Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted
Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted
Kathleen Fraser's "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" was first published in 1968 in The Young American Poets, an anthology edited by Paul Carroll. It is one of Fraser's early poems, appearing in print only two years after her first volume of verse, Change of Address, and Other Poems (1966). She later included this poem in her book of collected and new poetry What I Want (1974), which is still available. "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" was reprinted in the anthology In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts (1980), which is also still available.
"Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is about growth: from adolescence to womanhood, from awkward embarrassment over the flaws of one's body to confidence and acceptance. Fraser's long career as an experimental and feminist poet spans more than forty years. "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is less experimental in form than Fraser's later work, focusing instead on the intimate and important theme of loving one's body.
Kathleen Joy Fraser was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 22, 1935 (some sources say 1937), to Marjorie (Axtell) Fraser and James Fraser II. She was the eldest of four siblings. Fraser inherited a love of words and language from her father, who often recited nonsense
verse and sang silly songs. She majored first in philosophy and then in English literature at Occidental College in California, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1959.
Fraser's path to becoming a poet was not easy. She was discouraged early on by grade-school teachers who presented a limited, traditional viewpoint on writing and reading verse. In college, she discovered the works of Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams and began to write her own poetry. After graduation, Fraser moved to New York City, where she worked at Mademoiselle magazine and took poetry writing classes with Stanley Kunitz and Kenneth Koch. Fraser met her first husband, Jack Mitchell, in one of these classes; they married in 1960. The next decade was crucial for Fraser's emerging poetic voice. She struggled to cast off the oppressive hand of her formal education, a battle she was aided in by friends and teachers such as Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and Frank O'Hara.
Change of Address, Fraser's first book of poetry, was published in 1966; her son David was born later that year. Fraser and Mitchell abruptly moved across the country to San Francisco in 1967 after their apartment in New York City was burgled. The couple divorced in 1970, and in a short time, after teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (1969-1971) and as writer-in-residence at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (1971-1972), Fraser found that her calling lay in education. She subsequently became Director of The Poetry Center (1972-1976) at San Francisco State University, where she continued to teach as a Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA graduate program until 1992.
During these years, Fraser was the recipient of numerous awards. She received both the Discovery Award from the YMHA Poetry Center, NYC, and the Frank O'Hara Poetry Award (for innovation in poetry) from The New School, NYC, in 1964. She received the "Young Writers Discovery Award" from the National Endowment for the Arts (1971-1972) and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1978). A few years later, she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry (1980-1981).
What I Want was published in 1974 and collects much of Fraser's previously published work, including "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," which originally appeared in Paul Carroll's influential anthology The Young American Poets (1968). Fraser, who loved to play with language all her life, was drawn toward experimental form and syntax. As a feminist, experimental forms also gave her the unique opportunity to challenge patriarchy at the basic level of communication. Frustrated with the preponderance of male editors and lack of other experimental women writers being published, Fraser founded HOW(ever), a journal serving feminist experimental writers. She served as managing editor from 1983-1989; the journal ceased publication in 1992 but was revived in 1999 as HOW2, for which Fraser serves as publisher.
Fraser met her second husband, the photographer A. K. Berman, at San Francisco State University in the 1970s, and they were married in 1985. The couple began spending winters in Rome, Italy, which afforded Fraser the opportunity to explore further linguistic experiments in her work, such as seen in her chapbook of an unusual collage poem, hi dde violeth i dde violet (2004). Fraser has been Visiting Writer at California College of the Arts from 2002 to 2008. As of 2008, Fraser split her time between San Francisco and Rome, teaching, writing, and translating, having published fifteen book collections or chapbooks of poetry, with numerous other publications featuring her work.
How we have suffered each other,
never meeting the standards of magazines
or official measurements.
I have hung you from trapezes, 5
sat you on wooden rollers,
pulled and pushed you
with the anxiety of taffy,
and still, you are yourselves!
Most obvious imperfection, blight on my fantasy life, 10
never to be skinny
or even hinting of the svelte beauties in history books
or Sears catalogues. 15
Here you are—solid, fleshy and
white as when I first noticed you, sitting on the toilet,
spread softly over the wooden seat,
having been with me only twelve years,
as obvious as the legs of my thirty-year-old gym teacher.
Oh that was the year we did acrobatics in the annual gym show.
How you split for me!
One-handed cartwheels 25
from this end of the gymnasium to the
ending in double splits,
legs you flashed in blue rayon slacks my mother bought for the
and though you were confidently swinging along,
the rest of me blushed at the sound of clapping.
How I have worried about you, not able to hide you,
embarrassed at beaches, in high school 35
when the cheerleaders' slim brown legs
spread all over
with the perfection
of bamboo. 40
I hated you, and still you have never given out on me.
I have risen to the top of blue waves,
I have carried food home as a loving gift 45
when my arms began un-
jelling like madrilène.
Legs, you are a pillow,
white and plentiful with feathers for his wild head.
You are the endless scenery 50
behind the tense sinewy elegance of his two dark legs.
You welcome him joyfully
And you will be the locks in a new canal between continents.
The ship of life will push out of you 55
in the whiteness,
in the first floating and rising of
"Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" opens with an exclamation about legs, which are quickly revealed to be the narrator's own legs. Whether good or not, it is clear from the first line that her legs elicit strong emotion. This emotion is clarified when the narrator declares the anguish she and her legs have caused each other. She is unhappy with their imperfection, and the text implies that her legs—so strong and confident—are themselves let down by the lack of self-esteem exhibited by their owner. This misery is measured by the failure of her legs to meet the perfection of legs seen in magazines, and worse, their failure even to be average.
In the second stanza, the narrator recounts the efforts she made to force those unsightly legs to endure various strenuous and athletic activities, such as hanging from trapeze and rowing. They may not be beautiful, but her legs are not deficient in any other way. In lines 7 and 8, she figuratively describes trying to stretch her legs into a different shape. She worries, but to no effect. This culminates in the frustration in line 9 that, despite all her efforts, these legs remain the same. All of this exercise has not changed her physiology, it has not made her slim and lovely. Her legs remain strong—and large.
In stanza 3, the narrator deplores her legs for their deficiency in not being skinny and sexy, again mentioning beautiful models seen in books and magazines as the standard against which she evaluates herself. It is a painful comparison because it is both unrealistic for many people and unreasonable for the narrator to be so hard on herself. The narrator becomes even more intimate with her readers in lines 17 and 18 when she describes her pasty legs as seen spread ingloriously against a toilet seat, a setting inherently unflattering to any person. She describes this as the moment when she first became aware of her legs, as if, again, they were an entity separate from herself. Interestingly, this separation of her legs from the rest of her body affords her the opportunity to blame them without necessarily blaming herself. The narrator reveals this to be the adolescent angst of a twelve-year-old girl, even as she compares her young, strong, but large legs to those of her much older gym teacher. It is an irrational comparison for a teenage girl, but she is comparing herself to an athletic adult and not to someone who is overweight or misshapen.
As with the first stanza, the narrator opens the fourth stanza with an exclamation, overcome with the emotions she feels concerning her legs. Here she remembers, with a mixture of embarrassment and pride, the acrobatic feats those twelve-year-old legs performed for a school program. She knows she did an excellent job, but her memory of the day is colored by embarrassment at the applause she received, perhaps because her legs were on display to an audience as sheathed in shiny new pants. Again, her legs are their own creature, confident and unabashed. The mention of the applause in the final line may refer both to the audience's approval and to the sound her pants could make as they slap together, making themselves even more conspicuous in her mind.
The exclamation repeats for a third time at the beginning of stanza 5, heralding another emotional outburst. The tone of this stanza is more apologetic. The narrator painfully recalls high school and beaches, two places where a teenager's self-image is vulnerable. Here she is a little older, fifteen to eighteen years old, and embarrassment has turned to hate for her legs. She cannot hide them, and she cannot change them—but she recognizes that no matter how much she despises this physical feature of her body, her legs have always been there for her, strong and unfailing. In fact, she is embarrassed by this hatred of her own body but still has difficulty letting go of her self-loathing.
