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Jane Dowson & Alice Entwistle. A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry

Rainer EMIG
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Jane DOWSON & Alice ENTWISTLE. A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 381 pp., €70.71, ISBN 0521819466

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1A gigantic task well executed, this is what Dowson and Entwistle’s book turns out to be. It takes the bull (or should it be the cow, the mad cow of Jo Shapcott’s amusing poems?) by the horns and tries to come up with a possible history of the many diverse and often uncollected female voices in Britain in the twentieth century. Dowson and Entwistle’s definition of “British Women’s Poetry” is flexible: “The following poets are British born, published in Britain and/or judged to have made a significant impact on poetry in Britain” (302). The structure of their volume is daring, but ultimately convincing: the century is divided into three major periods, 1900 to 1945, 1945 to 1980, and 1980 to 2000. These periods mark different stages in women’s assertion of social and cultural positions in Britain: from the reaction against being restricted to domesticity via the conscious-raising phase of modern feminism to contemporary post- (and this does not mean anti-) feminist developments. They also correspond, roughly, with changing aesthetic styles: from experiments with androgyny and public voice via subversion and disruption of established forms to an emphasis on local identities, dialogism, and transformation. The two realms are connected by women poets’ particular struggle – and often highly original propositions – to conceptualise the relation between self, artistic work, and world differently from male writers.

2While Dowson and Entwistle freely admit that such broad demarcations are necessarily blunt, they have come up with a useful way of avoiding a homogenising narrative that merely ends up listing and grouping many better and even more lesser known names. Each of their larger sections contains overview chapters on larger aspects as well as in-depth studies of particularly representative voices, such as Mina Loy and Edith Sitwell (but also Alice Meynell, Frances Cornford, Vita Sackville-West, and Elizabeth Daryush) for the early phase of twentieth-century British women’s poetry, Stevie Smith (but also Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Wendy Mulford, and Denise Riley) for the second, and Carol Ann Duffy (as well as Eavan Boland, Carol Rumens, and Jackie Kay) for the latest. While these cannot possibly count as thorough analyses of the respective author’s works, they complement the historical survey of the volume with many fine examples of close reading. Voices from the so-called Celtic fringe (like Gillian Clarke, Gwyneth Lewis, Menna Elfyn, Einir Jones, Mary Montgomery, Kathleen Jamie, Nuala ní Dhomhnaill, and Medbh McGuckian) as well as postcolonial poets (both Afro-Caribbean like Louise (“Miss Lou”) Bennett, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Merle Collins, Amryl Johnson, and Patience Agbabi, and Asian like Mimi Khalvati, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Sujata Bhatt, and Debjani Chatterjee) are not merely included, but integrated into this large-scale pattern. There is room for a critical assessment of many anthologies of women’s poetry as well as detailed reference to the multifaceted history of women’s presses, journals, and poetry awards to women.

3Another impressive task that the volume has mastered is its compilation of the book publications of the hundreds of women poets mentioned in their book (on over 40 pages!) This labour of love impressively supports its continual (and justified) critique of male-dominated academia, an academic establishment that has until very recently managed to relegate women’s literary works to the sidelines.

4Any effort of such scope displays weaknesses, and Dowson and Entwistle’s most noticeable one is theory. While their early sections are justifiably influenced by a psychoanalytic lens, and especially the later sections profit from the use of Bakhtin’s ideas on dialogism and polyphony, the text is sometimes unjustifiably reductive. Bergson, for instance, supposedly “advocated that a poem should be an uninterrupted sequence of images” (68) in an aside that is very wisely unreferenced. Althusser, who is missing in the index, is hardly recognisable and almost meaningless when presented so glibly (as on 166). Most irritating is the book’s uncertain grasp of feminist theory. While it repeatedly uses Hélène Cixous ideas convincingly, there are also passages when one feels that concepts such as écriture feminine and “depropriation” are misrepresented (as on p. 86, where the former becomes “a buoyantly female language”, and on p. 233, where the latter is falsely explained as “self-transformation”). But these are small flaws in an otherwise entirely successful volume that deserves to become a standard reference work while it is also remarkably readable and inspiring.

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Rainer EMIG, « Jane Dowson & Alice Entwistle. A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry », E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, document 3, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007, consulté le 28 mars 2020. URL :

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