Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, 17th Century Scholar and Feminist Poet

Attribution: José Luis Filpo Cabana, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I first read about Juana Ines de la Cruz and her 17th century feminist poetry in Isabel Allende’s memoir, “The Soul of a Woman.” I immediately knew I needed to learn more, and the universe provided. The next day, her name came up in a textbook I was reading for an online class — just a brief mention of the fact that she amassed one of the largest personal libraries in North America while living in a convent as a nun. Obviously, I had to find out all I could.

Who was this feminist poet librarian nun? Only one of the most brilliant, accomplished women I never learned about in school. In a time when universities and learning were for solely for men, she managed to outshine many renowned scholars through a lifetime of self-directed education.

Juana Ramirez de Asbaje (her birth name) was born in 1648 in the Vice Royalty of New Spain, now known as Mexico. Her mother and father were not married, and Juana was raised in the homes of her mother’s relatives. From an early age, she displayed an almost unquenchable thirst for learning and knowledge, spending hours reading the books in her grandfather’s personal library. 

She began writing poetry at age eight, and had an in-depth knowledge of Greek logic and of the Latin language by her teen years, even teaching Latin to younger children. She asked her family to allow her to disguise herself as a male so she could attend university classes, but they refused. She was forced to continue as the creator of her own education.

Later, she became a lady in waiting to the wife of the Viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, marquis de Mancera. Juana’s keen mind and accomplishments were apparent to everyone, and the viceroy invited a group of noted scholars to test her knowledge. They were so impressed they granted her the equivalent of a university degree, with no need to disguise herself.

A couple of years later, she chose the one path open to her as a woman that would allow her to continue pursuing her studies. She became a nun at the Convent of St. Paula, where she also taught girls in the subjects of drama and music. There she also wrote plays and poetry, amassed her personal library, and collected musical and scientific instruments.

Many of her writings tackled the sexist double standards of society, most notably “Foolish Men,” which criticizes men for displaying the very same illogical behavior they ascribe to women. Here’s one stanza:

“Whether you’re favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you’re turned away,
you sneer if you’ve been gratified.”

Her poem “First Dream” delves into what it means to have a life-long passion for learning and knowledge. Well, it’s a pretty long poem and that’s a simplistic summary of it. But here’s one fragment:

“In Homer’s opinion, then,
the pyramids were mere material versions,
outward manifestations only
of inner dimensions instancing
the human spirit’s attitude:
for just as the ambitious fiery flame
assumes pyramidal shape when mounting
heavenward, so the human mind
assumes this very shape
in ever aspiring to the one First Cause,
the center toward which the straight line tends,
if not indeed the circumference
containing every essence ad infinitum.”

Not everyone approved of Sor Juana’s achievements. In 1690, the bishop of Pueblo published a critique she had made of a priest’s sermon. The bishop used a false name, Sister Philothea, pretending to be a nun, and accompanied the piece with criticisms of Sor Juana, saying she should stop writing anything secular and instead concentrate on her religious studies.

In response, Sor Juana wrote and published a defense of the right of women to attain knowledge, “Reply to Sister Philothea of the Cross.” In it, she recounted the obstacles she had faced. “I went on with the studious pursuit (in which I found relaxation during all the free time remaining from my obligations) of reading and more reading, study and more study, with no other teacher than books themselves.” Later in the missive, she speaks of a period of time during which she had been forbidden to read. She said that she used that time to study the natural world instead. And this is where I find her truly inspiring. When someone put up a roadblock, she said, in effect, “Okay, I’ll make my own road.”

In 1694, her detractors within the church finally either persuaded or forced her to sell her library for alms and to give up writing. She died April 17, 1695 when a plague swept through her convent. But her influence continues to resonate generations later. I’m glad I found her.

~~

Sources:

Merrim, Stephanie. “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz

https://poets.org/poet/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz

That Lull Before the Renaissance

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

My friend Liza posted on her Patreon page* about what Germans call “between the years,” that weird spell of time after Christmas but before the new year. Go read it. It’s entertaining and she dug up some interesting cultural information. Also, it reminded me that I wrote a poem on the very topic a couple of years back, not knowing there were entire national traditions surrounding this annual week of being at loose ends.


That Lull Before the Renaissance

That lull between Christmas and New Years Day
Is when pajamas serve as uniform
The chocolates are polished off
The one jigsaw puzzle of the year is assembled
Noble intentions gestate

We sleep in mornings 
Before the date arrives after which 
Every day
We’ll stir ourselves early 
To accomplish worthy deeds

We watch a few movies 
Before the date arrives after which
Every day
We’ll spend free time 
Working out and reading classics

We make grocery lists 
Full of carrots and broccoli
While crunching chips

We indulge and relax while we can
Before next week
When the work of the Renaissance begins


*Her Patreon also includes content behind a paywall that is well worth the low subscription price of pay what you can, if you’re looking for an independent author to support.

Poetry Reading, Me in Action

I did a thing, as part of the River Front Reading Series in Kansas City. Sorry about the glare on my glasses and the fact that I kept moving my head around trying to minimize it. But if you can overlook that and want to hear me read some poems, here’s a link to the video. I’m the first reader. I recommend sticking around for the second readers as well. I enjoyed her work a lot. Also, check out other River Front videos on YouTube.

A Poem and Yesterday’s Walk

The trees I saw on yesterday’s walk inspire me to share a poem I wrote.


Tree Envy

Instead of dreary gray strands threading subtly widening paths
about my head,
I desire blazing red 
for my autumn color
interspersed with patches of can’t-peel-your-eyes away yellow
and clusters
of an orange so perfectly sun-toasted
it holds its own as an independent hue
not remotely a blend of the other two.
I wish for the colors to burst
out all at once
so that people I meet
will feel their breath catch
at the splendor,
the glorious culmination of my maturity.



~~~

Poem: Within Fire

I read a poetry prompt somewhere that suggested looking at a poem you like by someone else and using the first word from each line as the last word in a poem of your own on a different topic.

I chose “My Mama Moved Among the Days” by Lucille Clifton.

Here’s my poem:

Within Fire

Within fire I discovered my
own ash. My fear reduced me to
a sapless stump that seemed

resigned to its destruction, seemed
sprouted with the knowledge of the pain it
was destined for. Until a burn. Then
I healed right
up. Scarred but upright.

On Today’s Walk: Surprise Lilies Edition

It’s that time of year. Surprise lilies have sprung from the ground all over the neighborhood. I’m half convinced they’re conjured by magic, two-foot tall stems with blooming flowers appearing one day where there was nothing yesterday. Some people call them naked ladies because the stems are bare of leaves when they bloom.

Surprise lilies

Surprise lilies

I found some that had a modesty cover. But I could see their heads peeking out over the top.

Surprise lilies peeking out.

Peek-a-boo!

 

Bonus for today’s post. Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago.

Naked Ladies (aka Surprise Lilies)

Tall, slender, topped in pink,
through the fence, naked ladies peek,
from my back yard corner.
My daughter delights in their color
and in their name,
points out more of them about the neighborhood.
She is six.
Her friends are sent
into spasms of giggles
when they are given
naked ladies to hold
on the walk home.
When I was six, I remember
my street was repaved.
I spent the summer asking
my brother, Did you burn your feet on the ass…phalt?

 

 

Thoughts on Mary Oliver

Now seems like a good time to repost this. RIP Mary Oliver.

Nomadic Noesis

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream

upstream

I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work…

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The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.