Gertrude Buck: A Stylistic Analysis of Poetry

Originally presented at the 2011 Feminisms & Rhetoric Conference
“Then listen, while I sing”:
The Poetry of Gertrude Buck

by Siobhan Watson

Epigraphs, or “Words to loose the thoughts that are languishing, dumb and in prison.”

“Errata 1: Defiant/Deviant women 2: the works of such women, for example their books, which from the patriarchal perspective are quite simply and entirely Mistakes” – Mary Daly

“We should write as we dream; we should even try and write, we should all do it for ourselves, it’s very healthy, because it’s the only place where we never lie. At night we don’t lie. Now if we think that our whole lives are built on lying–they are strange buildings–we should try and write as our dreams teach us; shamelessly, fearlessly, and by facing what is inside every human being–sheer violence, disgust, terror, shit, invention, poetry.” – Hélène Cixous

“Only as we relate other people’s experiences and ideas to our own are we able to see what we have to contribute, however small it may be, to the sum of human consciousness.” – Gertrude Buck

Preface, or “Because she doubted (me she did not know!)”

Before this project, throughout the first year of my graduate program, I found myself drawn to–and constantly researching and writing on–Gertrude Buck. I read her articles, her textbooks—nearly every primary text I could get my hands on, and all of the well-known texts about her as well, by Suzanne Bordelon and JoAnn Campbell, among others. So when charged in another seminar to look at the style of someone’s written work–well, Buck seemed the natural and ever-fascinating choice. I settled on a project in which I would work on stylistic analysis of her poetry, which seemed to be the only area of her work yet left unturned—as far as I know, anyway.

But when I began this project–looking at Gertrude Buck’s poetry, particularly the style of her poetry, I had a very clear idea about what I wanted that poetry to look like. I wanted it to be strikingly bizarre: unmetrical, unrhymed, following patterns only she could possibly have thought up. I wanted it to act as a distinctly different space, an equal and opposite reaction to her revolutionary scholarly work. I wanted it to be what I felt would be writing “femininely,” or from the body, or radically.

But I didn’t find that. I found poetry that resisted chaos through neat rhymes and meters. I found pre-established forms and pretty nature scenes. I found a woman who seemed almost disappointingly normal. I doubted my project, and doubted the value of studying Buck’s poetry in addition to her scholarly work–I considered stopping my progress and finding someone more recognizable for my project, like Dickinson or Plath…

And then I realized how ignorant, how blinded by my own prejudices I had let myself become. I forced myself to look back at what I had found in Buck’s poetry–there were rhymes and meters and nature scenes, but there were also beautifully crafted original poetic forms, rhetorical devices, and images of self-doubt and fear and sexuality. There was life in Buck’s poetry, complicated life, life imitating dream, life which rendered our distant and sterile, textbook-and-Berlin-approved images of Buck woefully incomplete.

And then my doubts were gone.

Introduction, or “The heart of one cried out and the cry was song”

I won’t spend too much time on the context and history surrounding Gertrude Buck as an educator and scholar, as many more learned folks like Bordelon and Campbell, Lawrence and Mulderig, and many, many more, have already discussed these areas in insightful books and articles and conference presentations. But briefly, Buck is best known for her forward-thinking theories and practices within Composition and Rhetoric as well as her democratically-minded pedagogy. Her work in this area, such as her textbooks for classes at Vassar College and her numerous published articles, have been well covered by the scholars mentioned previously. While there is certainly more room for exploration within her scholarly work, one area of her writing that, as mentioned earlier, has been almost wholly neglected, is her creative writing. While Bordelon especially discusses Buck’s involvement in the “Little Theatre Movement” and the dramatic scene in the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre, Buck’s poetry has yet to be fully studied and discussed, as far as I know. All of her creative writing, though,–published sporadically throughout her life, and in the posthumous collection Poems and Plays compiled and edited by her longtime friend and colleague Laura Johnson Wylie–seems to have provided some respite for Buck, allowing her the freedom to explore subjects distinctly apart from, though influenced by, her scholarly work; as Wylie noted in her Preface to Poems and Plays, Buck’s creative writing was “a counterpoise to the distracting demands of practical life.”

As for other women of her time and earlier, Buck’s experience of “making a poem” likely, as Janet Grey, editor of the nineteenth century women’s poetry anthology She Wields a Pen, explains: “occur[ed] amid other work–the daily labour of sustaining life and connection, the society’s work of shaping, extending and re-evaluating itself” (xxix). Further, these, “poems by women come about as instances of the positions that women occupy in daily life and social institutions, whether in acceptance of dominant notions of what women should be and do, in resistance, or as agents of change” (xxix). This seems especially true of the conditions during which–and in spite of–Buck wrote her poetry, pieces referred to by Wylie as “intellectual by-products.”

