Nineteenth Century Women Poets and Realism

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English (Scripps)

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American Literature | Literature in English, North America | Women's Studies


Realism once claimed a closer tie to "the real" and, to many of its early practitioners, was a potent force in changing material conditions understood at that time to have a substantive density beyond interpretation. The widespread despair in many quarters of Western European and North American culture today that "poetry makes nothing happen" is an index of the fact that we no longer believe in the poet's primary agency. But beyond this, some of us have also come to believe that "poetry" is all there is. This represents a development beyond the modernist position ushered in by T. S. Eliot and others which in the 1940s began to put realism and poetry in very different critical camps. However, if we understand realism in America as a movement whose first objective was to portray American life accurately and in detail, especially in its ordinary and local manifestations, then the women poets I analyze in this essay can certainly be classified as early realists whose work foreshadows the rise of local color writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. If, for the sake of argument, we use the definition of realism provided by the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, we can recognize in this poetry the three critical ingredients of poetic realism: descriptions of normal situations and average characters, often with an emphasis upon those in the lower strata of society; a preference for common language and homely images over high-flown rhetoric or esoteric literary allusions; and a tendency to try to approximate actual speech rhythms, even to reproduce dialogue as a basic ingredient of the poem.

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© 1991 University of Illinois Press

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