“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
A twenty-seven-year-old woman walks into an MFA workshop. It’s her first semester and she’s nervous. She brings a poem she drafted over the summer and tweaked the week leading up to class. It’s not about flowers; it’s not an allusion to Greek Mythology; it’s not etymologically or linguistically interesting, at least not intentionally; it doesn’t have too many layers or double entendres; no, it’s about sadness. It’s about a very life-ruining kind of sadness, a deep and abiding sadness that has a murky origin. During the workshop and in feedback letters, students speculate about why the sadness matters, why they should care about the way she folds her boyfriend’s underwear and places them in his drawer, about why it matters that he brushes off her kiss to fire another shot in Call of Duty. Or maybe he’s not even in this poem, maybe she’s just sad. Maybe she’s in the bubble bath and she’s thinking about what would happen if she reached for the razor and pulled out the blades and held them down until she felt something again, maybe he is in the other room playing video games but she never says that, in this poem she is alone and sad, wallowing with no one to blame but herself. Either way, in either multiverse, the reader in the workshop and the professor leading discussion struggle to find a reason to care. “It feels indulgent” someone offers, waves their hand the way they might bat away a fly. “It kind of just feels like she’s throwing a pity party,” says another. The professor nods, takes notes. The woman does not bring back any more sad poems.
This is a little bit my story, a little bit a friend’s story, and admittedly an amalgamation of many stories both documented and also just vented about over coffee or in chit-chat with a stranger at a conference waiting for a panel start. There’s a silencing that happens to the Sad Girl Poet, a shame you learn not to repeat in your MFA when you remember how poorly that one undergraduate class went when you said Sylvia Plath was your inspiration, the way the upperclassmen giggled and said that was “cute” and “so highschool,” promised you would grow out of it once you read real poetry.
There is, of course, a flipside to this Sad Girl. The Mad Girl. The Mad Girl poet does something else and people take note. She’s angry. Readers rally behind her and cheer. Where more often than not the Sad Girl’s antagonist, as Harold Bloom insists is essential to an impactful poem, is herself—the emotionally absent, willfully incompetent male partner either exonerated or left off the page altogether—the Mad Girl names him: her partner, her boss, her father. She names the patriarchy. She screams, yells, and stomps her feet, she makes a big show of it saying “He did this to me, and I’m sick of it!”
We love the Mad Girl. We love her ability to put into words our own rage and to often be angrier than we’ve even allowed ourselves to be. Julie Carr is one contemporary poet who has accomplished a both visceral and subtle execution of the Mad Girl Poet in her collection 100 Notes on Violence, in which she catalogs aggressions both micro, passive, and overt that many women face. She also admits to this sort of acceptance of a man’s company, in her poem “Rag” in which she writes the way she stays with and longs for a man even though, “I never much liked him.” and in “Consider This,” when she writes the way men can so often override the needs of a woman, “he wanted to liquefy the self’s solidity.” It is worth noting that, in my academic career, I have been both recommended to read Julie Carr as inspiration for my own work, and have been warned against her by other professors saying she is “Just a woman complaining.”
One of my favorite Mad Girl Poets is Olivia Gatwood, who believes a woman’s anger—actually, anyone’s anger—is an inherently teen girl trait that should be embraced rather than shunned. In her poem, “What I mean when I say we are all teenage girls,” she taps into this inherited ritual of girlhood drama, of world-shattering female sadness, of world-destroying female anger as a rite of passage that a girl turned woman does not loose just because she is not a teenager anymore.
what I mean is that when my grandmother
called to ask why I didn’t respond to her letter,
all I heard was, Why didn’t you
text me back? Why don’t you love me?
This desire to be loved, to be seen, to not be rejected or ignored transcends those teenage years into the elderly state of a grandmother, in following stanzas it is seen in even those who were never teenage girls:
if everyone / is a teen girl, then so are the birds, their soaring
cliques, their squawking throats / and the sea, of course, the sea,
it’s moody push and pull, the way we drill
into it, fill it with our trash, take and take
and take from it and still it holds us / each time we walk into it. (Gatwood, New American Best Friend)
She so effortlessly calls out this emotional labor that women are expected to do from the time they were born, from girlhood, to accept so little and be happy with it, writing, “What is more teen girl than not being / loved but wanting it so badly / that you accept the smallest crumbs and call / yourself full.”
