The Kings are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women's Poetry
I'm a little ashamed to confess that I feel ambivalence, not pride, when singled out as a Woman Poet. Call me an ingrate. Certainly I've reaped the fruits of feminism -- more places to publish, more readers, more teaching opportunities than my female forebearers. More respect, as Ali G would say. Feminist theoretical models of readings have expanded the canon to include previously lost writers and neglected books, which have, in turn, enriched my education.
But still -- at a recent dinner I was seated next to the editor of a hip journal, who is married to a well-known youngish woman poet. "What are you reading?" I asked, my stock conversation starter with literate strangers, and he rattled off a list of writers I'd never heard of, roughly half of them women. "I'm reading Rilke," I said, "and Zbigniew Herbert." I'm used to feeling uncool -- my social life largely consists of scribbling poems and meowing back at my cat -- but more importantly, like a traitor to my sex, reading dead poets instead of my contemporaries, and men when I am a young female writer. My grad school mentor was a woman; five of six poets in my workshop were women; I lurk on a women's poetry list serv. But when running out the door I grab John Berryman, not Jorie Graham. It's an odd position to be in.
But the truth is sometimes I'm annoyed to be a Young Woman Writer. Maybe it's the occasional spats on the women's poetry list serv I belong to where someone is accused of being rude or out of line when their comments seem, to me, merely critical -- of specific works, not of the humans producing them -- as if women must like the same things or risk being disowned as disloyal to our sisters. A March 2008 thread focused on a column in the Guardian by British poet Frances Leviston, written in reaction to the paper's list of Great Poets of the 20th Century, of which only one, Sylvia Plath, was a woman. The Great Poets series as a yardstick of excellence is suspect to begin with; the list was culled from the Faber and Faber catalogue, and never claimed to collect the Greatest Poets, just some Great ones.
Leviston's reaction was not the expected call for numbers parity, but the more unusual admission that she didn't mind the list's gender imbalance. Sure, in her own list of 20th Century Greats she'd axe Siegfried Sassoon to make room for Elizabeth Bishop, and she prefers Yeats to Larkin, but that's it -- no call for a placarded rally or sacrifice of frilly underthings to flames. To support her revised shortlist, Leviston cited both Plath's freedom "to write head-on against the injustice she perceived in her own life and the lives of others," as well as the "parallel importance" of Bishop's "not enslaving your poetry to a feminist agenda, however urgent that agenda might be in the daily world."
Right on! I thought. I was wrong.
A fairly lazy internet search yielded criticism of Leviston's reaction that ranged from the dismissive (she's "young" -- born in 1982) to the political (she's "conservative") to the martyred and pious (she hasn't struggled enough (as, presumably, that commenter had) to the jealous ("she's a published poet herself") to the damning (she's a woman-abandoner). One person even quoted "Miss Austen's plea to fellow novelists in Northanger Abbey: 'Let us not desert one another. We are an injured body…&c&c.'" I read this last bit aloud to my 18 year-old sister, who promptly sassed back, "That's breaking my balls, man" (an admittedly interesting choice of appropriated body parts).
The introduction to Plath's Great Poets pamphlet, penned by Margaret Drabble, inspired further ire for reducing Plath to a tragic victim and emphasizing the theme of motherhood in her poetry. Drabble's introduction does allude to both the head in the oven and lactation, but also characterizes Plath's poetry as "appalling… also exhilarating" and avers, "She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness." In case you didn't get it the first time: "She changed our world." I don't know about the women responding to the Guardian piece, but I certainly aspire to change the world; it seems an appropriately high bar for writers of whatever gender.
Most worrisome in the Guardian exchange was the widespread -- though by no means complete -- characterization of any woman who criticizes another woman's writing as a traitor. And it's a seductive deterrent; when I leaf through journals at the bookstore, I'm struck by how few reviews are penned by women. Heidi Julavits (novelist and editor of the uber-fashionable The Believer, to which I subscribe) while accurately identifying a disturbing trend of snarkiness in book reviews, also seems uncomfortable with reviews that criticize the works they consider. I agree with Julavits when she writes, "Here's the scary truth: individual books don't get reviewed -- careers do. People do." (The recent row over the Oxford Poetry Professorship serves as a handy example. Is Derek Walcott known for skeezing on young women? I don't know the man, but this seems generally uncontested. Did Ruth Padel send a couple of shady e-mails to journalists about the aforementioned skeezing? By her own admission. I'm not at a cocktail party; I just want someone to give three interesting lectures on poetry that I can eventually download to my iPod, and listen to while trying to ignore the drudgery of my day job.)
