The White Blackbird; The Marginalisation of Irish Women Poets from Literary Magazines During the 1980s

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon | Published / Digitised / Open Access / Honest Ulsterman |
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   Ireland has been blessed with a long history of great writers. A series of names come to mind, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, and the list goes on. Our national literary history is a source of great pride and yet if you asked the average person to name an Irish woman poet you would almost certainly be met with the same handful of names, and in some cases, even a resounding silence.

     This neglect of Irish women poets stems from something deeper within the Irish literary community that has prevailed for generations. The establishment of an Irish Free State in 1922 provoked a drive to create a unique Irish literary identity. This newly envisaged Irish literary culture held very particular ideas relating to the proper medium for creative expression. The occlusion of women from debates relating to the shape of Irish national literature during the early twentieth century resulted in the Irish poem and the methods of critical evaluation remaining highly masculinist and ultimately resulted in the curtailment of women’s poetic agency until as late as the 1980s. Critics working from postcolonial theory have argued that the male domination of Irish literature is a consequence of Irish colonisation which caused Irish culture to develop a kind of hyper-masculinity where men who were colonised felt the need to regain their sense of masculinity by creating a literature culture built on a system of male literary inheritance. These ideas have been explored by numerous critics and women poets alike who have highlighted how the image of Mother Ireland which was a central piece of Irish nationalist iconography acts as a kind of talisman which places the woman as the object for inspiration rather than the creator.[ii] The male homosociality of Irish Literature created a masculine genealogy which passed on sanctified areas of focus such as Irish nationalism, the Mother Ireland trope, pastoral poetry and other ‘universal’ themes. ‘Private’ themes written by those outside this line of poetic succession focusing on the everyday or domestic were not considered to be acceptable sources of inspiration. This mindset resulted in the guise of ‘poetic standards’ often being used to deter women poets from inscribing a new energy on the Irish poem with this practice reaching its peak during the 1980s.

hese are just some of the issues that I am attempting to interrogate in my PhD thesis which will provide a detailed analysis of how literary journals contributed to the segregation of Irish poetry through the deeply uneven publication of women poets in their mainstream literary spaces during the 1980s and early 90s. The 1980s were a landmark period for Irish women’s poetry, and saw perhaps the most important outpouring and organising of poetic endeavour by women poets up to that date with a surge in feminist literary collectives and enterprises such as writers’ workshops run by the Women’s Education Bureau, the output of feminist presses like Attic Press and Arlen House, and Jessie Lendennie’s The Salmon poetry journal. Despite these developments, women poets continued to remain almost invisible in the majority of Irish literary periodicals. Such exclusions are apparent in ways that can be quantitatively measured – in the strikingly low numbers of female poets published in the main literary journals and poetry presses of the period. My project likewise engages with the qualitative measures by analysing how male literary inheritance, homosocial bonding, commentary on the ‘nature’ of Irish poetry and subtle discouragement combined to isolate women poets and actively deject them from submitting their work with this disparagement becoming most acute in a time that saw an extraordinary surge in published output and workshop participation by Irish women poets.

     Objections were not based on gender specifically; the real bone of contention was about the constitution of the Irish poem. By bringing their private realities into the public domain of poetry, Irish women poets were altering deeply engrained assumptions about the universality of the Irish poem which challenged the authority of the Irish male poet. These restrictive assumptions resulted in traditional concepts of structure and form taking precedent over almost all other considerations creating an environment where Irish women poets and their poetry were excluded as the undesirable ‘Other’ firmly outside the Irish literary tradition.

     The patriarchal nature of the Irish literary milieu was a major obstacle for Irish women poets during the 1980s. Homosocial bonding and male literary inheritance were the foundation underpinning of many literary journals during this period. The lack of space afforded to women poets in these journals is one of the most obvious signs of the marginalisation from women poets from these platforms with most magazines including only a handful of women poets with this often being an act of tokenism rather than a genuine celebration of the groundswell of women’s poetry taking place.