In their collaborative essay, “Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets—A Professor and Graduate Student—Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence,” Arielle Greenberg and Becca Klaver discuss their own feelings about Plath:
“Despite the fact that we both admire and value Plath’s work, we see her an icon of this kind of writing [towards teenage girl audiences]. But as feminists we are devoted to—and formed out of reality of—the idea of the intelligent girl poet-reader, a girl with agency and (burgeoning) tastes. How alarming, then, that even we might find the idea of writing a poem for a teenage girl reader, of being read by a teenage girl distasteful. Sylvia Plath has a lot to do with this received notion of the teenage girl reader/writer as wallowing in self-pity.”
Greenberg and Klaver illustrate the tension between academic women and the Sad Girl Poet, while also calling to attention the idea that we are feminists likely formed out of the reality of this reception to girlhood sadness, that it has made us mad. They go on to say that there is this expectation that enjoying Plath “ends at adolescence,” and Klaver is shocked when she enters the company of faculty who actually respect and admire Plath —that there is a lore and mythos to her that deserves to be studied and respected. From personal experience, I can say that this does not seem to be the most common occurrence for undergraduate or graduate students. In many circles, Plath is still considered a frivolity of coming of age. Yet, Klaver and Greenberg think that the Sad Girl deserves a place on the syllabus of higher education because of the way she reflects humanity in a way that most Fine Arts degrees claim to be in pursuit of.
“How can Plath be one of the most popular poets in the United States and a constant subject for academic criticism, while at the same time be a figure “serious” poets have been taught to look down upon? … [Greenberg and Klaver] want to think about how the culture imagines a teenage girl poet, and how useful or destructive that stereotype has been in our own development of poets.”
The Mad Girl Poet is who we want to be. She is the brave one. The Sad Girl Poet is who we have too often been ridiculed for in adolescence. She’s not who we want to be, but who we have too often been and been made to regret being.
THE ORIGIN OF THE SAD GIRL™ POET
I have never felt comfortable expressing my inner-teen girl in the academic setting. Now, I’m not saying I’ve wanted to slam the classroom door and turn up the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s instead of taking an exam. But, there is a certain sadness that penetrates girlhood, and if women are expected to perform all of this emotional labor for the men in their lives—bosses, boyfriend, professors, etc.—why wouldn’t this feeling penetrate adulthood? The answer is, it does, and this feeling is of course going to emerge in writings in something like an MFA program. However, in programs that are predominately run in something of a patriarchy-vacuum, even without realizing it, women are being silenced from expressing the exhaustion of this labor as it creeps into their work. As a student, I have watched numerous female contemporaries be pushed aside by, yes, even female professors as “whiney,” and their complaints considered “shallow,” because this exhaustion has become so chronic that it’s seen as pedestrian. It has lost all novelty. This societal chronic illness persists because we shut the Sad Girl up, write in her marginalia “cliche,” and “overwrought,” and “why should I care,” and send her home feeling like she never should have “complained” in the first place.
Katie Gregson-Macleod’s 2020 song “complex,” reflects this emotional labor and anticipation of our partners’ needs and emotions that is expected of women.
I’m wearing his boxers, I’m being a good wife
We won’t be together, but maybe the next life
I need him like water, he lives on a landslide
I need him like water, he thinks that I’m alright
I cry in his bathroom, he turns on the big light
I’m being a cool girl, I’m keeping it so tight
I carry him home while, my friends have a good time
The first point in this song is the image of the “big light,” which has left many men scratching their heads but has become a universal symbol for women everywhere. The big light, literally, is an overhead light in the living room or bedroom. He is turning off the light, ending his day, and going to sleep, unaware or unbothered by the fact that she is crying in his bathroom. The big light represents, metaphorically, something else: 1.) The way men are never taught or expected to anticipate or notice the emotions of others, and 2.) the way women are expected to manage their emotions in secret, in silence, as not to be a burden or annoyance to their partner.
The second is the reference to “being a cool girl,” which seems to be a direct reference to the infamous Gone Girl monologue from the female revenge thriller novel in which the main character, after feeling like her husband is not holding up his end of their marital bargain as provider, explains that her end of the bargain was the be the “Cool Girl.”
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
… There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”
Women are told they’re not valuable unless they’re broken down into bite-size chunks, this requires a necessary negation of self to accomplish. Perhaps this is even a chicken and egg scenario: Do Sad Girls become Cool Girls to protect themselves? Do all Cool Girls eventually become Sad Girls again? For me, this was the cycle. Becoming a Cool Girl was an alternative to being authentically sad, because Sad Girl isn’t fun, but incidentally it only made me a sadder Sad Girl.
