JUDY GRAHN: THE UNCOMMON COMMON WOMAN
The ability to read Joanne Kyger's or Helen Adam's work in feminist terms has been aided by a more activist posture developed among women writers during the late 1960s. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this period saw the appearance of important new reading spaces, publishers, and distributors of women's literature: Alta began Shameless Hussy Press, the first women's press in the area; Susan Griffin coordinated a large conference on women poets for the University of California Extension; Joanna Griffin and Sande Fini opened a series of readings and performances at a Berkeley bar called The Bacchanall; the San Francisco State College Women's Caucus began to hold readings in the Noe Valley; and perhaps most important, the Women's Press Collective was established by Judy Grahn in 1969. Although many of these events occurred after the period with which this book is concerned, they were empowered, to a certain extent, by tendencies already present in the San Francisco Renaissance.
For a lesbian poet like Judy Grahn, the historical fact of gay writing - as well as the city's relative openness to alternative social and sexual preferences - was no small component in the development of her poetics. Although Grahn was not associated directly with the San Francisco Renaissance, her literary voice derives, in many respects, from the populist mode of the Beats. It is hard to imagine works like "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke" or "Elephant Poem" without thinking of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's satiric portraits of alienated fifties life or the comic, quasi-surreal poems of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso. The strength of Grahn's early poetry depends on the odd combination of humor and anger that gives a work like "Howl" its special power.
If the literary formation of Judy Grahn's work rests in the populist mode of the Beats, its social formation rests in the women’s movement and, more specifically, in San Francisco's long homophile tradition, going back to the prewar years. The city had long been a haven for homosexuals and lesbians, and although the community was often threatened by the homophobic public, it always had a social and even political force in the larger demographics. Important gay political groups like the Matachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitus, and (later) The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club had substantial memberships in San Francisco from their inception, and with the emergence of a gay liberation movement in the post-Stonewall era, the city became, as John D'Emilio says, "for gay men and for lesbians ... what Rome is for Catholics."
To a large extent, the permission for the San Francisco gay community to come out of the closet and become an active force in the city was granted during the period that this book covers and by many of the same literary events. The fact that many San Francisco poets were openly homosexual created the illusion - if not the fact - of tolerance in the city. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" censorship trial, publications by Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, and Robin Blaser, and even Jack Kerouac's novels brought national attention to a city where variant sexual modes were possible. But as I have pointed out with reference to the Spicer circle, such permission was given within a largely male, homosexual community that remained closed or even hostile to women. Denise Levertov's "Hypocrite Women" was written in response not only to Jack Spicer's misogyny, but to the closed, homosexual circle he supported. It remained for the women's movement and its lesbian feminist component to open a new possibility for a gay women's poetry. Judy Grahn as much as anyone helped to create this possibility.
In order to create a gay women's poetry it was necessary to create a woman not totally defined within male, heterosexual stereotypes. Judy Grahn's early work involved the creation of what she called "the common woman," a figure whose power is repressed and whose beauty is masked behind social conventions. At the same time, Grahn must resuscitate the common woman from the uncommon woman, that objectified embodiment of male desire. As she says in her poem to Marilyn Monroe, "I have come to claim / Marilyn Monroe's body / for the sake of my own." Grahn must discover this woman from within a world that has not provided her with a name; hence many of the poems appear to be litanies for "she who" has no identity at all:
the woman whose head is on fire the woman with a noisy voice the woman with too many fingers the woman who never smiled once in her life the woman with a boney body the woman with moles all over her (WCW, 107)
These incantatory passages suggest a communal forum in which repetition serves to unite and join, even as it differentiates.
Coinciding with the invention of a new woman is Grahn's archaeological interest in the origins of gay culture. This task is given explicit form in her book Another Mother Tongue, which explores archaic sources of homosexuality and lesbianism in what amounts to a popular ethnology of homoerotic culture. It is "culture" that Grahn is most concerned with: that of women, and that of lesbians specifically. As one of the founders of the gay women's liberation movement on the West, Coast, she has been acutely interested in what is specific to gay life: its informing myths, stereotypes, and communal signs. Her archaeological task involves exploring the words by which gays are marginalized - "butch," "fay," "queer," "dyke," - and finding their tribal or cultic origins, thus resuscitating from a despised language a new language of opposition and authority. If her historical scholarship is sometimes suspect, relying as it does on a good deal of artful speculation, it recognizes the difficulty of such ethnology: that any history of gay culture must rely on an idiom constantly under transformation, an idiom that mirrors at the same time as it satirizes the heterosexual world.
