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Female Beauty in Twentieth-Century Poetry: A Critical Analysis of Selected Works

Homage to My Hips
By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Lucille Clifton’s ‘Homage to My Hips’ is a poem celebrating the female body and its power. The narrator’s pride in her hips is conveyed through repetition of ‘these’, implying ownership and hence assertion in her expression of selfhood. Clifton also uses a repetitive style of sentence structure to suggest that ‘these hips’ are something special. Through the poem’s forward-moving rhythmic progression, Clifton conveys a sense of ‘these hips’ swaying proudly, hips that are ‘mighty’ and ‘magic’.

Clifton’s use of language also invites a comparison of ‘these hips’ with the hips of other women. The implication is that her pride in having ‘big hips’ is something unusual. Moreover, Clifton positions herself positively in relation to these other women, whose hips are ‘enslaved’ and ‘held back’. This theme can be related directly to Clifton’s experiences as an African-American, in which beauty is strictly defined by white and unattainable standards. It also foregrounds and questions the assumption commonly portrayed in the media that thinness, or having hips that ‘fit into little petty places’, is desirable. The speaker’s awareness and acceptance of her body as it is allows her to take charge of her sexuality in a way that is denied to women who are striving to attain what the poem views as oppressive standards of female beauty.

By Chase Twichell

I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender,
but I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way,
free of its female tethers. Maybe it would be like
riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,
but everyone looks at the horse.

Chase Twichell’s short poem, ‘Horse’ introduces a division between female ‘gender’ and ‘soul’. This idea is introduced in the first line and is sustained throughout the poem through the continuous splitting of sentences across the line, including the use of enjambement (lines 3-4). The concept of ‘gender’ is metaphorically compared to ‘female tethers’, implying the notion of something binding the ‘soul’, thereby restricting a true expression of the speaker’s sense of self. Furthermore, the symbolic imagery of a rider on a horse in the closing lines serves to identify the speaker with the (unseen) rider and her ‘gender’ with the horse at which ‘everyone looks’. In this way, the poem separates a self-awareness of ‘gender’ from the experience of being ‘human’.

The themes consistent throughout the poem revolve around female conflicts, concentrating on appearance, identity and social acceptance. Female beauty, or appearance is aligned with social norms and expectations. Following a feminist approach, gender is thereby revealed as a social construction, distinct from biological sex. The construction of female beauty in these terms is not unproblematic, and the maintenance of existing power relations between the genders in a patriarchal society is symbolically underlined through the notion of ‘female tethers’ and the limitations these impose.

The Snow Queen
By Peter Howard

Presumably, the frozen bird believes
The cobra to be beautiful. Her brain
Infers this from her fascinated eye:
It is an understandable mistake.

By catching them on frozen slides, we may
Beneath a microscope observe the shapes
Of snowflakes, all hexagonal, each one
Unique. So we were told. A lie, no doubt.

Though at the time the story cut no ice,
Its magic worked. One inch of snow. England
Freezes. Trains stop. Old women die of cold.
My bastard car won't start. The phones are jammed.

I know it. Snow is dangerous. Frost kills.
Yet, when clouds seem to threaten, my heart beats
Faster, and I can never turn my eyes
From soft, seductive, fatal, fields of white.

‘The Snow Queen’ by Peter Howard is a poem about the opposition of beauty and danger, and the way in which these two concepts may co-exist in reality. In the first stanza, a bird, paralysed with fear, admires the beauty of the very cobra that will presumably soon be its killer. In the following three stanzas, snow is metaphorically assigned an anthropomorphic intent to hide its dangerous aspects (‘frost kills’ and ‘old women die of cold’) behind the ‘seductive’ beauty of its appearance. The rich alliteration of ‘soft seductive’ and ‘fatal fields’ in the final line conveys a sense of beauty lulling the speaker into a false sense of security, or into making ‘an understandable mistake’ about the nature of beauty.

This poem can be interpreted as an allegorical statement about the psychological truth of female beauty. The interaction between the symbols of bird, cobra, snow and narrative voice in the poem create a coherent meaning beyond that of the literal level of interpretation. The implication is that female beauty is similarly dangerous to men: appearances are deceptive and possibly ‘fatal’. The closing lines effectively underscore the allegorical nature of the poem through increased reference to the human body. Parallels can be drawn between the way in which the speaker’s ‘heart beats faster’ (itself emphasized through enjambement) in the sight of ‘soft, seductive’ snowy fields, and his presumed physiological excitement when seeing a woman whose beauty he finds both alluring and dangerous.

Earthbound Mirrors
By Stephen Oliver

A woman polished as an earthenware jug
filled with northern light:

and you know there isn't a chance of that.
Is that what beauty's all about

what you'd like to give into most
to make a gift of it, to get what's going?

