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Only Tenderness

Originally published in Feminism and the Language of Love, by the League of Canadian Poets (1999).

 

Is there no great love, only tenderness?

– Sylvia Plath, “Mystic”

 

For this panel, I said I’d talk about the impact of feminism on the language of love through the lens of family – partly because for one silly moment, I thought it would be easy. “Yes,” I thought, “We’re all writing about our families. I write about my family. Lots of material to work with.”

Too much material. I’ve had a hard time working our what it all means. Especially since it’s a long time since I’ve written a ‘paper’ on a literary topic, and wasn’t very good at it when I did.

Anyway, floundering, I decided to take one of Lorna Crozier’s poems for a starting point. The poem is Crossing Willow Bridge [1] and the poet is walking with her mother towards a bridge.

 

…. A black Lab

lopes up the path, doubles back.

All energy and muscle

and too much love, he bumps our legs.

He belongs here, the family pet.

This morning he has more to do 

with time, how it runs ahead and keeps

returning, our smell on its muzzle,

along its back. I’m afraid

he’ll knock my mother over.

Suddenly this winter she’s unsteady

on her feet. He runs to her

with a stick, strikes her legs

as if he’s a monk and she

a stubborn student, seventy-six

this year. How little time

we have to love each other ….

 

Crozier’s poem is an emblem of the poems we are writing now, in the sense that it is both excellent and typical. It is not a poem that would have been representative of the 1890s, or the 1920s or ’30s, or even of the ’60s. This is partly because of the subject matter – a mother and daughter. But also for some other reasons that I’ll get into.

I believe feminism has helped make this poem – and many like it – possible. It is not a poem I would have considered writing in 1968, when I was casting around for something to write ‘about,’ when my own life seemed like a box into which I’d put myself and didn’t know how to get out of. Goodness knows, my relationship with my mother was complex enough, but it would never have occurred to me that it was fit matter for poetry.

This makes me think, by the way, of the curious conservatism of poetry. The family has long been a suitable subject for fiction – for a good two centuries, in fact.  But not for poetry.

Landscape was suitable. Lovers, war, politics, history and religion were all fit topics for the poem. But the humble life of family wasn’t, except perhaps for the occasional glamorization of a mother-and-child tableau by an observing male.

Even women did not write poems about family. A quick dip into Roger Lonsdale’s anthology, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, brings up titles like “Sonnet: Ingratitude,”  or “Strophon to Celia: A Modern Love Letter.” They wrote satires, social comment, comic verse about housework – but seldom about family.

As late as the 1960s, as committed a feminist as Adrienne Rich felt she didn’t want to write about her children. “For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.” [2]

But through the next three decades, family has become a growth industry – bound up to some extent with the life cycle of that first ‘women’s lib’ generation. First the door opened on childbirth and child care. Then on aging and dying parents. You could get cynical about it. What interests the ME generation is inflicted on the rest of the world.

Well, we have new subject matter. But why is that important? Is it any more significant than, say, the new subject matter opened up by science in the twentieth century – discoveries that radically challenge our ways of understanding the world? After all, it’s not as through we’ve been short on subject matter in the twentieth century. The gods of war, the horses of the Apocalypse have thundered more horrifically than in any period of history.

However, in the face of the Holocaust, poets are almost silenced. In fact, we get assertions that you can no long write love poems after the Holocaust. (Statements I dislike intensely. As though Hitler had won.)

So what’s the significance of the new subject area of family. Why has this opened out into so many poems?

I think the main reason is that it offers a new meta-metaphor for the human condition. We’re always looking for that as poets – for a way of expressing what’s inside the human brain through what’s outside. Poets have found such meta-metaphors in landscape, in society, in the classic mythologies. In this century, we have spent a lot of time on language as a meta-metaphor.

What does the notion of family offer us as a meta-metaphor? I think it offers concepts like connection, wholeness. We can’t understand ourselves until we understand those to whom we’re tied in space and time.

Think of that much-anthologized poem, “Fern Hill,” from earlier in this century. Dylan Thomas did write about family and community. But the child in that poem is absolutely alone and self-absorbed. There’s no sense of any other human being in the farm house, in the church with its Sabbath bells. That’s what Thomas’ poem says – there’s ultimately no-one but you, and time.

