A study of how excess has proved to be the intended norm in the work of major women poets
The argument posed
in this analysis is that the poetic excesses of several
major female poets, excesses that have been typically
regarded as flaws in their work, are strategies for
escaping the inhibiting and sometimes inimical
conventions too often imposed on women writers.
The forms of excess vary with each poet, but
by conceiving of poetic excess in relation to literary
decorum, this study establishes a shared motivation for
such a strategy. Literary decorum is one instrument a
culture em-ploys to constrain its writers. Perhaps it is
the most effective because it is the least definable.
The excesses discussed here, like the
criteria of decorum against which they are perceived,
cannot be itemized as an immutable set of traits. Though
decorum and excess shift over time and in different
cultures, their relationship to one another remains
strikingly stable. Thus, nineteenth-century standards for
women's writing and late twentieth-century standards bear
almost no relation. Emily Dickinson's do not anticipate
Gertrude Stein's or Sylvia Plath's or Ntozake Shange's.
Yet the charges of indecorousness leveled at these women
poets repeat a fixed set of abstract grievances.
Dickinson, Stein, Plath, Jayne Cortez, and
Shange all engage in a poetics of excess as a means of
rejecting the limitations and conventions of "female
writing" that the larger culture imposes on them. In
resisting conventions for feminine writing, these poets
developed radical new poetries, yet their work was
typically criticized or dismissed as excessive. Thus
Dickinson's form is classified as hysterical and her
figures tortured. Stein's works are called repetitive and
nonsensical. Plath's tone is accused of being at once
virulent and confessional, Cortez's poems violent and
vulgar, Shange's work vengeful and self-righteous. The
publishing history of these poets demonstrates both the
opposition to such an aesthetic and the necessity for it.
Karen Jackson Ford is a professor in
the English department at the University of Oregon.