Pat Valdata


n a beautiful late spring day, I received a packet of poems and essays in the mail. I had been eagerly waiting for this packet ever since Marilyn Taylor had invited me to join her and eight other women in a study of women poets whose work has not received the recognition it deserves. I opened the envelope immediately, and skimmed the table of contents as I walked down the driveway toward the house. I had read only a handful of the poems before—“The Farmer’s Bride” by Charlotte Mew, “Question” by May Swenson and two by my own subject of study, Dorothy Parker, “Lullaby” and “Summary”—but most of these poems and poets were new to me, works by Kate Barnes, Helen Hunt Jackson, Elizabeth Jennings, Judith Moffett, Traci Elder O’Dea, Julia Randall, Margaret Rockwell, Luci Shaw, Ann Silsbee, Susan Stewart, Mona Van Duyn. I was pleased to be able to read these poems and my colleagues’ commentary on them.

     The poems and essays were the foundation of our discussions during a critical seminar at the 11th annual West Chester University Poetry Conference, held in June 2005.
Why are poets like X.J. Kennedy and Richard Wilbur applauded for their humorous poems, when the humorous poems of Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker are forgotten?
This conference is unique for two reasons: it showcases primarily the work of formalist poets, and in addition to the workshops on craft, it offers three invitation-only critical seminars. Founded by Dana Gioia and Michael Peich, the conference has become an annual pilgrimage for poets, scholars, and poet-critics who love rhyme, meter, and form.

     Marilyn Taylor has been instrumental at West Chester in highlighting the work of women poets. After observing that most anthologies of formalist poets contained few poems by women, Taylor and Debra Bruce co-chaired a critical seminar in 2003. As Taylor wrote in the conference newsletter, their aim was “to identify, examine, and ‘recover’ the work of some twenty women poets writing in form at mid-century, with an eye to the possibility of creating a new collection of their work.” Taylor noted that, except for a few poems by Elizabeth Bishop or Anne Sexton, few women formalists writing in the middle of the 20th century were “canonized.” She asked: “Was there a reluctance on the part of the women themselves to make use of formal devices? Was there a sense that writing in forms suggested a political point of view that did not support the rising tide of feminism? Or were women formalists simply being neglected by editors and publishers, for reasons unexplained?” Obviously, such complex questions could not be answered in three two-hour seminar sessions, but the work piqued the participants’ interest in these poets: Helen Adam, Léonie Adams, Katherine Davis, Babette Deutsch, Jean Garrigue, Sara Henderson Hay, Barbara Howes, Josephine Jacobsen, Janet Lewis, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Phyllis McGinley, Josephine Miles, Vassar Miller, Julia Randall, Anne Sexton, Mona Van Duyn, Margaret Walker, and Marya Zaturenskaya. Clearly, the study of these poets was just a beginning.

     The following year, Taylor co-chaired with Rachal Hadas an in-depth study of three poets whose work had been considered in 2003: Janet Lewis, Josephine Jacobsen, and Julia Randall. Although Lewis’s work seemed to have achieved the most recognition, the group concluded that Randall was the strongest of the three poets. Characterizing her poetry as “deceptively effortless, supple, and deftly rhymed,” the seminar participants proposed further study of her work. They speculated that Jacobsen, who was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1971, the position now called Poet Laureate, had fallen into obscurity because of “a certain ironic distance” in her work, or possibly because she was not an academic and lived relatively isolated from other poets. Lewis’s work, they concluded, “only occasionally achieves the level of artistry and vigor that assures it a place in the twentieth-century canon.”

     In 2005, Taylor broadened the discussion beyond the middle of the 20th century, asking in her invitation that we locate and discuss the work of “two admirable formal poems by women (of any era) that you feel have been under-recognized, under-published, under-discussed—i.e. two poems that are less widely appreciated than you personally feel they should be.” She then assembled the poems and critiques into the packet that I so happily read in my driveway and that we so enthusiastically discussed at West Chester several weeks later.

     Gathered around the conference table in the West Chester student union building was an eclectic and somewhat intimidating mix of poets and poet-professors, including Kim Bridgford, professor of English and director of the writing program at Fairfield University; Annie Finch, Director of the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA of the University of Southern Maine; Meg Schoerke, associate professor at San Francisco State University; Taylor, the Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and poets Debra Bruce, Barbara Crooker, Moira Egan, Diane Lockward, Margaret Rockwell, and me.

