Throughout the history of literature and poetry, social and political movements have influenced it greatly, having an impact on the readers, which assists the development of such movements. Gender is a movement that has inspired many poets such as Eavan Boland and Adrienne Rich, who both took part in the Feminist Movement. Feminist poetry is recognized as coming about in the 1960’s, a decade where many writers were challenging traditional notions of form and content in literature. Many women writers at this time began to write about their own experiences. The importance of using creative technique to discuss or analyse social and political movements is huge as it both develops awareness for the cause and interprets the opinions of the poet on the subject. This essay will analyse how both poets express the expectation of gender roles in society through poetry and literature and the limits of that role. Poetry is expression and with such turmoil and troubles within society it is no wonder poets have taken to writing about them, expressing themselves through their artistic language and imagination.
While both Rich and Boland have written about feminist issues, they did so in two wholly different methods. Eavan Boland is a feminist and a poet. But does not consider herself a feminist poet, yet her poetry, and some of her essays, have wielded feminine ideals and principles, such as ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ and ‘Anna Liffey’. Adrienne Rich writes with more force on the subject of feminism and gender. Her more renowned poems are ‘Living in Sin’ and ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ which openly express her frustration at the role of women in relationships and the burden of the role they are given.
Eavan Bolan was born in Dublin in 1944, her earlier work is influenced by her experiences as a young Irish woman and soon developed to centre on her growing awareness of the distressed role of women in Irish culture and throughout history. One such poem ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ does exactly this as it questions this gender role for women entwined with the stereotype of women in myths and legends. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Ireland was not a country renowned for its progressive treatment of women’s rights. Women were still being defined by their gender and were little regarded, both in the society and the political world. The early poetic tradition was highly masculine as, for centuries, men had dominated the literature world. Irish Poets wrote about the Irish experience through heroic and mythical circumstances, but the modern age brought female poets who channelled both heroic poetry and feminine style. ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ tells of the journey ‘of a man and a woman…They are fugitives’. The pair are running from something, but it is never revealed as to what they might be running from. Throughout their excursions ‘through the Midlands and as Far West as they could go’ Boland examines the role of the female beside the male denying the legends that state that men are stronger than women. Women have always been falsely accused of needing men to survive so in Boland’s poem, the female keeps her pace with the man, she does not complain or ask for help. She does not require the man with her to be her saviour.
While they rest ‘under a willow and beside a weir’ she leans in to the man, submissive to his masculinity. Boland is using the invention of women as purely sexual beings to highlight myths that end with the woman giving into the male influence, surrendering her power. Yet, is the woman only remembered for this submissive act, or is she also remembered for her journey with the man, where she was equally as strong as him? Boland asserts that by doing the feminine role at the end of the journey, women have no hope of asserting their own power in society but more importantly, she is articulating that gender should not limit women to housewife and mothering roles. They are equally as resilient as men. Boland then goes on to declare that the couple making love and their journey, was a fabrication, ‘Invention. Legend. Myth’ saying ‘forgive me if I set the truth to rights.’ She develops this idea of the myth ‘Consider how the bereavements of the definite, are easily lifted from our heroine’. By choosing to describe the girl as ‘Heroine’ she is removing the assumption that she is merely a sexual being, but has the ability to become a hero also, as the man then ‘becomes her lover’, submissing to her feminine power. In denying that the couple took part in the journey Boland is considering the ways in which myths and legends are gendered against women.
In ‘Object Lessons’ (Boland, 2006) Boland expresses the gender role placed on women in Irish society, Irish female writers in particular, arguing that women poets were obstructed twofold: one by the traditional ideas of femininity and poetry and two, by the demands of separatist feminism that demands women be true to the historical dispute which undermines the women’s movement (Maguire, 99). She explains that after her marriage and subsequent move from the city to suburban Ireland “Ovens and telephones became images and emblems of the real world” however “it would be wrong, even now, to say that [her] poetry expressed the suburbs. The more accurate version is that [her] poetry allowed [her] to experience the suburbs” (Boland, 2006, pp. 156-167). Her poetry allowed her to express the domestic attributes of Irish women through the use of narration, imagination, tone, technique and language. By communicating to readers the domestic life of women, she was exposing the importance of domestic women to society while simultaneously revealing the gendered expectations of women and uniting Irish women. She states that “When a woman writer leaves the centre of a society, becomes a wife, mother and housewife, she ceases, automatically to be a member of that dominant class which she belonged to …chiefly as a writer…whatever her writing abilities, henceforth she ceases to be defined by them and becomes defined again instead by subsidiary female roles” (Boland, 2006, p. 251).
Boland goes on to suggest that Irish female poets have inherited a dilemma that “is present, waiting and inescapable” (Boland, 2006, p. 239). Voices inside the woman’s head disfigure and simplify ideas of womanhood while also questioning the interest in what she writes about. This voice is named “The Romantic Heresy” (Boland, 2006, p. 242). Women poets are a minority in literature and under the authority of romanticism, women have been marginalized by what is essentially, a patriarchal penchant. The most important thing to Boland on the subject of female writers is that “Above all, it [poetry] encourages her to feminize her perceptions rather than humanize her femininity” (Boland, 2006, p. 245). In both Boland’s poetry and essays she encapsulates the Irish woman writers experience alongside the experience of women throughout history. She enforces the women’s movement by addressing domestic life and what it means to be female.
