Poems from the Women's Movement

Poetry that helped today’s women find a voice.

Poems from the Women’s Movement By Honor Moore Library of America 200 pp., $20

If you read Poems from the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore, don’t be overly impressed by the official praise it is likely to receive from critics. The whole point of this book is to encourage readers to think for themselves.

This “landmark collection” is powerful precisely because it is not a manifesto. Instead, the power of these poems comes from the fact that one writer after another – from the 1960s to the 1980s – dared to say what hadn’t been voiced before. In doing so, they helped other women – from scholars to housewives and mothers – find the courage to challenge the status quo as well.

In her introduction, Moore writes with passion and insight about the effect of this new women’s voice. “In the process of speaking what was hidden, we began to identify with one another as women, to become a ‘we,’ ” she says.

Sylvia Plath is the first of 58 writers to appear in the compilation. Her poem “The Applicant” is a fitting opener, since it questions both the value of marriage and society’s notions about acceptability: “First, are you our kind of person?” Plath’s wide appeal and her iconic status, as both victim and writer, remain undimmed since the posthumous publication of her signature work, “Ariel,” in 1966.

“Poems from the Women’s Movement” continues with Diane Wakoski’s “The Father of My Country,” which addresses another defining experience – growing up without a father, the man

...who makes me know all men will leave me
if I love them,
Father who made me a maverick,
a writer
a namer.

Those two poems, so different in mood and subject, yet emotionally linked, establish a fascinating current that runs throughout the book. At times the connection is logical, an image or idea that flows from one poem to another. In other places, the writers almost contradict one another.

As the book progresses, one voice after another rises, until they form a chorus that explores nearly every aspect of the female experience: relationships with men; religion; motherhood; sexuality; abortion; isolation; loving other women and fighting for them.

Some of the poems address subjects that are as challenging today as they were 20 to 30 years ago. Other poems resonate because they articulate an insight so startling, or freeing, that the lines never lose their power.

In “Kathe Kollwitz,” for example, Muriel Rukeyser writes:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
her life?
The world would split open.

Moore deserves credit for compiling poems that challenge readers in many ways, as does her own contribution, “Polemic #1,” in which she urges women to write poems because “I want to/ read them. I have seen you watching, holding on and/ watching, and/ I see your lips moving.”

This directive applies to every woman who reads the collection, even some readers who may say, “I admire these poems but I can only visit this landscape; I do not live here.”
For those women, including this reviewer, the book fulfills its mission, with some unforgettable language.

But even the last poem, “Joan,” by Eileen Myles, can’t take us far enough, since it only hints at transcendence and triumph when describing Joan of Arc’s last moments:

when she died
a man saw white doves
fly from her mouth.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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