“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
There’s something about poetry that evokes rather strong reactions. It’s loved or hated, worshipped or ignored, celebrated or reviled. And when women write it, there’s shock, joy, discomfiture, empathy, acknowledgement, rejection and understanding, in varying degrees.
As a poet, I have often been told to write prose because ‘that’s where all the money is’. I have also been told to write about something ‘more happy’. Suggestions have been made to me that I am ‘too young’ and have ‘no experience’ to write about the things my poetry deals with. While I earlier felt the need to apologise, for some reason, for the way I write, now I appreciate where all this is coming from. After all, with poetry, it is hard to differentiate between the poem and the poet. I am what I write, or so it seems.
In the last three weeks, leading up to today, I have written about women whose work I thought you’d enjoy. I end this series with a general discussion on women poets. Women writing poetry isn’t new at all. Whether it is the purity of the bhakti poetry or the unabashed sensuality of love poems, whether it sheds light on her daily life, celebrates her happiness at being whatever she is or whether it challenges patriarchal constructs, when a woman writes, every single theme finds utterance in her writing. It seems like women live the way Mary Oliver urges, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it”.
Whether it is loss, exclusion, questions of equality, identity and belonging, assertion of independence and emancipation, sacrifice, happiness in domesticity or work, rejection of society dictated norms and chains, writing is ‘real’ and almost always a reaction of experiences both individual and witnessed.
The voice is distinctly and deeply personal and yet, in the commonality of their experiences, whether enfeebling and empowering, the women find themselves a part of a larger group of writers. There is individualism and the collective consciousness of shared, albeit disparate, lives. The women who write verse talk of many things. There’s a greater awareness of the world both domestic and civic, there are many influences — including the often-reviled western impact-but also the media and the demands of a developing society and nation. The themes could be Indian or international, the language pithy or contrived, the poems teeming with metaphor or completely devoid of anything but the bare bones. But thorough it all, what a woman’s poetry does, among others things, is to question the world around her.
Women’s writing has experimentation in the meter and words and women have become more and more comfortable writing about their bodies and their desires, and in the process have often scandalised onlookers.
Feminism too makes a difference to how love, lust, marriage and courtship are viewed. For instance, Suniti Namjoshi makes a strong case for gender and lesbianism, often celebrating it in her work, while Meena Alexander writes of a group of women who help deliver her own self in a surreal pregnancy.
In Charmayne D’Souza’s poem, When God First Made a Whore, appear the lines, “He took the howl of the wolf/the flexibility of the politician’s law/and the smoothness of the guillotine’s saw. Said the Almighty Lord: “Men, I have given you the Almighty Broad.”
Not for the faint-hearted and judgemental is the new age of writing. For the woman, poetry is often self-discovery, catharsis and a journey to finding her feet and her voice. Thanks to this column, I have heard from people from many parts of the world, including a 78-year old woman poet, with two books of poetry and countless poems in journals, to her credit.
Back home, I have the good fortune to observe the work of a young girl, a seventh grader whose writing belies her age, though she’s not too pleased with that description! And then there are the women who say more in 140 characters of sheer poetry and others whose hard-hitting verse runs into many paragraphs sometimes, but is always meaningful.
Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore poetry. And when one potent medium meets a powerful being, what emerges is something truly magnificent, uplifting, disturbing and absolutely essential.
(Srividya Sivakumar has recently published a collection of poems called The Blue Note. You can find her work at www.rumwrapt.blogspot.com)