Lesbian Poetry Retrospective Part 1

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

If Sappho is the
woman poet of Ancient Greece, Emily Dickinson is perhaps the most famous
American woman poet of New England. Unlike Sappho, however, Dickinson spent
most of her days in quiet solitude.

Born in 1830,
Dickinson only published eight poems during her lifetime — more than 1,700 were
found and published posthumously. Her main connection with the outside world
was through letters.

Among her more
famous correspondents include Samuel Bowels, editor of a local paper, and Judge
Otis Lorde. Some believe Dickinson was in love with one or both of these men,
and that either could be the “Master” she addresses in three famous letters.

However, it is
now recognized that Dickinson’s true love was her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.
Their relationship was extremely passionate, and Dickinson wrote and sent
Gilbert hundreds of poems, more than anyone else in her life. In several of the
letters, Dickinson reveals her love and desire to be physically closer to
Gilbert, who was, undoubtedly, the poet’s most trusted and beloved muse.

According to glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender
& Queer Culture
, one
draft of the following poem was found with the word “nature” replaced with
“Susan.”

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far —
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none have ever seen,
But just his lid of glass —
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands next the sea —
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

Also a native New
Englander, imagist poet Amy Lowell’s work was inspired by beauty from the very
beginning. Though she was first stirred to write a poem after seeing the actress
Eleonora Duse on stage, the real love of her life was another actress, Ada
Russell. The two were together for 15 years.

Lowell helped
bring the imagist movement to the U.S. after traveling to England and meeting
H.D. (the bisexual poet and novelist, Hilda Doolittle). Though Lowell won a
Pulitzer Prize posthumously, her work was not without controversy. Ezra Pound,
a leader in the imagist movement, resented and rejected Lowell’s involvement,
and the lesbian content of her poetry offended many critics.

Nonetheless,
Lowell, who was known for smoking cigars and wearing men’s clothing, continued
to develop her unique and open voice. The following poem, “A Decade,” was
written for Russell on their 10th anniversary.

“A Decade”

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its
sweetness.

Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

 

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