Elisabeth FrostHOW(ever) and the Feminist Avant-Garde

Elisabeth Frost

HOW(ever) marks a crucial juncture in the history of avant-garde writing in America. Feminist avant-garde poets from the 1910s onward have occupied an anomalous position in American letters, resisting the frequent masculinism of avant-garde rhetoric while seeking to forge alternatives, most often without an awareness of a feminist “usable past” from which to draw. Modern-period women avant-gardists—notably Mina Loy, among many others—remained preoccupied by debates with contemporaneous avant-garde groups. By contrast, for more recent women poets, a rich dialogue is enacted not just with a range of contemporaries but with a diverse representation of female (and feminist) precursors. As HOW(ever) first showed, women avant-gardists are increasingly creating specifically feminist avant-garde traditions—a various lineage that explores the relationship between the constructions of gender and race and the structures of language.

            The editors of HOW(ever) asserted several goals for the journal: to nurture a community of avant-garde writers caught between the divergent camps of a “mainstream” feminist poetics and the largely male circles of the literary avant-garde; to foster dialogue between contemporary women poets and feminist scholars; and to recuperate women avant-gardists of the modern period. In 1992, in the final issue of HOW(ever), editor Kathleen Fraser summed up the situation that had led to the journal’s founding nine years earlier:

we felt unfamilied, without a place in which to find or assert our own particular hybrids. Unpredictable by definition, “the new” seemed to have become quickly over-prescriptive in journals shaped by various male-dominant poetics or a feminist editorship whose tastes/politics did not acknowledge much of the poetry we felt to be central to our moment—the continuously indefinable, often “peculiar” writings being pieced together by women refusing the acceptable norms. We wanted to make a place for these writers. But we weren’t fond of the grip of rules nor the territorial claims of the male manifesto tradition...

We were interested in how works were freshly constructed and language reanimated within the experience of “female”-gendered lives.

                                                                        —HOW(ever) 6.4 (1992): 15.

This statement—its desire for “family” and its inquiry into what constitutes the “female” in women’s lives—reflects Fraser’s sense of the marginalization of feminist avant-garde writing and theorizing in the circles of both second-wave feminism and a burgeoning radical poetics. As one example, elsewhere Fraser points to the exclusion of Barbara Guest from “a major anthology of the works of the New York School” (ed. David Shapiro, 1970), an “erasure [that] was my first in-person encounter with this common historic practice.”(“Tradition” 57). As she notes, anthologies through the mid-1980s consistently ignored the work of women experimentalists, while representing a tradition that comfortably included “Joyce, Beckett, Olson, and Ashbery”(Hogue 17), and indeed Fraser’s formal education had supplied no introduction to female modernists.(“Tradition” 54-5) Fraser was not alone in observing such omissions. Shari Benstock argues in a 1984 article that the history of modernism still ignored the work of women innovators, and Susan Howe similarly observes not just that the “American practice” of a poetics that “involves a fracturing of discourse, a breaking of boundaries of all sorts” has been largely excluded from the canon, but that even “when the history of this sub sub group gets written even here women get shut up or out.”(Howe 192-3)

            In the late 1970s, Fraser had begun to teach graduate seminars “in feminist poetics and modernist women writers.” Increasingly, in these classes, “working methods [of young women poets] began to include collage, disruption, and sentence fragmentation....Often these works were inspired by the poems and poetic prose of Woolf, Stein, Loy, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Moore, Richardson, Jean Rhys, and Niedecker, all of which investigated states of female mind and experience.”(Boland and Fraser 388) Yet the texts of these precursors remained largely invisible to critics. As Fraser tells it, “Poetry scholarship seemed to be comfortable with Dickinson and then, with the exception of a minimal nod to Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and H.D., to jump over the major innovations of modernist women writers.”(Hogue 16) Like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Carolyn Burke, and other feminists interested in the avant-garde, Fraser began questioning why there was “no acknowledged tradition of modernist women’s poetry continuing out of H.D., Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Woolf, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes,” among others.(“Tradition” 61) At the same time that scholars engaged in “gynocriticism”—rediscovering and proffering readings of neglected women’s texts, often fiction, by such writers as Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others—the erasure of modernist women innovators was increasingly brought home to Fraser. At the same time, as Fraser recalled in conversation with me, even in the absence of a body of criticism about such writers, “We began to understand the link back to modernist women that we didn't know had been our family.”