Grahn performs her archaeological work with a good deal of humor, using it to debunk certain stereotypes of gayness, both those of the straight world and those in the gay community itself. In her story "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke," she satirizes the straight psychoanalytical interpretation of lesbianism, but at the same time explores the ambivalence of the gay woman toward her own sexuality. Edward's compulsions and paranoids, as reported to her psychoanalyst Dr. Knox, are transformed into pathological symptoms of penis envy and castration compulsion. Dr. Knox sees all of Edward's problems in clinical terms, and his therapy is directed at transforming Edward (who is six feet four inches tall) into a normal "little girl": "We will cure you of this deadly affliction and before you know it you'll be all fluffy and wonderful with dear babies and a bridge club of your very own." After defining Edward's "problems," Dr. Knox subjects her to shock therapy:
Dr. Knox flipped a switch at his elbow and immediately a picture of a beautiful woman appeared on a screen over Edward's head. The doctor pressed another switch and electric shocks jolted through her spine. Edward screamed. He pressed another switch, stopping the flow of electricity. Another switch and a photo of a gigantic erect male organ flashed into view, coated in powdered sugar. Dr. Knox handed Edward a lollipop. (WCW, 30)
However humorous Grahn's story is, it deals with an interpretation of homosexuality not uncommon during Grahn's lifetime, an interpretation with serious consequences for the "health" of the gay community. Grahn challenges Dr. Knox's reading of Edward's problem by refusing to accept the language by which gays are categorized, whether in psychoanalytical or political terms. The issue of reforming the language, as Adrienne Rich points out in her introduction to The Work of a Common Woman, is central to Grahn's poetry:
When we become acutely, disturbingly aware of the language we are using and that is using us, we begin to grasp a material resource that women have never before collectively attempted to repossess. . . . We might, hypothetically, possess ourselves of every recognized technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling arc still running in the old cycles, our process may be "revolutionary" but not transformative. (WCW, 7)
The transformation that Rich seeks begins with the creation of alternative models against which specific women might measure and evaluate themselves. In her early work, Grahn created a series of portraits of women, both lesbian and straight, which embody the diversity of the "common woman." The result is a long series, The Common Woman Poems, which has become a major document in the feminist movement. The series mixes realistic depictions of oppressed women with a revolutionary call to action:
the common woman is as common as the best of bread and will rise and will become strong--I swear to you I swear it to you on my common Woman’s head (WCW, 73)
The origin of this series, as Grahn says, "was completely practical: I wanted, in 1969, to read something which described regular, everyday women. without making us look either superhuman or pathetic" (WCW, 6). The women portrayed are tough and resilient, hardened by years of work in low-paying, demeaning jobs and in equally demeaning sex roles. Ella, for example, is
... a copperheaded waitress, tired and sharp-worded, she hides her bad brown tooth behind a wicked smile, and flicks her ass out of habit, to fend off the pass that passes for affection. She keeps her mind the way men keep a knife ... (WCW, 63)
The language in these poems is as common as the women described, straightforward and direct, with an occasional rhetorical flourish ("to fend off the pass / that passes for affection"). But the more the women are described, the less "common" they appear, each one possessing some volatile side of herself hidden beneath the surface:
she has taken a woman lover whatever can we say She walks around all day quietly, but underneath it she's electric; angry energy inside a passive form. The common woman is as common as a thunderstorm. (WCW, 67)
The titles of these portraits indicate precisely where the portrait takes place: "Helen, at 9 AM, at noon, at 5:15" or "Carol, in the park, chewing on straws," as though they are photos in an album. The portraits are not idealized, and the lives the women lead are hardly heroic. Madness, abortion, failed marriages, sexual frustration, shrill invective become the unhappy legacy of the "common woman." To Grahn these features signal a potential power that must be discovered in everyday language:
I'm not a girl I'm a hatchet I'm not a hole I'm a whole mountain I'm not a fool I'm a survivor I'm not a pearl I'm the Atlantic Ocean I'm not a good lay I'm a straight razor look at me as if you had never seen a woman before I have red, red hands and much bitterness (WCW, 25)
In speaking of Joanne Kyger, I described her synthesis of autobiography and myth as an attempt to gain a perspective on her life as a woman - that by identifying with Penelope, she could speak for herself in the historical present. In the case of Judy Grahn, the feminist implications of this synthesis are made explicit. "Look at me as if you had never seen a woman before," she demands, and in much of her work she uses herself as the focus for a larger social imperative. The common-woman portraits may be derived from Grahn's personal life, but they attain a kind of nobility precisely because of their bare, hard-edged presentation. They gain mythical stature because they are so resolutely ordinary. At the same time, Grahn's use of historical figures like Marilyn Monroe (or Susan Griffin's use of Harriet Tubman or Adrienne Rich's use of Emily Dickinson) represent retrievals of exceptional women to serve as simulacra for every woman. The necessity of retrieving women, common and uncommon, from their sequestration within a patriarchal world has been the task of a feminist poetics from the outset. Judy Grahn is no different in this respect than other feminists in the country, but her ability to speak as a lesbian was certainly encouraged by the large gay community in San Francisco and the Spirit of social action that had been there from its earliest days. Grahn became the inheritor of this tradition but also one of its most articulate disseminators.
