Expanding the boundaries of both genre and gender, contemporary American women are writing long poems in a variety of styles that repossess history, reconceive female subjectivity, and revitalize poetry itself. In the first book devoted to long poems by women, Lynn Keller explores this rich and evolving body of work, offering revealing discussions of the diverse traditions and feminist concerns addressed by poets ranging from Rita Dove and Sharon Doubiago to Judy Grahn, Marilyn Hacker, and Susan Howe.
Arguing that women poets no longer feel intimidated by the traditional associations of long poems with the heroic, public realm or with great artistic ambition, Keller shows how the long poem's openness to sociological, anthropological, and historical material makes it an ideal mode for exploring women's roles in history and culture. In addition, the varied forms of long poems—from sprawling free verse epics to regular sonnet sequences to highly disjunctive experimental collages—make this hybrid genre easily adaptable to diverse visions of feminism and of contemporary poetics.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, experimentalism in American poetry was most commonly identified with Language writing. At the same time, however, a number of poets, many of them women, were developing their own alternative forms of experimentalism, creating “uncommon languages” often indebted to Language writing but distinct from it.
With impressive intellectual engagement and nuanced presentation, Thinking Poetry provides a meticulous and provocative analysis of the ways in which Alice Fulton, Myung Mi Kim, Joan Retallack, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Wheeler, and C. D. Wright explored varied compositional strategies and created their own innovative works. In doing so, Lynn Keller resourcefully models a range of reading strategies that will assist others in analyzing the complex epistemology and craft of recent “exploratory” writing.
The seven women whose work is discussed here demonstrate widely differing ways of using poetry to, as Swensen puts it, “stretch the boundaries of the sayable.” Thinking Poetry examines approaches to women’s poetic exploration, ranging from radically open, thoroughly disjunctive writing to feminist experimentation within relatively conventional free verse forms; from texts testing the resources of visual elements and page space to those in which multilingualism or digital technology provide arenas for innovation; from revitalized forms of ekphrasis to fresh approaches to pop culture.
Keller illuminates as well a transitional era in U.S. poetry that presaged current developments that are often seen as combining the poetics of personal lyric and Language writing. Thinking Poetry challenges reductive notions of such a synthesis as it makes clear that the groundwork for current poetic trends was laid by poets who, in a far more polarized climate, pursued their own, often distinctly feminist, visions of necessary innovation.