Speaking for Lavinia and Burying Antigone: The Art of Persephonic Confessionalism - Rowan Manzer
27 October 2019
Does misogyny have artistic merit? While attention has been called to the exclusion of female authors from lists like “100 Books to Read Before You Die,” the effect of uncriticized misogyny in art has not been discussed enough. Young women experience art in a way that young men often do not. The female subject watches the painter watch her. The muse reads what the poet thinks about her. Girls grow up knowing that they are watched. The effect that this has on the way women make their own art is pronounced, especially among the Persephonic Confessional Poets. The Persephonic Confessional Poets are a small group of women, usually aged 15 to 25, who use a blend of modern slang and old-fashioned speech to call attention to the complicated relationship women have with art. Persephonic Confessionalism is recognized best by its hyperbolic yet sincere statements about the effect of womanhood on creativity and the perception of one’s self.
In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf posits that a person must have a certain degree of privacy if they are to write fiction (Woolf 56). “A Room of One’s Own” is widely read and quoted by Persephonics, who often allege that the world would have known far more female writers if the privacy of women had been respected historically. While “A Room of One’s Own” was one of the first works that captivated the Persephonic community, it was a particular passage from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride that became the core tenet of the Persephonic philosophy:
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur (Atwood 392).
If Atwood is correct about the existence of the voyeur, a woman is never truly alone. How, then, is a woman to write fiction?
According to Persephonics, women must break away from their habit of watching themselves before they are able to create art. Persephonics use a multitude of techniques to distance themselves from their inner voyeur, the most popular of which are sincerity and hyperbole.
The voyeur keeps a tight rein on a woman’s emotions. The narrative of the over-emotional woman has discouraged women from expressing their opinions with force and sincerity, as responding with emotion may be interpreted by an uncharitable listener as perpetuating this narrative. Because of this, many young girls opt to dismiss their feelings and prefer to give a watered down, impersonal analysis of their inner workings. Girls practice this separation from sincerity when they consume art; in classrooms where works such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus are studied, acts of violence against women are expected to be summarized and analyzed impartially. In learning to discuss misogyny and sexist violence in a way that does not appeal to the emotions, girls learn to discuss their own experiences with these problems in a detached, impersonal way. Persephonics will make their feelings a feature of their analyses rather than a flaw, using their own experiences to support the idea that a woman’s feelings have much to add to discussions about art. A strong emotional slant in everyday speech is also favorable to Persephonics; sincerity and hyperbole are combined to create a particularly striking sentiment. A Persephonic may respond to shocking news by expressing that she is “agonized to hear so,” or “ardently awaiting an update.” Loaded words are exchanged like currency with the intention of reflecting a Persephonic’s true self. The consensus is that an emotion will grow in both fervor and depth for the duration of the time it is repressed. Therefore, the florid dramatics of persephonic speech are considered an honest representation of stifled desires.
The most prevalent desire among Persephonics is the desire to be loved. The community first formed when women began compiling lists of song lyrics, lines of poetry, and excerpts of prose that followed a similar idea. The most popular excerpt comes from Anne Carson’s An Oresteia:
PYLADES. I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES. It’s rotten work.
PYLADES. Not to me. Not if it’s you.
The idea that a person ought to be loved for their character rather than their appeal inspires the Persephonics. This excerpt, alongside quotations from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and lines from several poems by Mary Oliver, appeared on dozens of compilations which were shared hundreds of times each across social media. The Persephonic community accepted love as one of its central pillars. Even the mission of Persephonic Confessionalism, to make art more accessible to women, is based on love for women that one has never met. The most persephonic of all wishes is to receive love with the same depth and fervor one gives it with; to love and be loved without shame.
Love for fellow women does not necessarily stay persephonic anger. Persephonic anger, more often than not, is based in empathy; the mistreatment of women, real and fictional, inspires a rage in Persephonics that has been clearly documented. The anger is often shown through compilations; through an angry quote, a depiction of an angry woman or a humanoid female monster, or through a retelling of a classic tale. When Persephonics write their own material, though, they are quick to reference other literary works or jilted women in folklore. In the poem “Paper Dolls,” teenage poet L.M. Brown lists several tragic characters from mythology and literature such as the Biblical figures Lilith and Delilah, Ophelia and Lavinia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, as well as Medusa and Antigone from various Greek myths, before addressing the reader:
If I was a paper doll
Written on by a man
And these above all listed, all
Real in their own command;
Would they know I understood them,
Against all male insistency,
Would they look upon biased text again,
And that they would understand me? (13-21)
The women of Greek mythology are often included in persephonic discussions. The goddess of spring, Persephone, has become an icon of the community. Women see themselves in her- Persephone had been a bright, cheerful child before she was taken against her will to Hades. Persephone, like the biblical Eve, sealed her fate when she ate more than she had been allowed. When as many as ten percent of young women may have eating disorders, and many more have seen friends or family struggle with disordered eating, the story of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds is easy to identify with. The story of Persephone’s abduction, as interpreted by Persephonics, is really about the breaking of bonds between women. Persephone is forcibly taken from her mother. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, holds the whole world hostage when she threatens to withhold the harvest until her daughter is set free. Because Persephone ate when she was hungry, she is barred from leaving the underworld and must return every winter. Despite her circumstances, Persephone became the queen of the underworld and found power. This retelling illustrates how Persephonics view themselves. Like Persephone, they were carefree children who faced hardships because of early sexualization. Like Persephone, they have relied on other women to love and defend them. Like Persephone, they found a way to empower themselves despite difficult circumstances.
There is a shared grief among Persephonics which stems from the imposition of ideal femininity at the expense of the concept of the self. This grief permeates all Persephonic works and the way they tell their stories. Until the grief is given pause, it cannot be healed. Persephonics find remedies in sincerity, tenderness, and empathy. While the underlying issues extend to women outside of the community, the proposed solution is simple and sweet. The vulnerability with which Persephonics speak about their lives and their convictions are completely unique. If misogyny is granted artistic merit, so too must merit be granted to the authenticity of the Persephonic Confessional Poets.
Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. Toronto: Seal Books, 1999. Print
Brown, Lucy. (notlucyb). “I’ve decided to dedicate some time…” Instagram, 24 May 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/Bx3COQ_gmiz/?hl=en
Carson, Anne, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. An Oresteia. New York: Faber and Faber, 2009. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929. Print.