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Annie Finch on Lyric Subjectivity in the Work of a Poetess

Finch’s work on the tradition of sentimental poetry , and Lydia Sigourney in particular, in her article “The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourney’s Nature Poetry” positions 20th century poetry and its critics within a Romantic tradition of poetry which demands a certain subject position. Finch argues that the critical rejection of Sigourney and her fellow “poetesses” is culturally constituted by the expectations of the Romantic tradition, a tradition in which all things described or addressed in the poem serve as vehicles to illuminate the state of the subjectivity of the poem’s persona, rather than the conventionality of their religious or moral convictions, which more ego-driven male poets of the time also display even while such male poets continue to be paid critical attention as “serious.”

Finch explicitly connects such lyric personas as both authoritarian and gendered, suggesting that “This egocentric model of poetry is based on the male-defined poetic tradition of romanticism,” was either rejected by or not available to 19th century women poets, a tradition “within which many of the currently canonized female poets established themselves with great difficulty” (4). Finch argues that even those 19th century women poets of the canon “such as Rossetti, Barrett Browning, and Dickinson struggled with the desire to express a subjective romantic lyric authority even though it was impossible for them to adopt that role consistently or unambivalently” (4).

Finch then goes on to describe the sentimental poetry of Sigourney, illustrating through her readings of the poems how Sigourney’s poems approach the natural objects they describe as equal subjects to put in dialogue with the poetic self, sometimes even privileged over that self. Finch describes how this poetic reverses various hierarchies such as reason over emotion. Finch lavishes some attention on how such poetic “effacement” is created by the poet, describing how “metaphor is an indicator of the subject/object relation within a poem, and hence a synecdoche for the way a poet positions her or his poetic self in relation to the world the poem describes” (6). Finch contrasts Sigourney’s poetics with William Cullen Bryant’s speaker’s “appropriation” of nature (7), and suggests that even Sigourney’s metaphors are couched as questions to the natural subject, and refuse to be used as signs for the poet’s lyric subjectivity.

This work by Finch offers a way at looking at the subject position in relation to the ekphrasic object that connects poetics to an appropriative gaze. Second, Finch’s reading offers a way of contextualizing the female exphrasic gazer as an inheritor of a Romantic literary tradition which is often inhabited, as Rossetti, Barret Browning, and Dickinson did earlier, with some ambivalence about their authority in the poem and the creation of the lyric subject.

Finch, Annie. “The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourney’s Nature Poetry.” Legacy 5.2 1988. Web. 9 Sep. 2012 JSTOR

Comments

Annie Finch said…
Meghan, just came across this because of your very funny comic book suggestion on my Facebook wall. I am so glad to see you engaging with this essay, because the knee jerk reaction against the poetess tradition and everything it stands for are still such powerful forces! Just last night, at the AWP conference, I was talking with some MA students about how the poetess tradition so frequently influences the poetry I see by women students. Being influenced by a tradition you don't acknowledge is an unstable, untenable position for a poet to be in, and the invisibility of the this tradition severely undermines some women poets.
Meghan Brinson said…
Annie, it's great to hear from you! I have to admit my own situatedness in the lyric tradition informs my reception of the poetesses as well! I'm so grateful to the feminist critics who point to the ways in which the romantic lyric tradition enables and perpetuates heirarchical modes of gazing (my MA focus) and strategies for challenging those modes. I'm taking a more critical approach to my own aesthetic values because of it--thank you for this! And I hope you like the comic!

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