Marge Piercy (b. 1936)
Contributing Editor: Estella Lauter
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I have taught Piercy's poems in a Women in Literature course offered for credit in general education and in a course on American Women Poets. Most students find her very direct and accessible, but some are unnerved by her openness in expressing her feelings and describing her experience while others are daunted by her high expectations of herself and other human beings. Students generally profit from small group discussions where they can share related experiences and discuss the pressures Piercy's poems exert on them.
If I had enough time to use one of her novels in relationship to the poems, it would be wonderful to contrast their highly researched, intricate plots with the structures of the poems. Her own voice in the poems is direct; it's fascinating to see how she suspends it in the novels for various narrative purposes.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Piercy's poems raise important issues related to feminism, ecology, imperialism, civil rights, religious heritage, love, and effective relationships. Often one issue leads to another. Like Thoreau, she works at living ethically and peacefully in an environment ravaged by greed, anxiety, and fear.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In her own brief introduction to Circles on the Water (1985), Piercy writes that she intends "to be of use" for readers rather than for other poets, to "give utterance to energy, experience, insight, words flowing from many lives." Although the voice is always hers, the experiences sometimes belong to others. Line length and rhythm follow from the material. She writes political and/or didactic poetry as necessary, out of a belief that poets belong to a social context and speak for constituencies; but the primary purpose of poetry from her point of view is to align the psyche, to heal the alienation of thought and feeling, and to "weld mind back into body seamlessly." Walt Whitman is one of her models. Although she does not name Denise Levertov as an influence, she must have profited from Levertov's articulation in the sixties of an organic theory of poetry.
I talk about Piercy's ability to speak for women, to open up subjects that haven't been understood. I've heard her read three times to audiences with varying degrees of sophistication, and I've spoken with her at length about her political concerns. So I share these experiences with the students. (Others could speak from her forthright essays in Parti-colored Blocks or from her essay in Contemporary Authors.) I always tell the story of her first reading of the poems about her mother that appear in My Mother's Body. It was at a National Women's Studies Conference, and she told the audience that she had brought the poems not knowing whether or not she would be able to share them. Their warm response allowed her to do so. She talked about the pain of writing poems that address issues too difficult for others to hear. This always turns out to be an encouraging story for students who write without an audience.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Piercy shares many concerns with Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. All four are political poets who share a deep concern for women and who value the capacity to care, but they have very different styles, voices, attitudes, feelings, blind spots, and so on. Levertov refuses to identify herself as a feminist, for example, as the others do. Rich never speaks about her relationship with her mother and rarely deals with her biological sister, whereas Lorde is relatively open about both, Piercy has a long sequence on her mother, and Levertov has a sequence on her sister. Levertov, Rich, and Piercy handle their Jewish heritage differently; Piercy's celebration of her feminist and Jewish sources is more like Lorde's response to her African heritage. And so on. This kind of comparison helps students to understand and respect differences among women.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I prefer to give students several poems on the same general subject and ask them to work out the differences and similarities in point of view in discussion. This seems to give more room for them to experience the poems.
2. In Piercy's case, several topics keyed to her poem cycles work exceptionally well: the value of marriage ("The Chuppah"); mother-daughter relationships ("What Remains"); the lunar calendar ("The Lunar Cycle"); the tarot cards ("Laying Down the Tower"); the power of religion ("The Ram's Horn").
The most useful materials to date are Piercy's own essays in Parti-colored Blocks, Contemporary Authors, and her home page on the Web. In addition, four books have appeared:
Doherty, Pat. Marge Piercy: An Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood, 1997.
Shands, Kerstin W. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Greenwood, 1994.
Walker, Sue. Critical Essays on Marge Piercy. Greenwood, 1997.
Walker, Sue and Eugenie Hamner, eds. Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy. Mobile, AL: Negative Capability Press, 1991.