Lately I've been reading Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now by Aliki Barnstone. It's an interesting collection ranging from a lone Sumerian poet through Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Persian, Indian, African, Chinese, Japanese, European, Native American and even one translated Egyptian Hieroglyph poem.
The time span ranges from about 2300 BC to poets born in the 1950's. The range of voices is fascinating. Although the poets are separated from us by hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, the poems themselves transcend time. They speak of love, hate, relationships with husbands and lovers, children, the pain of growing old, regret and betrayal.
In the introduction the Barnstones speak of the sense of loss in Latin poetry. We know women wrote and painted, but little has come down to us because of the culture of the time. Women's arts were not worth preserving. Contrast this with the reverence Eastern peoples held for their poets, male and female, and a subtle difference is seen in the writing. There is boldness, a straightforwardness to the writings of the Chinese and Japanese women. Their poems are as powerful as those of Basho, Issa, or Buson.
From the Diary of Izumi Shikibu
by Izumi Shikibu
On nights when hail
on bamboo leaves
I completely hate
to sleep alone.
From 18 Verses Sung To A Tatar Reed Whistle
by Ts'ai Yen
A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,
And took me far away to Heaven's edge.
Ten thousand clouds and mountains
Bar my road home,
And whirlwinds of dust and sand
Blow for a thousand miles.
Men here are as savage as giant vipers,
And strut about in armor, snapping their bows.
As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself.
One of my favorites comes from India, a classical Sanskrit poem that is dated from somewhere between 700 and 1050 AD. It lists no title; the author is identified as Mahodahi.
On the holy day of your going out to war,
the sky is black with dust
which the chisel of your horses' feet
ground from the earth.
The sun's charioteer is lost,
his steeds rock from horizon to horizon,
stumbling off track
and the sun on its longer voyage
The poet paints a vivid picture of a loved one gone to war, and how the day stretches endlessly as she waits for his return. The sense of pending loss hangs over the poem like a knife. She has little hope that he will return, 'black with dust', 'the sun's charioteer is lost', and 'stumbling off track' all lead us to the inevitable conclusion.
I find inspiration in reading these missives from the past. It translates over into other forms of writing. How does my female character feel as her lover gallops off to save their kingdom from invading forces? I imagine she reels from unsaid emotions much as the woman in Mahodahi's poem does.
I am only halfway through the book, approaching the European, Native American, and African poet sections. It will be interesting to compare and see the experiences of women brought out on the page, past and present. We are not as far removed from our ancestors as we like to think.