Clive James on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop

P14_James_web_1068339hClive James at the Times Literary Supplement:

The business of poetry is now much more equally distributed between the sexes than it was even in the period after the Second World War, when women seemed to be taking up poetry as if it were a new kind of swing shift, the equivalent of putting the wiring into silver bombers. There had always been women poets, from Sappho onwards, and a few, such as Juana Inés de la Cruz, defined their place and time; but in English poetry, a small eighteenth-century triumph like Anne, Countess of Winchelsea’s poem “The Soldier’s Death” did little to remind the literary men of the immediate future that there could be such a thing as a poet in skirts. They might remember the poem, but they didn’t remember her. True equality really began in the nineteenth century: Christina Rossetti, for example, wrote poems of an accomplishment that no sensitive male critic could ignore, no matter how prejudiced he was. (There were insensitive male critics who ignored it, and patronized her as a cot-case: but the tin-eared reviewer is an eternal type.) Elizabeth Barrett Browning was spoken of in the same breath as her husband. He might have been the greater, but nobody except devout misogynists doubted that she was in the same game.

In the twentieth century, Marianne Moore achieved the same sort of unarguable status: she was acknowledged to be weighty even by those who thought she was fey. Back in the late 1950s, I would listen to an all-poetry LP that included Moore reciting “Distrust of Merits” and come away convinced that she had the strength to make seriousness sound the way it should. When she said “The world’s an orphans’ home” I thought hers was the woman’s voice that took the measure of the war in which the men had just been fighting to the death.

more here.