Anne Boyer is an American poet and essayist who works have been translated into many languages and have found high praise from literary critics, touted by the New York Times and features in PEN America to name a few. In her 2014 poem “The Revolt of the Peasant Girls”, Boyer penned a rousing declaration for the modern era female, inheritors of revolutionist passions. Her 2015 poem “Not Writing” delivers a series of clever statements of negation which guide readers through her survey of various forms of literature she definitely “is not writing.” And, finally, her 2017 poem “No” takes a deep dive into the power of that word—a refusal with significant social/historical ramifications—and how poetry can navigate and negotiate the nuances behind “no.” While for this note I will focus heavily on “No” over the former pieces, indeed I agree each of Boyer poems here find themselves uniquely placed on our exam list: they afford key connections to be draw with other writers on our exam list, and I will suggest below some avenues to consider.
RE: “Revolt of the Peasant Girls”
– The revolutionist fervor which saturates this poem (in a good way!); consider how Boyer’s lines like “we were bricks,” “We were small, but not as small as you think,” and “We were the peasant girls, and thus an army … we felt, in our throats, a war song,” all serve this purpose.
– Boyer’s inclusion of 80’s pop culture – Care Bears, Rick Springfield, Wet-n-Wild (eyeshadow), Oliva Newton John, etc. – and how these elements contrast / reinforce the image of youth in revolt that she presents to her readers.
– Consider the demands outlined by the peasant girls near the end of the poem. We might consider this “battle” that they are waging liken to revolutions of generations past, at least in their passionate cries and appropriation of warfare imagery; yet, in a literal sense, their “revolt” might boil down these girls wanting be seen as more than just girls, gender norms be damned, truly powerful girls, forces to be reckoned with.
– What are the implications of blending contemporary with the past—is Boyer’s poem complicated by how it signals to indigenous, enslaved, and persecuted people? I say “complicated”, considering the pop culture elements that appear as points of levity despite the gravity of these invoked revolutions.
– Violence against women signified by the final line – structural and social. Consider the conceptual revolt that Boyer paints for us. This poem (if I think I’m synopsizing it correctly) tells of a battle generated social turmoil, internalized by these peasant girls; literal physical combat isn’t really the main point—the imagery is unmistakable, sure, but remember that this poem is not an account of a real occurrence, rather a constructed war of self against societal expectations.
– Finally, it is worth examining the concluding sections of the poem which tell of the failures of this peasant girls’ revolt, with lines like “we thought all bloodshed would be pastel” and “we’d overestimated the power of our weaponry. We’d overestimated our tactical advantage…” Readers then see Boyer’s demographic identifiers and familial strife. Then the final line, “DEAR FUTURE GIRLS,” makes for a powerful address to readers, girls specifically. What is Boyer saying here?
RE: “Not Writing”
– This running catalog of forms demonstrate Boyer’s line of thinking, her rationale about literary forms and, yes, their affordances. Her negation of what she is NOT doing, writing, in fact stands as her writing—a survey of forms of writing. Her poem speaks to what others are writing / have written; writing that she would like to do but ultimately won’t do; etc. In negation, readers realize that these are all literary forms that Boyer decidedly won’t engage with but forms for which she has a keen awareness. Reading this poem is a kind of temporal exercise in that readers are guided along with this cataloguing, thinking about forms just as Boyer rejects each one.
– Again, what does this poem say about the power of literature, the purposes it serves, etc. Immediately applicable is Caroline Levine’s “Affordances of Form”: what form can do, how they work, etc. Boyer’s commentary on literary forms is particularly interesting, considering her own adjectives for specific forms being either “pathetic” or “virtuosic,” for instance.
– Morrison’s Nobel Lecture offers a unique contrast to Boyer’s poem in the sense that Morrison tells of what literature can/could do, while Boyer writes a recusal from engaging at all with those possibilities. A curious dynamic is found here—is Boyer telling us definitively what she will not write or just musing on what she would write?
– Finally, Boyer’s poem “No” relates to the resistance behind the word, those of the past who have chosen to make a refusal, the implications the word holds and the ways in which it can be carried out. She pays close attention the role poetry serves sometimes by affording such “no’s” to be said.
– I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Boyer writes, “Saying nothing is a preliminary method of no.” Consider how Hamlet’s suspicions brew about father’s murder by the hands of his uncle—it is his silence initially that is indeed a precursor to his ultimate “no” about his uncle’s reign.
– Boyer lines about “Silence is as often conspiracy as it is consent,” or about “this certain we that didn’t, that wouldn’t, whose bodies or spirits wouldn’t go along,” or “death as refusal,” all find clear applicability to Antigone, “Bartleby” and The Island. Again, we should consider these pieces for what they say about resistance to government structures and the good/bad citizens—about the ones that say “no”.
– A little more on “Bartleby” – Boyer’s line of “for what is refused often amplifies what is not,” though she is writing in the context of poet intentionality, this line has a clear connection to how Bartleby’s refusal to work amplifies the demands of new capitalist production in the mid-nineteenth century.
– Consider what Boyer says about the power of poetry as it aligns with resistance. She writes, “Poetry is semi-popular with teenagers and revolutionaries and good at going against, saying whatever is the opposite of whatever, providing nonsense for sense and sense despite the world’s alarming nonsense.” Think of Levine here, and how Boyer is explaining the affordances of poetry as it becomes a form of resistance, an act of it, an expression of it. Boyer’s final discussion of “transpositions” and how “poetry manages a transposition of vocabulary” for a refusalist also relates to affordances of form.
– Lastly, on the point about language and its power, consider how Boyer’s poem echoes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. Boyer writes, “Words are useful for upending the world in that they are cheap, ordinary, portable, and generous and they don’t mess us up too badly if we use them wrong…” Here, one might draw connections to Morrison’s points about makers and users of language, how language is a “living thing”, able to “control” and with “agency,” but most importantly how she argues language is an “act with consequences” (countering Boyer’s flippancy about words).
– A little more with Morrison and Boyer texts in conversation with each other: how Morrison finds that language has “its force, its felicity … in its reach toward the ineffable” and Boyer declares that a poem/poet as a refusalist/resistor “against the police is also and always a guardian of love for the world.”
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