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By Christian Bök

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….

Comments (11)

  • On November 9, 2007 at 10:01 pm Steve wrote:

    About that bell curve… some of us have noticed (it’s in a couple of comments streams around here, too) that even though a majority of literary scholars below a certain age (something like 55 now, I think) are women, and even though it’s extremely unlikely that there would now be many more American male poets than American female poets publishing books of any sort (though I haven’t counted), the majority of practicing poetry critics, people whose reviews of new books one sees regularly either in “mainstream” places or in “a-g” places, are still male.
    Why don’t more women– why don’t more women poets– write reviews? (You may remember Averill Curdy’s arguments, and the responses to them, in Poetry, the print mag, a few years ago.)
    If men are encouraged, and women are not encouraged, to enunciate the bases for their judgments, to argue explicitly and defend those judgments, might that explain
    (a) why the M:F ratio looks so different for reviewing than for poems
    and
    (b) why “extremes,” which is to say poetry that hews to explicitly enunciated programs, seem more male, or more masculine, or more male-dominated (these are three different things, by the way), than the putative lyric “mainstream”?
    Charles Bernstein, and Louis Zukofsky, write book length works and manifestos; Rae Armantrout and Lorine Niedecker write, you know, little untheorized expressive things. Poems. Lyric poems, sometimes (but not always).
    Finally: if you are going to repudiate lyric in the name of an avant-garde because you don’t like self-expression as an ideal, or because you object to lyric on more or less Foucauldian grounds (as a disguised way to produce bourgeois identities through a kind of confession coerced by soft power), you are at least being consistent and provocative, and at most you might write something memorable in the antihumanist tradition of the nouveau roman (though the subtlest writers who make such complaints often come around to new modes of paradox-laden lyricism at some point in their careers).
    But if you are going to complain that teachers who promulgate lyric ideals cause their students to sound alike, and if you are going to blame that effect on lyric as a mode, you have the burden of showing that avant-garde or antilyrical teachers, in general, are more likely than other teachers, in general, to enable their students to sound– how? to sound interesting, or to sound like something new.

  • On November 10, 2007 at 12:00 am yesandno wrote:

    Dear Christian,
    Thanks you for your gracious responses. I’m annoyed with—and confused by—Ange Mlinko’s bizarre assertion that the lyric is essentially feminine, and that the avant garde’s rejection of the lyric represents rife sexism within avant garde poetics and ita practicioners. (Though “rejection” is not the right word– the lyric mode is very often subverted, reformulated, even unapologetically inhabited, by “experimental” poets, and to interesting effect.) I’m irritated—as usual—with Mlinko’s smug, ill-formed pronouncements, and I’m irritated that her own defensiveness and short-sighted implicating puts you in a position to have to defend yourself by reeling off a list of names of all the female poets and poetics you embrace.
    I have always understood the lyric mode as a masculine tradition—a mode created and popularized by men, and which continues to be the preferred mode of our most widely/nationally celebrated poets—our laureates and major award winning poets–dead and living—most of them men.
    And I have understood the avant garde’s suspicion of that mode as symptomatic of a larger mistrust of patriarchal systems whose consequence, if not outright goal, is the exploitation and simultaneous silencing of minority groups—women being one. I’ve thought the avant-garde’s rejection of the lyric has more to do with a kind of killing off of the father, on the one hand—in this case those lyric forefathers whose poetry and aesthetic have come to represent a kind of establishmentarian endorsement; and a fundamental mistrust of the lyric’s association with anecdotal narrative, on the other—
    a sort of bullying emotional and stylistic tidiness whose predictability short-changed the creative and psychic complexity many poets were and are interested in trying to represent.
    I fail to understand either of Ange’s arguments: that the lyric is essentially feminine, and that the avant garde is even more sexist than mainstream poetics. Her complaint seems just one more way to milk an already tedious conversation whose number-counting and emphatic he-she binarizing are not only counter-productive but embarrassing; at least, they are embarrassing to me as a female poet thoroughly invested in being taken seriously. But the feminine lyric claim seems particularly far-fetched. As you noted, “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.”
    Lastly, with regards to the whole Spahr-Young “Numbers” issue: to be honest, an article whose collaborators two years ago delivered a similarly feminist-themed presentation on experimental writing and the body by taking off their clothes in front of their audience, already has me rolling my eyes from the get go, and that’s a big part of the problem. Sure the publishing world’s still a bit of a sausage factory, and surely we need conversations and actions that address that. But give me a frigging break. Such hackneyed tactics do substantial violence to female poets whose goal is real parity, and not a cultish popularity/poetics of the overly-gendered, reactionary variety. (I was surprised that the Spahr -Young article wasn’t included in a slender scroll format that I could read while slowly unrolling it from my vagina.)

  • On November 10, 2007 at 8:01 am shanna wrote:

    maybe young & spahr’s method appears flawed because you keep insisting they looked at magazine numbers? they didn’t. they looked at anthologies, single-author books from small presses, etc. (the CR editors looked briefly at a few magazines, but that’s a separate piece!)

