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Margaret Dickie
Stein, Bishop, & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, & Place
University of North Carolina Press
soft, 234 pp.

Guest Reviewer Peter Klappert

One may disagree with Margaret Dickie's claim that "these poets became the dominant voices of their respective generations," but Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) certainly have "assumed a major role in the cultural work of their age" and "together, demonstrate the force of twentieth-century lesbian poetry."    All-American Girl[ Click to Order Dickie's Stein, Bishop, & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, & Place (soft $$) ]

Dickie is so good at succinct synopses and antitheses, it is tempting to let her write her own review. I take the following quotations slightly out of their sequence in Stein, Bishop, & Rich:

Because together their works span almost the entire century, these poets may qeveal some of the different stages of lesbian poetry as it burgeoned in the twentieth century. And sharing the same preoccupations, they may illuminate each other's work . . . . That these poets are lesbians is central to this study, because I believe that their desire to write love poems fueled their poetic experimentation . . . . I want to claim their public voice grew out of their most private subject, their love and erotic desire for women, expanding its range to subjects that my have a particular resonance for women but are not solely women's concerns, subjects such as war, place, class, and race, for example . . . . I shall argue that their poems reveal different models of lesbian erotic relationships, but I make no claim for the possibilities of their lived experiences . . . .

As an experimental writer, Stein would appear to have little in common with either Bishop, who wrote often in highly traditional form, or with Rich, whose dream of a common language has many parts but none that so self-consciously excludes the common reader as Stein's. Stein shares with Bishop a need to code her erotic experience, and her experimental writing performed the same service that Bishop's extremely elaborate forms often accomplished. Rich, too, has acknowledged her need for coded expression as a protection not only from public censor but also from herself . . . .

This idea of language working as protection . . . connects these poets and remaigs a central need even now in lesbian writing. It was not enough that each of them wanted to express herself and her experience; she also wanted or needed to hide that expression from too intrusive eyes. And the hiding and secrecy were part of the pleasure of the expression, part of the pains they took with their poetry

As these words from Dickie's "Introduction" may suggest, Stein, Bishop, & Rich is a book for those already familiar with the three poets, readers who have copies of the most important work at hand, and above all for scholars. Although free of critspeak--that impenetrable jargon which has been the curse of both criticism and the English language for at least two decades--this study never quotes an entire poem or section of a poem and rarely discusses one at length in a single place, although it quotes from and refers to touchstone texts many times. Rather, Dicke moves nimbly among a huge volume of writing; quotes frequently but in small bites; makes generous reference to the poets' novels, stories, plays, essays, speeches, interviews and letters; and carries on a cordial but often argumentative conversation with other critics--of whom there are many.

The differences among the poets are as interesting as the similarities, and Dickie is very good at conveying both. Gertrude Stein was of the first genration of "self-consciously lesbian writers"; she began to write "in order to come to terms with the disappointment of her love for May Bookstaver and later to express her attachment to Alice B. Toklas." Her experimentation derived from her early investigations of language as a sort of periodical table of elements which could be combined quite differently (and more playfully) than they were in standard usage, under laws of linguistic chemistr and physics that conventional grammarians could not imagine. Her own language was elemental; the result was not. As Stein said, "I like a thing simple, but it must be simple through complication." She craved and courted public recognition, but it only came to her with the publication of her much more accessible and realistic memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which she wrote as if it were the work of her beloved Alice and which is filled with trenchant, witty portraits of famous figures. For most of this century her influence indirect, through younger writers whom she tutored (such as Hemingway) and though their influence. Only since the rise of feminism, gender theory, and the still more experimental, nondiscoursive work of some post-modern poets has Stein's poetry been recogniued outside a small circle of readers.

Elizabeth Bishop's achievement, too, has only recently been widely appreciated. She received many honors in her lifetime but for much of her career was treated as minor "descriptive poet" (the particular strength, it was thought, of women writers). Her modest output of poems, essays, and stories, and her brilliant, voluminous letters, are now the raw material for an entire critical industry. She was an impeccable technician who was also naturally reticent: she spent twenty-six years on her wonderful poem "The Moose," whose three-beat lines occupy but five of the 279 pages of in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. She came to write poems of such grace and naturalness that most readers were slow to perceive their intricate choreography, even slower to intuit nuances and secrets. Dickie wisely skirts the pointless question, "What kind of poems would Bishop dave written had she been born thirty years later?" and says "Bishop's career is a good argument against those feminist critics (including Rich . . . ) who have acknowledged the poet's coming out as a necessary condition for the full expression of experience, essential not just for women but for the community as well."

Adrienne Rich began publishing as a representative poet of the late New Criticism in the 1950s. In Dickie's words, "she began to free her poetry from its early formalism long before she identified her sexual politics, and she has moved on from the imaginative inspiration of coming out to embrace worlds of sffering and victimization that have political resonance for her quite apart from gender." Nonetheless, her coming out in The Dream of a Common Language (1978) was a major event which "encouraged a general, popular, and political interest in lesbian poetry that may have inspired the burgeoning interest in women's poetry in general" and, indeed, in the kind of criticism offered here. At the same time, as a founder of feminist criticism and as poet, Rich has "taken on a variety of positions" and critics "have frequently riveted their attention" to positions she has occupied but has moved on from: "she has created audiences for poetry she no longer writes." Dickie agrees with Willard Spiegelman, that Rich's poetry has seldom received the "literary criticism she most deserves," and while she clearly admires Rich, she is critical of some of the poetry and is sometimes sharply at odds with other critics.

Margaret Dickey is a perceptive, articulate reader who genuinely loves poetry; she has also written studies of Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. She co-edited (with Thomas Travisano) the collection of essys Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, which includes her essay "Recovering the Repression in Stein's Erotic Poetry" (a condensed version of some analyses in Stein, Bishop, & Rich).

Nonetheless, I was initially disappointed by her latest study and put it aside in some annoyance. On the one hand, the book's tight symmetrical structure (three chapters--on "love," "war" and "place"-- on each poet, bracketed by an ntroduction and a conclusion), together with the author's relentless repetition of her thesis (that thse poets simultaneously write about and conceal their lesbian affections), made Stein, Bishop, & Rich read like transcribed lecture notes for a graduate literature course. On the other, her unwillingness to quote and discuss entire poems or sections, along with her generous quotes from and citations to other critics, implied she was addressing a small, intense circle of specialists.

I was wrong, and I'm glad to admit it. On a second readin the repetitions seem less oppressive. (They largely drop away after her second chapter on Bishop.) More importantly, Dickie's agility among the many texts, her gift for comparison and antithesis, her balance and independence from political agendas, and above all her obvious love of the poetry, make this a valuable book. Nonetheless, readers should start with the introduction and conclusion and then read the entire study from "Introducton" through "Conclusion." And they should allow lots of time for rereading the three poets along the way.

Peter Klappert is the author of five collections of poems; his The Idiot Princess of the Last Dynasty will be reprinted in Carnegie-Mellon's Contemporary Classics series next year. He teaches in the MFA Program at George Mason Univerity.

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