Saturday, March 18, 2006

French Poetry by Women

It's shocking how writing by women has been consistently underplayed in anthologies of French poetry. I started thinking about this subject the other day after reading an article posted on poezibao deploring the under-representation of women in the publications of Gallimard, the highest profile poetry publisher in France.

I realised when I read this article that I could barely name a single French woman poet outside of Joyce Mansour. In fact my lack of knowledge about women writers reflected what I had learnt from anthologies of French poetry where women are heavily outnumbered or not present at all, and from browsing bookshop shelves where books by women poets are almost completely absent.

At the end of this article, I have listed the results of a survey of nine French poetry anthologies in order to review how French women writers are represented as compared to men. My review includes both anthologies edited in France as well as collections of translations published overseas.

From all the anthologies I have reviewed, which are fairly representative of French poetry during the 20th Century, I arrive at an average figure of 7% for women contributors. From a similar number of representative 20th Century anthologies in English, I arrive at a figure of 23% for women contributors. Canada seems to have achieved the most balanced output with 45% of women contributors in the large anthology '15 Canadian Poets x 3' edited by Gary Geddes.

There are similar trends in both English and French poetry anthologies with very few women poets writing in either language managing to establish a reputation at the beginning of the 20th Century. Towards the end of the 20th Century, anthologies such as 'Pièces détachées' include 21% women contributors, but anthologies from Gallimard continue to be dominated by male writers. A recent anthology of poems about Paris called "poètes de la ville" from Gallimard had 45 contributors and no women. Another recent anthology "Orphée Studio: Poésie d'aujourd'hui à voix haute" had one woman poet among 30 contributors. The editors of these anthologies should be truly embarassed.

In fact, the representation of women in anthologies reflects two things: firstly, the number of women writers publishing books and secondly the biases of anthology editors. It is notable that the editors of the French poetry anthologies I have found are, without exception, men.

If editors in publishing houses do not encourage women writers, no books by women will appear and women will not be represented in anthologies. This is what seems to happen in France chez Gallimard where according to poezibao only 4% of their entire output of around 400 volumes contain work by women poets, a number of these being women writers from overseas such as Emily Bronte. The absence of an outlet for women writers will lead to women becoming delusioned and ultimately not bothering to write. Not only that, but women generally in France will not be interested in poetry.

The second factor concerns the will of anthologists to include women writers in their anthologies. Paul Auster should hang his head in shame for including only 1 woman poet in his anthology of French poetry with 48 contributors (see below). I reckon there were at least 15 or so established women writers around at the time he put his anthology together.

It seems if you're really interested to discover French poetry by women you have to look for a specialist anthology such as Women's Poetry in France, 1965-1995 : A Bilingual Anthology (ed. Michael Bishop, Wake Forest University Press, 1997). The publisher's notes talk of "radically opening and altering perceptions of recent French poetry" and of many among the 28 poets represented in the anthology who have been "unjustly neglected even in their own country".


Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle, Volume 1 (ed. Michel Décaudin; Éditions Gallimard, 2000) contains 3 women poets in a total of 82 contributors (3.5%). They are: Anna de Noailles, Catherine Pozzi and Marie Noël.

Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe siècle, Volume 2 (ed. Jean-Baptiste Para; Éditions Gallimard, 2000) contains 15 women poets in a total of 189 contributors (8%). They are: Marie Étienne, Anne-Marie Albiach, Gabrielle Althen, Marie-Claire Bancquart, Silvia Baron Supervielle, Nicole Brossard, Andrée Chedid, Michelle Grangaud, Françoise Hàn, Anne Hébert, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Rina Lasnier, Joyce Mansour, Anne Perrier and Liliane Wouters.

The Random House Book of 20th Century french Poetry (ed. Paul Auster; Vintage, 1984) contains 1 woman poet in a total of 48 contributors (2%). She is Anne-Marie Albiach.

Mid-Century French Poets (ed. Wallace Fowlie; Grove Press, 1955) contains no women poets among ten contributors (0%).

The Penguin Book of French Verse (ed. Brian Woledge, Geoffrey Brereton and Anthony Hartley; Penguin, 1980) contains 1 woman poet among 23 contributors in the 20th Century Section (4%). She is Catherine Pozzi.

20th Century French Poems (ed. Stephen Romer; Faber 2002) contains 7 women poets from a total of 53 contributors (13%). These are: Anne Hébert, Gisèle Prassinos, Marguerite Yourcenar, Claude de Burine, Marie-Clare Bancquart, Jacqueline Risset, Valérie Rouzeau.

