- Women's Poetry and Popular Culture by Marsha Bryant
In Women's Poetry and Popular Culture, Marsha Bryant adopts what she calls in her first chapter on "H. D.'s Cinemascope Poetics" a "wide-angle approach" to women's poetry from the second World War until the late [End Page 475] nineties (p. 9). Bryant begins by engaging the vexed, often pejorative, responses to "women's poetry" and poets' writing about popular culture. Analyzing different facets of the popular in each chapter, including material, visual, periodical, consumer, film, and media cultures, Bryant builds on the historical methods of the new modernist studies. In five chapters devoted to H. D., Stevie Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, and Ai and Carol Ann Duffy, Bryant addresses the complex relationship between popular contexts and the form of twentieth-century Anglo-American women's poetry.
Like the opening of a Technicolor film, the first chapter of Women's Poetry and Popular Culture showcases the breadth of Bryant's research, focusing on the ways that "the overwrought style of H. D.'s feminized epic reflects the ruptures of popular film and postwar geopolitics" (p. 17). As a result of Bryant's scholarship, readers will have a new context for interpreting "the formal excess of Helen in Egypt," which does not seem as out of place as it once may have when analyzed alongside innovations in popular film (p. 31). H. D. and the popular audiences of her time were captivated by a vast, vivid image of Egypt that was
fueled by the advent of widescreen photography . . . With its stretched aspect ratio, CinemaScope and other widescreen formats allow for striking horizontal compositions that feature a vast expanse of space, off-center framings of focal characters with dramatic backgrounds, and crowded shots that offer competing points of interest.(pp. 45-46)1
Bryant's reading of popular film provides readers with a new way of understanding and, following her example, teaching the poem.2 Twenty-first-century students, like midcentury audiences, have impressions of the ancient—and contemporary—world that have been shaped by film, so Bryant's approach is especially relevant to them.
Following her expansive view of H. D.'s epic poetry, Bryant shifts to a telescopic lens to focus on Smith's drawings and writing for children. The young audience that Smith addressed in her "work as a reviewer of children's literature for popular magazines . . . kept her attuned to new possibilities for altering character relations and page design within the mainstream" (p. 18). Smith's engagement with the popular is both visual and material. Early in her chapter, for instance, Bryant considers the role of Smith's clothing in shaping her reception (p. 51). By considering Smith alongside H. D., Brooks, and Plath, Bryant also draws attention to Smith's poetic career, with which students today are less familiar. Bryant skillfully incorporates the popular imagination shaping current readers' responses to Smith's drawings when she notes that one of her students compared them to those of Shel Silverstein. In doing so, Bryant also models for teachers that Smith can be successfully included in college courses and can appeal to students. [End Page 476]
Bryant displays magisterial archival research in her third chapter, "Uneasy Alliances: Gwendolyn Brooks, Ebony, and Whiteness." Brooks published in Ebony magazine, and like her poems, the magazine serves as a source of literary and artistic influence that has a wide readership. As Bryant argues, both Brooks and Ebony "negotiated cross-racial audiences in a segregated society, both were accused of subscribing to whiteness, and both made whiteness visible in their texts" (p. 84). In particular, Bryant underscores the role of form in both the magazine and the poems in shaping social exchanges: "Through strategic images, formats and modes of direct address, they controlled their respective white readers' vantage points of cross-racial encounter" (p. 86). Bryant also considers what the everyday meant to the readers and subjects of Brooks's poems. In order to do so, Bryant examines a range of texts and textures from Ebony...