            As she noted in the above statement about the founding of HOW(ever), in addition to facing the erasure of feminist avant-garde precursors Fraser tackled an uncomfortable division between male-dominated avant-garde journals and an emerging feminist poetics that privileged what she calls a “common language” aesthetic: Fraser mentions the editorial limitations and frequent sexism of “both the mainstream and more avant-garde publications” of the 1970s and 1980s (Hogue 17), yet she found problematic as well the feminist “call for the immediately accessible language of personal experience as a binding voice of women’s strength.”(“Tradition” 58) For many feminists, “the emphasis on finding a common language through poetry was crucial to forging community and establishing a shared identity. But there never seemed to be a comfortable place for experimental women poets.”(Boland and Fraser 398) As second-wave feminism gained momentum, “It was as if women were being told that we couldn’t afford the ‘luxury’ of the more experimentalist texts, in a period urgently focused on female identity and its instatement in the mainstream culture. Some even equated innovative practice with ‘elitism.’”(Hogue 16-17)

            Indeed, poet-activists aimed to generate new awareness of female experience, often by exploring previously taboo subjects. As the title of the 1973 anthology No More Masks! suggests, this approach urged political awareness by means of the “naked” truth and an intensely personal voice; as the anthology’s title also indicates, a key predecessor in this poetic tradition was not an experimentalist such as H.D. or Stein, but Muriel Rukeyser, who famously asked, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” Developing this largely confessional mode, feminist movement poetry emphasized open form and political message. According to Kim Whitehead, feminist poets were driven by a need “to avoid alienating the rank and file of the women’s movement through the use of the elite’s poetic techniques,”(27) which, as Fraser argues, included any “inaccessible” or unrecognizable avant-garde experimentation with syntax, diction, or form. As Jan Clausen later noted of 1970s feminist poetry, “what had begun as an anti-traditional movement had to a certain extent developed its own dogmas, conventions, cautions, clichés, taboos,” including a prevailing “obsession with accessibility.”(31, 23)

Fraser strongly felt that “feminist and traditional critics [were] failing to develop any interest in contemporary women poets working to bring structural and syntactic innovation into current poetic practice,” and she was hungry for “a place where our issues could be aired and some new choices put forward in women’s poetry—asserted and selected by women.” It was in this spirit that Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Frances Jaffer founded HOW(ever) with the goal of connecting contemporary innovation to “a revival of modernist figures.” The name HOW(ever) itself enacts this crucial, and fluid, lineage. Alluding to a phrase from Moore’s “Poetry,” signified to Fraser “an addendum, a point of view from the margins.”(“Tradition” 61-3) The first line of “Poetry” famously confides, “I, too, dislike it,” but the poem continues: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it one discovers in/it after all, a place for the genuine.”(Moore 36) Launching what DuPlessis called a “formal and intellectual critique which did feminist cultural work”[HOW(ever) 6.4 (1992): 14], the journal joined the ranks of the many feminist publishing collectives that had thrived since the late 1960s. But it did so with a crucial difference: the much-needed purpose of voicing an alternative poetics largely ignored in scholarly, activist, and literary circles. HOW(ever) first gave voice to what I see as a burgeoning feminist avant-garde tradition—a strain of women’s dissent that, since the early 20th century, has sought to unsettle the gendered rudiments of language.


Works Cited

Benstock, Shari. “Beyond the Reaches of Feminist Criticism: A Letter from Paris.” Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 7-29. (Originally published in the 1984-85 issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature).

Boland, Eavan and Kathleen Fraser. “A Conversation.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 23 (1998): 387-403.

Clausen, Jan. “A Movement of Poets: Thoughts on Poetry and Feminism.” Books and Life. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1989. 3-44.

Fraser, Kathleen. “The Tradition of Marginality.” Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition. Ed. Sharon Bryan. New York: Norton, 1993. 52-65. [Rpt. in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, 25-38.]

Hogue, Cynthia. “An Interview with Kathleen Fraser.” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1998): 1-26.

Howe, Susan. “Encloser.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 175-96.

Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

Whitehead, Kim. The Feminist Poetry Movement. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.


BIO: Elisabeth Frost's poetry has appeared in The Yale Review, The Denver Quarterly, Boulevard, and other periodicals. She has published essays on modern and contemporary women poets in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, H.D. and Poets After, Genders, and Women’s Studies, and elsewhere. She has recently completed a critical study of feminist avant-garde poets in America and is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University, where she directs the Poets Out Loud Prize and reading series.