Woman as Writer: Guilt and Identity in Pat Lowther's Poetry
Margaret Atwood once put it bluntly: it is “too much of a strain to fit together the traditionally incompatible notions of “woman” and “good at something”” (Second Words 193). The archaic incompatibility of ‘woman writer’ is no more, and yet there lingers problems of identity for the female wielding the pen. The attachment to gender expectations and woman’s role as ‘housewife’ results in the female writer’s guilt complex in identifying as something other – or simultaneously as - ‘wife’ or ‘mother.’ Pat Lowther’s poetry, specifically How Can I Begin, Poetry, and On Reading a Poem Written in Adolescence, reflects a strain against ‘feminine sensibilities’ and explores the problem of the identity of the woman writer. There are some basic elements in being a woman writer that are problematic: the movement away from traditional constructions of gender role and the guilt associated with this departure; the binaries of ‘male writer’ and ‘female writer’; and the complicated identity of woman writer. Lowther’s poetry questions these vexing qualities of female writing and addresses the possibility that ‘feminine sensibilities’ are constructed rather than implicit in women’s writing; woman’s identity as writer goes beyond a basic evaluation of ‘gender’ or ‘sex’, and yet these identities are essentially inseparable.
Lowther’s poem How Can I Begin seems to question just that: how can a woman begin to write without seeming bogged down by her sex? The poem addresses the concealment involved in being a woman and being a writer. For the woman on the brink of the feminist movement, there is a sense of guilt in writing, in the departure from the traditional role of woman as mother or housewife. This sense of guilt is explored in Margaret Atwood’s Second Words, in the essay On Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas. She says “anyone who took time off for an individual selfish activity like writing was either neurotic or wicked or both, derelict in her duties to a man, child, aged relatives or whoever else was supposed to justify her existence” (191). A woman writer was one who did writing in her own time, after all of her domestic duties was satisfied, her husband was fed and her child was in bed. Women would write at night, and the writing was considered a hobby, never a serious endeavor. Thus, the woman writer was seen as supplementary, as a novelty of sorts; the woman who wrote was a deviant from tradition. This stigma of deviancy and neglect evidently manifested itself as a sort of guilt in the woman writer. Augmenting this guilt, Lowther asks “How can I begin? So many skins of silence upon me” (1-3), as she attempts to peel away the layers of expectation heaped upon her as ‘woman.’ After a tradition of being silent and compliant, it is a process to begin, to form words underneath the weight of expectation. It is a struggle to begin to speak for the silent women before her – the memory of these women have become a callous concealing her own identity. As Atwood explains, “These writers accomplished what they did by themselves, often at great personal expense; in order to write at all, they had to defy other women’s as well as men’s ideas of what was proper” (Second Words 191). After struggling to separate the ‘woman’ from ‘writer,’ it is no wonder that so many female writers felt a sense of guilt; they felt they were not only betraying their families, but also themselves.
Identity as woman is often in part defined by the ability to give life, but her identity is formed more complexly than that. Lowther employs an extended metaphor in order to explain the duality of a woman’s identity. She has “become accustomed to walking like a pregnant woman carrying something alive yet remote” (5-9). Pregnancy is exemplified here as not only a signifier of life, but symbolizes woman as creator; as an extension of biological pregnancy, as a writer, she carries with her vibrancy and life, just as she would carry and give life to a child. Pregnancy then gains a double meaning: as a signifier of creative life, and as an expected duty of woman. Her thoughts, “though less articulate” (11), are formed as a child is formed, beginning with a “skeleton” and waiting for “unpredicted flesh and deliverance” (14-15). The articulated thoughts are likened to the growth of a fetus, implying a sort of unity between creation of life and creation of art. Gertrude Stein once used this same metaphor of child/writing to demonstrate the creative process, although she argued that, “you have a little more control over your writing than that; you have to know what you want to get” (Gertrude Stein Remembered 155). There is a space between woman as basic live-giver, and woman as creator; creation, in an intellectual sense, involves control and cognitive function, while any ‘brainless’ woman could bear a child, as she is biologically built to do. This base traditional definition of ‘woman’ is based on the biological function of woman, or, “tota mulier in utero: she is a womb” (de Beauvoir 3). Lowther seems to be suggesting a transcendent ability in woman in relation to, but superseding, her basic biology; She possesses the ability to write and create in a way uniquely female, but the ‘femininity’ of her writing does not degrade the quality or integrity of the writing. She pleads “I would ask you: learn as I learn patience with mine and your own silence” (19-22). The “you” addresses a culture with archaic notions on femininity and the woman’s role in life, as well as the men who have silenced women in the past. She asks for silence in return, as she attempts to begin to separate woman from her pre-determined identity.