A 2004 Believer article by Stephen Burt attempted to sketch the essence of a group of related-ish writers he dubs the Elliptical Poets, whose work shares "a surface difficulty"; "they tease or demand or frustrate; they're hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories." I admire the work of many of the poets Burt cites, but then I come across his assessment of "Aqua Neon" by Ange Mlinko. According to Burt, this poem is worthy of praise because "Mlinko offers both a likable persona and a sense of place." Are we now evaluating poems based on the speaker's likability? It seems a poor consolation prize, poetry's version of winning Miss Congeniality. I was the Prom Queen; it was boring.
In contrast to the warmer, fuzzier criticism espoused by Julavits and Burt, William Logan opined in the February 2006 Poetry that "If we open the book reviews of the past, out of antiquarian curiosity, two things may surprise us: that often the harshest criticism was not nearly harsh enough, and that mediocrities were praised to the skies."
This trend toward what I'd call self-imposed shrinkage crops up in poetic style as well. In her 2003 essay "On the Gurlesque" Arielle Greenberg identifies poets who "revel in cuteness, and use it to subversive ends, complicating the relationship between feminism and femininity." The danger in employing cuteness as a tactic of guerilla warfare comes, of course, when it fails to be subversive; inserting cupcakes or barrettes into a poem isn't automatically walking the revolutionary road. And while I don't oppose the inclusion of "the serious... and the frilly" such additions do not guarantee a compelling work of art. Discussing a stanza from Brenda Shaughnessy's "One Good Dress":
There is an argument for the dull-chic,
the dirty olive and the Cinderelly. But those
who exhort it are only part of the conspiracy:
"Shimmer, shmimmer," they'll say, "Lush, shmush."
Greenberg claims that the inclusion of the word "conspiracy" brings "the serious" into the poem, but can one word suffice to bring seriousness into a work? The frilly is certainly present, not only in "Shimmer," as Greenberg notes, but "Cinderelly," which is what the animated mice call Cinderella in the Disney cartoon of the same name while they're dancing and singing with buttons and thread. (A cartoon where the virtuous maiden's destiny is fulfilled, of course, when she lands the guy with the great jaw.) Would writing about my sorority's secret handshake be treading new ground for our generation? I doubt it, at least not if it were spawned by my specific sensibility. (Sorry, Kappa Alpha Theta sisters of the world.) What irks me most is the way Greenberg discusses the women themselves, at one point comparing Gurlesque poets to "glittery snowflakes," at another calling them the "charm bracelet" acting to bring different styles together. Cheap baubles tend to get tossed in the trash.
The poets cited by Burt and Greenberg are, on average, younger and more experimental than the women who drew me to poetry in the first place, though many of their books rest on my shelves now. I was all geared up to be a fiction writer as an undergrad until Lucille Clifton brought Sharon Olds's "I Go Back to May 1937" into my first poetry workshop. In the poem, the speaker imagines her young parents meeting before their marriage. The last line, "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it," grabbed me by the throat, granting permission to engage in the fairly radioactive subject matter of my family in decidedly unfeminine -- ie, critical -- ways. Aligned with the Confessional tradition of Lowell and Plath, Olds's more recent poems show a refreshing and brutal self-reflexivity as the speaker examines her own prejudices, as in "The Window" where a daughter calls her mother and says "You said in a poem that you're a survivor,/that's O.K., but you said that you are/ a Jew, when you're not, that's so cheap." And the speaker responds, "You're right." But many women writing in this vein of personal, narrative poetry offer up only tepid, anecdotal poems about their own lives -- more like dull butter knives than Kafka's axe to the frozen sea inside. In her acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2006 National Book Awards, Adrienne Rich cautioned, "Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy." But many of the poems published in, say, The New Yorker feel just like the linguistic equivalent of a vanilla-scented candle.
