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Gender and the Poetics of Excess

Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade

Karen Jackson Ford
Copyright Date: 1997
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    Gender and the Poetics of Excess
    Book Description:

    The argument posed in this analysis is that the poetic excesses of several major female poets, excesses that have been typically regarded as flaws in their work, are strategies for escaping the inhibiting and sometimes inimical conventions too often imposed on women writers.

    The forms of excess vary with each poet, but by conceiving of poetic excess in relation to literary decorum, this study establishes a shared motivation for such a strategy. Literary decorum is one instrument a culture em-ploys to constrain its writers. Perhaps it is the most effective because it is the least definable.

    The excesses discussed here, like the criteria of decorum against which they are perceived, cannot be itemized as an immutable set of traits. Though decorum and excess shift over time and in different cultures, their relationship to one another remains strikingly stable. Thus, nineteenth-century standards for women's writing and late twentieth-century standards bear almost no relation. Emily Dickinson's do not anticipate Gertrude Stein's or Sylvia Plath's or Ntozake Shange's. Yet the charges of indecorousness leveled at these women poets repeat a fixed set of abstract grievances.

    Dickinson, Stein, Plath, Jayne Cortez, and Shange all engage in a poetics of excess as a means of rejecting the limitations and conventions of "female writing" that the larger culture imposes on them. In resisting conventions for feminine writing, these poets developed radical new poetries, yet their work was typically criticized or dismissed as excessive. Thus Dickinson's form is classified as hysterical and her figures tortured. Stein's works are called repetitive and nonsensical. Plath's tone is accused of being at once virulent and confessional, Cortez's poems violent and vulgar, Shange's work vengeful and self-righteous. The publishing history of these poets demonstrates both the opposition to such an aesthetic and the necessity for it.

    Karen Jackson Ford is a professor in the English department at the University of Oregon.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-220-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter 1 The Poetics of Excess Fantastic Flourishes of Gold Thread
    (pp. 1-24)

    The mythic weaver Philomela has long fascinated feminist literary critics, who recognize in her predicament the situation of many women writers in a masculinist culture traditionally suspicious of women’s words and desirous of their silence. Philomela, the innocent sister of Procne, raped and mutilated by Procne’s husband Tereus, communicates with her sister, even though Tereus has cut out her tongue and locked her away, by weaving her story in cloth and sending it to Procne. Procne frees Philomela, and the two take revenge on Tereus by killing his son, Itys, and serving him to his father. When Tereus learns that...

  5. Chapter 2 Emily Dickinson Moments of Brocade
    (pp. 25-74)

    Emily Dickinson’s letters reveal that she tried her voice when she was still a young woman, was chastised by her father and brother (and later by her eventual editor) for her unorthodox style, and responded to their strictures that she write more appropriately by promising to do so but in a manner that proliferates the very stylistic features they had forbidden. In a movement I will discuss at length, Dickinson wrote most naturally in a style she associated with brocade because of its rich, intricate, multilayered pattern and its golden threads; her audience, however, demanded that she write in a...

  6. Chapter 3 Gertrude Stein A Crazy Quilt of Style
    (pp. 75-117)

    It is difficult to imagine two poets less alike than Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. The nineteenth-century New England recluse who confined herself to her own home and wrote nearly all her poetry in the hymn stanza makes an initial impression very different from the worldly grande dame of Paris modernism who abandoned conventional poetic forms entirely. Yet their similarities as women poets are striking. Thornton Wilder was probably the first to compare the two poets when he suggested that both had kept “the idea of an audience at bay” by writing in isolation (Mellow 390). Certainly neither poet made...

  7. Chapter 4 Sylvia Plath Splitting the Seams of Fancy Terza Rima
    (pp. 118-165)

    In her journal in 1958, Sylvia Plath echoed Gertrude Stein’s famous rose line, formulating her own private poetic struggle in the same manner Stein had used to formulate what she viewed as a widespread poetic dilemma: “my writing is my writing is my writing” (255). For Stein, of course, the repetitions were one strategy for overcoming the inertia of patriarchal poetry. For Plath, the emphatic capitalized sentence was an attempt to wrest her writing from the people she believed were using it—her dead father, mother, husband, teachers, benefactors, and publishers—as a measure of her success and, therefore, of...

  8. Chapter 5 The Black Arts Movement We Survive in Patches … Scraps
    (pp. 166-226)

    Early in the 1980s, a decade that would see African-American women’s writing rise to dominance in American letters, Ntozake Shange responded to criticisms that her writing was “too self-conscious” and “involved with the destruction of the English language” by insisting upon the need for these excesses:

    i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/ the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as he/ she learns to speak of the world & the “self.” yes/ being an afro-american...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 227-252)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 253-264)
  11. Index
    (pp. 265-272)