The tone of the poem changes significantly in stanza 6. The narrator, almost reluctantly or perhaps sheepishly, yields to a celebration of the strength in her legs. She is an adult and the focus of importance has shifted from unrealistic magazine standards to real life. Her legs swim, walk home, make love. In lines 46 and 47, she suggests that her legs have more stamina than her arms. This comparison, pitting one part of her body against another, is humorous. In line 48 she directly addresses her legs, but more calmly than in lines 1, 22, and 33, without the exclamation points. She compares her legs to pillows, which can be read as a reference to their plumpness but also as a description of comfort provided to other people. Line 50 implies that her legs are vast, but again she directs this description toward the positive in line 51, where her legs are a backdrop to the contrasting beauty of a man's legs. Lines 52 and 53 mention dancing, a euphemism for sex. The calm joy and serene attitude of these lines are a far cry from the embarrassment of her twelve-year-old girlhood.
At the end of stanza 6, the narrator goes beyond herself and beyond all other activities. Her legs have a place not only in her life but also in the lives of others. In lines 54 and 55, the narrator uses highly figurative language to describe another important stage in life in which her legs play an important role: childbirth. The verse is joyful, anticipatory, and even reverent of the legs she often maligned. She likens her legs to canal locks, an acclimatizing passage through which this child will pass on its way to join the world.
Stanza 7 is very brief, only two lines long. They describe the new life she has created, born with the help of her strong legs, the infant rising up to meet the world.
The primary theme of "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is self-esteem, or belief in one's own abilities and characteristics. People with self-esteem are poised and confident, which gives them charisma, or likability, and can lead to success simply through perception rather than mere skill. In this poem, Fraser, as a young teenager, struggles with self-esteem, as many teenagers do. She encapsulates her problem in her legs, which are plump instead of slim. She is painfully aware, through magazines and books, that her legs do not fit the cultural ideal, and she sees her legs as having more in common with her gym teacher's than with those of her cheerleader classmates. At the same time, this teenager is amazed at the strength in her legs, which swim, tumble, and do splits with agility.
As the poet grows older, her lack of esteem for her legs gives way to appreciation. As she has gained self-esteem in other areas of her life, her childish worries over the suitability of her legs have faded. Her legs, in fact, have never failed her. At the end of the poem, the poet celebrates her legs as a gateway to new life. With her legs she makes love to a man she loves. Later these legs will help to deliver the child the two have made together. The end of the poem is the beginning of a new life.
The narrator's lack of confidence in her legs largely stems from her comparison against what she has been taught to perceive as beautiful or, at least, typical. In the United States during Fraser's childhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as in the early twenty-first century, slim figures were favored over fuller ones, although the line between what is attractive and healthy and what is not is highly subjective, sometimes contradictory, and constantly shifting, generally toward skinnier and skinnier extremes. Many people who do not fit the media-advertised ideal of feminine appeal go on to have happy and fulfilled lives as adults, whether or not they are ever able to physically replicate the ideal. What these people realize, as does Fraser at the end of her poem when she is grown up, is that self-fulfillment has little to do with these purported ideals of physical beauty.
In "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," the narrator as a teenager despairs about the acceptability of her thick legs despite all the physical activities she can engage in: hanging from trapeze, rowing, and cartwheels, for instance. She is clearly a healthy young woman, despite her lack of confidence. As an adult, she continues to be active, through swimming, walking, sex, and childbirth. Any perceived deficiency with her legs is all in her mind, but the mind exerts considerable influence over physical well-being. The narrator survives her teenage years healthy and intact because, although she dislikes her heavy legs, they are still strong, capable legs that carry her confidently through many activities and achievements. Through physical activity, the adolescent narrator's legs exhibited the confidence she herself never felt.
As a teenager in the early 1950s, Fraser as the poem's narrator confronts her perceived deficiency with physical activity, hoping that her legs will slim down and be tanned instead of pasty white; however, she does not condone self-abuse or dieting. It is not part of the consciousness that created this poem. "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" was written in the mid-1960s, at the cusp of the second wave of feminism, when women were casting off patriarchal roles and expectations such as the model-perfect body. This new self-awareness is evident in the final two stanzas, where the narrator, still physically active, embraces the capabilities of her legs, including the fundamental ability to participate in reproducing.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Fraser is an experimental poet. Read her 2004 collage poem hi dde violeth i dde violet, available from Nomados Press. What is it about? How did it make you feel? Using Fraser's creative expression as inspiration, compose your own experimental poem and present it to your class.
- Models and celebrities have a profound influence on perceived ideas of beauty and health. Assemble a visual aid comparing images of models (male and female) to images of ordinary people. For extra credit, also make a historical comparison. What characterizes beauty in the Western world? Be specific about different physical features such as height, weight, hair, and skin. Are models healthy? Why or why not? What constitutes a healthy body? What are parents, doctors, and educators doing to give young people healthy self-images and balance the extreme ideas of beauty represented in popular media? Present your findings to the class.
- In the United States, five million people suffer from eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia. Of those afflicted, four million are women. Choose an eating disorder, either one of the two listed here or another, and write an in-depth research paper about it. Who tends to be affected? What causes the disorder? How is it treated or cured? What can friends and family do to help, either directly or indirectly?
- Fraser was influenced as a young poet by the New York School, an informal group of poets contemporary to, but distinct from, the Beat poets. Read a selection of five to ten poems from both the New York School poets and the Beat poets. Which poems do you like better? What characterizes the two groups? How are they different? How are they similar? Do you see connections with either of these groups to Fraser's work? Discuss the topic in an essay.
- Word play is very important to Fraser's creative process. Spend fifteen minutes brain-storming unusual word combinations, with related or unrelated contexts. Select the best combinations and use them in a finished piece such as a poem, essay, or story. For inspiration, also look to the work of the American writer Gertrude Stein, whose work was known for inventive word play.
Free Verse and Experimental Line Breaks
Fraser used free verse for the composition of "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted." Free verse is a poetic form that does not use formal rhyme or meter, leaving the category wide open to interpretation. Fraser, an avant-garde poet, also experiments with line breaks in the tradition of E. E. Cummings and other modern poets. Experimental line breaks happen in unusual places, such as in the middles of sentences, clauses, and words. Lines are also begun in unusual places, such as the middle or the right side of the page. Fraser's use of experimental line breaks is relatively restrained in this poem. Although she breaks lines in the middles of sentences and clauses and starts lines in places other than the left side of the page, she does not alter syntax, break lines in the middle of words, or otherwise play with the sense of the language that the poem was written in, as she is known to do in later works. Free verse and experimental line breaks give the poet deeper control over the cadence of language and the importance imparted to specific words.
The tone or emotional state of Fraser's poem is anguish that later turns to joy. In the first three stanzas, the poet, as narrator, remembers her teenage years, when she tormented herself about her less-than-perfect legs. She uses exclamation points and frequently broken lines, which can read like sobs, hiccups, or shy hesitations. The latter half of the poem shares how Fraser came to terms with her disappointment at not having model-perfect legs. As an adult, the exclamation points melt away, and the lines break less erratically. Fraser has realized that her legs have always been there for her, strong and confident. Her voice becomes more confident, too, and the tone of the poem turns to joy as Fraser contemplates the strength in her legs for lovemaking and childbirth.
The sexual revolution was a sociohistorical change in attitudes toward sex within the Western world. This revolution, which has no firmly defined beginning or end, was concentrated in the 1960s and 1970s, although the ideas emerged after World War II, possibly in response to the increased economic and social freedoms that women experienced at this time. Some argue that the sexual revolution dates back to the bohemians of the Victorian era. In truth, radical social ideas toward sex have not been uncommon throughout human history.
