Norma Cole

Rena Rosenwasser

Grammar and Gender,
Dennis Baron, Yale University Press, 1986

For any of us who have been wondering about the ontology of "her" speechlessness and that d' "alliance of speechlessness and powerlessness." (1) that, we are assured, is individually based-- your own timidity --here is a helpful source book. Grammar and Gender is a thorough, informative narration on how we've been named strangeness, other, alien; how that's been built into the language we use(d), lodged in legitimacy. It is a book bearing witness to the man-made structure of events and political facts behind the word-set we know, "the powerful are dedicated to the investiture of speechlessness in the powerless."(2)

What becometh a woman best, and first of al: Silence. What seconde: Silence. What third: Silence. What fourth: Silence. Yea if a man should ask me til' dowmes day, I would stil crie, silence, silence, without the whiche no woman hath any good gifte, but hauing the same, no doubt she must haue many other notable giftes, as the whiche of necessitie do euer folow suche a vertue.--Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, 1553.
"You can make your eyes, your smile speak for you and say more, perhaps, than words could express" --Harriet Lane, in The Book of Culture (1922)
Vives asserts that silence is a woman's noblest ornament, and he warns his female readers not to speak when men are present, for verbal intercourse leads inevitably to sexual intercourse. Vives explains that a woman can defend her chastity "stronger with silence than with speche"-- De Institutione Christianae Feminae , Juan Luis Vives (1523)
--Norma Cole

  1. Michelle Cliff, "Notes on Speechlessness." Feminist Poetics: a consideration of the female construction of language. Ed. Kathleen Fraser. San Francisco State University, 1984. pp. 103-7.
  2. ibid.

Louise Bogan's
Ęsthetic of Limitation,
Gloria Bowles, Indiana University Press, 1987

Bowles exposes Bogan's severe attitude to the female tradition and to women's subject matter, tracing the way Bogan circumscribed, limited and put still her own poetic imagination. Bowles includes Bogan's censored poems (those she didn't publish or those she chose to republish in her final, tiny collected volume of poems, The Blue Estuaries) as well as the letters and reviews Bogan wrote about the subject "woman poet." She shows how Bogan distanced herself from the tradition of the "wailing poetess" of the 19th century, asserting that woman could be as controlled in poetry as man. Bowles shows that while Bogan wanted to be known as a Poet, not a woman poet, her subject matter was inevitably female subject matter. Her ambivalences, typical of her time, led to a halt of poetic creativities in her forties. "It is difficult to say what a woman poet should concern herself with as she grows older, because women who have produced an impressively bulky body of work are few," she wrote in a scathing review of Edna St. Vincent Millay, suggesting that, "a woman, like a man, should be able to withdraw more and more . . . her own personality from her production. . . ." Ironic that these prophecies became the dagger aimed at her own undoing. Gloria Bowles shows how Louise Bogan, paradoxically, added to the wealth of the female tradition, writing some of our intensest lyrics about the female experience--sometimes despite herself, despite her theories of limitation.

--Rena Rosenwasser

go to this issue's table of contents