I started mulling over the idea of niceness in women's poetry after three different men -- from different generations, who knew me in different capacities -- read the manuscript of my first book and each responded with some variation of, I really like your poems, but they're not very nice. I can't imagine Eliot's editor telling him that The Waste Land was great, but it wasn't very nice -- niceness is, predominantly, a cultural expectation of women. Case in point: recently, at my day job, a young man who spends week every day meticulously cataloguing his ennui via Facebook status updates told me I "should be friendlier." I don't work for an escort service; it's not my job to be his friend. Evidently, it's his job to ponder pictures of his dog on the Internet, which occasionally makes my job more burdensome. I am, therefore, unfriendly on occasion -- because as Tina Fey so eloquently put it, Bitches get stuff done.
Despite my shameless love of all things Tina Fey, and my drive to get a great many things done in my lifetime, I'm not advocating an aesthetic -- poetic or critical -- of unkindness. And why care so much about the gender of the poets I'm reading in this day and age of relative equality, or how they handle gender within their work? As Louise Glück writes in "Education of the Poet,"
I'm puzzled, not emotionally but logically, by the contemporary determination of women to write as women. Puzzled because this seems an ambition limited by the existing conception of what, exactly, differentiates the sexes. If there are such differences, it seems to me reasonable to suppose that literature reveals them, and that it will do so more interestingly, more subtly, in the absence of intention.
If Glück is right, then to write as a woman is to exile oneself to poetry purgatory. More importantly, according to Glück -- whose work I could easily identify as being written by a woman -- this approach to the work limits it. Certainly, I don't want to be a poet only women read, and I don't want to read poetry only about the experience of "being a woman" -- whatever that means beyond a bunch of clichés about the Madonna/whore dichotomy, the male gaze, or childbirth. But, naggingly, I circle around the idea of what being a Woman Writer means.
A few years ago, I graduated from an MFA program and moved to New York City to Become a Writer, which meant I landed a job in publishing, amassed an impressive amount of rejection slips, and shared a one-bathroom apartment with six girls and two cats. A generous (male) editor of an esteemed literary journal known for the excellence of its criticism agreed to let me aim my untrained hand at a group review of women writers, and sent me off toting a bag brimming with free books. I'd asked for the assignment -- Women Poets -- because although I'd sold my first book of poems, thereby magically transforming into a Woman Poet myself, I became completely incoherent when trying to articulate what exactly (or why) this meant to me.
The books to review were all written by female poets between forty and sixty, with reputations and substantial bodies of work and lots of shiny prizes between them. I sat down, in student mode, and read and reread and sifted until, well, I failed. Failed utterly, because despite my copious notes and the hours I spent staring at pages, I was fundamentally uninspired by most of what I'd been given. Reading one poet's early work, much of which circles around a relationship between two women, I got bored and dug up Adrienne Rich's "Two handsome women" from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. Those women, "proud, acute, subtle," are "gripped in argument" which Rich summarizes thus: "The argument ad feminam, all the old knives/that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours,/ ma semblable, ma soeur!" In Rich's lines, the emotional stakes are defined, not danced around. The poem acknowledges the historical matrix into which the women were born and within which they must struggle -- most unexpectedly, against one another. As they "scream/ across cut glass and majolica" Rich compares them to "Furies cornered from their prey." Moreover, the women are implicated in their own stalemate; locked in battle with one another, they miss out on the larger war. Rich's poem presents a situation rife with anger, a not traditionally "female" emotion, and is, to me, a powerful and moving poem.
The work of another one of the poets I was hitting my head against epitomizes the poetry of quiet, easy epiphany, which I'd sum up thus: the speaker is adult, the setting bucolic, the pretext a noticing, the tone reserved; the language is "transparent," as is the handling of line and rhyme. The poems are inhabited by fruit, foxes, moonlight, wind, autumn, waves, birds, gardens, etc. Often cautious, afraid of offending, these poems wind up saying nothing. I wanted -- unfairly, as they weren't my poems -- to imbue the work with even a modicum of curiosity or hunger. I wanted to hook them up to an IV.
In her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Wislawa Szymborska said, "Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating 'I don't know.' Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying." I did keep trying, and while I never ended up writing a successful essay about those particular Women Poets, my notes of frustration on that grew into this -- whose working title was "The Scourge of Women's Poetry" because over the last few years this essay has felt like a lash coming down on my back again and again. Partially, I felt like I had no right to say these things, a crippling refrain of How dare I? running through my head each time I sat down at the keyboard. Partially, I knew I would be disparaging some aspects of poetry that other people revere. But if I didn't say them, I couldn't continue to have an intellectual conversation with women -- a conversation which has been necessary throughout my (heretofore short) career.