In 1967 in America, counterculture youths known as hippies converged on a San Francisco neighborhood to live together and share their ideas in an event known as the Summer of Love, though it actually lasted all year. The Summer of Love brought national attention to radical beliefs embraced by hippies, such as "free love" (a term for open sexual relationships), homosexuality, bisexuality, and celibacy. Hippies believed that sex is a natural act and that people should not be ashamed of sex or the human body. They also believed that monogamy, a relationship between only two people, is a restrictive and unnatural approach to physical intimacy. Sexuality was not the only concern hippies had, and many embraced celibacy, or refraining from sex, while they turned their attention toward spirituality and social aid.
The birth-control pill was also made available in the 1960s, which had a radical effect on the sexual liberation of women, who were until then largely expected to marry before having sex because of the risk of pregnancy. The oral contraceptive Enovid was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1957 for menstrual disorders and in 1960 for contraception. By 1972, various laws were overturned to make oral contraceptives available to all women regardless of where they lived or whether or not they were married.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was brought to an abrupt halt in the early 1980s when AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The spread of this fatal virus is attributed to the exchange of bodily fluids, such as occurs during unprotected sexual activity.
Feminism is the promotion of women's rights based on the belief that women should be equal to men economically, socially, and politically. Feminism has a long history, beginning in the modern era with the first-wave feminists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Second-wave feminism emerged around 1963, when Betty Friedan published her seminal book The Feminine Mystique. This book made public Friedan's findings that women were not fulfilled in their roles as mothers and homemakers. This unspoken unhappiness became widely discussed, and women began to seek out new approaches to success in life. Also in 1963, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, released a report that documented pervasive discrimination against women in the United States. Harvard University began to merge with its female counterpart, Radcliffe College, in 1963, forming the first coeducational university in the United States. Many other universities and colleges followed this pattern over the next two decades. Some prominent all-female colleges, such as Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Bryn Mawr, decided against coeducation to preserve a focus on quality education for women.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which was significant for women because Title VII makes discrimination against women in the workplace illegal. The National Organization of Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, with Betty Friedan as the first president. NOW was, and still is, a powerful advocate for women's issues. The first legal victory for minor girls came in 1972 with the passing of the Educational Amendments, including Title IX, which forbade inequalities in school sports between boys and girls. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, effectively granting women, instead of the state, the right to choose whether or not a pregnancy would be carried to term.
Second-wave feminism slowed down in the late 1980s, when third-wave, or postmodern, feminism emerged. Third-wave feminism has focused on race and on definitions of gender, femininity, and sexuality. These waves, different in their motives and ideas, have run concurrently, rather than one replacing the other.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: Organized sports for girls are practically nonexistent at U.S. high schools. Physical activities are limited to gymnastics, cheerleading, and sometimes volleyball.
Today: Girls' sports are as varied as boys' sports in U.S. high schools. In making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in schools, Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 ensured not only equal opportunity to play football or to cheerlead but also the equal funding of girls' and boys' sports.
- 1960s: Female fashion models and celebrities of the decade include Twiggy, Sofia Loren, and Jane Fonda. On average, they are five feet six inches tall, and weigh 120 pounds.
Today: Female models and celebrities are typically taller and thinner than they once were, averaging five feet ten inches tall, and weighing 110 pounds. Models of this era include Gisele Bündchen, Tyra Banks, and Heidi Klum.
- 1960s: Popular poets publishing in English include John Ashbery, Denise Levertov, and Robert Lowell. Stream of consciousness, featuring long, unbroken thoughts, is a popular form of composition.
Today: Formal rhyme and meter are making a comeback in contemporary poetry, while experimental forms continue to be produced as well. Popular poets include Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Nikki Giovanni.
Kathleen Fraser entered into her career as a poet uncertain of her place in an arena that was still largely formal and masculine. Encouraged by friends, such as the avant-garde poet Barbara Guest, and mentors like Kenneth Koch, Fraser developed her unique experimental style and feminist voice. Her poetry was published in major magazines like the New Yorker and Harper's, but it bothered her that nearly all the editors of such periodicals were men, and women (especially the avant-garde women writers) were underrepresented in magazines and anthologies. In her extensive Contemporary Literature essay about Fraser's work, Linda A. Taylor writes, "With her first book of poetry, Change of Address (1967), Kathleen Fraser joined other feminist poets in the mid 1960s whose works challenged poetic convention by openly speaking in women's voices about women's experiences." In the 1970s, Taylor adds, "the hostility directed toward her avant-garde practice caused Fraser to feel doubly marginalized—as a women and as an experimental writer." In response to this lack of venue for experimental feminist writers, Fraser founded the avant-garde feminist journal HOW(ever) in the early 1980s.
Fraser's career as a poet, editor, and educator spans more than forty years. Although her experimental forms and feminist themes are not popular with every reader and editor, she has a solid following and (as of 2008) continues to write, publish, and receive positive reviews. Carol Muske, reviewing Fraser's poetry collection When New Time Folds Up for the New York Times Book Review in 1994, writes, "Her poems are exhilarating and daring, bringing her long-time love of words as objects into play with provocative ideas." Fraser's 1997 collection of old and new poems, il cuore: the heart, garnered praise from David Clippinger, writing in the Chicago Review. He states that "the ‘heart’ of Fraser's poetry remains here—a heart that through its mastery of language and perception is more than capable of generating and deepening our pathos." Clippinger also notes, "Fraser's task as a poet is archeological … in that she engages in the act of excavating history in order to discover (or rediscover) the matrix of meaning or meanings."
Fraser's work in the early 2000s has continued to push boundaries. A fan of painting and visual arts, Fraser most recently experimented with combining her writing with visual presentations. For example, her 2004 book, hi dde violeth i dde violet, was composed as a collage of verse on the walls of her studio in Rome.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Ullmann examines Fraser's use of experimental form and feminist voice in "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted." Ullmann argues that as an early example of Fraser's work, this poem is not very experimental in form but is surprisingly avant-garde in its message.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan, heralded the second wave of the feminist movement in challenging the commonly held notion that women were content to be housewives.
- The Art of Love (1975) is a famous collection of poetry by Kenneth Koch. Koch was Fraser's teacher and was famous for his exuberance and silliness, which inspired Fraser to play with language.
- Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914), by Gertrude Stein, is a novel about lesbian sexuality, an unusual topic at the time it was first published. Stein enjoyed juxtaposing unlike words to elicit new meanings, and the language of this novel is very experimental. Stein, like Koch, influenced Fraser's writing.
- Selected Poems (1995), by Barbara Guest, gives a good overview of the work of one of Fraser's oldest friends. Guest's attention to language was an inspiration to Fraser.
- One of Fraser's experimental works is hi dde violeth i dde violet (2004). It is a poem that was collaged together on the wall of Fraser's studio in Rome. She wrote it for a friend who had a stroke and could no longer speak or write.
- Of Being Numerous (1968), by George Oppen, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1969. Oppen was a friend of Fraser's and was well known for taking part in the "objectivist" poetry movement, an outgrowth of Ezra Pound's imagism.
- H.D., also known as Hilda Doolittle, was a prominent feminist and avant-garde American writer in the early twentieth century. Her work, such as offered in her Collected Poems, 1912-1944 (1986), had a great impact on Fraser as a young poet.
In Kathleen Fraser's "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," a young teenage girl is tormented by her supposedly imperfect body; many teenagers experience this with differing levels of anxiety and scrutiny. Fraser's poem is told from the point of view of the girl as an adult, an adult who has come to accept and even rejoice in the strength of her legs, despite her inability to make them slim, brown, and flawless, in accord with social and cultural dictates. Fraser is known as an avant-garde and feminist poet, with both qualities informing each other as she seeks to break away from patriarchal modes of communication. "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is among Fraser's earliest works and provides an interesting blend of experimentation and convention in her use of form and voice.
