Gender poetry. An appropriate definition? The example of Aphra Behn

What is the gender poetry? Though the definition of it seems to be quite clear on a scholar point of view, we have to say nowadays it may escape to common sense.

The definition of “gender poetry” mainly identifies the female poetry, intended as a way of writing based on a particular sensibility and gender needs and attitudes. Actually, this definition seems to be a modern and elegant way to translate the old fashioned and unfair definition of “female poetry”, that has relegated for centuries the poetries written by women to a “secondary branch” of literature. Beautiful, maybe. Particular and peculiar, sometimes. Though secondary tributary of a [male] mainstream.

If we want to make an example of how this peculiar definition was actually a limitation for past female poets and for present poetry lovers, we may talk about Aphra Behn.

This 17th Century British poet [and playwriter and novelist], is often defined as a “feminist”. Even if, during her lifetime (1640-1689), the theorisation of women’s political movements was far away from being formulated, this woman from Kent vociferously defended the right of women to an education, and the right to marry who they pleased, or not to get married at all.

Moreover, she wrote thirteen novels, about thirty years before Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, generally termed as the first novel ever written.

Behn also published several collections of poems and translations.

Yet, she was defined and highlighted as a feminist (or a pioneer of feminism) , and not as the very first novelist in the history of England. And of Europe.

Some of Behn’s lyrics originally appeared in her plays, and lots of them were about political issues and social satyrical criticism. Behn’s distinctive poetic voice is characterized by her audacity in writing about contemporary events, frequently with topical references that, despite their allegorical maskings, were immediately recognizable to her sophisticated audience.

Actually this was then considered much more immoral and weird in a woman, since the assertive ostentation of a woman’s opinion was not considered appropriate at that time.

It was Aphra Behn herself who perceived the general attitude to deny a woman the right to think and write poetries. Or, better, it was not writing poems and plays the cause of the scandal, but publishing and reading them publically. This kind of frustration was well expressed in her declaration “All I ask, is the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me…. If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, I lay down my quill and you shall hear no more of me….”

Aphra Behn was a writer who successfully forced the men who dominated the jealous literary world of Restoration England in the seventeenth century,to recognise her as an equal.

The fact that even nowadays her ideas are  still defined feminist means that we are still a bit too far away from intending poetry and theories as a part of thinking attitude of the humankind.

The last word about this subject should be given to Virginia Wollf, advocate of the right for women to think about poetry and arts not only as an expression of the soul but also as a way to earn money.

“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she — shady and amorous as she was — who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits”.