Part of the trouble of defining the woman writer is in her relation and comparison to a male writer. The binaries of male/female direct our attention to sex, and in simply naming the writer as ‘woman,’ she becomes the other; the ‘woman writer’ is the other to ‘writer,’ or male. Atwood notes the tendencies of critics to say, “You think like a man,” she is told, with admiration and unconscious put-down” (Second Words 193). In this comparison, “good equals male, and bad equals female” (197). This ‘othering’ of the female sex is nearly inseparable from the definition of the woman writer; it places the woman on the other end of the scale from the male, demanding that we judge each side’s work according to the sex of the writer. Lowther’s Poetry plays with the binaries of male/female, employing such adjectives that follow the trite descriptors of each sex, such as “weak” for female and “aggressive” for male. She says, “Firebombs are in the mind but so is love, its soft flowering explosion” (7-9). The entwined imagery of both violence and tenderness suggests a sort of androgynous poetry; the woman’s mind is considered “soft,” “flowering” and full of “love,” while “firebombs” and “explosions” suggest a male aggressiveness. The following stanza continues the fusion of the sexes, as she claims, “Such violence is my work’s intent. Come walk with me” (12-14). The desire for “violence” suggests not physical violence or aggression, but an aggression of attitude in her writing. This desire to be considered ‘male’ is partly in attempt to make such male/female distinctions obsolete, but also seems to suggest that the male/good female/bad prototype is ingrained in even the woman writer’s mind.
The role of the reader or critic also reinforces these binaries. Ruth Robbins explores this aspect of ‘woman writer’ as existing among other writers in Literary Feminisims. She notes that it is, “rare that the woman writer was treated as a woman writer (unless the term was used pejoratively) or that she was placed in the supportive context of other woman writers, rather than always being measured up against the men” (71). The division of the male and female writer is based on the assumption that the female writer is doomed in her deviancy; as she attempts to be like men, or to write like men, she removes herself from being ‘woman.’ Poetry comments on this need to act or write like men in order to be taken seriously. Lowther says, “Armour yourself with ice; no lesser shield will do. I’ve tried your customed mail of linked complacencies, and know” (20-24). She acknowledges the difficulties in identifying oneself as female writer, sardonically recommending that the woman writer “armour” herself, or sheath herself in male demeanor in order to be accepted as ‘writer’ amongst other writers. An armour of “ice” suggests the transient and ephemeral qualities of the adoption of male writing techniques; “ice” implies impermanence and coldness, or impersonality, which will not outlast or overcome the intrinsic ‘warmth’ or concern of the feminine writer. She puns “mail,” demonstrating her awareness of the restraints on the female writer by the male writer’s critique and gaze. Thus, female subjectivity is considered a flaw, and male objectivity a superior way of writing or observing the world. Atwood further comments that a woman’s work was never reviewed without mention of her ‘feminine sensibility,’ while ‘maleness of male poets never seemed to matter (Second Words 195). When Lowther says, “I practice love and war,” she is responding to ‘feminine sensibility’ and ‘maleness’ simultaneously, thus taking gender out of the equation; she has taken a stance against the traditional notion of adhering to one gender category, commenting on the multiplicity of the writer identity.
