Monday, January 11, 2010

What is a Witch? What is a Poet? What is a Poetess?

When the first definition came to me, I was tired from the exciting rigors of a Stonecoast residency but had centered myself with water, air, and thought. I thought of it while driving to the Stone House to teach a workshop:

A witch is someone who is so sensitive to the energy of the physical world that they have found it necessary to cultivate (perhaps initially as a survival skill!) the innate human ability to notice and change that energy. (Starhawk put it more succinctly: a witch is someone who can change consciousness at will).

The second definition arose in stimulating and excellent workshop discussion of poems and their meters with Stonecoast student poets:

A poet is someone who creates what is not apparently in stories but truly arises from them (as opposed to a fiction writer who creates stories. (And of course poets routinely used to, and can and do still, create both simultaneously)).

The third definition occurred through reading an article about Patti Smith sent me by Chas ( my cousin Charlie Finch)—a useful piece that helped me understand why things were the way they were when I lived on the lower east side in the early 80’s and, more importantly for me at this moment, helped me conceptualize the aesthetic distinctions between the terms “poet” and “poetess” that I’ve been mulling over for years (cf here and here and here).

Janis Joplin called Smith “the poet,” the article claims. And “poet” is by far today’s term of choice. Yet the headline refers to Smith as “the punk prose poetess.” Why? Leaving aside the headline-catchy connotation clash, it isn't simply about gender. “She married poetry to the punk movement,” the article claims. By implication, the poetess is the writer who uses poetry in the service of a movement, a lifestyle, a change in the actual world.

In recent times, even poets appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S. have been, by and large, admired all the more for abjuring both of the traditional central tools of the poet: not only meter, but also the responsibility to mark the shared public transitions and transformations of their society through “occasional poetry.” And all that time, as more visible poets explored the power of the individual unconscious, in fact it was the overlooked tradition of the “poetess” which truly carried these responsibilities of the poet-shaman on behalf of the society at large.

The poetess uses poetry to do the work of a witch, calling up and shaping energies to heal and transform society. The poetess, in other words, is a witch and a poet in one. I share in that work.

At the end of the “essay Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess,” I wrote, “I am a poetess. It’s a relief at last to admit it.” Now, after a further decade spent absorbing and meditating on the implications of the name, I will say it again somewhat differently, here on American Witch: “I am a poetess. It’s an honor at last to admit it.”


Anonymous said...

Excellent! I look forward to your musings here, Annie.

I've long found something magickal in the process of writing. We make something out of nothing. Where do the words come from? The more we cooperate with this chaotic process, the more we're able to connect with the source of them.

I'm currently reading a book called The Craft of the Wildwitch (by Poppy Palin), and in it she describes what we do as a sort of stitching or weaving process, reuniting the ethereal with the material world. All metaphor, of course, but she talks about being sensitive to the energies of a place and the ability to work with them and change them as called for. Your words brought hers to mind.

Claiming the title poetess (not as a merely feminine poet, but a proudly feminine one) is in itself a magickal act, I think. The world, mess that it is, could use more of a feminine touch, methinks.

shelleah said...

I love this definitional entry. I'm dumbfounded and inspired by the image of the woman giving birth to the snake. (I can hear them -"Yeah, didn't I tell you they did that!") Can you tell me where the image comes from? Where you found it?
Thank you
Leah Shelleda

Ron said...

Patti started out (not unlike Laurie Anderson) writing & publishing poems before she dove into music. You will find her work alongside a broad swath of 1970s poets in Michael Lally's anthology, None of the Above

Joseph Harrington said...

Interesting idea, Annie - one that is also depicted (I think) in Mary Wilkins Freeman's story "A Poetess." Of course, in that story (as often in real life) the poetess' authority is usurped by the patriarchal hieratic Poet.

Which is to say that "poetess," like "witch," is a term that must be rearticulated in order to have the meaning you ascribe to it. Presumably that's the work of this posting (and blog title). But it's going to be/has been a long, slow, hard process. "Witch" (like "wicca," in Anglo-Saxon, I take it) typically means something like "one who practices malevolent magic." And most cultures have different words for those who practice benevolent magic. So, in Mexico, you go to a curandera to undo the work of a bruja.

Likewise, "poetess," as you indicate, is, well, freighted (read: bluestocking, dilettante, etc.). But obviously, you're trying to save it from that fate.

Have you run this idea past Rachel Blau DuPlessis? I'm serious.

marcos said...

"Ces poètes seront ! Quand sera brisé l’infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, l’homme, jusqu’ici abominable, — lui ayant donné son renvoi, elle sera poète, elle aussi ! La femme trouvera de l’inconnu ! Ses mondes d’idées différeront-ils des nôtres ? — Elle trouvera des choses étranges, insondables, repoussantes, délicieuses ; nous les prendrons, nous les comprendrons."à_Paul_Demeny_-_15_mai_1871

Anonymous said...

Arrived here via Harriet. I like your blog. I'm also in Maine.

You have made thoughtful definitions. Poetesses see the circle.