THE SILENT PARENT: HOW THE SAD GIRL BEGOT THE MAD GIRL AND GOT NO CREDIT
The Mad Girl was birthed from the Sad Girl, given permission to be mad by the Sad Girl Poet’s brazen confession of sadness, but also in reaction to our dismissal of the Sad Girl, a sort of “Well if you won’t listen to me when I’m crying, maybe you’ll listen to me when I’m screaming,” response. This parallel to teenage girlhood seems to be at the root of a lot of both Sad Girl and Mad Girl Poets. Bringing up notorious contemporary Mad Girl Poet, Olivia Gatwood, who writes more about her own anger:
When the businessman shoulder-checks me at the airport,
I do not apologize.
Instead, I write him an elegy on the back of a receipt
and tuck it in his hand as I pass through the first class cabin.
Like a bee, he will die after stinging me (Gatwood, An Alternate Universe in Which I am Unfazed by the Men who Do Not Love me)
The boy says period sex is disgusting
and I slaughter a goat in his living room.
The boy doesn’t ask if he can choke me
so I pretend to die while he is doing it. (Gatwood, New American Best Friend)
But there is an homage to the Sad Girl, reference even to the Sad Girl being the speaker’s mother at the turn near the end of the poem in which the poem stops being so angry and starts to acknowledge this denial of self of which the Sad Girl Poet is most prone to. Olivia writes:
My mother says this is not the meaning of unfazed.
my mother calls it “being very fazed”
But left over from the other universe
are hours and hours of waiting for him to kiss me and here there are just hours.
Here I hand an hour to the woman crying outside of the bar.
I leave one on my best friend’s front porch.
Send my mother two in the mail.
I am drawn back to that ancestor for the Mad Girl that Olivia has become and look to who some might consider one of the quintessential Sad Girl Poets, Sylvia Plath. As Greenberg and Klaver mention, she is beloved by so many teen girls but abandoned for adulthood. I have my own Plath-loving/Plath-hating character arch, as do so many female writers I know. At fourteen or fifteen I discovered Plath in all of her strange combinations of idealism and dismal struggle through depression and I saw myself in her. The thing about Plath is, she’s not a nihilist, she is deeply optimistic about what the world and her life can become. She’s depressed because that goal post, that promise of happiness, keeps getting further away. This is something that was deeply a part of my own teen girl journey. In college, I heard other women on Tumblr, in classrooms, and in my own friend group talking about what a mediocre poet Plath was. When I asked why, if she was a bad writer and I just didn’t notice, I was told, “Well no, it’s just like, she complains so much about being sad. And we’re all fucking sad, so what’s new?” I wrote her off, adopted this as my own. Because as women, we’re taught that misery can’t love company. That misery should be shouldered bravely, that optimism and sadness cannot coexist, American women are nothing if not grateful just to be allowed to exist, right? It wasn’t until later, now in my late twenties, that I thought there was something deeply compelling and sad about this. Yeah, most women feel a similar and—dare I say—universal sort of stifling sadness, so shouldn’t we be talking about it because it is so pervasive? Not ignoring it for the same reason?
And while I think this progression from Sad Girl to Mad Girl is a natural one, a productive, and exciting one. I think that it bypasses the Sad Girl in a way that still denies her validity in contemporary contexts.
Brushing back toward contemporary lyricists briefly, Mitski arises as another Sad Girl who is doing rather well for herself as an indie artist, yet another example that in music and outside of academia these sort of lyrics touch and reflect a sort of universality that infects women but is still considered unacceptable for study, for poetics. In her song, First Love / Late Spring, she writes that she constantly feels like she is “crying like a tall child,” connecting us back to those roots of emotion and sadness being intrinsically tied to adolescence, a kind of self-pitying needed to be left behind once we enter adulthood.
Conversely, we can see more recent artistic sensations in music like Olivia Rodrigo, who’s personal brand is one I would call eighty percent Mad Girl and twenty percent Sad Girl. In her debut album, Sour (2021), she writes in her hit track “Driver’s License,” that she is driving past her ex’s house on a regular basis still loving him even though he neglected her, broke up with her, and likely cheated on her. “How could I ever love someone else?” and she goes on to illustrate the sort of emotional labor and emotional anticipation women are required to perform, even if neglected, in the song “1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back.”
