(Photo of Else Lasker-Schüler)
Mentoring in the English Lit department of a girl’s school this week, I noticed there were a great many pictures of men looking down at me. Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Eliot, Burns… In a border that surrounded the whole room, there were only three women, Austen, Woolf and Plath, and only one of them was a poet. It’s easy to assume that, although things have now changed, in the past women simply didn’t get the chance to write poetry. That we should just be glad for one or two exceptions. But as I get older I’m constantly surprised by how many female poets from the past I discover who were AMAZING and I just simply haven’t been told about. It’s easy for young feminists to think that the work of rediscovering female writers has already been done by trailblazers like Virago in the 70s, but actually the canon is changing all the time and we can still change it just by finding and reading and talking about the female poets who came before us.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was googling German Love Poetry, as I’d promised to translate something for a wedding in Bavaria, and I came across ‘Dann…’ – ‘Then…’ – with its swoony ending:
I would burn upon your mouth
In a dream of a thousand years
It was by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869–1945), a Jewish German poet and bohemian, who was affiliated with the Expressionist movement in Berlin. She seems to have been a kind of fantasist, declaring: ‘I was born in Thebes, Egypt although I came into the world in Elberfeld in the Rhineland,’ and often signing her letters as ‘Jussuf’, identifying with the biblical Joseph – the poet who was betrayed and sold. Her life was full of tragedy – her son Paul (who she insisted was the son of a Greek Prince) died of TB and she later fled Nazi Germany and lived out the rest of her life in Jerusalem, where she was often homeless or starving. She was buried on the Mount of Olives. Her poems are astonishing: dense and dreamy and sensual and rich with biblical and oriental imagery, but it seems she’s hardly been translated into English, and she certainly doesn’t feature in my old copy of the Penguin Book of German Verse (which contains a total of 3 poems by women).
I’ve been researching female Islamic poets for some translations for my next collection Incarnation (who deserve a separate post sometime soon) and have repeatedly had the same sensation: why haven’t I HEARD of these astonishing writers and their remarkable stories? And this week I accidentally discovered the US writer Ai too, whilst looking for dramatic monologues.
Why hadn’t I heard of Ai? A poet whose name means ‘Love’ in Japanese? A writer who described herself as who described herself as half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche? A woman whose poetry collections are called: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice and Dread!? Who Anne Sexton called: ‘All woman—all human’?
Her poems seem to add up to a just astonishing confrontation with evil, in which she takes on the voices of all human sinners: a woman putting a dog leash on her daughter, a child killing his family, mass murderers, rioters, Joseph McCarthy, J Edgar Hoover… I’ve never seen a woman taking on so many male voices before. I have to buy her collected now, which is expensive, as it’s only available in America, but I just really really really want it.
If anyone knows of any good translations of Else Lasker-Schüler I’d be really grateful to hear. And what about other female poets who have fallen off our radar in the UK? In recent years I’ve been grateful for Sandeep Parmar’s work on Hope Mirrlees’ modernist masterpiece ‘Paris’ (which Virginia Woolf called ‘obscure, indecent, and brilliant’), and the Rosemary Tonks’ Collected from Bloodaxe, both of which show that reputations can be recovered with articulate champions… For world poets I suppose it’s more about the politics of translation, where another go at Rilke seems a safer bet than rediscovering someone who isn’t a Great White Man.
Who else should I have heard about (but probably haven’t)? The more we talk, the more others will hear…