'The difficult soundings of modernism's female half': A Collection of Essays from "Modernist and Contemporary Women Poets," Part II of "The New Modernism/s" conference at Penn State [October 1999], Seminar section led by Lynn Keller

Sara Lundquist, Guest Editor


soundúing noun The action or process of ascertaining the depth of water by means of the line and lead or (now usu.) by means of echo

soundúing adjective Having a sound; causing, emitting, producing, a sound or sounds, esp. of a loud character; resonant, sonorous; reverberant.

Kathleen Fraser: "I have just begun to engage with the difficult soundings of modernism’s female half. I still need the wild humor of Stein’s re-grammaring–its refusal to submit; Niedecker’s tenacious, sinewy yet delicate poetic line and her mistrust of any language’s tendency to dissemble; Riding’s philosophic dark humor compressed to cut; Mina Loy’s skeptical view of romantic codes, her flagrant sexual inventions; H.D.’s empowering permission to re-think myth or any exclusively male version of the story, her naming of the palimpsest form as a structural necessity." (from "Photogenes: ‘the incidental’ & ‘the inessential’ as modernist postscript," 1993)

Linda Kinnahan: "I wondered if there was a feeling of "post" (as in "post-feminist," "post-subversive," "post-experimental") before lots of necessary work had been done, a feeling I’ve had recently at conferences where it seems implicitly passé to address issues like gender (an "oh, haven’t we already been there" feeling)." (my emphasis).

Elisabeth Frost: "...my anxieties. First about loosening the grip (stranglehold?) of academese on my writing and thinking. What would happen if this kind of dialogue were incorporated into my critical prose?"

(I quote from, and refer the reader to, Linda’s introduction and Elisabeth’s endnote to the first batch of papers from the seminar in the February 2000 issue of How2.)

The most inspiriting aspect of the two-part seminar held at Penn State last October, was that anxieties like Linda’s and Elisabeth’s, which while they were astute enough to discern as subtle undercurrents, and brave enough to name, were dispelled by the very fact of our meeting to share our individual "difficult soundings," and by recognizing that such sharing is itself an essential part of the work. It helps immeasurably to see each other’s faces, to hear each other’s voices, to risk our work-in-progress, to understand that one’s work is always part of a larger work-in-progress. And to remember, with Kathleen, that "I [we] have just begun to engage with the difficult soundings of modernism’s female half." And that I, we, poets, critics, teachers, still need what the modern women writers have to offer, indeed still need to consider who they were, what they accomplished, and how they remain to be discovered.

Kathleen so deftly uses that word "sounding," as both the thing to be heard and to be read (that sonorous, reverberant literary legacy) and the process of delving into it, plumbing its depths — critics by "line and lead"? poets by appreciative "echo," magnifying and replying? That both of these are difficult soundings lends to them gravity and dignity; both require intellectual rigor and the willingness to trust one’s own reactions, one’s own sense of pleasure and conviction. It is no wonder that Linda ends her essay, anxiety quelled, with a vision of "the ripple effect of reading communities, imagining each woman returning to a classroom, a pen, a computer . . . to contribute to ever-new narratives emerging." And Elizabeth writes of feeling "as Kathleen Fraser put it, ‘familied’ among other women poets and past and present, who are enmeshed in dialogue, who want to connect, who are willing to experiment." And surely such vital experiments in conference format and atmosphere are valuable contributions to an inaugural meeting of scholars of modernism.

The papers reproduced here add to Kathleen’s list of what women poets and critics still need from the modern women poets, and indicate how much necessary work is still being done. Indeed they add to the list of who those women poets were: Caroline Maun brings Evelyn Scott to the fore as an alternative Imagist. Kimberly Lamm argues for the equal importance of the different language and gender concerns of Zora Neale Hurston and Gertrude Stein to the work of Harryette Mullen. Jenny Goodman argues for, and demonstrates, an expansion of feminist critical interest beyond the concerns of contemporary experimentalist writers with their declared allegiances to H.D. and Stein, to writers whose overt political intention and presumption of female authority allows a seizing of the epic tradition instead of shrinking from it, or subversive undermining of it. She demonstrates this with readings of Muriel Rukeyser and Sharon Doubiago’s 20th century epic poems.

Edward Lintz explores antanaclasis as a particular example of Stein’s "un-grammaring," her radical use of repetition as "offering other writers a new explanation of how to compose." The papers of Nesrin Erysal, Cynthia Hogue, Heather Thomas, and myself, clearly indicate that H.D.’s empowerments and permissions have not been exhausted. Nesrin shows H.D.’s immense affinities with the work of Jung, and her borrowings from "heretical discourses whose roots lie in ancient Gnostic teachings." Cynthia’s paper about "Kathleen Fraser’s Postmodernist Poetics," also shows how an impassioned, avid reading of H.D. among women poets and readers helped shape the innovations of the journal HOW(ever), How2’s print predecessor. Heather’s paper connects H.D. and Anne Waldman in their epic ambition of writing "salvation poetry" which delivers ever "wider spiral[s] of healing." My paper concerns the difficulties and rewards that Barbara Guest encountered in writing H.D.’s biography, and discusses the two poets’ convergences and differences. (Lisa Joyce’s paper about Susan Howe and the modernist tradition does not appear here, but an excerpt can be found in the "alerts" section of the February 2000 How2.)

Lynn Keller, the seminar leader, pointed out that many of the papers involve the persistent, because unresolved issue, of how to construe the "and" between modern and contemporary, how best to conceptualize relationships between generations. This set of papers, adding to the considerations among the first set of H.D. and Howe, Stein and Hejinian, Loy and Notley, Riding and Retallack, H.D. and McGuckian, also adds to the richness and variety of the ways "and" can be understood. "And’s" such as these, as Lynn pointed out, might serve to keep modernism from becoming historically closed. They keep us alert to the complexities of lineage: who to link with whom and how and why, and to the benefits and limitations of reading two or more poets via lineage. What happens when we add gender as one characteristic of lineage? I quote directly from Lynn’s notes: "Are women more indebted to women predecessors than to men? Or for different things? What are the implications of these legacies? How can we keep talking about gender with awareness of complex multi-positionality? Shouldn’t ‘and’ work retroactively in time as well as in a chronologically linear manner? Can ‘and’ be as much about reading practices as it is about historical and stylistic inheritance?" Thus did Lynn connect our papers, (create an "and" for them!) and indicate the many ways they demonstrated that "and" cannot be taken for granted, but must become part of a vital critical self-consciousness.

A last note: one "and" that proved particularly exhilarating was the fact that the seminar meeting became a dialogue between critics and poets. The discussion was enlivened and enriched by the contributions of Rachel Blau Duplessis, Kathleen Fraser, and Carla Harryman.


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