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By the Letters
Thanks to everyone for their comments in response to my post about sexism in the avant-garde (all very much appreciated). Ange Mlinko has gone on to suggest that the avant-garde may be more sexist than mainstream literature because the avant-garde has often renounced the lyric—a genre that she admits to “essentializing” as innately feminine. She wonders why the lyric “gets such a beating” from experimenters—and I might first respond by observing that she can only argue that the lyric is innately feminine if she deigns to forget that nearly all of its modern, formal characteristics originate in poems written by men of the Romantic era….
I might suggest that, if the avant-garde has repudiated the lyric genre, such poets have usually done so in order to resist reiterating this dominant, romantic identity of self-expression—the coherent, rational ego, recounting anecdotes out loud to itself in the “quietude” of elegiac emotion (a subjectivity that the avant-garde has historically equated with the kind of selfhood produced by bourgeois capitalism, if not by modernist patriarchy—both of which demand that everyone “confess” openly to their innermost attitudes so that social forces of conformity might act upon such experiences). I often joke with my students that I am never going to tell them “to find their own voice” because, despite the fact that most teachers of lyricism in other creative-writing classes may pay lip service to the idiosyncrasies of such expressive uniqueness, these teachers, nevertheless, end up producing a spate of poets who often write like everyone else and sound like everyone else (each poet, for example, using line-breaks to chop up heartfelt anecdotes into free verse that differs from prose, only because it is no longer right-justified…).
When remarking in my post that the statistical scholarship of Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young may appear flawed to me, I am not discounting the accuracy of their numbers; instead, I am merely signalling that I agree with statements made by A. E. Stalling, who suggests that we might need more context for these numbers in order to attribute sexism to any specific magazine. What percentage of avant-garde poets are women? What percentage of submissions to magazines are by such women? What are the genders of the editors? How are these groups of statistics correlated with each other? Is the sample of magazines truly large enough to reveal trends over time? If women make up 45% of the community, but constitute only 30% of all submissions, and yet, despite the gender of the editor, such women nevertheless appear 35% of the time over the course of five years, then the act of parsing these statistical disparities in the representation of gender become far more subtle than might be at first suggested by the raw set of data so far provided by Spahr and Young. I think that they have begun a really worthy survey, but more rigorous analysis of the statistics needs to be done before we can start wagging fingers at the poetic policy of any one magazine. I might, however, take heart from the fact that, at the very least, the percentage of women appearing in print seems to be trending upward in a direction towards parity (albeit not fast enough for most of us…).
Mlinko has gone on to use this occasion in order to propose a very interesting, albeit very speculative, hypothesis, arguing that men who write poetry seem to congregate at the extremes of “a poetic bell curve”: one end reserved for a hyperbolic, but conservative, formalism; the other end reserved for a hyperbolic, but progressive, formalism—(with the bulk of more “balanced” lyricism presumably falling somewhere in between these two poles…). I am perhaps a bit surprised to see that, despite our ongoing remarks, in which she has offered some very justified complaint about the banishment of women to the edges of poetry, men now find themselves consigned to the “margins” of such a literary spectrum—and I might suggest, therefore, that, if I am to be consigned with my coterie to the most progressive, formalistic point on such a curve, then women really do need to join us at this extreme, where their contributions are in fact truly needed and in fact truly useful….