And maybe in some masochistic way
I kind of find it all exciting, like
Which lover will I get today?
Will you walk me to the door or send me home crying?
I’m the love of your life until I make you mad.
It’s back and forth, did I say something wrong?
It’s back and forth, going over every thing I said.
It’s back and forth, did I do something wrong?
And I’d leave you but the rollercoaster is all I’ve ever had. (Rodrigo 2:15)
Whereas in her 2023 album, Guts we have songs like “All-American Bitch” that makes fun of these expectation and bites back with sarcasm:
I’m light as a feather and as stiff as a board
I pay attention to things that most people ignore
And I’m alright the movies that make jokes about senseless cruelty
that’s for sure, And I am built like a mother and
A total machine, I feel for your every little issue
I know just what you mean, and I make light of the darkness
I have sun in my motherfucking pocket, best believe.
Yeah, you know me.
SO, WHAT NOW?
The sad girl is surging in music though floundering in poetry, and I wonder if that’s because of a certain knee jerk reaction to gate keep poetry and literature in general on an academic level. I’m inclined to think that if we say there’s a right way and a wrong way to be sad, to express it, and to write poetry about it, doesn’t that mean that we’re left needing the “real poets” and the academics to tell us how? If writers then feel emboldened, to emulate and revere Plath, Gatwood, and these musical artists in their own work, does that leave the institutional writers without anyone who needs their guidance? To say that poetry needs to be better than lyric—the irony of this statement is not lost on me, but it’s one I have heard—that songs tend to aim for popularity when poetry needs to remain obscure and cloaked behind prosody and theory. David Orr explores this struggle for accessibility among poets and poem readers in his New York Times article “Points of Entry,” citing Richard Howard in his 1996 PEN literary awards keynote address, “we must restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures.”
What is the answer? I argue it is to push back and to create spaces, as so many have in the past from the Romantics to the Beats who were told they were doing something wrong but did it anyway.
Bloom, Harold. “Coleridge: The Anxiety of Influence.” Diacritics, vol. 2, no. 1, 1972, pp. 36–41. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/464923. Accessed 28 Sept. 2023.
Bridgers, Phoebe. “Moon Song.” Spotify. open.spotify.com/track/46RNrAkGsqWTDrv2ZPOAbx?si=6f8d88f6f6aa44b7
Gregson-Macleod, Katie. “complex” Spotify. /open.spotify.com/track/1ovZe7upcqycTuPFfOg6kB?si=d427e3e6b81640ee
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. Random House Publishing Group, 2014.
Duncombe, Jean, and Dennis Marsden. “LOVE AND INTIMACY: THE GENDER DIVISION OF EMOTION AND ‘EMOTION WORK’: A Neglected Aspect of Sociological Discussion of Heterosexual Relationships.” Sociology, vol. 27, no. 2, 1993, pp. 221–41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42855173. Accessed 28 Sept. 2023.
Guy, Mary Ellen, and Meredith A. Newman. “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor.” Public Administration Review, vol. 64, no. 3, 2004, pp. 289–98. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3542594. Accessed 28 Sept. 2023.
Gatwood, Olivia. “An Alternate Universe in Which I am Unfazed by the Men who Do Not Love me” New American Best Friend, Button Poetry, 2017
Gatwood, Olivia. “What I mean when I say we are all teenage girls,” New American Best Friend, Button Poetry, 2017
Greenberg, Arielle and Becca Klaver. “Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets—a Professor and Graduate Student—Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence.” College Literature, vol. 36 no. 4, 2009, p. 179-207. Project MUSE, https://doi.org/10.1353/lit.0.0087.
Mitski. “First Love / Late Spring” Spotify. open.spotify.com/track/3sslYZcFKtUvIEWN9lADgr?si=5424950a317f4599
Rodrigo, Olivia. “Driver’s License” Spotify. open.spotify.com/track/5wANPM4fQCJwkGd4rN57mH?si=9d2eaa41ba2c4af3
Rodrigo, Olivia. “1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back” Spotify. open.spotify.com/track/5wANPM4fQCJwkGd4rN57mH?si=9d2eaa41ba2c4af3
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Emerson – Essays – The Poet, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/poet.html.
Orr, David. “Points of Entry.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/books/review/points-of-entry.html.