     The rhetoric employed by editors and reviewers of the period showed a clear preoccupation with the idea of a unique and ‘pure’ Irish national literature. The language used indicated that there was a direct correlation between accomplished poetry and a more masculine, manly style. Thomas Kinsella in a review of Austin Clarke’s poetic career in The Irish University Review for example used highly masculine terms of praise throughout noting his ‘poetic strength’,[iii] ‘minute precision’,[iv] and ‘power and ferocity’.[v] While Thomas MacCarthy in his editorial in Poetry Ireland Review 12 claimed preference for a more masculine style: 'In sifting through the hundreds of poems I've tried to save the ones that seem muscular or wholly imagined'.[vi] McCarthy and Kinsella’s comments send a clear message as to the gender of the 'desired' poem rigidly structured by a strong male poet rather than a delicate female as Kinsella made clear with his The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986) which included no women poets from the 20th century.

     The marginalisation of women poets from these mainstream literary spaces was reinforced by what Mary O’Donnell describes as the ‘over-suspicious qualification’ that often took place in Irish review culture whereby:

reviewers of work by women feel obliged to present a subjective treatise on the value of women’s writing, a kind of state-of-women's-art commentary; where every review is pre-empted by a couple of paragraphs of over-suspicious qualification [...] books by women are lumped together in the review, simply because they're by women.[vii]

This tactic of ‘lumping together’ was common practice in many literary periodicals during the 1980s with one or two women often being hidden amongst a collection of male poets every five to six issues. Patricia Boyle Haberstroh details the struggles women poets went through when attempting to acquire review space in ‘Literary Politics Mainstream and Margin’, highlighting the misapprehension of editors who often assumed that women were well represented in their reviews when in actual fact writing by women often occupied less than 20% of the review space in these same magazines.[viii] Haberstroh quotes Dale Spender’s 1989 survey of British and American newspapers where she details the logic of many editors during this period:

I was well aware that one man who protested so much- who insisted that the pendulum had now swung so far the other way that one had to be female to be reviewed was the editor who was responsible for allocating just under 6% of the review space to women, and for choosing only eight women out of every hundred reviewers to make a contribution.[ix]

     Denis J. Hannon, and Nancy Means Wright have highlighted how Rita Ann Higgins had received two bursaries from the Arts Council during the 1980s but continued to have almost no reviews for her first two volumes ‘despite the fact that they had sold out’.[x] The few reviews of women poets included in these magazines (particularly of the work of less prominent women poets) were almost always very brief and dominated by quotations rather than critical engagement with the texts. For example, in Books Ireland in 1985 Hugh Maxton reviews Paula Meehan’s Return and No Blame where he describes her as a ‘promising and engaging writer’ stating that ‘we should all know more of Paula Meehan’, and yet he spends his ten-line review of Meehan describing how the cover of Return and No Blame tells the reader nothing of the author.[xi] Rita Ann Higgins receives a similarly ephemeral review by Brendan Hamill in Books Ireland in 1990 where Hamill notes that he had never heard of her until she dedicated her 1988 collection Witch in the Bushes to the ‘saintly’ poet Padraic Fiacc,[xii] despite the fact that Higgins had already published two collections, was publishing another that year, was Galway County’s Writer-in-Residence in 1987, and had received the Peadar O’Donnell Award in 1989. Quoting Ailbhe Smyth, Mary O’Connor in ‘Thieves in the Language Gaol’ in Krino 15 (1994) laments that women writers were usually not reviewed until they were published outside of Ireland: ‘In fact, it appears that the opposition starts at the level of culture and nationality with Irish reviews: ‘’We still do suffer dreadfully in Ireland from the sense that something isn’t worthwhile and it doesn’t exist unless people out there, elsewhere, have claimed it and admired it and brought it to a wider audience’’’.[xiii] It could be argued that this is the case here with Meehan and Higgins publishing with Beaver Row and The Salmon (a publisher which worked outside the ‘centre’ of key canon making institutions) just before these reviews.[xiv]