Similarly, American poet Adrienne Rich writes about the female experience and the accepted gender roles designed by patriarchal society. She explores the complex ideas of Western world with regard to women’s roles in society and their need for liberation. Her poetry also highlights the experience of women within heterosexual relationships and ultimately disputes the roles limiting women. ‘Living in Sin’ does precisely this, by portraying a couple who, although are not married, live together. It is the woman in the relationship who does all the maintenance, she makes the bed and cleans the apartment. She “pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top”. The man with whom she shares the apartment appears to contribute little to the upkeep of the household: “Meanwhile, he, with a yawn, sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard, declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes”. This portrays how a woman is being dominated and controlled by man purely because she is female. She is expected to do the housekeeping and is not offered help. Rich is emphasising the fundamental inequality of both marriage and heterosexual relations.
The powerlessness of the woman in the situation is important and Rich wants to expose the female perspective. She has no say in what the man does, unable to control him, like he controls her. She is “jeered by the minor demons” of the relationship. By taking this approach, Rich is giving a voice to women in similar circumstances, uniting, once again, women everywhere. However, there is also a hint of power being implied unto the woman in regards to the milkman. We know he is “relentless” in his job as he wakes the woman every morning coming up the stairs. Following this she says “That morning light” which implies he offers her some sort of solace and hope for a brighter future. He conjures notions of security and well-being, as in her present relationship all she offered is the expected role of the female gender, the housewife. It is implied that there is a relationship between the woman and the milkman and by adding this to the poem, Rich is handing power back to the woman, by offering her a way out, or sanctuary from the present lover.
Adrienne rich also deals with the notion of escape in ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ as Aunt Jennifer tries to survive her unhappy and submissive place in her marriage by creating art. The tigers in the art created by Aunt Jennifer are beasts that demand respect and do not allow themselves to be victimised. This demand for respect is something that Aunt Jennifer is incapable of doing for herself in her own marriage. She describes them as “Bright topaz denizens of a world of green“. The use of colours implies that her tigers and their land are more energetic and they enjoy a sense of freedom far greater than she has presently.
The second stanza deals with images of weight and heaviness, as Rich describes “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band, Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand“. This symbolizes the burden of her marriage and the weight it has on her psychological well-being. She is victimized and controlled by her husband. This is exposed when rich writes “Still ringed by the ordeals she was mastered by” which suggests she was mastered and oppressed by her marriage, but also her husband. The second stanza also makes insinuations about the oppressive nature of men outside of the family. Aunt Jennifer uses an ivory needle to sew the tigers, which comes from animals that are also controlled and dominated by men. By bringing this subtly into the poem, Rich is addressing the domination of every aspect of life by patriarchal society. They oppress women in the family by limiting their existence to the household, they dominate societal traditions, that also see women confined and they destroy animals for their own greedy needs. Aunt Jennifer is the exact opposite of this, as she creates the tigers rather than destroying them. Patriarchy is seen as an uncontrollable power of oppression that must be challenged.
Although the tigers are masculine, they also possess the qualities of honourable men with “chivalric certainty”, which her husband is not. The third stanza relates to the death of Aunt Jennifer and her existence after she is gone. Although she is dead her “terrified hands will lie, Still ringed” which is suggestive of the fact that even in death, Jennifer will not escape her oppression, as she will continue to be tied to the uncle that “terrified” her. It also implies that she could be shocked that she never challenged her husband, and will continue to be his long after she is gone. The tigers, however, will always be hers, something she created that is strong and durable and will remain that way after she dies. This is her legacy, as she dances “proud and unafraid” of the men beneath her, through the tigers.
The idea of gender based roles in society is evident in both poems; Aunt Jennifer sews tigers, a gender based action associated with women and the narrator in ‘Living in Sin’ is filled with naïve dreams and hopes about love and rejecting social norms (Defoe, 2012). She embarks on a journey with her lover, but her dreams are crushed when he places her in the domestic role of a woman, subjecting her to the very social tradition she was trying to escape. Her works blend the personal with political aspects of life as she questions the restrictions placed on women within the family. In ‘The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich’ (Keyes, 2008) Keyes says “In her early poems, Adrienne Rich accepts certain traditions associated with the divisions of power according to sex. Later, Rich continually defines and redefines power until she can reject power-as-force (patriarchal power) for the power-to-transform, which for her is the truly significant and essential power”. As Rich persistently redefined the nature of power, she is allowing readers to understand the context of her poetry, which is that feminism is something worth writing about and fighting for.
Both Boland and Rich deal with similar themes in their poetry, which all come back to patriarchal society and how it restricts the role of women. This can be understood in every aspect of the woman’s life, but the poets are also examining it in regards to female writers. Both poets are intensely aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish and American culture. Boland writes about female experience to make an honest account of it, while Rich expresses frustration at the assuming and limited roles of women in the family. Her poetry encompasses escapism through art as Aunt Jennifer sews tigers to distract herself from the burden of her marriage while the narrator from ‘Living in Sin’ exists in an artistic delusion of wine, cheese and music (“piano”) to escape the reality of her domesticated placement within the household. Boland uses the opposite technique by examining the role of domesticated life as something that is important to all culture. Without the women at home taking charge of herself, she has no power, she is simply taking on the role expected of her. In her poem ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ she rejects the desired role of women and instead creates a power of her own by allowing the female to become the heroine that compels the man to submit to her.
With the poetry of both these women, women felt that they too had a voice and a cause to fight for. They did not have to be submissive people subject to male authority, but self-aware women that had the capability to become the ‘heroine’. By acknowledging the feminist movement through their poetry, Bolan and Rich increased awareness for the movement and allowed it to progress and develop rather than dissolve into something considered only in history.
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