Traversing landscapes of theory

feminist measures

Book Review
Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory
Edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller
U of Michigan Press, Women and Culture Series.
410 pages. 1994.

Many literary critics interested in theoretical problems have limited themselves to narrative fiction. With “Feminist Measures,” Keller and Miller address that shortcoming by bringing together scholars and poets working in theoretical approaches to poetry. The book aims to spur recognition of current and previous criticism.

Each of the 15 previously unpublished essays in this volume speaks with its own rhythms and contributes to the movement of the collection. These essays represent a spectrum of approaches by feminist writers “who approach poetry as a gendered practice and who consider poetic works in terms of a number of contemporary literary theories.”

In other words, these essays supplement traditionally analytic forms of criticism with colloquial and experimental forms. They challenge generic boundaries between poetry and theory.

In her essay, “Dis Place The Space Between,” M. NourbeSe Philip explores how women have left their mark “on the many silences that surround language” and that readers must learn to read those silences. “If we talk of silence and assign to it a validity equal to the word,” she asks, “is it then right to talk of a ‘missing text,’ since the text is already embedded in the word?”

In the essay “Rethinking Literary Feminism: Three Essays onto Shaky Grounds,” Joan Retallack observes that Western culture has tended to label feminine those “forms characterized by silence, empty and full; multiple, associative nonhierarchical logics; open and materially contingent processes, etc.” Yet these forms, she says, “may well be more relevant to the complex reality we are coming to see as our world than the narrowly hierarchical logics that produced the rationalist dreamwork of civilization and its misogynist discontents.”

Shelley Sunn Wong’s essay examines Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s poem DICTEE in terms of the nature of ideological discourses that shape the production and the reception of Asian American writing.

Suzanne Juhasz writes about Emily Dickinson’s use of metaphor as a powerful device for establishing relationship and for creating new contexts and new meanings.

Cristanne Miller probes poet Alice Fulton’s use of the discourse of quantum physics to break out of the constraints of various systems of binary thinking. Miller writes:

“… the quantum perspective suggests a way to interrogate not just the classical notions of realism in science, but similarly dualistic and fixed notions of race, class, and gender in the realm of social dynamics…”

Lynn Keller considers poet Marilyn Hacker’s sonnet sequence, “Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons” and how it challenges “the heterosexual and hierarchical assumptions of the sonnet tradition.” Hacker’s sequence “enables a performative approach to sexuality and gender that calls into question conventional notions of gender and opens up a range of possibilities for the female subject.”

In their introduction to Joan Kelly’s 1984 collection, “Women, History, and Theory,” Blanche W. Cook et al. write that those who stand on the boundary of the dominant culture develop an oppositional consciousness. A woman, in particular, often experiences “a form of alienation that makes her at once a participant in the culture that oppresses her and a stranger to it. She is marginal. Out of this marginality arises the possibility of an existential awareness of her situation, and of naming it and opposing it.”

At the same time, Cook says, feminist theory represents a transcendence, a turning of alienation into a positive position. “Woman’s social experience as outsider,” she says, “provides a different reality that can illuminate the social nature of her existence.”

Published in 1994, Feminist Measures shows how engaging and how resonant that alternate reality can be. Its essays enactment the development of theory, yet this volume does not claim to encircle all aspects of theory. It does lay the groundwork for much interesting work since. Interested readers may want to see Linda A. Kinnahan’s “Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse” (2004).

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