     The lack of review space given to the work of women poets was an attempt to preserve what Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill defined in 1999 as the ‘poetic status-quo’ whereby the male dominated Irish poetry community attempted to fortify Irish poetry against those outside the line of male poetic succession. Ní Dhomhnaill notes how the collective organisation of women poets during the 1980s resulted in increased resistance from the Irish poetry community: ‘the trespassing of a large number of women’s voices on the hallowed male sanctum of literature [is] was perceived as a threat to being on the basic level of self-image’ which resulted in women poets being marginalised and discouraged through conscious and unconscious means until as late as the early 1990s.[xv] Eavan Boland in a 1993 interview in the Irish University Review highlighted how many established poets in reaction to the ‘different magnetic field’ that women poets were introducing to Irish poetry during the 1980s met these ‘new energies’ with condescension or patronisation, ignoring the ground-breaking work women poets were doing.[xvi]

     The resistance to these ‘new energies’ can be seen quite clearly in the language used in reviews in these magazines which often consciously and/or unconsciously set women poets apart from the Irish literary tradition. For example, while reviews of male poets in these literary magazines celebrate poetic genealogy and literary inheritance, many of the reviews of women poets portray women poets as being isolated, continuously referring to them as anomalies rather than being part of a growing generation of ground-breaking women poets. For instance, in a 1987 review in Books Ireland, Robert Greacen comments that women poets ‘were as rare as white blackbirds’ until relatively recently noting that ‘women poets are now, rightly, taken as seriously as women novelists have been for generations’,[xvii] suggesting that women poets were not well regarded before the 70s/80s which critics such as Lucy Collins and Moynagh Sullivan and Kathy D’Arcy have shown to be a false assumption.[xviii]

     Gendered assumptions were often attached to the language that contemporary critics used as innocent or neutral, drawing attention to the fact that the poet was female almost immediately. Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s Stealing the Language highlights how good poetry was innately associated with masculinity and therefore describing women poets in feminine terms instantly placed them outside the boundaries of ‘good poetry’:

Like poetic argument, critical argument often conducts itself through metaphor. We need first of all, therefore to become aware that some of our most compelling terms of critical discourse imply that serious poetry is more or less identical with potent masculinity.[xix]

     Medbh McGuckian has commented on the practice of gendering in reviews: “I'm very conscious of being made into a man or being made to fit in with male prejudice [...] not being understood - the feminine part of it being patronised a bit - you know, flirted with - not taken seriously”.[xx] Eavan Boland has similarly noted how some male poets and reviewers can sometimes be ‘impatient and unfair and are inclined to dismiss me pretty quickly with the tag of ‘’domestic poetry’’ and ‘‘feminist obsession’’.[xxi] Boland describes how using words like ‘miniature’, ‘painterly’ or ‘domestic’ imply a restrictive practice within the poem itself, condensing the wide variety of themes that are explored into one:[xxii] ‘Women’s themes’ were considered ‘special interest’ and outside Irish literary tradition: 

Nothing I saw in the tradition - not the poems I read on the page or the conversations I heard from male contemporaries - encouraged me to follow my body with my mind and take myself to a place where they could heal in language: in new poems, in radical explorations. On the contrary. There was a deep suspicion of the ordinary life. It was assumed to be a narrow and antipoetic one.[xxiii]

The standard reviewing practice and lexicon did not admit any importance or interest to the domestic setting or a distinctively female perspective, relegating these to the ‘private’ sphere and deeming them unsuitable for poetry. Male critics often used this condescending language of double-meaning to distance themselves from the poetry which ensured that women’s work remained excluded.

     Ostriker highlights how the words used to describe male and female poets are usually quite different with strongly positive words like ‘great’, ‘powerful’, ‘forceful’, ‘masterly’, or ‘true’ rarely being used in praise of poetry written by women as this kind of admiration usually presumes the masculinity of the author. Reviews of poetry by women in contrast, employ words like ‘graceful’, ‘subtle’, ‘elegant’, ‘cryptic’ or ‘modest’.[xxiv] This language was often used in the 1980s to detract from women’s poetry, painting it as secondary to the mastery of style that male poets have inherited from their forefathers.The idea that poetry might be valuably reshaped and expanded by these new perspectives and forms was completely disregarded by many reviewers of the period.

