Daughters in Poetry

From Eavan Boland:

There are far too few daughters in poetry. They turn up surprisingly rarely in nineteenth century poems, considering how they crowded into the available fictional equivalents. So it’s a relief to start the twentieth century with this big, ornate and controversial poem by William Butler Yeats. In a way it was overdue. He married late. He was well on the way to being sixty when he wrote this poem for his only daughter Ann.

What exactly is it he wants for her? What is it he wants to keep her away from? If a wealthy marriage and Irish politics are the first and second answers here, they still can’t shadow or trivialize the beautiful context of the piece. As a complex statement about patriarchy, the poem falters. But as an image of a father on a wild Atlantic night in the west of Ireland, trying to put words between his child and danger, it is memorable. And as an image-system of coastal thrushes, poisoned wells and the struggle against hatred it remains an absolutely compelling poem.

The absence of daughters in earlier poems raises an interesting question. Does a sudden, new and permitted subject matter–or gradually sudden as in this case–discover the poem, or the other way around? Probably the first. Certainly, the idea of daughters–the down-to-earth and vast register of human feeling compressed into the very word–has opened up a wonderful landscape of tone and intimacy and bold subversions in recent poetry, some of which I’ve tried to include here.

To start with, there’s “Morning Song” by Plath. No sonorous authority here. Not only does this first, joyful birth of her daughter Freida in 1960, find Plath in good heart and fine voice. But this is a place where she tries out the anti-narrative she would perfect in later poems like “Balloons.” The language is startling and exact. The baby’s mouth is as clean as a cat’s. The baby is at first a plump, ticking watch but then quickly lets out a bald cry which turns her into a statue, which makes emotion a museum and motherhood a spectatorship. And suddenly, skillfully, the poem has darkened.

Read the rest here


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