     Other than “The Prince Is Dead” by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was born in 1830 and died in 1885, all of the poems we discussed were published in the 20th century. Some of the more recent poems included Margaret Rockwell’s “The Seventeenth Day of May,” reprinted here with her permission:
The Seventeenth Day of May

Grow maples in me this grow-maple day.
I lie in the long chair and wait your coming.
Spin from branches heavy with fruit of leaves
My sudden seeds, my one-wings, turning, turning!

Leap in the wind that understands the life:
Land on my leg and do not slide:
Catch in the ready furrows of my hair—I say
I have no pride.

For in me all the broad and murmuring branches
Wait but to hear it spoken.
The porch, the chair, the gutter will not take you.
But I am open.

Heads of life, stretched to the shape of flight
Plunge to my upturned palm and with good reason:
My earth, my rain, my sun, my shade will grow you.

Let your season bring me into season.

From Davy’s Lake, Caribou Press, 1996.
Our discussion of poems like this one covered both the technical and thematic elements in the poems. For example, Annie Finch noted in her critique of this poem how the “pyrrhic-spondee combination in the second and third feet of the second line forces the reading voice to pause a long time after ‘long,’ embodying at once luxurious slowness and a corresponding undertone of impatience.” She discussed Rockwell’s use of exact rhyme to close the poem and her use of sexual imagery, pun, and double-entendre to emphasize the “overwhelming, earth-linked power of sexuality.” She also made a provocative observation about the poem’s theme:

     It is, for me, impossible to imagine this poem having been written by a man, as deeply embedded as it is in primal female imagery of the earth as goddess of fertility, and so complete is the acceptance of that archetypal role by the speaker; indeed, it is possible to read the poem as a document of experience of accepting that archetype, of coming “into season.”

     In contrast, Meg Schoerke noted that when she presents Mona Van Duyn’s poem “Open Letter from a Constant Reader” to her class without author attribution, her students “inevitably assume that the author is male. . . . My students don’t, in this ‘blind test,’ credit such playfulness and boundary crossing to a woman poet.” The poem opens:
To all who carve their love on a picnic table
Or scratch it on smoked glass panes of a public toilet,
I send my thanks for each plain and perfect fable….
Apparently Schoerke’s students don’t think a mid-20th century woman would have written about public toilets or graffiti, which may just reflect their limited life experience or lack of exposure to a broad variety of poetry.

     As Schoerke notes, Van Duyn goes beyond merely observing the graffiti; she elevates it to “a legitimate form of publication.” In addition:
Van Duyn’s poem, while humorous, rises far above the level of light verse because she develops a complex argument about human needs; the poem ponders fundamental questions about human craving and satisfaction.
Such observations from the critical essays enlivened our discussions over the three days of the seminar. At the end of three days, though, it was not easy to come to any consensus about these works. They reflect the wonderful variety of ideas, styles, and techniques inherent in all good poetry. If we learned anything, it’s that these poets and their work deserve a wider audience, as do most contemporary women poets, especially those writing in form. There’s a real need to examine these works critically, to produce anthologies of women’s writing, and to educate readers about a body of work that should be better known.

     I can attest that it was wonderful to be introduced to the work of women poets I would not otherwise have heard of. I am glad to see the number of female antecedents expanding beyond the few women poets who are often anthologized. Reading their work, I feel connected, the way I feel when I get a mehndi design hennaed on my ankle, and I know I am participating in an activity women have been doing for thousands of years.

     On the other hand, I am irked that we still make gender distinctions at all in the arts. Even more troubling to me is the question of whether some subjects might be truly women’s, others truly men’s. I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s assertion, in his foreword to the Phyllis McGinley collection, Times Three (page xiii), that women cannot write love poems as well as men, but they can write better poems about marriage. (Auden also claimed that women must be mothers to write well about children, but men must be bachelors to do so.) Whether these ideas strike the reader as merely quaint, illogical, or just plain sexist, it is frustrating to note that forty-five years later we are still asking similar questions, though fortunately we do not have such pat(ronizing) answers. There is room for much variety of craft and thought in modern formalist poetry.