Crozier’s poem is also about the author and time. But time is mediated through its effect on other people. Time is not the God-like hand that carries you up to the swallow-thronged loft. It’s “the family pet.”

In Crozier’s poem, the child is still as vulnerable. There is still as much potential for inevitable loss and grief. But her poem adds, “how little time we have to love each other.”   Each. And other.  The individual, and those who are at once separate from and connected to us.

Still, there are many potential subject areas that enable poets to think of themselves in connection with other human beings. Who could count the number of poems written in this century or any other about what holds us together as lovers, as soldiers, as acolytes.

So I want to take it up one more level. I think this feminist-inspired opening of doors on the family has offered us something more – a new role as poets. Or, not so much a new role, but a reopening of the door to an old conception of our place in the world.

For this idea, I went back to Czeslaw Milosz’s book, The Witness of Poetry. One of its major themes is his hypothesis, “that the gloom in the poetry of our century has been gradually increasing.” He reviews the history of the poet’s stance – away from the Romantic concept that the poet speaks for the rest of humanity, through the rise of the symbolists.

“The symbolists discovered the idea of a poem as an autonomous, self-sufficient unit, no longer describing the world, but existing instead of the world.” He goes on to say that as poets of today, we inherit this basic quarrel between bohemian and philistine, and adds: “It was not the best preparation for the encounter with a reality that grew more gigantic and more ominous with every decade, increasingly eluding the grasp of the mind.”

Irony entered into our soul. It seemed like the only suitable stance vis-a-vis the world. We could be allowed assume a more engaged stance if we were writing poetry of witness, poetry on the side of the besieged. Neruda, contemplating his country, could be engaged, affirming. But for those of us in the western world to write about our petty little lives in the face of an absurd world – well, that was only a sign of naivete or an indication your real vocation lay in pop lyrics.

However, feminism allowed a lot of us to become engaged, to stand unabashedly on the side of one thing, against something else. It did represent a hope of change. We had permission to be passionate.  And once we acknowledged the importance of “women’s” issues, it helped legitimize them as a fit subject for poetry – at first for women writers, but then for male writers as well.

And, bad as family life can get, it’s not all bad. You can’t write about the birth of a loved and wanted child without celebration, without connectedness. You can’t force every poem on this subject into a poem of alienation or despair. So it allows us to take up the role that many of us secretly missed – the ‘romantic’ role of the poet as the voice of community and common humanity.

Finally, it allows us tenderness. Which takes me back to my title. The line comes from one of Sylvia Plath’s late poems, written in the months before she killed herself. It asks what happens after – after the mystic experience, after you have been seized by something huge and then abandoned.

Plath, writing in the post-war, pre-feminist period, did of course write extensively about family. However, even if that subject was not yet ‘fashionable,’ she got the one important thing right for the poet’s voice at the time – alienation; family as cage. Partly this was because of her own world view. But also, there was no real option for her, either as a woman trying to be a poet, or as a poet trying to be in the world. It’s the bad-daddy poems that get anthologized as emblematic – typical of Plath, typical of the period. Not these lines:

 

Is there no great love, only tenderness?

Does the sea

 

Remember the walker on it?

Meaning leaks from the molecules.

The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats,

The children leap in their cots.

The sun blooms, it is a geranium.

 

The heart has not stopped.[3]

I read these lines as an infinitely tender. Infinitely sad, too, perhaps. But they affirm that the children leaping in their cots are intimately connected to the breathing, sweating house, to the blooming sun and to the heart that has not stopped – the poet’s heart.

Today, tenderness spills over into poems that, on the surface have nothing to do with family. I think of P.K. Page’s glosa about caring for – tending – the earth.

It has to be loved as if it were embroidered

with flowers and birds and two joined hearts upon it.

It has to be stretched and stroked.

It has to be celebrated.

O this great beloved world and all the creatures in it.

It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet.[4]

 

I expect that a poem like this will find its way into the anthologies of late-twentieth century poetry – and it’s largely because feminism has indeed changed the language of love.

Footnotes

[1]
Lorna Crozier, Everything Arrives at the Light (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1995), p. 34
[2]
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York, W.W. Norton, 1995), p. 31
[3]
Sylvia Plath, Poems, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 1998, ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook), p. 232
[4]
P.K. Page, Hologram, (London, Ont., Brick Books, 1994) p. 42

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