Right through your eyes allow me
to see these transparencies

which crush me like ice. Now, that's beauty.

And so I practise at departure
as this light moving the trees - airily.

What saves me (if you can call it that)
are the words here which stick,

something like a rubber/boot on damp ash.

This poem from ‘Earthbound Mirrors’ by Stephen Oliver is about female beauty as a reflection of the viewer’s own thoughts and desires: ‘what you’d like to give into most’. Both the form and use of language evoke a sense of absence and space, thereby conveying beauty’s lack of material reality. One and two line stanzas serve to create a visual impression of emptiness on the page. Words such as ‘airily’ and ‘light’ suggest impermanence, whilst ‘transparencies’ implies that the speaker is looking at something that is not really there. An emotional distance and coldness is conveyed through the evocation of ‘northern lights’ and beauty crushing the speaker ‘like ice’. These correspond to the theme of beauty as an evasive, translucent quality. The unreality of beauty is contrasted in the final line with the concrete image of ‘a rubber/boot on damp ash’.

Psychoanalytic criticism relates the poem’s theme to a Freudian perspective of the role of beauty in achieving happiness: while undoubtedly a source of pleasure, beauty has no discernible nature or origin. The speaker’s appreciation of beauty as ‘what you’d like to give into most’ is concerned with the compensatory value of beauty: the idea that aesthetically pleasing appearances can stave off suffering and provide temporary pleasure. Furthermore, the concept of beauty as a reflection of the viewer’s own desires can be related to Kant’s theory of the definition, value and function of beauty in his work, Critique of Judgement (1790). Like Freud, Kant believed that beauty does not inhere in the material qualities of the object but is a function of the viewer's receptivity to it.

Girl Powdering Her Neck
By Cathy Song
from a ukiyo-e print by Utamaro

The light is the inside
sheen of an oyster shell,
sponged with talc and vapor,
moisture from a bath.

A pair of slippers
are placed outside
the rice-paper doors.
She kneels at a low table
in the room,
her legs folded beneath her
as she sits on a buckwheat pillow.

Her hair is black
with hints of red,
the color of seaweed
spread over rocks.

Morning begins the ritual
wheel of the body,
the application of translucent skins.
She practices pleasure:
the pressure of three fingertips
applying powder.
Fingerprints of pollen
some other hand will trace.

The peach-dyed kimono
patterned with maple leaves
drifting across the silk,
falls from right to left
in a diagonal, revealing
the nape of her neck
and the curve of a shoulder
like the slope of a hill
set deep in snow in a country
of huge white solemn birds.
Her face appears in the mirror,
a reflection in a winter pond,
rising to meet itself.

She dips a corner of her sleeve
like a brush into water
to wipe the mirror;
she is about to paint herself.
The eyes narrow
in a moment of self-scrutiny.
The mouth parts
as if desiring to disturb
the placid plum face;
break the symmetry of silence.
But the berry-stained lips,
stenciled into the mask of beauty,
do not speak.

Two chrysanthemums
touch in the middle of the lake
and drift apart.

Cathy Song’s poem, ‘Girl Powdering Her Neck’ is a contemplation of a portrait of a geisha from one of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s studies of the floating world, ukiyo-e in Japan. Geishas were women largely responsible for the amusement of newly-rich lower-class merchants in the capital’s Yoshiwara district during the second half of the 18th century.

In this poem, the narrator is engaged in her daily routine of preparing her body for a man. She speaks of her beauty as a mask and her personal world as one of silence and solitude. As in the wood-block print by Utamara, Song provides an intimate and close-up portrait of this woman who parts her lips but maintains her silence: ‘The mouth parts (…)/ But the berry-stained lips,/ stenciled into the mask of beauty,/ do not speak.’

The changing rhythms in the poem underline the speaker’s increasing identification with the woman in the print. In lines 1-15, the woman is perceived as motionless and unmotivated. She is a beautiful object at which men like to look. These lines contain iambic (‘Her hair is black,/ with hints of red’) and a mixture of iambic and anapaestic feet (‘The light is the inside/ sheen of an oyster shell’). The use of trochaic feet in lines 16-36 (‘Fingerprints of pollen’) highlights a shifting concern to an appreciation of the woman as a figure in action, animated by routine and purpose. The rough juxtaposition of stressed syllables in lines 37-49 emphasises a sense of the woman as not only a figure in action, but also as an individual in conflict with herself (‘But the berry-stained lips,/ stenciled into the mask of beauty’). The abrupt closing lines of the poem, with their figure of two chrysanthemums touching then drifting apart, can be interpreted as a metaphorical depiction of the woman’s two selves: frivolous and entertaining in the role of geisha, yet melancholic and sad in her silent personal world.

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