The complex identity of ‘woman writer’ lies in the aggregation of the two identifiers. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (A Room of One’s Own 4). This “room” is not strictly meant as physical space, but rather as an ‘identity.’ Separating identity and gender is not a simple task; Simone de Beauvoir also assigned herself the task of discovering what it means to be a woman. She wondered, “If the female function [as a womb] is not enough to define woman, and if we also reject the explanation of the ‘eternal feminine,’ but if we accept, even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: what is a woman?” (The Second Sex 5). The problem of identifying woman is fraught with traditional guilt and deeply rooted stereotypes of overt sentimentality and subjectivity. Thus, identifying oneself as a ‘woman writer’ is complex in the separation of ‘woman’ from ‘writer;’ arguably, there is no style of writing that is implicitly ‘female’ or ‘male.’ The othering of the ‘woman writer’ by her male counterparts and society’s critique problematizes this separation; the world hesitates for the ‘woman writer’ to extend the role of ‘woman’ into the role of ‘writer’ indefinitely. Atwood poignantly elucidates the identity problem, saying “no one comes apart this easily; categories like woman, white, Canadian, writer are only ways of looking at a thing, and the thing itself is a whole, entire and indivisible. Paradox: woman and writer are separate categories; but in any individual woman, they are inseparable” (195). The identity of ‘woman writer’ is not divisible like a math equation, nor is the span in which it reaches punctuated as in a timeline; it functions on multiple levels.
Lowther explores the discovery of identity in On Reading a Poem Written in Adolescence. She begins with “Couldn’t write then maybe but how I could love” (1-2). This can be understood as a reflection on personal youth and growth, but also collectively, “I” as inclusive of all women. Lowther is responding not only to the critics of female writing, but also her youthful insecurities as woman and individual. Again, the traditional stereotype of tender but brainless female is provoked, but Lowther turns it on its head, making “love” into something life-giving and nurturing. She reflects, “When I said “Tree” my skin grew rough as bark” (3-4), ascribing an innate connection between language and nature. The connection goes one further in “all the leaves rushed shouting simmering out of my veins” (5-7). By breathing the word “tree,” she has made the tree come alive; just as language is a part of her understanding of identity, so is nature and beauty. The imagery of ‘mother nature’ reinforces the concept of woman as nurturer and giver of life, but Lowther has demonstrated that the woman’s love is at the foundation of creation and thus of language. Put another way, because woman possesses the innate ability to love mightily, she also innately possesses the ability to create. Thus, there is no need to separate the ‘woman’ from the ‘writer;’ they are identifiable as functioning together. Atwood once reflected on the anxiety of the woman’s need to choose between being ‘something,’ or being ‘woman.’ She recalls “They were all assuring me that I didn’t have to get married and have children. But what I wanted was someone to tell me I could” (Great Unexpectations xvi). Lowther echoes this sentiment in the final lines of On Reading: “Even now I can almost remember how many hands I had hooked in the sky” (8-11). The imagery of hands grasping in the air suggests endless possibility and optimism for the future, not limited to woman’s traditional role of ‘housewife.’ “Multiple hands” represents multiple endeavors, and limitless possibility. The role that memory/temporality plays in the poem is intensified by the repetition of “I can almost remember.” It is suggested that it is not her ability for total recall, or objectivity, that is essential in writing the poem, but rather the subjective, remembrances of shadowy emotions from the time of her youth that is necessary for her creation.
Lowther’s poetry and other literary feminist theory suggests that the concept of ‘woman writer’ is indivisible from its parts, and yet that does not imply that ‘writer’ takes away from any part of being ‘woman.’ The anxieties associated with moving away from traditional gender roles of women with the movement of feminism and the separation of ‘male writer’ from ‘female writer’ contributes to a unique concept of ‘woman writer.’ Rather than ascribing to the archaic supposition that, “If a woman writer happens to be good, she should be deprived of her identity as a female and provided with higher (male) status” (Atwood, Second Words 198), there needs to be movement towards an understanding of ‘woman writer’ as good in her own right. Concepts of ‘woman’ and ‘writer’ need not be divided from each other, individually analyzed, then mashed together again to form a sort of hybrid being seen as deviant in some way; rather, the sex of the author should not inform the quality of the work, whether the sex be male or female. Lowther demonstrates her awareness of the tensions within identity as a woman and as a writer, and yet makes it possible for the woman to remain ‘woman’ while also being ‘writer.’ Identity, then, is not based on a single signifier; rather it is the summation of parts of a whole.