Avant-garde is a French term that means "leading edge." It does not refer to a specific style of expression in the arts; the avant-garde, by definition, is constantly changing. As soon as something becomes convention and something else emerges as new and radical, the idea of what is avant-garde shifts. Fraser has consistently pushed the edges of what is expected or acceptable, marking her as an avant-garde, experimental poet. "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is unusual, however, because it is not as stylistically and linguistically adventurous as her later work, nor is it as risky as the work of other experimentalists writing in the mid-1960s. At that time, Fraser was still maturing as a writer. Stylistically, the unconventional line breaks and line lengths were not radical enough to be considered experimental when this poem was published in the late 1960s. Fraser maintained sentence structure and syntax in her line breaks and also preserved a linear narrative throughout the poem, qualities that keep this verse firmly in the mainstream.
The line structure in "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is designed not merely to dress the page and fill it up but more importantly to communicate disquiet and awkwardness through its staggering and breaking. This uneasiness is especially evident in the first part of the poem, lines 1 through 41, when Fraser's narrator is remembering her adolescence. Her emotional awkwardness is belied by the fact that her legs are actually athletic and powerful. The abrupt line breaks and deep indentations provide Fraser the opportunity to deliver her verse with cadence, pauses, and emphases, as readers are used to experiencing in more formal poetry with rigid rhyme and meter. An example of Fraser's experimentation with cadence and emphases comes in the description in lines 11 through 13, where the narrator describes her legs with a few sharp, quick words, which are quick thrusts at a sore wound. In lines 37 to 40, the narrator describes the cheerleaders' legs as looking like bamboo, while the physical arrangement of these lines on the page resembles horizontal stalks of bamboo and/or legs.
The end of "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," lines 55 to 59, is more experimental than the rest of the poem because here the words are visually walking away from the poem. This takes the author's use of form from an abstract conducting of cadence to actual experimentation of the synergy between form and function. At the end of the poem, the narrator has documented her acceptance of her legs, even celebrated them, and now she prepares to give birth. It is an event she looks forward to with joy. She is finished with the pain of her adolescence and wishes to leave it behind. The single word on line 59, the last line of the poem, is at the furthest edge of the page, pushing its way toward the future. This line structure is symbolic both for the narrator of the poem and for the child the narrator is anticipating. In this poem, Fraser's experimental elements are subtle but present, as is her feminist voice.
Feminism is the advocacy of women's rights and issues. The feminist message in "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is not surprising considering the virulent era of social reform from which it arose. The narrator, as an adult looking back at her adolescence, embraces the strength and fertility of her body, whatever its shape, and throws off the expectations of attractiveness that she learned as a child. This unabashed love of self and enjoyment of sex typifies the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women left homemaking to start careers; they threw out their bras; they had open, uncommitted relationships with multiple partners. In Fraser's poem, the narrator comes to accept her strong, plump legs and to love them for what they can do. Placing this revelation in the context of the liberation movement, the critic Lynn Keller notes in a 2001 differences essay, "While Fraser's poetic personas have freed themselves from the traditional position of passive object defined by the male gaze, they are rarely able to deviate from the decade's ‘normal’ gender roles." That is, "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" ends with a heterosexual relationship between the narrator and a man and with anticipation of childbirth as a result of their physical union. In light of the strong feminist voice of the 1960s, calling women to cast off cultural roles such as spouse, mother, and homemaker, Fraser's narrator has not gone beyond the traditional roles of femininity at the conclusion of this poem. She has abandoned her preoccupation with body image for motherhood, which some second-wave feminists see as a concession to established gender roles.
The second wave of feminism was an important movement because during this period, women earned rights equal to those of men in the workplace and in education, rights that are supported by law. Third-wave feminism emerged in the late 1980s as a response to the failures of and backlash against second-wave advances. The third wave is primarily concerned with definitions of gender, race, femininity, and sexuality and puts less emphasis on an us-versus-them mentality, often evident in arguments for equal rights between men and women. The third wave also directly challenges the second wave concerning what is good for women, what women want, and how to go about fulfilling women's needs. This opens up a dialogue for women who are feminists as well as homemakers, for example.
The historical context of this piece is that Fraser, at the time she wrote "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," was publishing her first book of poetry (a creation that needs stewardship) and, even more significantly, was becoming a mother for the first time. Change of Address was published in early 1966; her son David was born in December 1966; and "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" first appeared in a 1968 anthology. As Keller argues, there may be a temptation to read the end of this poem as something less than liberation, but actually it is a very personal poem. Fraser's social, feminist commentary is secondary here to the joy she feels at giving up the myths of bodily perfection and embracing the real power of her physiology: the ability to reproduce.
Fraser's "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," as interpreted from a third-wave point of view, is not a failed feminist's concession to her biological role but instead an anthem of a woman who has found confidence in her body, fulfillment with a partner, and joy in the child their union will produce. In a modest salute to feminism, Fraser is underlining an activity that she and her legs can accomplish which no man can: childbirth. Fraser's choice of title for her "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted" is another salute to feminism. Her narrator is not merely speaking of her own forgiveness of herself, or she might call it "Poem in Which I Accept My Legs." Fraser's poem title thus pays quiet homage to the women's liberation movement and sexual revolution occurring when the poem was written: because of advances in social tolerance, the narrator's legs are acceptable to society; she is permitted to decide for herself if she is attractive, rather than accept what is portrayed in magazines. The title may also refer to the implicit (or explicit) acceptance of her legs by her male partner. At peace with herself, legs included, the adult woman narrator ends the poem as much happier and more stable than the girl of the beginning. In "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," Fraser seems to have inadvertently written a poem that has a very avant-garde feminist message for the 1960s but is only mildly experimental in its structure.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Keller examines Fraser's experimentation with both poetic form and content.
… I will begin with Kathleen Fraser, who from the start straddled divergent poetic camps. The first writing workshop she took, while pursuing a career in journalism by writing for Mademoiselle magazine, was taught by Stanley Kunitz. From him she learned to admire the work of Elizabeth Bishop, and through both Kunitz and Robert Lowell she began to hear of Sylvia Plath. "In the summer of 1962 we were listening to her poems," Fraser recalls. "[B]y 1963, she was dead. Plath was my first female role model in poetry" (Translating the Unspeakable 28). Also in the early sixties, Fraser first encountered some "wonderfully intelligent poems" by Adrienne Rich. But her next important teacher, in 1963, represented a very different aesthetic: that was Kenneth Koch, who in turn introduced her to Frank O'Hara, who led her to Barbara Guest. Looking back at that time, Fraser has recalled "shuttl[ing] back and forth" between readings by uptown and downtown poets,
listening to Bishop and Rich uptown, and the next night reading with my friends Joe Ceravolo and Hannah Weiner downtown. Each "family" had a poetics that prohibited, via witty or arrogant dismissal, any interest in the work of what was seen as a rival or wrong-minded group. People couldn't seem to function in the literary world without asserting and then defending their own agenda. This territorial attitude meant that poets could neither mingle with ease nor appreciate each other's work.
But, she goes on: "I didn't want to have to choose—FOR one and AGAINST another—in order to feel comfortable in a particular writing community. So I didn't" ("Eavan Boland and Kathleen Fraser" 393-94).
