BOOKS: WHY DID SAPPHO LEAP?

Outspoken as ever, Germaine Greer has some controversial views on women's poetry

GERMAINE GREER's latest book, Slipshod Sibyls, pursues the interest in women's art and writing of the past shown in her two earlier works, The Obstacle Race and Kissing the Rod, one a survey of women artists and the other an anthology of 17th-century poetry. Now she moves on to consider the poets themselves, some newly canonised by feminist scholars but the whole bunch splenetically condemned by Alexander Pope as the slipshod sibyls of Greer's title, badly coiffed and sloppily dressed. His metaphor collapsed two criticisms into a single indictment of femininity: they were poetesses who did not know their poetics and cared less.

Greer has in fact written three books in one. The first is an intervention into the battle waged on campuses about women's studies, whether the traditional male-dominated canon of Great Writers needs to be overhauled or dismantled, whether feminist scholars are correct in resurrecting forgotten female poets or whether they're motivated by ignorant sentimentality.

The second book, around which the first is fitted as a polemical prologue and epilogue, is a series of essays providing close readings of the works of these women poets, from Sappho onwards. It concentrates on the 16th to the 19th centuries and offers a sharp look at the myths informing our appreciation of, for example, Aphra Behn or Christina Rossetti.

The third book is a discussion of the moral and ideological climate in which women tried to write, hampered by lack of education and deeply enshrined notions of sexual difference which set in after the Renaissance and insisted on the poet as male in love with an impregnating female muse. Linking these three books into one is a marvellously passionate critique of the way our culture has so severely divided women from men, to the grief of both. A battle-cry constantly surfaces, descant-like, on behalf of women unable sufficiently to mutilate their souls to qualify as truly, madly, deeply feminine in patriarchy's terms. She throws plenty of scorn at those lady poets she deems foolish failures, who presumably would have done better to stick to pudding-making and stocking-mending, but she has plenty of sympathy for any woman struggling less against the fact of her sex than against the constraints of conventional ideas of gender. Pope's sneer, she tartly points out, could apply to both sorts of women:

"The term is weighted with all the contempt expressed by literary men for literary women who took themselves seriously, who risked ridicule, exploitation and calumny because they thought they had something to say, and the contempt likewise meted out to the women who fooled around with poetry, who did not try hard enough or fell for the fiction that poetry can come easily."

Greer's main thesis acts as a corrective to some feminist wishful thinking: "The more we know about women who wrote poetry in English before 1900, the more we must realise that it is not a question of women poets having been ignored or obscured but of women's poetry remaining unwritten because women were disabled and deflected by the great tradition itself, while a select band of arbitrarily chosen token women, all young, beautiful and virtuous, were rewarded for their failures. Second-rate, dishonest, fake poetry is worse than no poetry at all. To insist on equal representation or positive discrimination so that She-poetry appears on our syllabuses ... is to continue the system of false accounting that produced the double standard in the first place. This is not to say that we should not work at reclaiming women's work, but simply that we should be aware that we are more likely to find heroines than poets."

The great tradition Greer cites, which demanded a thorough immersion in Greek and Latin poetics, could be hard on men too. The 18th century, especially, produced reams of dreary bombastic heroic couplets, packed with clumping false classicism and turgid twittering rhymes, by both sexes. When Blake comes into view at the end of the century you cry out with gratitude. Can ecriture feminine, authentic female voices in poetry, be invented without the benefits of higher education? Greer does not explore this point. What of unlettered, self-taught male poets? Did they too feel forced to write in an alien tradition? She does not say.

Though so many women failed to make it on male terms as real poets, others did have success with the novel. You can see language being bent and twisted and re-shaped in the early novel, and its female exponents were agile and adept from the start. Was this because the novel employed literary forms closer to female experience, like the letter, the confession, the tale of horror or intrigue?

Once she has disposed of the troops of inept poetesses, Greer in fact concentrates on women poets first established as interesting and important by Cora Kaplan in her ground-breaking study Salt and Bitter and Good. Greer clearly does think some women wrote well, even if only the elite few who combined learning with wit and some kind of sexual confidence. Her argument can't fail to provoke contemporary echoes, in our age of creative writing classes and poetry groups and self-publishing, of fights about whether feminist aesthetics can or should exist, whether being a self-declared female poet is the same as believing in essentially feminine creativity. Greer's descriptions of Regency and early Victorian literary London, in which the unfortunate Letitia Landon launched herself as a writer of execrable verse whose success depended on her self-presentation as Childe Bimbo out of Byron-Goethe-Rousseau, reverberate today when publicists try to present women poets as Living Dolls (while male poets still have to imitate Mr Rochester or toy suggestively with pipes or rifles): if you're not sexy, pretty or young, forget it until you turn 60 and can be re-packaged as a Sibyl, slipshod or not.

