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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 47-69

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"Just one of / the girls:-- / normal in the extreme": Experimentalists-To-Be Starting Out in the 1960s

Lynn Keller

The poets whose early careers I will be considering here, Kathleen Fraser, Fanny Howe, and Rosmarie Waldrop, belong to what I will call an in-between generation. That is, they were born too late to be published in Donald Allen's New American Poetry or to be identified directly with the anthology wars and too early to be part of the generation of Language Writers. The poets associated with the anthology wars--the generation that comes immediately to mind when we think of American poetry in the sixties--were generally born in the late 1920s. Those associated with Language writing were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The New American generation came of age during wwii, the Language generation, during the war in Vietnam. In between, there is a nearly invisible generation--which we might link to that nearly invisible war, in Korea--a generation that seems to have frustrated America's fondness for identity labels and marketing categories. This characterization is less accurate for the generation's African American members, a number of whom came to be identified with the Black Arts movement.1 But white poets of this generation, which would include, for example, David Antin, Beverly Dahlen, Judy Grahn, Susan Howe, Ronald Johnson, Robert Kelly, [End Page 47] Alice Notley, Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, James Tate, John Wieners, and Charles Wright, generally remained outside or on the borders of recognized artistic movements. The three poets I will discuss, all of whom are noted experimentalists now, were born between 1935 and 1940, and they all began publishing in the 1960s.

That these poets are women lends an additional betweenness to their historical situation: a betweenness in relation to American feminism. They began their careers after the deadly gender oppressions of the 1950s had been exposed, but before the full flowering of the women's movement in the seventies. They had Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir to read, and consciousness-raising groups were certainly flourishing, but women's liberation was in its early stages in the sixties. When conjuring that decade, we tend to think of social and sexual liberation, alternative lifestyles, countercultural values, and tumultuous political activism. We think of an era of transformation and extremism, making it easy to overlook the strong thread of fifties conformity extending into the period as well. For women, the ideals of fifties normality were still powerfully present, and those who were middle-class, white, and heterosexual--that is, those fitting the hegemonic norm in some fundamental ways--may have been particularly susceptible to those constraints. That Fraser, Howe, and Waldrop were establishing adult lives at this particular moment in women's history may account for some biographical commonalities: all three were married by the early sixties, and in short order, two of them had children. I will be suggesting that for all three, but particularly for Fraser and Howe, their investments in certain female roles still strongly associated with heterosexual partnership in the 1960s had a significant impact on their aesthetics in that decade.

The phrase from a poem by Fanny Howe that I have taken as my title serves partly as a reminder of the limits of women's liberation in the period. The lines "just one of / the girls:-- / normal in the extreme," however ironic they may be, nonetheless acknowledge the pressures still on women of the sixties to accept the diminished status, the formulaic identity of "one of the girls." At the same time, the lines oxymoronically suggest some key tensions: If we read "normal in the extreme" as normal to an extreme degree, we are led to consider the strong countercultural forces of abnormality that would require the exertion of an "extreme" normalcy. Or if the phrase suggests normal within the context of the extreme, we have to wonder...


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pp. 47-69
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Archived 2004
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