For Fraser, that nonchoosing seems to have been particularly important in relation to women poets. It enabled Adrienne Rich and Barbara Guest to function side by side, and not necessarily in conflict, as her models. Recalling the beginnings of her desire to locate a female poetics, Fraser has said, "For me, the awakening began out of some combination of Simone de Beauvoir's call to consciousness in The Second Sex, Adrienne Rich's grave and alarming poem ‘The Roofwalker,’ and Barbara Guest's tenacious insistence on the primacy of reinventing language structures in order to catch one's own at-oddness with the presumed superiority of the central mainstream vision" (Translating the Unspeakable 31). In this period when women writers had to wait to be taken up by male editors or stars who would launch their careers, Fraser found women generally reluctant to help each other. Adrienne Rich, Fraser recalls, was an exception:
She was wonderfully generous to me at that time. She was eager to talk and to exchange ideas and, even though her work didn't provide a model that I followed in terms of the way I wanted to write, certainly her generosity as an older woman to a woman of my generation made a difference in my ability to sustain a serious work process. Barbara Guest was also such a person. I was fortunate to meet these women in the mid-sixties, just as I was formulating my own poetics. Guest … made me feel that what I was thinking about poetically mattered, and my love of painting was heightened and refined by my discussions with her. ("An Interview" 12-13)
In this interview statement from 1996, Fraser carefully distances herself from Rich's mode of writing. Elsewhere, and perhaps somewhat contradictorily, she has dismissed her early work as "girlish, Plath-fed lyrics" (Perloff 121). But such retrospective denials and dismissals seem to me distortions, both because they obscure the diversity of lineages and examples feeding Fraser's sixties poetics, and because they impose on the sixties divisions that were not firmly in place until the seventies. Before the seventies, a woman writer could at least partially suspend the divisions of the anthology wars in order to make headway in issues related to gender: she could find liberating and even courageously innovative models in work that gave direct expression to women's experience as well as in mysteriously oblique, disjunctive, and visually attuned work like Guests's. Fraser's poems of the mid-sixties themselves suggest that she did not then choose between then—and I mean not only the mentoring friendships but also the poetic examples of the feminist who uses language instrumentally and the linguistically innovative one.
The title poem of Fraser's 1967 collection Change of Address and Other Poems (published by Kayak) challenges the reader not to pigeon-hole Fraser or her writing. The two ways of reading a "Change of Address" suggest a shift in location (with all the social implications that can have) and an alteration in one's form of verbal communication. The title thereby invites us to understand the speaker's refusal to be trapped in roles and mistaken identities as the poet's refusal of neat and fixed aesthetic categories. The zestful speaker has great fun leading us on, encouraging us to imagine her roles in such sensuous detail that we're at least momentarily taken in by them.
… If you did, you were mistaken, the poem implies—as you were if you thought the speaker could be identified with the roles, based on expressionist paintings, vividly depicted in the second stanza. The third and final stanza reads:
You can tear up your lecture notes now,
erase every phone number
under my name and go shopping in someone
I've changed my address again. And don't
waste your money
on bilingual road maps. After a six-day
a train ride and three Metro transfers you'd
only find nights
where the breath churns to snow after dark
and a bench with a man making blankets of
his arms, his wife
in her black wool nightgown and a three-
in her lap. And then would you know me?
As the figure of the quick-change artist suggests, Fraser's work of the mid- and late-sixties offers a good deal of variety: celebratory exclamations within everyday routine recall O'Hara's poetry; visually exotic and often comically inventive metaphors recall Guest or Wallace Stevens; sometimes raw emotion with an edge of desperation recalls Plath; elsewhere carefully pared lines and plain diction echo Creeley, and so on. Yet, from today's perspective, there are clear limits to the work's daring or range on the levels of both form and content. While the female speakers struggle against conventional roles without really breaking free of them, the poet pushes against the conventional lyric envelope only to a limited degree. Venturing toward the extreme, they nonetheless find resolution within the normal.
Take, for instance, "Poem in Which My Legs are Accepted." The speaker of this poem proclaims her acceptance of what has been her "most obvious imperfection," her embarrassingly unglamorous, plump legs that have always fallen so far short of conventional standards of female beauty. Stepping free of that hegemonic perspective, she now celebrates her legs for their wondrous functionality: they have performed gymnastic feats, they have enabled her to swim to the top of blue waves, etc. Yet, reading on to the poem's close, we find she values her legs most for the support they give her in performing socially approved gender roles.
… In lovemaking, her fleshy white legs may dance, but they also become mere background, setting off the dark elegance of the man's limbs. It is through their sexual enhancement of the man and their ability to bring forth his progeny that her appendages attain their greatest worth. To a post-sixties reader, the limits of such sexual liberation are obvious. Formally, too, one perceives the limits of the poem's challenge to the norm: the appearance of the page suggests Charles Olson's composition by field, with its shifting margins and uneven line lengths, but most of the line breaks respect syntactic units, and the poem is composed entirely in unambiguous, logically contiguous sentences, all addressed to the legs. Fraser's poem looks more daring than it is.
Like "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," many poems in Fraser's sixties collections celebrate the speakers' sexuality and sensuality; this was an important personal freedom women seized in the 1960s, and we must be wary of taking that achievement for granted now. Yet the poems reveal how Fraser's investment in heterosexual eroticism becomes a point of retreat from new kinds of self-creation. While Fraser's poetic personas have freed themselves from the traditional position of passive object defined by the male gaze, they are rarely able to deviate from the decade's "normal" gender roles—any more than Fraser herself is able to push the lyric beyond the free-verse possibilities opened by the generation of Rich and Creeley.
How might we account for this correlation between what happens on the level of feminist content and what happens on the level of form? An answer is suggested by a phrase Fraser has recently used to characterize lyric: "the lyric vise" ("An Interview" 16). It is as if her speakers have been locked into particular conventional gender roles partly by the inherited conventions of lyric itself. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in her essay "‘Corpses of Poesie,’" has usefully clarified that "a cluster of foundational materials with a gender cast are built into the heart of the lyric" (71). Those foundational materials tend to silence the woman, identify her with nature, frame her in terms of the male gaze, and position her within masculine narratives of romance or of poetic inspiration. The beauties of poetry are bound up with the beauties of women, which are the proper possession of men. It is not surprising, then, that expectations associated with lyric—involving, for instance, closure, coherence, the potential range of tone and voice, lyric cadence, and lyric beauty—even in the less rule-bound forms common in the sixties, would still work against impulses to radically reposition women and female subjectivities within the genre. I do not claim that the traditions behind lyric prohibit all women from exploring alternative notions of subjectivity within the genre, but Kathleen Fraser seems to have been among those who found herself unworkably constrained within that form.
Fraser did gradually free herself from this vise. And part of what made the beautiful seamless lyric less and less available, pushing her toward the more fragmented experiments of the decades to follow, was the experience of motherhood, in her case single motherhood—that life of interruption and others' constant demands that Rich would describe in her landmark essay "When We Dead Awaken." (Looking ahead, it is worth noting that Fanny Howe—who had three children within four years—has also observed that the domestic duties that constrained her to write "only in fits and starts" profoundly affected her style and contributed to her work becoming more eccentric, disjunctive, and generically hybrid.) The final Fraser poem I will consider is one that confronts the frustrations of a mother's broken-up time and the strain of existing between the roles of mother and poet. Not coincidentally, I believe, in its structure, syntax, and language, this poem is one of the most unconventional of her works of the sixties.
As Peter Quartermain and others have noted, the title "In Defiance (of the Rains)" deliberately puns: kingly reigns and the reins that control horses are as pertinent here as soggy rains. The poem concerns a woman's struggle to maintain a sense of herself and to be a writer in the face of patriarchal demands epitomized by a "he" who seems to be her young son but who could easily represent male demands more generally. It is built of paratactically arranged, disjunct stanzas ranging in length from one to a dozen lines. The first stanza, suggesting the influences of Creeley and Plath at once, begins with a terse description of the self she projects: strong and capable, the rock of domesticity. But as early as the fourth line, a sense of passionate needs unmet, of entrapment, and conflict around domestic love begins to emerge.
… The short second stanza presents one source of her frustration, the imperative desires of the child: "he brings me a dandelion gone to seed / and wants me to blow it and wants his way." As I read it, the next stanza presents the decorum of sincerity as insufficient to this situation, invoking as alternatives more defiant rhetorical strategies that tear at the fabric of literary—perhaps lyric—tradition. Then we have a report, at once whimsical and sobering, of how the public perceives a woman in terms of the men who desire and thereby validate her: "They said when the diamond merchant loved me / my skin sparkled authentically." Semantic and syntactic uncertainties abound here, but as I read the penultimate stanza, the speaker explores similarities between herself and her son, who is creating a painting.