     As we discovered at West Chester, it was enormously difficult to categorize the poets and their work in any meaningful way. Some were strict formalists, but many others were what Barbara Crooker aptly termed “semi-formalist,” poets who mix form and free verse in their work, or who play with the rules that define a form, or who keep the shape but use a mix of slant rhyme and regular rhyme. We could not pin down many exclusively “female” topics, either, in many of the poems, which covered love, sex, jealousy, nature, birth, death, language, po-biz, farm implements, and restroom graffiti. Then again, I’d guess that few male poets would think to use the words “pissed” and “ovaries” in the same poem (see “One Week” by Traci Elder O’Dea in the November 2003 issue of Poetry), although they certainly could. We are all writers; we use our imagination as our primary tool. For this reason I can’t see many topics being one hundred percent one gender’s or another’s, though I suspect I would write a first-person poem about menstrual cramps with more authenticity than I could about, say, peeing into a urinal.

     As avid and eclectic readers, however, my sister panelists and I would have no trouble whatsoever in writing about other people’s poems, regardless of gender, which leads to what I see as a primary question to come out of these three seminars: where is the body of criticism about these poets? Who is doing the definitive work on Jacobsen, Randall, and Swenson, for example? Why isn’t Helen Hunt Jackson anthologized as much as her friend Emily Dickinson? Why are poets like X.J. Kennedy and Richard Wilbur applauded for their humorous poems, when the humorous poems of Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker are forgotten?

     Rather than dwell on questions that have no acceptable answers, the seminar participants decided to take a more productive approach, and take steps to bring these “rediscovered” poets to a wider audience. There are several important ways we hope to achieve this goal. First, the 2006 West Chester Poetry Conference will include a retrospective panel on the work of Julia Randall. Second, we hope our continued discussion will result in an anthology of critical essays grounded in the work of the seminars. However, we recognize the need not only to introduce the work of these “rediscovered” women poets to a wider audience, but also to recognize the ongoing work of our contemporaries. To accomplish this, Kim Bridgford has designed this new online journal, called Mezzo Cammin, after the title of a poem by Judith Moffett. Moffett’s poem, noted Marilyn Taylor is “a rhymed, metrical tour de force….a personal meditation on reaching life’s midway point.” It wryly examines the poet’s single, writing life in comparison with the conventional idea that (all) women find fulfillment as wives and mothers:
O Kinder, Kirche, let me go,
How can I bless you now? I know,
I trust, the center
That holds, holds more than family
And faith, and warms a place for me
In deep mid-winter.
Moffett, known today more for her science fiction than for her poetry, closes the poem with acceptance for her status as a single writer for whom friendships are “godsent”: I
think so. No one gets it all.
The grass is green here, too; I call
My draw a fair one.
Just as Moffett places her life and work in context, it is important for a writer in any genre to be able to do so. Recognizing the work of women poets who preceded us and who are working alongside us will enable today’s women poets, whether they work in traditional form or free verse, to acknowledge and appreciate the work of our foremothers and sisters who deserve not only to be rediscovered, but never to be forgotten.

Works Consulted

Auden, W.H. Foreword. Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades. By Phyllis McGinley. New York: Viking, 1960. ix–xvi.

Finch, Annie. “Annie Finch on ‘The Seventeenth Day of May’.” Unpublished essay in West Chester Poetry Conference Critical Seminar: Rediscovering Formal Poems by Women. 33–34.

Rockwell, Margaret. “The Seventeenth Day of May,” Davy's Lake, Caribou Press, 1996.

Schoerke, Meg. “Meg Schoerke on ‘Open Letter from a Constant Reader’.” Unpublished essay in West Chester Poetry Conference Critical Seminar: Rediscovering Formal Poems by Women. 47–49.

Taylor, Marilyn. “Three Neglected Women Formalists of the Mid-20th Century: Janet Lewis, Josephine Jacobsen, & Julia Randall.” Poetry Matters: The Poetry Center Newsletter. Ed. Michael Peich. February 2005.

Taylor, Marilyn. “West Chester ’05.” Email to seminar participants. 4 Jan. 2005.

Taylor, Marilyn. “Marilyn Taylor on Judith Moffett’s ‘Mezzo Cammin’: A Metircal Extravagance.” Unpublished essay in West Chester Poetry Conference Critical Seminar: Rediscovering Formal Poems by Women. 56–57.


Patricia Valdata writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her poetry chapbook, Looking for Bivalve, was published by Pecan Grove Press, and her novel, Crosswind, was published by Wind Canyon Publishing.


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