Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Deryn Rees-Jones’ MODERN WOMEN POETS: Mina Loy and the structure of poetry

I’ve been reading my way voraciously through Deryn Rees-Jones’ recent anthology of MODERN WOMEN POETS (Bloodaxe 2005) and making some fascinating discoveries about the history of women’s poetry over the last century. I would very much like to read the companion volume, CONSORTING WITH ANGELS: ESSAYS ON MODERN WOMEN POETS, also by Deryn Rees-Jones, but have only just ordered it from Bloodaxe and so will have to be content with the tantalisingly brief introductions to each poet in this anthology until it arrives.

The experimental poet Mina Loy (1882 - 1996) was born in London but later became a US citizen; the only two collections published during her lifetime were Lunar Baedecker (1923) and Lunar Baedecker & Time-tables (1958). Some of her comments on writing poetry - from an essay entitled ‘Modern Poetry’ quoted in the anthology’s introduction to her work - seem extremely astute and worth repeating here: 'The structure of all poetry is the movement that an active individuality makes in expressing itself. Poetic rhythm ... is the chart of a temperament.'
(Lost Lunar Baedeker, p. 157 - pub. posthumously in 1996/7.)

This makes supreme sense to me, for how else could poetry be constructed, except by way of reference to the self? Even the rules of formal verse are interpreted a different way by each practitioner. Free verse, by contrast, which has gradually become the standard in modern poetry since Loy herself first began writing at the turn of the century, has no precise set of rules, no absolute requirements before it can be called ‘poetry’. So how does the poet go about choosing a form in the face of such apparently unregulated freedom, unless he or she starts by looking within?

Mina Loy says - specifically to women writers in her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ - ‘Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not - seek within yourself to find out what you are.’
(Lost Lunar Baedeker, pp. 153-54)

Wise - if problematic - advice to women poets, now as then; we may well win praise and prizes for writing in a male idiom, but there’s too often an emptiness to the echo, a lack of self-investment in the work which eventually betrays it. How many male poets write like women? And what would we think of their work if they did? (I can hear the machine-guns being trundled out along the wall even as I write that ... )

Poetry may be ‘heightened speech’ but it is still very much an individual’s speech, the voice of that particular poet, not anyone else's. With that individuality comes eccentricity of theme and word selection; highly characteristic variations in line length; breaking the line at a certain word when another poet might have chosen to break after the following word, or perhaps the preceding one; choosing a particular title, or a number instead of a title, or no title at all; writing a prose-like narrative poem, or an elliptical modernist connotation of language and sound, or something more in the style of self-referential epigrammatic postmodernism.

In other words, we are all the sum of our parts, a combination of individual quirks, influences and past experiences, and blessed with a desire to experiment or consolidate, according to our nature as human beings. And that sum total - or as Mina Loy puts it, our ‘temperament’ - informs our every decision, from which hand is dominant to where we break the line in a poem.

For a comprehensive website devoted to this experimental modernist poet, featuring extracts from Mina Loy's poetry and writings, contemporaneous art and poetry that inspired her, and some unusual photographs - there was more than a streak of Victorian decadence in Ms Loy - visit this page first and then the home page of Jenifer Wolkowski's Mina Loy Website .

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