… Just as he watches his hand place the paint (defying societal convention or parental authority in not following the approved method of application), anticipating the dramatic effect of added color, she attends to the cluster of words that lie under her awareness, hoping that they will "explode. / All the new flash." In the poem's last line, "He wanted her pen to write poems in the grass," the boy attempts to claim the privileges traditionally allotted to the male artist: he would take away her writing implement so that he can produce his own poems. "In Defiance (of the Rains)" ends without revealing whether the mother/poet will hand over the pen, enabling the boy's creativity, or insist that the pen is hers to control. With its keen non-formulaic exploration of a woman's conflicted situation, its inventive metaphors, wit, multiple perspectives, and syntactic variety, the poem points toward Fraser's wonderfully ranging explorations of an experimental feminist poetics that would follow in the seventies and eighties …
Source: Lynn Keller, "‘Just one of / the girls:—/ normal in the extreme’: Experimentalists-To-Be Starting Out in the 1960s," in differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2001, pp. 47-69.
In the following excerpt, Quartermain gives a critical analysis of Fraser's work.
As director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University from 1973 through 1975, founder of the American Poetry Archives (possibly the largest collection of audio- and videotape recordings by contemporary poets in North America), and founding editor of HOW(ever) (1983-1991), a much-imitated radical journal of women's innovative poetry, Kathleen Fraser has had an important influence on American poetry and poetics for a quarter century. That her work nevertheless remains little recognized is at least in part a direct result of her own decision, after the publication of New Shoes by Harper and Row in 1978, to withhold all her future work from major New York trade publishing companies in favor of little magazines and small private presses. Her earliest work appeared in such well-established and prestigious journals as Poetry (Chicago), The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, The Nation, and Mademoiselle. Since the mid 1970s, however, Fraser has chosen to publish almost exclusively in little magazines such as TemblorHambone-ConjunctionsSulfur, and Avec.
Nevertheless, Fraser's poetic output shows remarkable consistency. Though she seems in the early years to have concentrated on and excelled at writing the "well-made" expressionist lyrical poem, grounded in clearly identifiable personal experience, and in her later years to show clear and even compelling affinities with the work of the language writers, deliberately foregrounding language as material object, criticizing habits of meaning by defamiliarizing customary language patterns, her work has, throughout its shift from a publishing career to a writing career, been marked by a delight in rhetorical forms and strategies and what one reviewer, Peter Scheldahl, has called "an eager and uncomplicated impulse toward love and friendship." Fraser's work is notable for the immediacy and directness of both the sensual and the emotional, while avoiding the pitfalls of display to which confessional poetry is so prone. At heart, it is a poetry of exploration and of zest. It is remarkably accessible yet by no means conventional.
The eldest of four children (one boy, three girls), Kathleen Joy Fraser was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 22 March 1935 to Marjorie Joy (Axtell) Fraser and James Ian Fraser II. One year after beginning his practice as an architect, her father—a graduate of the University of Tulsa School of Architecture—reached the decision to change professions and entered the Union Theological Seminary in Chicago to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry, a calling which he followed until his death from a head-on car crash in 1966. In several essays Fraser recalls with affection her father's inveterate habit of reciting nonsense verse and singing silly songs—a practice that, coupled with his highly vocal love for the rhetorical orotundity of the King James Bible, would have a lasting and in some respects problematic effect on her poetry. After a childhood in which she spent three years (from grades six through nine) in the high mountains of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and finally settled in Covina, California, where she lived until graduating from high school, Fraser knew by heart "great chunks" of the Bible, as well as a great deal of English non-sense verse. She also acquired from her father an irrepressible delight in the sounds of words.
… perhaps, one can see the seeds of Fraser's lifelong struggle—a struggle she came to feel was shared by many women, whether writers or not—against her education. By the time she reached high school Fraser found herself essentially well trained to fear poetry. Alienated by its refusal to yield meanings other than those few handed down by her teachers, Fraser had, like countless others, learned not to take classes that foregrounded poetry[….]
Much later, teaching creative writing at San Francisco State in the 1970s, Fraser came to believe that this particular problem of meaning is gender related. As she observed in the introduction to her 1984 anthology of student writing, Feminist Poetics: "there is an expectation in [women students themselves] of failure, of not doing it right and never being quite sure they understand what right means, when they've been told that the materials, feelings and structures of many of their poems are inappropriate to the professional world of poetry." In the case of her own development as a poet, Fraser found that the persistence of the rhythms and sounds and attitudes, the mindset encapsulated and embodied in the grand English tradition, was a serious inhibition in the development of her own poetic, imposing as it did a mellifluous sonorous continuity on a life that she felt, as a woman, to be essentially discontinuous, fragmented, marginalized, and multiple. Her need to escape a grand tradition to which she felt strongly attracted came to constitute in complex ways a form of almost self-inflicted intimidation, which influenced her decision to major in philosophy when she entered Occidental College in Los Angeles as a sophomore in 1954.
Yet in her senior year Fraser switched to an English literature major, thereby postponing graduation until January 1959. This change was partly a result of what she learned in a humanities/classics two-year, required course, where she read Herman Melville and Walt Whitman as well as standard English classics, but it was mainly the result of browsing in the library or bookstores—where she discovered works such as Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931). Through intense college friendships she was introduced to the work of writers such as E. E. Cummings, James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams, and she began scribbling poetry[….] For her birthday her college friends joined together to give her T. S. Eliot's Collected Poems (1936), Williams's Journey to Love (1955), and Cummings's i: six nonlectures (1953)—works that, along with the writings of Dylan Thomas, became models for her early verse. Cummings was especially attractive because his radical breaking of normative syntax and grammar spoke directly [to Fraser's internal struggle]. This struggle within and against her education came to inform Fraser's whole career as a writer, a writing life perpetually venturing into what she called, in HOW(ever) in 1982, "the tentative regions of the untried."
On graduating from college in 1959 Fraser left an increasingly incompatible southern California for New York City, where she began work writing copy for the fashion magazine Mademoiselle. By this time committed to a life of writing poetry, she felt she knew virtually nothing of the contemporary writing scene: at college she had never in class been introduced to the work of any living writers (other than perhaps William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway), though she had attended a reading at Occidental by Robert Lowell. She had never read or even come across such major women modernists as H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Marianne Moore, or Gertrude Stein. Hungry for news, she found herself excited by everything she read—Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Paul Célan, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale—but with no basis for comparison. She found herself perpetually learning, unlearning, and then learning to do things differently…. It was some years before she could evolve a poetic philosophy and technique commensurate with her experience, but her hunger for writing news was such that almost immediately on her arrival in New York she took a poetry course offered by poet Stanley Kunitz at the Ninety-second Street Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA), enrolling in his workshop in the fall of 1959 and again in the following semester. Fraser was "thrilled," she would later say, by Kunitz's "Yeatsian language and passionate metaphysical vision," and she learned through him to admire the work of Elizabeth Bishop. Kunitz, a generous and sympathetic teacher, was at this time still strongly traditionalist in his own verse, which was strictly formal in structure and lofty in theme. (It was only in the 1960s, for instance, that Kunitz began some of his lines with lower-case letters.) "A high style," he said, "wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments." Such an approach to poetry could not satisfy for long someone of Fraser's immediacy and passion. For by instructing Fraser to cast herself and her experience as representative—and to think of her condition as writer as both universal and transcendent, unaffected by the world, free of such quotidian distractions as race or gender—Kunitz made an icon of the lyric poetic self, elevating it to a position superior to that of the reader by installing its own power as seer, transformer, and possessor of meaning. In thus subordinating the reader to the role of witness seeking to "understand" the poem, rather than participant in the construction of meaning, it perpetuated the very condition Fraser had found so crippling as a student in school.