CONCLUSION: WHOSE RENAISSANCE?
Writing about women in and of the San Francisco Renaissance is difficult not because there were so few of them but because the standard definition of the movement has no way of including them. The boys' club of San Francisco bohemia, however progressive in defining new social roles for individuals, was often blind to its own exclusionary posture. Where women are mentioned in the chronicles of the period, their contributions are usually relegated to their "service" function. Carolyn Cassady may be valued for her retrospective memoirs of life with Neal and Jack, but not for her own literary attainments. The entries on Cassady and Eileen Kaufman in Arthur and Kit Knight's chronicle of the Beat generation, The Beat Vision, simply memorialize their former husbands. Although Joanne Kyger's major work, The Tapestry and the Web, is long out of print, her journals of travel in India with her then-husband Gary Snyder are readily available. Women are conspicuously absent from major critical accounts of the period, although Kenneth Rexroth does acknowledge the pioneering work of Ruth Witt Diamant and Madeline Gleason in establishing the San Francisco State Poetry Center. And although Josephine Miles was included in the San Francisco issue of Evergreen, she is almost invariably thought of as an academic fellow traveler rather than an active participant in the movement. Such omissions, subordinations, and marginalizations may reflect the roles that women played during this period, but they also suggest the endurance of a privileged narrative - what I earlier called "enabling myths" of origins - in which women are seldom the subjects.
By recognizing the contributions of women writers during the period from 1955 to 1965, we may revise that narrative somewhat, but this is only half the job. It is also necessary to discover the women who were already being invented between the lines, as it were, of male verse. These women are as much projections of that romantic ideology that I mentioned in my opening chapter as they are of the historical period with which we are concerned. They emerge from romantic conceptions of feminized nature and from a theory of creative imagination based on dualisms of form and content, action and inspiration, artist and muse. The fact that Denise Levertov and Diane DiPrima recognized those hidden women and responded to them in their own terms was crucial for the development of their individual poetics. At the same time, their "appropriations" of male discourse represent ways in which romantic narratives of natural rhythms, cyclic life, and participation are revised in terms of gender.
One of the dominant themes of feminist scholarship has been the ways that women writers have rewritten patriarchal discourse, subverting its authority while at the same time providing women with alternative discursive forms. Helen Adam's variations on stock romantic figures and Joanne Kyger's rewriting of male myth are obvious extensions of this revisionist imperative. Their work was performed within - and, I contend, against - male-centered circles in the San Francisco milieu. Judy Grahn developed her poetics in the frame of a more self-consciously feminist poetry - one that she helped to create - and, although not usually associated with the literary events described in the rest of this book, she represents a logical outgrowth of them. Like the Beats, she emphasizes plain speech and "common" subjects, but whereas Ginsberg and Kerouac often discover transcendental principles in urban landscapes, Grahn seeks the historical awareness of women's - and specifically lesbians' - condition in patriarchal America.
By concluding this chapter with figures not usually mentioned in the standard histories of the San Francisco Renaissance, I am suggesting that in order to see the contributions of women to modern literary history, we must often look outside the canonical narratives. These counternarratives challenge more than our reading of literary history; they introduce a new subject as reader. That subject, "she who" reads, must ask of the period we are studying, Whose Renaissance? Renaissance of what? If those questions are asked retrospectively, by a generation that reads through the spectacles of gender, it is thanks to figures like Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima, Helen Adam, Joanne Kyger, and Judy Grahn. Impatient with the roles their male colleagues consigned to them, they seized upon the social and aesthetic advantages of 1950s bohemian culture and began to write "her" story in the margins of "his."