“Intellectual by-products” though they may be, written within the very margins of her life, Buck’s poetry does seem to both act within and push against her positions in society–and, perhaps, in academia, as well. These thoughtful pieces are almost exclusively rhymed and in meter; and while some of them are in clearly identifiable forms such as sonnets or fourteeners–forms which, at times, seem to belie the rather rule-breaking subjects and themes contained therein–, most of her poetry appears to be in nonce–or non-received/invented/“organic”–forms. Given her scholarly interest in “organicism,” which has been discussed at length by others, it seems fitting that Buck’s poetry–while rhymed and metered–does not always fit itself into received, pre-established forms, but rather creates them organically, or chooses to inhabit the standard forms which seem most accessible to their contents.

But backing up a moment before fully diving into a bit of stylistic analysis of her poems—Buck wrote in her 1916 Social Criticism of Literature that through the poem, “[t]he poet’s intensified consciousness is transmitted to the reader, who receives from it an access of life, whether in the form of perception, emotion, or what-not. Wherever this transfer takes place, society is at that point leveled up to the poet. The poet’s individual gain in perception or emotion has been socialized (39)”.

And through her poetry there are several different “access[es] of life,” different themes from which Buck’s own “perception[s] or emotion[s]” seem clear. Some of the most intimate, the most in tune with “what is inside every human being” are death, self-doubt, and sexuality. Each of these themes seem to hint at an underlying frustration, a push to do more and be more than one life can possibly allow–a push perhaps to be more than just an isolated academic. These deep frustrations are most often conveyed by rhetorical devices and literary figures, making each poem not only a “social transference,” but a site of beauty and literary accomplishment, as well.
Poetry, or “Then listen, while I sing”

So now, onto the poems themselves. The first poem I’d like to discuss is the Italian sonnet “Marketplace.” Throughout the octave of this sonnet, the speaker of the poem describes herself as a child in a marketplace, clasping a “precious penny” (ln 2) and feeling “perplexed how best its powers to employ” (ln 3). The sestet of the sonnet moves suddenly from this past scene to the present, with the speaker desperately wondering:

So now, in marts where subtler goods are sold,
My one unmeasured life in hand I hold,
The child’s delicious doubts and pangs recall;
How may I best expend my coin small?
I stand and palter while the day grows old—
What shall I buy with life? It is my all. (4)

The continued anastrophe, or “unusual word order” (Joseph 294), in lines 2-4 adds emphasis to the metaphoric comparison of “one unmeasured life” with the “coin small”–the child’s penny–as well as the “delicious doubts” on how to “expend” both. And the final aporia, a type of rhetorical question both directed inward and at one’s readers (Burton, “Aporia”), serves to further underscore the hesitation of the poem, leaving the reader ultimately unsure of the speaker’s–and perhaps his or her own–choice.

Similarly, the next poem in Poems and Plays—“The Complaint of Youth”—expresses similar sentiments of doubt, hesitation–and even anger. “The Complaint of Youth” features a speaker not only questioning but seemingly scolding God, ending with a final, bold declaration:

But one short life! Thou niggard God, for shame!
Canst give no more? A thousand doors stand wide.
Wilt close them all save one thou bidst me name?
I will not choose. I claim those lives denied! (5)

Here, beyond the mere “palter[ing]” of “Marketplace,” the speaker is angry that a choice must be made at all. The exclamations of line one are bordering on mempsis, “a complaint against injuries and craving for redress” (Joseph 251)–though, importantly, this mempsis or complaint is directed at “God” his/her/itself. “A thousand doors stand wide,” our speaker tells us indirectly, looking forward at the many paths she could take; yet, she “will not choose” a single door to walk through, instead, it’s insinuated, perusing them all, making the most of her “one short life” and breaking the choose-one mentality set before her. Reading “Marketplace” and “The Complaint of Youth” back-to-back, knowing her “social” view of poetry in general, I can’t help but think of Buck’s own life–a thousand doors stood wide, beckoning, and rather than choose one–academia, perhaps–she wanted to, and tried, to choose as many as she could–academia, the creative world of poems and plays, friendship and love.

