Annette Kolodny: On "Sisters"

In many ways, Amy Lowell anticipated the recent feminist critique of Bloomian poetics when, in 1925, she applied his question "For why do men write poems?" to "we women who write poetry":


Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot

We women who write poetry. And when you think

How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

I wonder what it is that makes us do it.


She explains why there have been so few women poets by noting that women are "mother-creatures, double-bearing, / With matrices in body and in brain." "There is just the reason" for their relative scarcity, she avers, for in the societal trappings of female procreativity, "The strength of forty thousand Atlases / Is needed for our every-day concerns." As to "what . . . makes us do it," in spite of all, she consults a precursor/sisterhood that includes Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. What she discovers, to her dismay, is "how extraordinarily unlike / Each is to me." "For older sisters are very sobering things," to be sure, but they cannot tell Lowell "which way shall I go" or answer for her "What it is that makes us do it." What her imagined afternoon visit to "these my spiritual relations" offers instead is both a recognition of just how little of that tradition begun by Sappho remains to "tell / The reasons, as she possibly conceived them" and, as a result, a heightened experience of participating in "a strange, isolated little family": "For we are such a little family / Of singing sisters."

The frailty which such an image conjures up denies the need for any Bloomian battle for "breathing space" because, clearly, the speaking voice here--presumably Lowell herself--does not regard Sappho, Browning, or Dickinson as having usurped her poetic possibilities by their priority. And so, in place of the Bloomian combat for psychic survival she can assert a sisterly intimacy:


I understand you all, for in myself--

Is that presumption? Yet indeed it's true—

We are one family.


At the same time, she accepts the inadequacy of that sisterhood to provide either solace or direction:


Good-bye, my sisters, all of you are great,

And all of you are marvellously strange,

And none of you has any word for me.


By thus invoking a female literary history modelled on sisterhood, Lowell not only does away with the Freudian romance of murderous competition; she also renders misprision--that is, the rewriting of the precursor--unnecessary to a dynamic of literary influence. The poem is composed, after all, though it corrects nothing that her precursor/sisters have written. On the darker side of Lowell's constellation, however, stands the tacit admission that sisters, unlike parent/progenitors, are somehow inadequate or insufficient: "And none of you has any word for me." The fact of their priority has helped Lowell ward off her anxious sense of isolation and aberrance, but she credits it neither with nurturing nor engendering her own poetic efforts. And, in the end, the imagined afternoon visit has still failed to answer for her "what it is that makes us do it."

At least in part, "what it is that makes us do it," and what it is women often do when they write, is precisely what Lowell's "The Sisters" is all about; that is, the woman poet's repeated need to assert for herself some validating female tradition and to repossess its voices for her own needs. In the continental United States, at least, this is the stance with which women's poetry begins.


Title Annette Kolodny: On "Sisters" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Annette Kolodny Criticism Target Amy Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry
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