In her 1995 book Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, Germaine Greer states:
Too many of the most conspicuous figures in women’s poetry of the twentieth century not only destroyed themselves in a variety of ways but are valued for poetry that documents that process.
And then she lists a roll call of poets from Plath to Sexton to Jonker to Tsvetaeva whose poetry could be described (as Greer puts it) as ‘elaborated suicide notes’. With Plath, the poetry and the desire for death are inextricably linked, so that dying becomes 'an art’ which the poet must practice again and again (she was successful in her third suicide attempt) until she achieves perfection.
These are the first four stanzas of her final poem, Edge:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Is it the case that we are more attracted to Plath’s suicide and endless speculation over the reasons for it than we are to her poetry? Are we in love with the elegant, black and white photos of Anne Sexton, chain smoking, arms stacked with bangles, because we know her fate? And where are the male poets in this list? True, there’s Berryman and Weldon Kees (assuming he did jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, as his body was never found), but there appears to be a higher percentage of women if you start counting. And although you could argue that both Berryman and Kees wrote of the turmoil in their lives, it’s not obsessive and singular, as it was with Plath and Sexton. Their desire for death was their subject.
Is Greer correct when she suggests that in a literary world run by a male establishment that a woman poet had to 'make an exhibition of herself and ultimately to come to grief’? Is Plath saying to be great, to be placed in the pantheon of poets, you must be dead first? Certainly in her lifetime it was Hughes’s career which blossomed; in her death, she became a phenomenon. But not necessarily for her poetry …
Greer argues that today’s women poets will be largely forgotten 'because they fail to flay themselves alive.’ I think in our generation of poets, quite a few of us (both men and women) will be forgotten; as Anthony Thwaite so charmingly put it, 'we are too many’. Part of the reason is that our profession is not as highly regarded in Britain and America as it is in other regions of the world. Also, it is increasingly difficult to find a readership in the wake of so many celebrity biographies (which are often public self-flagellation), and during these tough times for publishing.
But I do take Greer’s point that it is more difficult to be noticed as a woman generally, unless you are wearing a dress made out of meat or describing yourself as a 'mama grizzly’ …
The image accompanying this post is from the current show of Josephine King’s paintings at Riflemaker: http://www.riflemaker.org/s-now#jose