Similarly, “Compensation,” another four-line, apostrophe-ridden poem, expresses even more anger and frustration, though it moves past the immediacy of choosing and instead reveals doubt about the speaker’s–perhaps Buck’s–choices:

Give me a voice, oh my masters, dread monarchs
of pain—
Words to loose the thoughts that are languishing,
dumb and in prison.
Speech is mine, by the right of the sorrow through which
I have risen.
Have I suffered, my masters, in vain? (11)

The language in this poem is markedly terse, opening with an apostrophe–a command to her “monarchs,” whom she describes as cruel captors and censors of language itself–and closing with a “sudden breaking off of speech” at the end of the first line, used to illustrate the intense emotion of the subsequent lines (Joseph 245). The second line utilizes personification of words and thoughts themselves–emphasizing the complicated nature and importance of both, as well as the power given to those who have agency over them.

Unfortunately you all can’t see this, so you’ll have to believe me, but the ends of the middle two lines are purposely indented on the page, pairing the hopeless phrase “dumb and in prison” with its hopeful counter, “I have risen.” Her use of the rhetorical question in the final line leaves readers on a lingering note of painful doubt, one which is only compounded by the poem’s title: “Compensation.” What would merely be a distressing attestation, perhaps, to the suffering and injustice in the speaker’s—perhaps Buck’s—life seems to take on an entirely different significance when paired with this title; it seems to give the injustice an identifiable perpetrator—Buck’s academic superiors, the overwhelmingly masculine world surrounding her.

And the question still hangs in the air–what compensation awaited a woman so steadfast in her work, so overworked, so, perhaps, under-appreciated until far beyond her time? If nothing else, her words lasted–the speech she so boldly claimed here became her lasting compensation.

There is one final poem I’d like to turn to, one which reveals a markedly different side of Buck than either her scholarly work or the previous poems. This poem, “Interlude” is unlike the others I’ve previously discussed, featuring a speaker stepping out of an arguably asexual role; in it, the speaker—through Buck—discusses openly issues of romance and sexuality, likening men’s love to a feast:

I have eaten and drunk the loves of men,
I have hungered and I have been satisfied.
The table is cleared—to be spread again?
Who knows? It is long till the eventide (25). [end quote]

Here, too, Buck employs numerous rhetorical strategies–anaphora and hypozeuxis throughout the first two lines emphasize the words “I have,” denoting the speaker’s agency and presence in the process. The third line demonstrates an implied metaphor–hinting, perhaps, to sexual intercourse–, followed by a sudden break in speech and then two instances of rhetorical questioning, leaving the reader–along with the speaker–unsure of what’s to come. The cavalier final line seems almost to counter the anxiety of the previous poems, alluding to the length of life rather than its brevity, as well as a lack of concern with whether or not romance will again come the speaker’s way. It seems, in many ways, that this poem signals the speaker—again, perhaps Buck herself—as a “satisfied” woman–one for whom men were a welcome, but not necessary, distraction.

So, as hopefully you’ve seen in this brief sampling of Buck’s poetry, there is an entirely different side of this departmental and feminist hero than we have often read and believed in the truly wonderful accounts of her scholarship and life available today. These poems are not, in general, earth-shaking; they are not terribly radical by any stretch of the imagination. But as I have tried to show here, these poems are carefully crafted, making use of both traditional and nonce forms, featuring multiple rhetorical and literary figures as well as meter and rhyme. They may have been, as Wylie noted, “intellectual by-products,” but they are surely not poetic by-products by any means.
Though it’s dangerous to conflate a poet with her poetry, as has probably been evident by now, I can’t help but see some glimmers of autobiography in many of the poems within Poems and Plays. These poems seem to mean something, to represent something in Buck’s life—though I truly don’t know exactly what they mean, nor, perhaps, will we ever fully know.

In conclusion, then, Gertrude Buck has certainly not, by any means, been deemed wholly “errata”–but parts of her work have been overlooked, perhaps deemed mistaken or unfit to be paired with her revolutionary scholarly work. In her creative work, particularly her poetry, Buck was free to write as she “dream[ed],” exposing the multiplicity of complications within herself, her life, her position–the aspects that perhaps did not mesh with the sterile, patriarchal academy constantly around her. These aspects of her life, this poetry has been widely forgotten, pushed aside in favor of her more modern and influential scholarship—yet, only by taking a look back at Buck’s entire corpus can we do her justice. Recovering her poetry will help modern scholars see a fuller picture of the woman she was, full of complicated emotions and conflicting ideas, rather than the one-dimensional, almost purified academic image most often conjured up in her memory. In short, it’s through us, now, that her ideas can, to quote again her Social Criticism of Literature, “relate [with] other people’s experiences and ideas” and “contribute… to the sum of human consciousness.”

And in closing, I want to leave you all with one final poem, to end the presentation in Buck’s own voice:

“A Reflection”
Though loneliness be with us as our breath
While breath is ours, e’en that’s at length outrun:
Our severed paths converge in thronging death,
And in the world’s great life the dead are one.


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