     While these practices were common during the 1980s some literary periodicals did attempt to be more inclusive, The Honest Ulsterman was one such magazineWhile the HU began the 80s by including relatively few women poets, these numbers steadily increased as the decade progressed with the male to female ratio increasing to almost 1:1 under Ruth Hooley by 1989, a trend that continued under succeeding editors Tom Clyde and Robert Johnstone. It is clear from my research that Ruth Hooley, the first female editor of The Honest Ulsterman, was very conscious of the struggles of the Irish female poet and sought to make the HU an enabling platform for emerging writers. Hooley laments how detrimental this lack of confidence can be to the careers of women poets in Krino (1994):

I’m involved in a women’s writing group for practical criticism and pooling information. All the women in it have published, the age range is from 25-60, but none has a book yet! Eight or so women, all writing poetry of quality. What’s lacking is courage, confidence, a history of success. Something seems to stop women from ‘going for it’. Lack of ambition or opportunity silences them in their early twenties, whereas men flourish at this age; and to get a ‘new writers’ grant you have to be a certain age’.[xxv]

     The articles and reviews included in HU showed a genuine interest in women’s position in both Irish literature and Irish society in general by including articles on feminism in the North and South and reviewing a number of works published by The Salmon as well as some key ‘women focused’ anthologies such as the Attic Press anthology Wildish Things’: An Anthology of New Irish Women’s Writing, edited by Ailbhe Smyth.[xxvi] The magazine was also a significant support to one of Ireland’s leading and most successful women poets Medbh McGuckian, publishing her first pamphlet ‘Portrait of Joanna’ in 1980. Reviewing her work from the very beginning of her career, HU made it clear that McGuckian was one of the foremost poets in the North during this period giving her as much review space as any leading poet regardless of gender. HU’s interest and appreciation of women writers reached its peak in 1991 with the dedication of their 91st issue to the work of women writers in Ireland.

     HU created an even more inclusive, less closed off atmosphere by actively asking for reader’s and contributor’s opinions through questionnaires which asked writers what their favourite book of the year was and readers about their favourite poem/ short story/reviews in HU and for suggestions as to how the magazine could be improved.[xxvii] By including those outside the ‘nucleus’ of the magazine and valuing their opinions HU created a milieu where emerging writers would feel comfortable with submitting their work.  It is clear that HU prided itself in encouraging and actively enabling new talent, as is evident from the list of ‘HU Alumni’ included in No. 98 (1994) listing seven poets that had their first appearance in HU, among/amongst which Annie Foster and Selma Hill were included. This issue also listed over thirty pamphlets by new poets that HU personally published including the female poets Medbh McGuckian, Kate Middleton and Carol Rumens.

     The Salmon magazine (1981-1991) is also well renowned for its inclusivity. In its early issues writings by men outweighed those by women; however, the number of women poets increased steadily under Jessie Lendennie who had a particular interest in publishing poetry by women. The number of texts by women included in the magazine increased from an average ratio of 2:1 to almost 1:1, a stark contrast to the majority of other literary magazines during that period.

     Like HU’s editor Ruth Hooley, Lendennie actively worked with poets in poetry workshops which became an important source of encouragement and community for many women poets during this period. Through these initiatives, both editors learned how important it is to create a more welcoming, inclusive environment for women poets. The contention that a more welcoming environment resulted in more women submitting their work is confirmed in Jessie Lendennie’s editorial in Salmon no. 19:

[O]ne of the most satisfying developments for The Salmon recently has been the increase in the number of contributions from women. Up until about two years ago, The Salmon, in common with most literary magazines, received relatively few poems and short stories from women; now these contributions have increased by at least 75%. Woman have been underrepresented in literary magazines (not to mention anthologies, etc.) for too long. I hope that a true balancing process is taking place, and that a complete picture of writing in Ireland is emerging’.[xxviii]

