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'Older Sisters Are Very Sobering Things': Contemporary Women Poets and the Female Affiliation Complex

Jane Dowson
Feminist Review
No. 62, Contemporary Women Poets (Summer, 1999), pp. 6-20
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395641
Page Count: 15
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'Older Sisters Are Very Sobering Things': Contemporary Women Poets and the Female Affiliation Complex
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Abstract

If, as history indicates, the directions of poetry are determined by its inheritance - that is, its perception of its past - in looking at literary records such as poems, reviews and other critical texts, it is possible to anticipate how twentieth-century women's poetry will come to be defined and the extent to which it will have value and authority. This in its turn will formulate the nature and status of women's poetry in the twenty-first century. In surveying twentieth-century poetry in Britain, the signs are that just as the label 'poetess' was a handicap to the self-perception of a woman at the beginning of this century, so the label 'woman poet' will shackle her in the next, largely because her end-of-the-twentieth-century predecessors will have become mythologized as a literary underclass, undermined and overlooked. One reason for the pattern of the last three hundred years, where women publish and then slip from literary histories, is that they do not receive proper attention from male-dominated literary criticism. Although women now seem to be sufficiently published to make segregation unnecessary, there is still a case for positive discrimination or their names will disappear from the records. Positive discrimination in the form of gendered segregation is, however, opposed by poets because of their uneasy relationship with one another. Women poets need an alternative line of development to the 'masculinity complex' whereby they unsuccessfully seek recognition within the male traditions, or the 'female affiliation complex' which prevents them from identifying themselves with one another. It will be argued that there is an emerging tendency in recent poets to plunder and appropriate the associations of the male tradition and that feminist critics need to theorize this aesthetic and make connections between poets so that they become positive role models for poets of the future.

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