In Kunitz's workshop Fraser met the young poet Jack Marshall. In 1960 he became her first husband. Their conversations opened up for Fraser the world of poetry and painting: he took her to see the work of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Sam Francis…. She began to meet other New York writers—having been drawn almost from her arrival in New York to Greenwich Village and to the "downtown" poets, including Robert Kelly, Paul Blackburn, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner, Carol Berge, and Diane Wakoski; to Black Mountain writers such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Charles Olson; and to the New York School poets Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Edwin Denby, James Schuyler, and especially Barbara Guest. Such avant-garde writers on the margin were, whether they knew it or not, Fraser's teachers. In her mind they made up her literary family.
During this same period she came across the work of Wallace Stevens, hearing two young men recite his work at a party in Greenwich Village. As she recounts the story in "Things that do not exist without words," she was transported into an "untranslatable elation." The next day she bought his poems, which she read, "transfixed," every day in the office at lunch hour. For Fraser, Stevens was the great "unloosener"[….] Stevens thus became the first of several figures who drew Fraser away from poetry as she had learned it in school, who drew her back toward the poetry of her childhood.
Fraser's reading fed into her increasing dissatisfaction with her own writing situation and thus drew her in the summer of 1964 to enroll in Daisy Alden's two-week course at Wagner College. Because Alden was ill, Kenneth Koch taught the course instead. Koch, famously imaginative and strong-minded as a teacher, gave silly nonsense-writing assignments that restored to Fraser the playful attitude toward poetic language she had acquired from her father in her childhood. Koch's hostility in class toward any sign of high seriousness or emotional vulnerability, whether in the writing or in the individual, and his disdain for sentimental poetic retreads were crucial for Fraser at this stage in her career, when she felt in need of liberation from older forms and inhibitions. Soon after, through Frank O'Hara, Fraser met Barbara Guest, whose intensely disciplined attention to the accuracy of her language […] would have a pervasive and lasting effect. Guest's sense of language as a prison, her sense that language is inadequate to the writing event itself, had its kinship with the work of the New York painters about whom she wrote so brilliantly.
During these years Stevens and Guest became Fraser's great exemplars and inspirations; finally, hearing George Oppen read his work early in 1967 firmly secured her sense of her own difference from the mainstream. Striking Fraser as wholly without posture, modest yet severe in its unflinching attention to detail and nuance, Oppen's work appealed to her as a new kind of attentiveness, speaking to some neglected level of gravity. Oppen joined Stevens and Guest as prime constituents of Fraser's writing life. Fraser's personal life, meanwhile, had not been without its troubles. In 1965 her father was killed in a head-on car crash. Later, in 1969, her sister Mary died. A mezzo-soprano, she too appears in Fraser's writings. Christmas of 1966 saw the birth of her son, David, on 26 December. The New York neighborhood in which Fraser lived was becoming increasingly the site of drug trafficking and consumption; in September 1967 she and Marshall returned home from walking their son to find their apartment completely trashed and everything portable (including typewriters, stereo, and tape recorder) stolen. Within the week they left for San Francisco, with one month's rent and few prospects.
The move to San Francisco proved extremely fortunate. George and Mary Oppen became close friends, George reading (and advising her about) her poems. As a writer Fraser found the atmosphere of the Bay Area congenial, contrasting sharply with the flash and dazzle of writing performance characteristic of so many New York poets. Fraser's first book, Change of Address & Other Poems (1966), had already been published in San Francisco by George Hitchcock's Kayak Press; in 1968 the prestigious publishing house Atheneum brought out Stilts, Somersaults, and Headstands, a book of poems for children. Much of the energy for this book no doubt came from Fraser's work caring for her son, but the childlike directness of the language and the simplicity of the sound patterns so prominent in these verses for children carry over into Fraser's subsequent work, most directly in the poems gathered in In Defiance of the Rains (1969), again published by Hitchcock.
The title of Fraser's first book, Change of Address, suggests the extent to which her poetry is drawn directly from her immediate daily experience in a physical world. The poems themselves, often centering on an "I" or a readily imaginable "you," investigate different relations in and of speech and exploit some of the puns implicit in the title. The poems in In Defiance of the Rains explore line breaks, punctuation, and sentence pattern in their construction of sound[….]
Some of the poems play with context and reader expectation, at the same time punning the alphabet, as in the epistolary "Letters: to him," "to her," and "to Barbara," and the title of the collection itself can be read as a punning and coded resistance to another's rule. These two Kayak books are Fraser's initial steps toward exploring the physicality of language as experience: while they clearly and emphatically deal with the apparent trivia of daily life, especially in its domesticity (a focus in later years to be closely identified with feminist writing), they certainly do not regard language as a clear glass through which to regard the world. These poems, later gathered in What I Want, are intensely personal and intimate, paying astonishingly close attention to the physical, the immediate materiality of experience.
On a visit to San Francisco in late spring 1969 George Starbuck, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, offered Fraser and Marshall teaching posts at the workshop, where Fraser taught from 1969 to 1971. The following year she was writer-in-residence at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. (The couple was divorced in 1970.) Teaching turned out to be Fraser's vocation, and at Reed her latent feminism began to emerge into informal classes on Stein and H. D. held at her house. At that time the notion that the modernist women writers had any relevance to feminism was unfashionable in feminist politics, where a more commonly spoken language was virtually de rigueur for any woman who wanted acceptance in the women's writing community.
From Portland, Fraser moved to San Francisco, where she directed the San Francisco Poetry Center (1973-1976) and taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. In 1985 she began to spend up to five months of each year working and living in Rome, where, that same year, she married the philosopher A. K. Bierman, whom she had met during her first year at San Francisco State. Her experience in Italy afforded radical linguistic and cultural challenges that significantly informed and colored the poems gathered in Notes Preceding Trust (1987) and later collections. She retired from San Francisco State as a full professor in 1993, having converted her position from full- to part-time a few years earlier. Concurrent with her first years in San Francisco, Fraser got to know women writers whose work seemed generatively close to her own[….] In 1974 Harper and Row published What I Want, which consists mainly of work gathered from her previous collections, with some new poems that show an intensifying commitment to syntactical experiment and unconventional form.
The first major indication, however, of Fraser's increasing alignment with experimental and even avant-garde writing is Magritte Series (1977), published by Lyn Hejinian as number six in her Tuumba series of chapbooks. (Other writers appearing in that "First Series" include Dick Higgins, Susan Howe, and Kenneth Irby, as well as Hejinian herself.) In Magritte Series—to an even greater extent than in "The History of My Feeling" and "Six Uneasy Songs" at the close of What I Want—it becomes clear that the writing is creating the situation to which it refers, a mode no conventional reader can comfortably accept, since reference is at a minimum. The poems of Magritte Series wittily and disturbingly play familiar ordinary syntax with the grotesque, thereby constituting a stylistic equivalent to the paintings of René Magritte, to which the poems seek to be companions.
These poems were later collected in New Shoes (1978), Fraser's last book with a major New York trade publisher. The wit and the cultivation of the bizarre function as controlling devices to keep the reader distant from—but at the same time intensely aware of—the controlled but never hidden high emotional charge of these intensely personal poems. "One of the Chapters," for instance, tempers the poet's sheer outrage at the preposterous difficulties of living in a university town (where the men make up the universe) through a carefully controlled comic ironic tone, coupled with the important news that the poem draws on someone else's text. Yet Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing this book in The New York Times Book Review (13 August 1978), praised Fraser's "delight in rhetorical forms and … sense of what words mean" but nevertheless concluded—perhaps with the deliberate grotesques of the Magritte Series specifically in mind—that, "lushly synesthetic" and "full of appeal to the senses," the work is at times "self-absorbed to (and sometimes over) the brink of solipsism and incoherence." What I Want and New Shoes reveal the extent to which Fraser has learned to trust rather than bully the reader—no mean feat when the poems are full of scorn or anguish. The poems are remarkably skillful, with Fraser firmly in control of the meaning, which is transmitted with great emotional impact to the reader.
