Faulty Sibyl

Marion Shaw finds Germaine Greer's condemnation of women poets `seriously flawed' in argument and detail; Slip-shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet by Germaine Greer Viking, pounds 20

Part of the title of this book is taken from Alexander Pope's lines on the muse who inspired Colley Cibber, the King of the Dunces in The Dunciad. This slip-shod creature, down-at-heel and sluttish, "led his steps along,/ In lofty madness meditating song,/ Her tresses staring from poetic dreams". The choice of such a title is, Greer's Prologue tells us, "provocative and deliberately so"; women poets before 1900 were, for the most part, slip-shod. There were reasons for this, about which Greer will enlighten us, but to pretend otherwise is "to continue the system of false accounting that produced the double standard" which bore so heavily against women in the world of poetry, as in the world at large.

This is fair enough. But there is something slip-shod in the choice which does not portend well for the 500-odd pages that follow. Undoubted misogynist though he was, Pope was actually at this point describing a muse and not a woman poet. For the sake of a catchy title and a swipe at Women's Studies courses which insist on "equal representation" of woman poets, Greer tolerates the slippage. It is a small point, but symptomatic of a book which is seriously flawed, both conceptually and in its details.

The gist of Greer's book is that women poets have always been seen, and, more damagingly, have seen themselves, in a sexual light. They have been variously modest or immodest, faithful or promiscuous, seducers or seduced, virgin or whore, but always, or almost always, in relation to male desire and propriety. This sexualising is imposed on women in general, of course, but for women poets it is specifically injurious in that it makes them into poetesses: heart-broken, wild, simpering, timid, depressive, and sometimes suicidal. And always the life outweighs the work. Greer makes a great sweep from Sappho to Plath to demonstrate this. Only fragments of the poems of Sappho remain, and little is known of her life, but myth has transformed her into the figure of the betrayed lover who leapt to her death, a suicide her poet daughters have not been slow to follow, whether actually, as did Plath, or as poets in "the rhetoric of petulance [which] locks women into their victim status". Between Sappho and Plath, Greer takes in Gaspara Stampa, Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Wharton, the Countess of Winchilsea, L.E.L., Christina Rossetti, and, in an Epilogue, a clutch of 20th-century poets who killed themselves: Amy Levy, Charlotte Mew, Ingrid Jonker, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anne Sexton, as well as Sylvia Plath. This suicides' Olympus is presaged in the longest chapter, that on L.E.L., who possibly poisoned herself, and who epitomises for Greer the factors that create and then destroy the "poetess".

Leaving aside earlier ages, one could name a number of very good poets from the 20th century who have been cheerful (Marianne Moore), reticent (Elizabeth Bishop), politically stoical (Akhmatova), and who have managed not to kill themselves, but by this point Greer's argument has become hijacked by the suicide theme and by the need to harangue the poetry-reading public on its taste for an egocentric "versifying of agony and rage" which results in women who write sensible, witty poetry being categorised as minor. This doesn't make sense, or at least it makes the kind of provocative and coat-trailing sense that a television interview or a smart piece of journalism makes, but which sits ill at the conclusion of a book which is so huge and so stuffed with information that it purports to be scholarly and authoritative.

This, along with much else throughout, raises questions: where has this book come from, and, more important, whom is it for? In the Prologue, we are told that the "canon" is "the corpus of poets studied by undergraduates" but the reader who needs to be told this is, within a short time, expected to take on board untranslated bits of Greek and engage with the complexities of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. The narrative is also disparate; sometimes it goes deep into textual variants, sometimes it is detective work on the lives of poets, sometimes it is received biography, sometimes it is just long quotations from all sorts of people. It is rarely - and this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect - criticism of the poems. Why is Mrs Oliphant's "On the edge of the world, I lie, I lie,/ Happy and dying and dazed and poor" only "garbled flutterings" compared with John Donne's "Batter my heart"? (The male canon fares quite well in Greer's book.) Why is Christina Rossetti's poetry pathologised and not evaluated? Greer's thesis is premised on quality; let us see, then, why Rossetti is not a good poet, if that's what Greer means by including her in the slip-shod sisterhood.

Slip-shod is, however, a term that must be applied to Greer's scholarship. A ramshackle set of notes at the end, difficult to follow, sometimes inaccurate, seem for the most part to have been compiled around 1965 in their omission of recent writing on women poets. For instance, for the 19th century, books of the last ten years by Isobel Armstrong, Lynne Pearce, Elsie Michie and Dolores Rosenbloom are ignored, and especially Angela Leighton's Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (1992) whose chapter on L.E.L. reaches conclusions similar to Greer's and which Greer should either have been aware of or have acknowledged. Slip-shod Sibyls proclaims a newness which is not justified and arrives triumphant at the end of a race others have already run.

A sibyl is a prophetess, an oracular woman who imparts wisdom and foresight to those who heed her. Greer is such a one to our generation, but this time the sibyl, though loquacious, is unreliable. There are good things here - interesting anecdotes and recondite information - but there are bees in bonnets too, and a slipperiness of argument and presentation which does a disservice to the book's subject.

Marion Shaw is Professor of English at Loughborough University.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate