Summary (from Persephone):
Judith Viorst's inspiration is marriage and motherhood and the conflicts they cause: romance versus reality, love for a child versus passionate longing for sleep, love for a husband versus - it is the 'versus' that Judith Viorst writes about, with tenderness, realism, insight and wit.
So I was kind of tricked into this book. A poem from Judith Viorst's Suddenly Sixty and Other Shocks of Later Life, 'Old Friends', appeared on the twelfth issue of The Persephone Biannually, and I was immediately attracted to her direct and tender way of dealing with the loss of a dear one. If you get the chance, read that poem - it's really moving.
I figured that It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, the volume published by Persephone, would be a great place to start. This edition includes both It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life, and People and Other Aggravations, two different but related poetry collections written by Judith Viorst and first published in 1968.
I really wanted to like this. The voice is as wonderful as in 'Old Friends' - humorous, witty, and insightful. While I don't often read poetry, when I do, I prefer this direct, plain and humorous approach to the more convoluted poems that we are usually forced to study in our school years, and Viorst really delivers on that front. The choice of subject is one that appeals to me - marriage, gender roles and identity. Unfortunately, Judith Viorst and I don't see eye to eye in these matters.
In It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, the married life she describes is so wildly different from what I know that I can only pity her. She fills her poems with fear of the other woman and sees lovers as inherent to a functioning marriage. While I don't think everybody wants to have a lifelong committed monogamous relationship, I believe that marriage is just that, unless it is previously defined in a different fashion by both partners. However, what Viorst is saying is that no matter how modern times are, boys will be boys and we just have to put up with the consequences, be it extramarital affairs or any of the other perceived expressions of manliness.
At the same time, Viorst and her peers, which were the direct inspiration for this collection, are deeply dissatisfied with marriage. They are forced into the role of 'wife', so they have to give up careers and confine themselves to house chores, and they do this after the shock of discovering the 'husband' is wildly different from the 'boyfriend' and 'fiancé'. And yet, they don't try to change it. In fact, in People and Other Aggravations, this situation worsens. When compared to the life led by women rights defendants, Viorst definitely prefers marriage and scorns those who don't (See: 'Married is Better' or 'A Women's Liberation Movement Woman'). This second collection ends up being a giant ridiculization of anyone who tries to challenge the norm.
I get that this book is a glimpse of our society half a century ago, and that women were raised up with different beliefs, and Viorst is conscious of this (See: 'Lessons'). She is, after all, a really intelligent and well-read woman. All of this early poems probably stem from fear of the unknown, of fighting against the establishment. But I just can't laud a book with such a negative message, especially when rape is shown in a good light. This is a fragment from 'Anti-Heroine', a poem about the adventure life she is sacrificed for marriage, and shown in contrast to the tedious, endless chores she has to fulfill every day:
Why am I never running through the heather?
Why am I never raped by Howard Roark?
Why am I never going to Pamplona
Instead of Philadelphia and Newark?
Just no. Even as a comical exaggeration of marriage and gender roles, I just can't recommend this book.