our formalist practice is not based in the imitation of the fathers but in the reclamation of the unfinished work of silent, or silenced, foremothers. Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages. Addressing the chronic problem of women’s poetic rootlessness, courageous engagement with the female formal poetic past forges unprecedented links with the traditions in which women wrote poetry during the centuries prior to Modernism.
The criticism that A Formal Feeling Comes received from male critics on both sides of the poetic spectrum evokes tradition as well; eerily, it revolves around the same issues that have historically incited male discomfort with women poets’ engagement in formal poetics. Attacks from experimental quarters, which found the book’s definitions of form narrow and prescriptive, evoke Modernist condescension for the crafted “poetry for ladies” that Williams once triumphantly claimed to have vanquished. Attacks from conservative critics, who found my definition of form much too inclusive, evoke the centuries when women’s poetry was marked by the widespread use of folk and popular forms that were easier to “master” without an advanced education than the more powerful poetic forms such as blank verse—a legacy reiterated in John Crowe Ransom’s remark in the 1930s that Dickinson could not be, by definition, a great poet because she hadn’t used iambic pentameter. If one tactic of innovative poetry is that it sets itself consciously in opposition to existing aesthetic assumptions, women’s poetry that consciously evokes a formal legacy haloed by such a relentlessly continuing climate of condescension may well be considered innovative on that score.
The other problem formalism can address innovatively, for women who choose to open themselves to its powers, is the issue of boundaries. The reason that women have been so important to the tradition of innovative poetry may have something to so with the fact that our gender has been learning to live without boundaries for generations, melding seamlessly into out mothers and our sisters and our spiritual unconscious. From Whitman to Hejinian, the tradition of innovative poetry seeks to avoid boundaries, to tap into the power of the raw unconscious, to dissolve in the direct otherness of the universe. Yet some women, now, are discovering through widespread psychological healing work that boundaries have the power to allow deeper access to the personal and universal subconscious. Paradoxically, the establishment of boundaries, between people, for instance, can allow for deeper and more open intimacy; the safety of strong limits can free us from the need to protect ourselves with rigid armor.
The same paradox applies to poetry. I can think of no more poignant a model for the paradox of boundaries than the way a vibrant, living, boundaryless poem flows in the consistent, defining shape of its form. To quote the contemporary Buddhist writer Thich Ninh Hanh, “Form is the wave, emptiness the water.” I think of form not as a vessel that holds the water, but as the wave that gives form to the water, a rolling, repeating wave-crest that churns and dips more deeply into the boundaryless unconscious than my ego could go on its own. Paradoxically, just as psychological maturity for me has meant discovering the strength to establish the boundaries of my personality, poetic maturity has meant discovering the strength of the poetic tradition I inherited from my foremothers: a tradition they may not have finished developing, but which they left to me as a barely tapped inheritance.
If there is any reason for the lack of cohesive connection between contemporary women poets and the women’s poetic tradition, it is the lack of theory. Rich and Levertov articulated a reason for women to write in free verse in the ‘60s; Irigaray and Du Plessis, and the language poets, articulated compelling arguments for women to write in experimental modes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There is not yet, perhaps, a convincing body of theory for contemporary women writing in form, or for contemporary readers to reevaluate some of the demonized aspects of the largely female poetic tradition that I call the “sentimentalist” tradition. But I am happy to see that dozens of new books and essays are coming out that are finally taking the aesthetics of the women’s formal poetic tradition more seriously.
A Formal Feeling Comes has been reprinted a number of times and shows no sign of slowing down. Since so few women compared to men actually write manifestoes and critical statements about their own work as poets, one of its most valuable aspects has turned out to be the statements about poetic form by each contributor. Over and over, in many different ways, many of these maverick, stubborn, half-embarrassed women formalists say the same thing: that writing within the boundaries has released them into boundarylessness; that the challenges left by history have released them into the future; that embracing the female poetic tradition has been, for them, a meaningful form of feminist innovation.
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), Spells: New and Selected Poems (2013), and Poetry Witch Book of Spells (2019), as well as the long poems The Encyclopedia of...