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Women’s Poetry?

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Women’s Poetry?

Undoubtedly gender does play an important part in the making of any art, but art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.

— Elizabeth Bishop, 8 June 1977


That quote comes to me courtesy of The Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry, which I am currently reading, thanks to the first of the two renewals I’m permitted for borrowing the book from our county’s library system. Editor Fleur Adcock quotes Bishop to open that poet’s section of the anthology, observing, “Elizabeth Bishop’s executor has requested us to record the fact that the poet objected on principle to appearing in a women’s anthology for the following reason, which she stated in a letter dated 8 June, 1977….” Oh. So over your objections, which we choose not to respect, we’ll make you appear anyway, no reason given for why we do so. (Like, if Bishop were to object strongly enough, how could copyright permission even be granted to this anthology, since Bishop is not like Frost or Yeats, not yet having crossed the line into the public domain?)

I must say, there is some extent to which I sympathize with Bishop’s reluctance to identify her poetry as “women’s poetry.” I myself smirked at this anthology’s title when I checked it out from our library: I guess I’ll not be reading “Poetry by Women” as I’d expected to, but rather “Women’s Poetry,” as if I’d picked up a copy of Cosmo from the women’s-interest section of the newsstand. She’s quite right, that whereas my B&N periodical corner has a men’s magazines separate from its women’s magazines, its poetry periodicals are in an arts & lit section that does not distinguish by sex.

And I get annoyed by “Gender Truth Squad” nit-counters who get bent out of shape if a poetry journal is so supposedly chauvinist as to publish 50.00001% of an issue’s words written by men. I’ll openly grant, clubs restricted to male membership – whether the formal clubs or those truculent social ones that build their glass ceilings – find no sympathy from me. But there’s a point where Bishop’s point ought be respected on both sides of the poem, whether written by a woman or a man; like, segregating the sexes and dropping a man’s poem from a poetry magazine because the current issue didn’t get enough submissions offered by women distorts the presence of gender in art.

Those Gender Truth Squad activists might no doubt have a real flaming witch hunt with my public traffic. My Twitter poetry reading feed, for instance. With my current Dylan Thomas reading program well underway and running through October, none of my tweets the past fortnight concern any poem written by any woman (including the pre-Thomas intro poem I tweeted, a poem written by a man who mentioned Thomas). Hmmmmmm, that must mean I don’t have balanced, gender-neutral poetry reading habits, right? Like, even if we acknowledge that a 100th birthday celebration might could pose a special occasion, where was I when Muriel Rukeyser turned 100? And even when I’m not on something like this Dylan Thomas celebration, my ratio of poems by women in my Twitter feed rarely gets north of about 45% on a rolling average basis. So the statistics don’t lie here, no?

Well, like how it seems like the people who know me least have the most fun insulting me the loudest on matters that aren’t even true, any Gender Truth Squad nit-counts against my own traffic would demonstrate as little knowledge of me as any of those other attacks. Fact is, women outnumber men among my named top 100 favorite poets, and my top dozen fave are almost exclusively women, including Bishop herself, Van Duyn, Niedecker, Brimall, Bogan, Moore, Sexton and a few others (yes, Sylvia, you’re still there too). And my Twitter feed is barely the tip of the iceberg, like how even while I’m only tweeting my Dylan Thomas centenary reading, I’ve been reading Angelou cover to cover and Stevie Smith cover to cover and working my way back through all my Van Duyn and exploring Amy Lowell and so on. If anything, given my personal preferences, I imagine that upwards of 60% or more of the poems I read during any given month have been written by women. And if any observer still cares to fabricate some insult because I don’t happen to choose a “representative sample” of those reading preferences for my Twitter traffic or any other of my public displays, well, some folk are just out to find fault, no matter what I do, and I never much cared to run my life’s choices based on their rigid judgmental demands anyway.

But back to the Bishop quote. One thing about her words that strikes me as intriguing is that although she opines that anything that is gender-distinct is “not art,” she says so in the very next breath after acknowledging that “gender does play an important part in the making of any [here, emphasis added] art….” Ummm, if you’re correct that no art at all can be created without the distinction of gender, how then does gender rise like fat to the top of the pot, to be separated out from the “art” of the soup?

I think back to when I suffered from kidney stones. I had a doctor tell me that my pain was the closest thing a man could come to experiencing what a woman goes through in childbirth, and I’ve seen knowing nods from women who have had both. Even so, just because I have experienced kidney stones does not mean that if I use the word “pain” in any rare poem I write, that I would be writing that word at all like any woman might write it, even if I were not speaking of my kidney stones and even if the woman poet had never had a child. Or how me drafting any poem that speaks of any form whatsoever about “losing” can’t even remotely capture the same gender-specific tones in a woman’s poem that echoes the loss of a miscarriage, even if unintended (think Bishop’s own extraordinary villanelle, “One Art,” which spoke of an entirely different “losing” that could be experienced by either man or woman, yet still speaks from the voice of a woman, who could understand a miscarriage in a way that no man ever can express) or remotely and even if written by a woman who had never even had sex. I could go on and on with other examples that span the entirety of poetry’s reality and dream. I agree, none of it is created without gender playing an important role. But I very strongly disagree that gender then gets dumped out with the trash, that somehow art becomes gender-neutral: gender is as much a part of the art as anything else is.

Personally, I still think that Bishop’s own wishes ought to have been respected by any gender-specific anthology. Sure, if I were unaware of Bishop’s feelings, I might have found it odd for her to be absent from an anthology of modern poetry written by woman poets. But an explanation in an intro would suffice. Meanwhile, whenever (frequently, repeatedly, even if I don’t always tweet each and every one) I’m reading through my Bishop poems, I’ll be appreciating as best as a man can appreciate the art created by one of our most gifted woman poets, art with its gender completely intact.

//] - quotated

Written by macheide

27 July 2014 at 8:32 am

Posted in quotated

Tagged with , ,


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