Things were not always so bad, however. Greer's early chapter "The Transvestite Poet" discusses the Renaissance as a time of relative freedom from stereotypes, when the constricting corset of femininity could be gaily worn by either sex, when Rosalind could wear breeches for a quick saunter and swagger, in a carnivalesque moment producing an outpouring of great poetry. Greer quotes the Italian women writers who could speak of their desire as fearlessly as any man - just as they could speak in a male persona if they so desired, or in both at once, or in neither. The Elizabethans, Greer argues, saw sexuality as playful, womanish, childish, boyish. They valued lots of different kinds of pleasure and routes to it, and didn't think of women as less desiring than men. Interestingly, the English poets Greer quotes to support this view are male: Shakespeare, Jonson et al. We reach the epitome of female gallantry with Restoration wit Aphra Behn; after her time sexual divisions began to close in, and the feminine brain and sensibility to be invented. Sex was out; domestic affections were in. There's a strong suggestion, not spelled out, that if women are denied sexual knowledge and potency then our writing suffers. Repression leads to cliches.

Sappho has been repressed, Greer argues, by mythmakers eager to transform her into the exception that proves the rule: the perfect poet with whom no other woman dare compete. A monstre sacre used for scaring women off, just as the Virgin Mary, getting pregnant without sex, has been used to make us guilty about our bodies and our sexuality. In fact, Sappho exists mainly as holes in papyrus, and the gaps have been filled in by all sorts of artists masquerading as scholars, so that down the centuries, according to the whims of fashion, Sappho has metamorphosed into ladylike muse, feminist icon or lesbian kitsch object, a perverse idol for men who liked their beautiful women dead. The invention of the myth of Sappho's Leap - in which, though deeply lesbian, she kills herself for love of a man - largely contributed, Greer insists, to the cult of female poetic suicide in the 20th century, the pawky idea that the best women poet is a self- immolated one. This chapter is rich in quotation in Greek, and hard going for anyone who hasn't learned the language, but it is rewarding nonetheless.

From Sappho Greer leaps to the Restoration, to "what has passed down to us as the authentic work of Katherine Philips". This turns out to be a mess of probably unauthorised revisions, in some cases substantial re-writings, by others. Though Philips is a recognised major poet of her time, "yet only now are academics beginning to invest energy and resources in establishing her text ... Feminist scholars who clamour for women's work to be included in the canon assume that there are texts ... that actually represent what women wrote and the way they wrote it. The further back we go from our own time, the more unlikely that is."

The problem is exacerbated with Aphra Behn. Greer suggests that our insistence on seeing her as Puss in Boots swinging up from Kent to make her fortune in the big smoke obscures the painful reality of life for literary hacks at the time. Men and women worked in conditions of near slavery and dire poverty, and Behn, Greer dares to insist, probably did live off male protectors, since the sexual double standard could not be bypassed. Greer makes a good case for Behn as ghost-writer, not only ripping off the plot and language of Thomas Killigrew's Thomaso for her own smash-hit The Rover, but actually writing Thomaso to Killigrew's dictation, since he was probably illiterate.

This is a wonderful tale, a chapter full of marvellous flourishes, bluffs and counter-bluffs, but which doesn't obscure the bleak facts of Behn's harsh battle with sexual disease and penury. She was not, Greer implies, the heroine that some of us have wanted her to be, but she was a fine and wily writer.

Similar misapprehensions cloud our views of Anne Wharton, Rochester's niece, whose poetry in fact constantly pays homage to him as guide and preceptor and must not be read as the naive outpourings of her sweet young heart, since she was an intelligent libertine herself. Then there's the case of the great William Wordsworth, publishing the work of Lady Winchilsea and editing it so badly that it comes to us in severely curtailed and re-written form. We move on to Christina Rossetti, who receives a drubbing for allowing her brother Gabriel to suggest alterations in her work, and for being such a neurotic Christian that she constantly sabotages herself. This was Virginia Woolf's conclusion too.

In her tour of the 20th century and its dreary list of female poets' suicides, Greer moves back into polemical mode, castigating these women, whose suffering was undoubtedly real, for not just snapping out of it. Greer asserts that writing poetry became associated with making a career out of suicide, that neurotic women wanted to write bad exhibitionistic verse as a rehearsal for dying. But personalities made less robust than Greer's by childhood wounds that remain open and unreachable in the unconscious may seek to heal themselves through the writing of poetry. An acknowledgement of unconscious processes, and their inaccessibility to simple exhortations to good sense, would give Greer greater compassion.

We shouldn't expect our women poets to be saints. A poet is simply femme moyenne sensuelle. Marina Tsvetayeva may well have been masochistic and controlling as a person, but she wrote some marvellous poetry, if we trust Elaine Feinstein's beautiful translations. With Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, you could argue that the psychic wound, whatever it was, which produced the neurosis, simultaneously opened up that route to the unconscious which is necessary for writing real poetry. Perhaps in repressed Fifties New England culture, creativity could only emerge by that painful route. But then both got on with the hard graft of becoming professional poets, sharply self-critical, tough workers. That they both wrote so much about female damage is simply an indictment of the century in which we live, still shadowed by Christianity's horrible doctrine of Atonement, belief in suffering as a virtue, and the creed of female self-abnegation. Quibbles apart, this is a valuable and fascinating book, crucial reading for all who love women and poetry and desire them to go together better in the future.

! 'Slipshod Sibyls' is published by Viking at pounds 20

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