Reading Women Poets
essay

Reading Women Poets of the World

I’ve been re-reading Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. It’s an interesting collection ranging from a lone Sumerian poet through Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Persian, Indian, African, Chinese, Japanese, European, Native American poets, and even one translated Egyptian Hieroglyph poem.

The time span ranges from about 2300 BC to poets born in the 1950s. The range of voices is fascinating. Although hundreds and sometimes thousands of years separate the poets from us, the poems themselves transcend time. They speak of love, hate, relationships with husbands and lovers, children, the pain of growing old, regret, and betrayal.

The Book

In the introduction, the Barnstones speak of the sense of loss in Latin poetry. We know women wrote and painted, but little has come down to us because of the culture of the time. Women’s arts were not worth preserving. Contrast this with the reverence Eastern peoples held for their poets, male and female, and a subtle difference is seen in the writing. There is boldness, a straightforwardness to the writings of the Chinese and Japanese women. Their poems are as powerful as those of Basho, Issa, or Buson.

 From the Diary of Izumi Shikibu
 by Izumi Shikibu
   
 On nights when hail
 falls noisily
 on bamboo leaves
 I completely hate
 to sleep alone.
   
 From 18 Verses Sung To A Tatar Reed Whistle
 by Ts'ai Yen
  
 II
 A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,
 And took me far away to Heaven's edge.
 Ten thousand clouds and mountains
 Bar my road home,
 And whirlwinds of dust and sand
 Blow for a thousand miles.
 Men here are as savage as giant vipers,
 And strut about in armor, snapping their bows.
 As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
 Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself. 

One of my favorites comes from India, a classical Sanskrit poem that is dated from somewhere between 700 and 1050 AD. It lists no title; the author is identified only as Mahodahi.

 On the holy day of your going out to war,
 the sky is black with dust
 which the chisel of your horses' feet
 ground from the earth.
 The sun's charioteer is lost,
 his steeds rock from horizon to horizon,
 stumbling off track
 and the sun on its longer voyage
 is melancholy. 

The poet paints a vivid picture of a loved one gone to war, and how the day stretches endlessly as she waits for his return. The sense of pending loss hangs over the poem like a knife. She has little hope that he will return, ‘black with dust’, ‘the sun’s charioteer is lost’, and ‘stumbling off track’ all lead us to the inevitable conclusion.

I find inspiration in reading these missives from the past. It translates over into other forms of writing. How does a female character feel as her lover gallops off to save their kingdom from invading forces? I imagine she reels from unsaid emotions much as the woman in Mahodahi’s poem does. How does the woman warrior of today feel about going off to war? How does she feel about her treatment as a soldier? So many questions to answer, and so many facets of being a woman to explore.

We are not as far removed from our ancestors as we like to think.

 Our Backs Are to the Cypress
  
 Our backs are to the cypress
 We are hiding the mountains behind our houses
 We are ashamed to see the star.
 We hurry to the commotion of the streets
 so that our hearts won't be confused
 by open spaces.
  
 And so we live,
 in closed rooms
 in streets belted by telephone and telegraph wires.
 It is so far from all that we love innocently.
 On the other side of ourselves, we live
 in our times.
  
             Ramah Commanday 

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