This Old Poem #50:
Sandra Gilbert’s The Return Of The Muse
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/22/03


  Sandra Gilbert is 1 of those people who seems to be a walking advertisement for euthanasia. Not that she has any real physical ailments to speak of- she’s not a hunchback, nor midget, nor suffering from elephantiasis. But, she has got to be 1 of the most pathetic & self-centered whiney Confessional poets to ever write. Never mind that Confessionalism’s been passé for nearly 30 years now, it has not stopped SG from whining about her ‘supposedly’ real life problems to any reader or interviewer willing to tolerate her. The dread bio:


  Sandra M. Gilbert is one of this country's best-known, most talented and versatile poets and literary scholars. Author of eight books of poetry (including the forthcoming, from Norton, volume of her collected poems, 1969-1999) and more than a dozen books of literary criticism, she has been the recipient of scores of the most prestigious US and international literary awards. 

  Author of five previous books of poetry, including most recently Kissing The Bread and Blood Pressure, as well as Ghost Volcano and the prose memoir, Wrongful Death, she has coedited Mothersongs and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. With Susan Gubar, she has coauthored The Madwoman in the Attic and its three-volume sequel, No Man's Land.
Of Kissing The Bread (W.W.Norton), Carolyn Kizer says,"Sandra Gilbert's skill and power increase with each book."
  Publishers Weekly said "... those looking for some honest looks into the poetic life that continues to be lived with integrity will find them here."
  Her writing is characterized by great intensity coupled with innate lyricism, fierce intelligence and beautiful rhythmic arrangement. She has taught and lectured widely in the US, as well as abroad, and has been a Professor of English at the University of California-Davis for the last ten years.


  Let’s deconstruct this tripe, before we even tackle her poetry. 1st off, SG is in no way, shape, or form a well-known poet, outside of her little clique of feminist wannabes. As for ‘great intensity’, ‘innate lyricism’, ‘fierce intelligence’, or ‘beautiful rhythmic arrangement’- well we’ll looksy & debunk that. But just how is intelligence fierce? Or lyricism innate, & not constructed? & is not intensity by its nature great- thereby making great intensity redundant? Pshaw, now I’m just nitpicking! Let’s look at some examples of SG’s numinous qualities. (I just needed to insert that word- ‘numinous’.) This is from a poem with the radical title of Elegy:

in the margins, in the white spaces around words.


  Haven’t seen that before? Eh? This is known as writing ‘preciously’. This is a stanza from Simplicity:

She turns to him and speaks, a word
that fills and falls like another petal,
easy, simple:
a word of thirst? -milk? wine?-


  Incredible- my jaw dropped. Words that fall….like petals….easy….simple….milk….wine….These are the times when I feel like I live in a cosmos apart from all other poets- or at least published poets. This is a horrid procession of 4 lines. This is from (ugh!) Journal Entry, 1984:


wanting to be wanted,
wanting to want, sentimental
as some nineteenth-century heroine who crowns herself with
imaginary petals--O how
I dreamed my days away, an invalid on
window seats, a lover between sheets of fever,


  Bad enjambment, clichés aplenty, bathos in gobs- & trust me, the poem before & after this stanza is no better. How does any publisher of conscience justify this garbage’s publication? Let us now gaze at the titular poem- & believe me it is horrid. It is larded with flat-out clichés & narrative clichés. In an attempt to do something different I will comment after every stanza:


The Return of the Muse


You always knew you wrote for him, you said
He is the father of my art, the one who watches all night,
chain-smoking, never smiling, never satisfied.
You liked him because he was carved from glaciers,
because you had to give him strong wine to make him human,
because he flushed once, like a November sunset,
when you pleased him.


  Boy, isn’t this a unique theme? Line 2 has 2 clichés. A male who is ice cold, needing to be made human, & the persevering, unappreciated woman. Feminists may be getting moist- but they’re the only 1s.

But you didn't love him.
You thought that was part of the bargain.
He'd always be there like a blood relative,
a taciturn uncle or cousin,
if you didn't love him. You'd hand him poems,
he'd inspect them, smoke, sip, a business deal,
and that would be that.


  Line 1 is a shocker, eh? Line 2 is clichéd & prosaic in its phrasing. Is there anything new or unexpected in the rest of the stanza?


Then he went away and you hardly noticed.
Except you were happy, you danced on the lawn,
swelled like a melon, lay naked long mornings,
brushed your hair more than you needed.
Your breasts grew pink and silky,
you hummed, you sucked the pulp of oranges, you forgot
all about words.


  Need I even comment on this embarrassingly bad stanza? OK- just this, at least SG’s speaker kept her clothes on whilst frolicking on the grass. Oy!

                        And when you were
absolutely ignorant,
                             he came back,
his jacket of ice flashed white light,
his cap of pallor bent toward you, genteel, unsmiling.
He lit a cigarette, crossed his legs,
told you how clumsy you were.


  The return of the nasty male. This is not so much a bad stanza as a limp 1. At this point in the poem the poem needs a radical turn upward. This stanza yawns.


Ah, then, love seized you like a cramp,
you doubled over in the twist of love.
You shrieked. You gave birth to enormous poems.


  Another tired narrative trope designed to reinforce the notion that females are superior to males because they ‘create’ life. Now, were a male to invert this & justifiably claim male superiority in the creative mindset what a bunch of howls would be released.


He looked embarrassed and said how bad they were.
They became beasts, they grew fangs and beards.
You sent them against him like an army.


  The male attacks the speaker’s ‘babies’- her poems. How trite, how predictable, how dull. SG has not had a single moment where this poem says a damned thing new.


He said they were all right
but added that he found you, personally,


  This is almost comically bad. It’s as if SG is so desperate to drive home her point & state THIS REALLY HAPPENED TO ME that she has lost all sense of art being a craft- something apart from the writer & reader.


You howled with love,
you spun like a dervish with rage, you
kept on writing.


  OK, like we did not know that the trod-upon female would be defiant? How in the hell does 1 save this piece of tripe? Start with the title- do we need to know it’s the speaker’s muse that has returned? No. The poem makes it manifest. Let’s just go with The Return:


The Return


You wrote for him.

But you didn't love him.

Then he went away and you hardly noticed.

Love seized you like a cramp.

You kept on writing.


  5 lines. That’s it. Aside from trite details & bathetic yelps this is the same poem as the original, yet better for its lack of triteness & bathos. Yet, SG could never write the rewrite- not that the rewrite is anything great, either, much less even passable. But concision has virtues, & merely ending a bad thing before it gets worse is a good thing. On that note I’ll-


Final Score: (1-100):

Sandra Gilbert’s The Return Of The Muse: 28
TOP’s The Return: 50

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