Poètes singuliers, du surréalisme et autres lieux (ed. Alain-Valery Aelberts and Jean-Jacques Auquier, 10/18, 1971) contains 8 women poets among 57 contributors (14%). These are: Yvonne Caroutch, Leonora Carrington, Joyce Mansour, Anaïs Nin, Valentine Penrose, Danielle Sarréra, Flora Tristan and Marianne Van Hirtum.

New French Poetry (ed. C.A. Hackett; Basil Blackwell, 1973) contains 2 women poets from a total of 22 contributors (9%). These are: Louise Herlin and Joyce Mansour.

Orphée Studio: Poésie d'aujourd'hui à voix haute (ed. André Velter, Gallimard 1999) contains 1 woman poet from a total of 30 contributors (3%). She is Michelle Grangaud.

Pièces détachées: une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd'hui (ed. Jean-Michel Espitallier; Pocket, 2000) contains 7 women poets from a total of 33 contributors (21%). These are: Nathalie Quintaine, Cécile Mainardi, Anne Portugal, Katalin Molnár, Vannina Maestri, Michelle Grangaud, Valère Novarina.

There are other women writers as well, of course, who are not represented in any of these anthologies. They include Patrizia Gattaceca, Michèle Metail, Heather Dohollau, Claire Laffay, Marguerite Duras, Janine Mitaud, Helene Cadou, Claudine Helft, Anne Teyssieras, Denise le Dantec, Denise Borias, Jeanne Hyvrard, Martine Broda, Jeannine Baude, Marie Redonnet, Claire Malroux, Esther Tellerman, Celine Zins.


15 Canadian Poets x 3 (20 women poets among 45 contributors giving 45%).

The Faber Book of Modern Verse (5 women poets among 61 contributors giving 8%).

The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (8 women poets among 35 contributors giving 23%).

The New Poetry (2 women poets among 28 contributors giving 7%).

New British Poetry (11 women poets among 36 contributors giving 31%).

The New Poetry (17 women poets among 55 contributors giving 31%).

Poetry of the Thirties (1 women poet among 46 contributors giving 2%).

Poems on the Undergorund (around 54 women poets among around 210 contributors giving 26%).

In the Criminal's Cabinet (around 30 women poets among around 90 contributors giving 33%)


Andrea said...

wow! this was a facinating read. Tons of study by you. Well done! I hope more people read this.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks Andrea. My main aim was to research some women poets for future translations and to see what had already been done.

Patry Francis said...

Dispiriting news, of course,but then uncomfortable awareness is often the first step toward change. Thank you for this.

Lisa Pasold said...

great survey! am glad my old prof gary geddes' book did well; sadly unsurprised re. french anthologies. thanks for the info, though--good to be reminded. by the way, really like your translation of joyce mansour's poem.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Patry - Yes, dispiriting. I find it incredible that an editor can imagine a book project in which every writer among 45 contributors is a man. It's so skewed it's bizarre and can only give a bad name to French poetry. It makes me wonder who these people are... It makes me wonder why I bother listening to them...

There's also the question of how these people got their reputations. I've just found out that Anna de Noailles, for example, was a princess and a comtesse. Nothing wrong in that I guess, but the fact that she is almost the sole female voice of a generation of french poets is quite dispiriting. How representative is she after all?

Lisa - Thanks for your comments. Yes, Gary Geddes' anthology of Canadian poets is a really good book. I like Joyce Mansour's poetry so you may be seeing more of that in future.

cecyl said...

great idea this blog
those love french poetry
can go to my blog
i'll go back soon

Felicia James said...

I strongly agree with this article. I would like to see more French poetry written by women. As the author of a bilingual poetry book, entitled,TOO HOT FOR THE SHELF/ TROP CHAUD POUR L’ÉTAGÈRE, I encourage everyone to express their ideas in some artistic way.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Felicia

Thanks for your comment. Nice idea to publish in bilingual edition, and particularly relevant for Canada I imagine. I will put a link to your site so that people can find your book more easily.

All the best, Jonathan

L. London said...

I am currently researching women poets of the first world war and hope to include examples of poetry from every country involved in the Conflict so your work is extremely valuable. Thank you.

Kind Regards


Anonymous said...

I did my Master's Thesis on French Female Poets of the 19th Century. Research was quite difficult due to the scarcity of available information on these women. Had I elected to study male poets I would have been overwhelmed with information. Any recognition we can give to these extraordinary women is well overdue.