Last week, Kaarina Mikalson wrote a guest post for us titled “Why Dorothy Livesay Matters.” In it, she recounted an exchange with a male acquaintance that ended with the wholesale dismissal of Livesay as a poet and a figure central to the history of Canadian literature. She prefaced it with an epigraph from Joan Coldwell’s “Walking the Tightrope with Anne Wilkinson,” her essay about editing Wilkinson’s collected poems and autobiographical writings, one in which she articulates her reasons for the necessity of recuperating Wilkinson’s work: “To read other women’s lives, especially in their own voices, is to be given a fuller understanding of ourselves. It is to participate in a community of women writers and readers that generates a different kind of confidence than is permitted to women’s voices in patriarchal culture.”
Livesay died in 1996. Wilkinson died long before, in 1961. Jay Macpherson, a contemporary of both and the subject of my doctoral research, died in 2012. All three were among the foremost writers of their generations, but for all three (and for most of the female poets of Canadian modernism, with the possible exception of P.K. Page) reading the body of criticism about their work reveals something strange and important. Like Coldwell, very many critics view their critical work on these women and their writing as an act of recuperation. The fundamental impulse behind much of it is not to reveal something noteworthy about style, or relationship to historical context, or use of language, or community formation in the modernist period, although that happens along the way and often as justification for recuperation. The core message–implicit or explicit–is that the work of these women is on the verge of disappearing from the world, from our critical consciousness, and has been on that verge for a very long time. This criticism, written by those like Kaarina and I who care deeply about this work and advocate strongly for its importance, fights to keep the work of these writers from disappearing from world, from our understanding of what it was like to to be a woman writer in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, from the matrilineage of writing by and about women that forms a chain that leads right to the present.
Like Kaarina, I’m mad about the state of things. I’m mad that Livesay and her colleagues get dismissed, or ignored, or misrepresented. That anger is a productive one for me, and fuels my work on Macpherson, as it did my earlier work on Wilkinson. There’s plenty to be mad about: I don’t imagine that if the youngest-ever winner of a Governor General’s Award for Poetry were a man, there would be fewer than ten articles about his work and endless digs about his much more famous girlfriend. I don’t imagine that the collected poems of a male modernist, one edited by his lover, would emphasize all of the sexy bits. But I’m angrier still that this isn’t just an issue of temporal remove, that this isn’t just about us forgetting the modernists and those who came before them. CWILA, and its annual count of books reviewed in Canada, proves that this is simply not true. As Erin argues, despite efforts to change this status quo women writers still get short shrift in the present. This doesn’t bode well for the future. We don’t get reviewed and read now, and the chances become ever less likely that we will build up a reputation that will sustain us through the years, that will ensure that some critic will take us up as their personal cause, will advocate for our remembrance and our importance twenty, thirty, forty years from now.
As Woolf argues, we think back through our mothers, and we need women muses, as well as male, to mother our minds and to act as keepers of memory and as inspiration. What happens to women writers now, when those who came before them are already on the verge of being lost? What happens to the women writers of the future, who may have neither the writers of the present moment nor the ones of the years before to mother their minds? We–and I’m talking readers and writers of all genders here–lose that memory, that inspiration. We lose that fuller understanding of ourselves that comes when we try to see the world from another’s perspective, one often markedly different from our own. We lose historical perspectives that have crucial things to tell us about how we could best deal with the challenges of the present and the future. And we lose that community of women writers, one that generates in all of its members a different and greater confidence to speak as a woman than our current culture provides, to articulate perspectives and truths that our broken world needs to hear. These are things we cannot afford to lose.
And this is why the CWILA count matters. This is why Livesay matters. This is why Hook and Eye matters. It’s hard to say if the work we do here, or the work of CWILA, or the individual moments in which we advocate for ourselves and for other women, are making a difference. To be a woman in the world today is to continually walk the tightrope between hope that it will get better and utter hopelessness at the brokenness of the world’s relationship to women. It’s hard to sometimes to feel that hope justified, to see change in action. But we keep trying.