Language Is A Virus

Poetry Guide: Poetess


A poetess, is an archaic and offensive term for a poet who is also female.

Use of this word is criticised, because it is a word marked for gender in a context where gender is irrelevant: see non-sexist language. The true measure of the distrust for this word stems from the situation that the use of the word is somewhat more complicated than that. The word "poetess" means more than a conjunction of the concepts of "poet" and "woman".

The word "poetess" is used in a pejorative and dismissive sense. In his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope wrote the lines:

Is there a Parson, much bemus'd in beer,
A maudlin Poetess, a rhyming Peer. . .

Marguerite Ogden put the issue in a nutshell, writing about "the word poetess, with all its suggestion of tepid and insipid achievement." By this repute, a poetess is a minor woman poet, an authoress of sentimental or conventional verse.

Formerly, in the public mind this stereotype was usually joined with chaste bookishness of the sort suggested by the old word "bluestocking." More recently, the "poetess" stereotype is drawn somewhat differently: she strikes an earth-mother pose; she writes verse that is vaguely sensual, and given to moony oracular announcements, and couples this with a habit of enthusing over her bodily humours. Referring to a woman who writes poetry as a poetess calls forth this stereotype.