Tuesday, 24 September 2019


When I studied Six Modern Poets for O level English Literature, five of them were men.  The token woman was Elizabeth Jennings.  Women poets were then, I suppose, regarded as a bit of an oddity, though I didn't realise that when I began writing (very derivative) poems in my teens.

But attitudes were changing.  A few years later, on the other side of the chalk (as it was then) board, I was teaching my A level students from The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets.  The book was very well produced: eleven poets with a good number of poems, photographs, biographies and essays about writing.   It was edited by Jeni Couzyn whose introduction was thorough and combative.  She took issue with the steotypes of women poets ('sub species of the genus Great Poet'): Mrs Dedication, Miss Eccentric, Mad Girl.

I thought of this when I heard a recording tonight (on BBC Radio Four's Front Row) of the poet Elaine Feinstein, who said that when she started writing poetry a woman poet was considered to be 'eccentric'.   The programme was paying tribute to Feinstein (born 1930), a great writer of poetry, fiction, biography and drama, whose death has just been accounced.

I first encountered her work in that Bloodaxe anthology. In her autobiographical essay she wrote not only about her own writing but about her encounter with the work of the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, and her English versions of Tsvetayeva's work, introducing it to English readers for the first time.

Later I taught Ted Hughes' poetry to A level and continuing education students and read Feinstein's Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet. Writing about Ted Hughes' life is to enter a minefield and the book was criticised for its restrained tone amidst the drama of the Hughes-Plath conflict (for example, by Nicci Gerrard in her Guardian review 28 October 2001).

When Elaine Feinstein's Portraits was published in 2015 I bought a copy.  These very accomplished poems show that she knew most of the poets that were worth knowing in the twentieth century.  The poem 'Homesickness' in memory of Maria Fadeyeva Enzenberger introduced me to Mandelstam's 'Necklace of Bees'.  In complete contrast Feinstein sees herself through another's eyes in the humorous 'My Polish Cleaner's Version' in which the author is an 'old woman in her nightie' who is untidy and careless, 'like a child', but who works at her writing on the computer - 'what she does there is her life'.

There is a recording of Feinstein reading a few of her poems on the Poetry Archive website.  One of the poems is 'Getting Older': 'The first surprise - I like it'; 'Every day won from such darkness is a celebration'.  Somewhere I found this quotation of Feinstein: 'People do seem to need poetry; it makes ordinary life feel richer.'


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