     The final chapter of my thesis will focus on the efflorescence of poetry by women via alternative networks and publication initiatives like The Salmon during the 1980s, ending on a positive note with the premise being that the situation improved from this period onwards. However, it seems clear from movements like #WakingTheFeminists, the feminist movement that has galvanised in response to the Abbey Theatre’s almost total exclusion of women from its centenary programme ‘Waking the Nation’; and Fired!Irish Women Poets and the Canon launched just last November in response to the lack of representation of Irish women poets and critics within Irish Literature with Gerald Dawe’s The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, that remanences of these attitudes persist even today. These movements echo and repeat the issues and debates that came so forcibly to the fore in the literary field in the 1980s. The publication of The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets clearly shows that we still need to be conscious that all publications and literary events remain impartial and be mindful that both genders must be included. I will conclude this article with the poem ‘Not Your Muse’ by Paula Meehan which clearly shows how important it is to have an Irish literary culture that represents the full picture which includes all voices.

 

Not Your Muse

I’m not your muse, not that creature

in the painting, with the beautiful body,

Venus on the half-shell. Can

You not see I’m an ordinary woman

tied to the moon’s phases, bloody

six days in twenty-eight? Sure

I’d like to leave you in love’s blindness,

cherish the comfort of your art, the way

it makes me whole and shining,

smooths the kinks of my habitual distress,

never mentions how I stumble into the day,

fucked up, penniless, on the verge of whining

at my lot. You’d have got away with it

once. In my twenties I often traded a bit

of sex for immortality. That’s a joke.

Another line I swallowed, hook

and sinker. Look at you-

rapt, besotted. Not a gesture that’s true

on that canvas, not a droopy breast,

wrinkle or stretchmark in sight.

But if it keeps you happy who am I

to charge in battledressed to force the harsh light

I live by, against a brutal merciless sky.

 

NOTES

[i] See: Colin Graham, 'Subalternity and Gender: Problems of Post-Colonial Irishness', Journal of Gender Studies vol. 5, no. 3, 1996, pp. 363-73; Graham, ‘…maybe that’s just Blarney’: Irish Culture and the Persistence of Authenticity’, Ireland and Cultural Theory: The Mechanisms of Authenticity, Edited by C. Graham, R. Kirkland, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, pp. 7-28; Gerry Smyth, Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature, Pluto Press, 1998; Moynagh Sullivan. ‘Irish Poetry After Feminism: In Search of ‘Male Poets’’, Irish Poetry After Feminism: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Justin Quinn, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 14-34.

[ii]  See: Eavan Boland, A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition, Attic Press, 1989; Boland, Object Lessons- The Life of the Woman Poet in our Time. Carcanet Press, 1995; Lia Mills, ''I Won't Go Back to It': Irish Women Poets and the Iconic Feminine'. Feminist Review. No. 50, 1995, pp. 69-88; Mary O'Donnell, 'In Her Own Image: An Assertion That Myths Are Made by Men, by the Poet in Transition'. Irish University Review. Vol. 23. No. 1. 1993, pp. 40-44; Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, Women Creating Women, Attic Press, 1996; Haberstroh, Myself, My Muse: Irish Women Poets Reflect on Life and Art, Syracuse University Press, 2001.

[iii] Thomas Kinsella, ‘The Poetic Career of Austin Clarke’, Prose Occasions 1951-2006, Edited by Andrew Fitzsimons,Carcanet Press, 2009, p. 51

[iv] Ibid. p. 53.

[v] Ibid. p. 58.

[vi] Thomas MacCarthy 'Editorial' PIR 12. Spring 1984, p. 5.

[vii] Mary O'Donnell, 'Suburban Blitz', Graph 6, Summer, 1989, p. 25.

[viii] Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, ‘Literary Politics Mainstream and Margin’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, July 1992, p. 185.

[ix] Ibid, p. 185.

[x] Quoted in Denis J. Hannon, and Nancy Means Wright, ‘Irish Women Poets: Breaking the Silence’, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 1990, p. 60.

[xi] Hugh Maxton, ‘The Elusiveness of Thomas Kinsella’, Books Ireland, no.97, 1985, p. 153.

[xii] Brendan Hamill, ‘Darkness brightening’, Books Ireland, no. 142, Summer, 1990, p. 109.

