Loud hailers and currant rolls

Women's Poetry of the 1930s: A critical anthology ed by Jane Dowson, Routledge, pounds 8.99; The female poets of the Auden generation hummed a different tune. By Kate Clanchy
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The Independent Culture
This book is worth buying for the potted biographies alone, for the women poets of the Thirties lead, apparently without exception, sensational lives.

Mary McCrory, for example, had 27 affairs and an annulled marriage before she changed her name to Valentine Ackland and took up poetry and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Naomi Mitchison, now 99, was the only girl at the Dragon School, propounded open marriage in 1916 and found her greatest satisfaction in being tribal mother to the Bakgatla tribe of Botswana. Dorothy Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington, was used by Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf to kindle jealousy between them. Anna Wickham's husband sent her to a lunatic asylum when he heard her poems were to be published - but what she really regretted was her frustrated career as an opera singer.

I could go on, through dashes to Spain in ambulances, love triangles in country houses, small magazines and Bloomsbury flats - enough material for a dozen gorgeously costumed and faintly prurient BBC dramas. Jane Dowson's immaculate research has undoubtedly discovered 20 brave and unconventional individuals who wished to be remembered as poets. Whether she has rediscovered good poetry is, of course, another question.

Dowson herself is a literary theorist, which means she can avoid using a value judgement like "good" in favour of a more neutral wish "to exert pressure on our understanding of the poetry of the 30s", and "to strengthen the feminist project which rejects the language of centrality and dominance in favour of diversity and difference". The mere existence and title of the book, however, poses a challenge to, and evokes the ghosts of, Auden, MacNeice and Spender.

Dowson is particularly keen to illustrate that women can, like these poets, "interrogate national and international affairs", and therefore includes a large number of poems on the great concerns of the Thirties - the Civil War in Spain, poverty, impending war. Unfortunately, it is precisely in this area that the poems seem weakest, and the ghosts of their male counterparts strongest. It is hard for example, to read Vita Sackville-West on September 1939 - "Nothing remains but active faith / and courage of a high despair / in moments when we grow aware / Of noble death that is not death" - without remembering the grand bitter sweep, the "ironic points of light", of Auden's poem of the same title and concluding that Vita should have stuck to gardening.

Similarly, though Sylvia Townsend Warner writes accomplished and evocative pieces on Spain, they pale by the inevitable comparison with Auden's arrogant, absurd, but stirring "Spain'', or MacNeice's sensual, musical memories of the country in Autumn Journal. But then young men always have been better at grasping public rhetoric than women. It's a question of confidence - it does not occur to members of the master-gender to question their authority to comment on another country's war. They know that platforms and loud-hailers are made for them.

The best poems in the volume leave the posturing to the boys. Elizabeth Daryush and Frances Cornford construct, in immaculate metrics, delicate domestic scenes with some of the mysterious, dissonant charge of Emily Dickinson's best work. Daryush's "Children of Wealth'', for example, will "wake to horror's wrecking fire - your home / is wired within for this, in every room", while Cornford describes sudden, unexplained absence in an ordered house "You had to go / Who always liked to stay / Before Lousia sliced the currant roll / and rearranged the zinnias in a bowl".

Cornford and Daryush depict rather than declare, murmur rather than lecture, deliberately avoid rhetoric and the declarative voice. In this, though, is their originality, and, far more than in the more overtly public poems, their challenge to the canon. Stevie Smith carried the challenge to rhetoric one step further in her absurdist echoes, her continual ironic adopting of other voices. The voice in ''Portrait'', for example, is "tongue-tied and shy" - "It really is tantalising / And after all the Education I've had / Surprising. / There's nothing I'd rather say / Than something Edifying and Unusual." Smith's refusal to make up the "Edifying and Unusual" prevented her from writing epics called "Spain'', and from being perceived as part of the literary movements of the decade in which she accomplished so much of her work.

This volume may not present serious rivals to Auden and MacNeice in the realm of public affairs, but it does remind us that, even if the boys did outrun the pack and sing the loudest anthems, women such as Smith and Cornford were in the same space, but tranquilly off in the outfield somewhere, humming an entirely different tune.