By the late 1970s Fraser found herself increasingly reluctant to submit her work to male editors and no longer found it possible to accept their well-meaning but patronizing "corrections" of her work. Some of her difficulties and a great deal of her passion as a writer came in her eyes to have an increasingly gendered origin, a theme she would explore with remarkable and indeed devastating effectiveness in Each Next: Narratives (1980). This book marks the great turning point in Fraser's career.
Since the title declines the label fiction, for example, there is no means to tell whether these largely prose works are fictions or not; they bear the stamp of direct and immediate autobiography. A passionate defense of nontraditional writing by women, the narratives were written exactly at the time when Fraser felt isolated as a writer in San Francisco, unable to "submit" her work to male editors and finding precious few if any feminist journals prepared to publish stylistically innovative heterosexual work. The book was also published exactly at the time when Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Frances Jaffer were embarking on a series of conversations and investigations that would result in the founding two years later of Fraser's important journal HOW(ever). Adapting Olson's famous dictum that "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception"—already a feature of some of the poems in New Shoes and before—Fraser finds, especially in "Talking to Myself Talking to You," a fierce narrative drive to push the writing headlong from discovery to discovery; multiple and complex feelings and responses suggest the fragmenting of daily life and self so alien to the discourse of male power, at times fragmenting syntax, continuity, and image. At the same time, these prose poems erase conventional narrative concepts such as point of view in an ironic melange of fragments, and they dissolve generic boundaries. All the poems in Each Next are "about" writing (and necessarily then about reading) as a woman, and the reader, forced by the linguistic play into the active construction rather than the passive reception of meaning, finds procedural and even methodological clues. The narratives of Each Next pave the way to discovery by participating in it and moving the reader into such participation:[….]
Such writing is marked by overt risk-taking, by an acutely painful honesty of revelation and detail of dialogue and response, of thought and desire, of anger and delight. These are powerful poems of desire, interrogating the beloved, interrogating the very nature of "other," and—by means of the comments others reportedly make in these stories—interrogating the self, or selves:[….] The poems also interrogate, then, their own writing and invite the reader into the act.
The formal and especially thematic achievement of Each Next is to dissolve generic contrasts between "prose" and "verse" and the boundaries between "fact" and "fiction," rendering such distinctions not only irrelevant but intrusive. Fraser's next books, Something (even human voices) in the foreground, a lake (1984) and Boundayr, written some three years later but not published until 1988, are a devastating assault on the possession of meaning, on the social and intellectual certainties implicated in hegemonic and institutionalized powers. They do so by destabilizing the text and by flattening out the voice. Some of the poems in Something abandon referentiality almost completely; those in Boundayr cultivate error as compositional principle. These writings are intimately connected with Fraser's founding of HOW(ever), which she edited from 1983 to 1991, with guest editors in 1990.
As editor of HOW(ever), Fraser created a place where women could "focus attention on language and … discover what [could] be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures." The magazine gave women an immensely important opportunity to publish experimental work that would call into question conventional models of language usage and the social institutions that enforce those conventions. A groundbreaking enterprise, the project shared many of the goals of the language writers, who deliberately foreground language as material object and seek to criticize habits of meaning by defamiliarizing customary language patterns. Its most important features were its openness to new writers of whatever persuasion and its refusal to adopt a partisan feminist position:[….] At the same time the magazine undertook the important work of retrieving work by forgotten women modernists such as Mary Butts, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, and others, and it became the model for f(lip) magazine in Vancouver and 6ix magazine in Philadelphia.
The great work of editing HOW(ever), so closely linked as it was with Fraser's own writing, set the pattern for her future books, each of which deliberately pursues a course of discovery implicit in her earlier work—and each of which is formally innovative. Thus, the work in Boundayr freed Fraser to write poems such as Giotto: Arena, first published as an entire issue of Abacus (15 November 1991) and collected in When New Time Folds Up (1993). As Meredith Quartermain observed in an important review (West Coast Line, Winter 1994-1995), the title poem affords the reader a remarkable complex of manifold relations and voices, formally invoking and interrogating the tradition of which it declares itself a part. Carol Muske, in a judicious but nevertheless enthusiastic review in The New York Times Book Review (6 February 1994), called Fraser a maverick who "belongs to no school" and commented that through her "voracious desire" to enter and deconstruct language Fraser "demonstrates how thinking evolves, how we think what we see and vice versa," remarking that the poems are to a great extent the harvest of her rich early work (influenced by poets as diverse as Frank O'Hara and George Oppen) and her subsequent language experiments. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, writing in Sulfur (Spring 1994) on "the rich tinctures of multifarious webbings" in these poems, pointed to Fraser's use of H. D. "for the pensive, illuminating reading and rereading on signs (a play with repetition and recirculation most striking in the final, and title poem)" and of Virginia Woolf for "the delicate, determined ‘deliberate burdens through the temporal.’"
Despite its extraordinary technical sophistication and capacity to disturb the reader, the work in When New Time Folds Up and Fraser's more recent books is completely unintimidating. Drawing on a great range of resources, including graphics—and in Wing (1995) playing with great charm and indeed passion with the visual shape of the poem—Fraser's work has become more and more playful and less and less dogmatic, while at the same time cultivating a meditative and cogitative stance and habit that continually cultivate and exploit the random and the accidental. … Reading through Fraser's work in chronological order makes one see clearly that her whole career has been a move away from certainty and into discovery. Overall, it reflects a great generosity of spirit, a necessary corollary to a deep and abiding curiosity. The chief characteristic of her work, persisting through its abiding lyrical intensity and condensation and love of color and the sheer body-ness of the language and the vision, is its stubborn and courageous refusal to rest satisfied with any sort of status quo, a determination to find a language adequate to the writing occasion of which it is witness: the perturbability of the writer….
The essay […] "This Phrasing Unreliable Except As Here" (published in Talisman, 1995), could well serve as a motto for the collected work, obedient as each poem is to the writing occasion itself.
Source: Peter Quartermain, "Kathleen Fraser," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169, American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 106-15.
Clippinger, David, Review of il cuore: the heart; Selected Poems (1970-1995), in Chicago Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, Fall 1997, pp. 162-65.
Fraser, Kathleen, "Poem in Which My Legs Are Accepted," in What I Want, Harper & Row, 1974, pp. 25-27.
Keller, Lynn, "‘Just one of / the girls:—/ normal in the extreme’: Experimentalists-to-Be Starting Out in the 1960s," in differences, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2001, p. 55.
Muske, Carol, "Outside the Fence, Three Renegade Stylists," in New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1994, p. 32.
Taylor, Linda A., "‘A Seizure of Voice’: Language Innovation and a Feminist Poetics in the Works of Kathleen Fraser," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 337-72.
Banes, Sally, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, Duke University Press, 1993.
Avant-garde art and literature rose in popularity during the 1960s. In this book, Banes chronicles the people and events that constituted this creative movement.
Faludi, Susan, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, Crown, 1991.
Faludi reveals the second-wave backlash that especially affected women seeking careers in the 1980s. This book won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Fraser, Kathleen, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity; Essays, University of Alabama Press, 2000.
This book is a collection of essays written by Fraser from 1979 to 1998, blending criticism and autobiography.
Frost, Elisabeth A., The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, University of Iowa Press, 2003.
Frost examines the feminist avant-garde movement from 1910 through 1990, including detailed examinations of poets such as Gertrude Stein and Sonia Sanchez.
Hogue, Cynthia, "An Interview with Kathleen Fraser," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 1-26.
In this interview, Hogue and Fraser discuss Fraser's writing process, her editorship of HOW(ever), and the motivation behind her projects.