[xiii] Mary O’Connor, ‘The Thieves of Language in Gaol?’, Krino, no. 15, 1994, p. 37.

[xiv] Meehan’s collections Return and no Blame and Reading the Sky were published by Beaver Row Press in 1984 and 1986, just a year before these two reviews while Higgins publishing Goddess on the Mervue Bus in 1986, Witch in the Bushes, 1988, and Goddess and Witch with The Salmon in the same year as Hamill’s review in 1990, forcing literary magazines and reviewers to recognise these women poets.

[xv] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘A Spectacular Flowering’, Irish Times, May 29, 1999.

[xvi] Quoted in Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, ‘The Hidden Ireland: Women’s Inheritance’, Irish Poetry After Kavanagh, , Edited by Theo Dorgan, Four Courts Press, 1996, p. 106.

[xvii] Robert Greacen, ‘Not like Old Times’, Books Ireland, no.111. Mar. 1987, p. 49.

[xviii] See Lucy Collins (Ed.).  Irish University Review Special Issue: Irish Poetry Cultures 1930-1970, Edinburgh University Review, 2012; Kathy D’Arcy, ‘Almost Forgotten Names: Irish Women Poets of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s’, Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives, Edited by by Patricia Coughlan and Tina O’Toole, Carysfort Press, 2008, pp.99–124; Anne Fogarty, ‘Gender, Irish Modernism and the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, Edited by Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis, Cork University Press, 1995, pp.209–31; Fogarty, ‘“The Influence of Absences”: Eavan Boland and the Silenced History of Irish Women’s Poetry,’ Colby Quarterly vol. 35, no. 4, December 1999, pp.256–74; Anne Mulhall, ‘”The well-known, old but still unbeaten track’: Women Poets and Irish Periodical Culture in the Mid Twentieth Century’, Irish University Review, vol.42, no. 1, 2012, pp. 32-52; Susan Schreibman, ‘Irish Women Poets 1929–1959: Some Foremothers’, Colby Quarterly vol. 37 no. 4, December 2001, pp.309–26; Moynagh Sullivan, ‘“I am not yet delivered of the past”: The Poetry of Blanaid Salkeld’, Irish University Review vol. 33 no. 1, Spring–Summer, 2003, pp.182–200.

[xix] Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language, Beacon Press, 1986, p. 3. Also see Eavan Boland Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman Poet in our Time, Carcanet Press, 1995 on ‘public’ vs. ‘private’ poetry.

[xx] Kevin Smith. 'Interview with Medbh McGuckian', Gown Literary Supplement, 1986, p. 15.

[xxi] Caroline Walsh ‘The Saturday Interview: Eavan Boland’. The Irish Times, Oct. 1, 1983, p. 14.

[xxii] Nancy Means Wright, Dennis J. Hannan, ‘Q&A with Eavan Boland’, Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1991, p. 10.

[xxiii] Eavan Boland Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman Poet in our Time, Carcanet Press, 1995, p. 110.

[xxiv] Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 1986, p. 3.

[xxv] Ruth Hooley quoted in Mary O’Connor, ‘Thieves in the Language Gaol’, Krino, 15, 1994, pp. 31-32.

[xxvi] Some examples include: John Wilson Foster, ‘Critical Form: Irish Feminism North and South, Fifteen Years On’, The Honest Ulsterman, no.83, 1987, pp. 41-44 and Louise Hermana, ‘Review’, The Honest Ulsterman, no. 89, Summer 1990, pp. 98-101.

[xxvii] These surveys can be found in The Honest Ulsterman, no. 77, 1984; and The Honest Ulsterman, no. 97, 1994. The following issue included the results of the survey which showed that the responses included almost an equal amount of replies from men and women, demonstrating how a more inclusive environment resulted in both men and women taking an active interest in the magazine, giving their contributions without fear of ridicule.

[xxviii] Anne Muhall, ‘Muses, Harpies, and Other “Fabulous Birds”: The Gendering of the Irish “Little Magazine”’. University College Dublin. Unpublished articlep. 13.

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