Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Poetry by Women: 500 years of breaking the rules

~By Teri Cross Davis

What role can poetry play in the everyday life? What role can poetry play with young people?

Poetry lives and breathes at the Folger Shakespeare Library. On Monday, November 8th, best-selling Russian poet Vera Pavlova will read her work in Russian while her husband and translator Steven Seymour will read the English translations alongside her. In a time when we condense our lives into sound bytes and nuggets for Twitter feed and Facebook posts, her short poems fit right in.  Yet for all their clarity, Pavlova’s poems weave in elegance and discipline, making each an abrupt pleasure, down to their numeric titles.

From If There Is Something To Desire is poem 50:
I have brushed my teeth
This day and I are even.

But Vera Pavlova’s work comes in context of the many women writers who precede her. When women first began to write, certain subjects were taboo like Pavlova’s more sensual and sexual poems. The clarity in Pavlova’s work could only come after centuries of women broke literary ground before her.

Shakespeare’s Sisters studies 5 centuries of women poets

In Shakespeare’s Sisters, a ten-week seminar course here at the Folger which begins in January of 2011, we study how female writers have found their voice and identities as writers over time. From Queen Elizabeth I’s sly poems about court, to Anne Bradstreet’s hybrid of a Puritan consciousness and a dawning American one to Sharon Olds’ proud and unabashed explorations of femininity, each poet stands on the shoulders of the other. By the end of the course, students are well-grounded in this timeline of women writers, how they have reclaimed what is feminine and what and who a woman is as opposed to how they have been idolized and characterized by the early male sonneteers.

The seminar isn’t all reading- students respond each week with response papers and poems of their own. It is always exciting to see the student’s work mature over 10 weeks, whether they are responding to Petrarch’s sonnets or experimenting with the lyricism of Rita Dove or Elizabeth Bishop, the students recognize that poetry is flexible, that it breathes and they too learn to breathe with it.

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “poetry is life distilled.” From the every day circumstances of Pavlova’s work to the impact of a Shakespeare’s Sisters course on young people, poetry presents ways to slow down, speed up, freeze-frame and rewind, poetry presents life at its finest and most clear— life, distilled

Teri is the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poetry and Lectures Coordinator. With Gigi Bradford, she heads the student seminar: Shakespeare’s Sisters, as well as coordinating poets both local and international to share their work at the Folger. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University, and her MA in International Affairs and African Studies from Ohio University.


More information about – and applications for – Shakespeare’s Sisters are available at http://www.folger.edu/shakespearesisters.

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