There exists a great politesse around women's poetry; and to write critically is, in some ways, to betray one's feminine self (the part that's supposed to blink a lot and sigh into the shadows when the menfolk start talking politics at the dinner table). Two of the contemporary poets I most admire, Louise Glück and Heather McHugh, are known for this kind of treachery -- the kind of treachery I hoped (and feared) these musings would bring me to. I felt like I'd stuck my finger in an electrical outlet the first time I read Glück's "Mock Orange," with its drastic revision of erotic love's tired tropes:
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I was hypnotized by the unabashed authority of the direct address. Unlike the archetypically female, reflective moon, these flowers radiate their own light. And nothing in my suburban girlhood (that I was privy to) could have quite prepared me for the next stanza:
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man's mouth
sealing my mouth, the man's
It's rare to hear a hatred of sex stated so baldly, whatever a poll of people's insides would show -- magazines like Cosmo feed (successfully) off of women's panic over not being sexy via shame sessions thinly disguised as self-improvement, and young women turn out in droves to proudly enact their right to fornicate in blurry hot tub scenes for MTV's The Real World (seriously -- this show is still on).
The man first appears, Cheshire Cat-like, as a mouth which smothers the speaker's, silencing the kind of declaration that Glück's poems thrive on. The poem continues:
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union--
It's because she wants sex that Glück's speaker hates it, as the cost of this consummation if a loss of authority, a devolving into the dumb meat of an animal. Sex is cast as "the question and pursuing answer/fused in one sound," articulate human speech slipping away. This sound "mounts and mounts and then" -- what will happen? (If you've been prepped by a lifetime of Danielle Steele books, you're probably expecting some sort of vague, gushy warmth and then tender, post-coital cuddling during which both heterosexual adults express their immense gratitude for aforementioned encounter.) Nothing: it "is split into the old selves,/ the tired antagonism." She asks more plainly further on, "Do you see?/ We were made fools of."
"How can I rest?" Glück's speaker asks in the final stanza. "How can I be content/ when there is still/ that odor in the world?" Significantly, it's the mock orange -- nature's version of a barren, painted woman -- that plagues. Glück ends the poem with a question,"How can I be content?" but there is no answer.
Another one of my touchstone poems is Heather McHugh's "I Knew I'd Sing," about saying that most forbidden word -- cunt -- and the danger and terror tied up in such an utterance. McHugh opens the poem with a mini-survey of contemporary poets:
A few sashay, a few finagle.
Some make whoopee, some
make good. But most make
It's the hard lesson every writer knows (minus fleeting moments of self-delusion); even if a poem enjoys a brief half-life as the featured poem on a website or wins a thousand dollar prize, odds are it'll be forgotten in a year, never mind ten. For McHugh, the tenuous nature of utterances makes it that much more important to say an actual thing. (As Alice Fulton writes in "Failure," "The Kings are boring, forever/ legislating where the sparkles/ in their crowns will be. Regal is easy.") Her mouth washed out with soap for saying the word "cunt" she says "vagina for a day or two, but knew/from that day forth which word/struck home like sex itself." She wants no tepid synonym, and this early censorship-at her mother's hand-inspires an appetite for the right word: "I knew/when I was big I'd sing//a song in praise of cunt," that word "with teeth in it."
The poem's conclusion, "Forevermore (and even after I was raised) I swore // nothing-but nothing-would be beneath me" multi-tasks in meaning. After she is raised out of the gutter, after she has been reared from childhood, she swears (oaths, curse words -- are they that different?) that nothing will be beneath her, nothing will be too lowly: she'll revel in words (and worlds) both coarse and fine. But an alternate reading of the line is "[only] nothing would be beneath me" -- and I imagine an actual nothing, a void, yawning beneath the speaker, I picture a woman balanced on a tightrope strung across a gaping abyss. Somehow she slides one foot forward, inching her way into the darkness, arms outstretched as the rope quivers beneath her. Hoping someone is behind her, bringing up the rear.