  • On November 10, 2007 at 8:10 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    A lot to digest here, and to respond to! (I appreciate that someone thinks my statistical response was nuanced instead of just sexist…)
    On a side point–I understand the rationale behind labelling writing in received form “conservative” formalism–but it might be progressive in other ways, such as use of diction, subject matter, pushing the expectations of the form itself. Are Karen Volkman’s sonnets (which hew to the ip and rhyme expectations of the form pretty faithfully), for instance, “conservative” or “progressive”? Surely the lyrical Anne Carson is experimental–but is she a-g?
    Second, this gives me pause:
    She [Ange] 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 don’t think we should confuse “feminine” and “masculine” with “written by men” and “written by women”. That a programmatic didactic epic seems more “masculine” and tender lyrics about private feeling seem more “feminine” does not strike me as either a radical or sexist thing to say (women can certainly write epics—I’m as ready to believe, with Samuel Butler, the Odyssey is the work of a woman as a man–and men can, and do, write lyrics), though perhaps it says a lot about what our cultural assumptions of “masculine” and “feminine” are. Surely on a feminine-masculine spectrum, a Keatsian “negative capability” is more feminine than masculine, despite being originated by a man. A woman can be described as masculine and a man as feminine—that is, they have qualities that tend to be associated with but are not the exclusive domain of the other sex. Why “masculine” tends to be a term of praise and “feminine” (or worse, effeminate) pejorative is another matter.
    But as to the suggestion of the lyric that “nearly all of its modern, formal characteristics originate in poems written by men of the Romantic era”, I’m not sure where to begin. I may have to do a separate post to address it…

  • On November 10, 2007 at 8:34 am Steve wrote:

    Dear Yesandino: I don’t think anyone around here thinks lyric as a mode is “essentially feminine,” whatever that might mean. What Ange has been reminding us (and she’s right) is that there is a historical association between lyric and femininity or female qualities, as between some other poetic kinds (notably epic) and masculinity, an association that goes back in some respects to Sappho and to Sappho’s receptions, and which– as many, many critics have shown (see Jim Longenbach’s book about Stevens, for example, or for a much less pleasant reading experience Frank Lentricchia’s)– becomes in the early twentieth century almost unavoidable, so that ambitious straight male modernist poets (like Stevens) often want to distinguish their practice from the feminizing (emasculating) formal aspects they associate with lyric in any nineteenth century mode.

  • On November 10, 2007 at 10:15 am A. Dolitzky wrote:

    Christian, have you even read the essays in CR? Shanna is right: Spahr and Young don’t count magazines. That, and CR’s editors, in their note, ask many of the questions you raise. . .

  • On November 10, 2007 at 7:26 pm Shail D. Patel wrote:

    We diminish the Romantics, consistently, to lyricists, simply because that was what they were best at. But the Romantics themselves, unlike most of our contemporary poets (wherever they fall on whatever arbitrary “spectrum” or “bell curve”), had a much more holistic sense of the Poet; they were never content being short-lyric writers. Consider: Wordsworth: The Borderers, the late political sonnets. Coleridge: Remorse. John Keats: Otho the Great, the unfinished Hyperion. Percy Bysshe Shelley: actually the majority of what he wrote is politically charged and epic or dramatic, The Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, you name it. Robert Southey: Thalaba the Destroyer among countless other now-unread epics. Lord Byron: the satirical epic Don Juan, obviously, but also the volumes of dramas, Marino Faliero, Cain, The Deformed Transformed, Manfred, etc. And that’s just the English Romantics; the supreme German Romantic, Friedrich Schiller, spent most of his poetry-writing time writing verse drama, just like Alfieri in Italy. American free-verse anecdotage has very little in common with the Romantic poets themselves; rather it distorts and magnifies one feature of that era, to the point of unfortunate caricature.

  • On November 10, 2007 at 8:28 pm King wrote:

    Mlinko didn’t make Bok post that. He did it on his own. And there isn’t anything wrong with an expanded list of influences.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 1:12 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    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…).
    Christian has managed to pack an extraordinary number of idiocies into this paragraph, but it may be worth trying to “out” them if only because this excerpt is so characteristic of his posts.
    First, the lyric “self” in the Romantic tradition is anything but coherent and rational; it is, in fact, typically fragmented and irrational. A swift tour through Blake, Coleridge, Keats, the early Wordsworth, and our own Poe can provide plenty of evidence for this.
    Secondly, he attacks “subjectivity” as if the avant-garde offers an alternative. No writer of any stripe simply starts up a machine that generates random words; that is, ALL writing is subjective. Furthermore, the work of ALL writers is shaped buy the historical, socio-cultural world the writers inhabit. The “avant-garde” — a scarcely century-old self-description that could never have come into being without bourgeois capitalism — is certainly as conformist as any other style of writing. Like most poetry of all kinds arising out of our cultural and historical moment, avant-garde poetry is a product of the Academy, is read by almost no one but once and future members of the Academy, and is generally “quietistic” in the extreme. If there is an avant-garde poet whose work can stand comparison with the work of Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Nazim Hikmet, Taslima Nasrin, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Andrea Zanzotto or Ko Un, I would dearly love to know about it.
    Third, Christian tells is students (poor creatures) that they need not bother trying to find their own voices because so many creative writing teachers have failed to produce poets with distinctive voices. Does he really believe that writing programs “produce” writers? Is he really so tone-deaf that he can hear no difference between Kerouac’s prose in On the Road and Williams’s verse in Spring and All? Is he so blissed-out on his mechanistic literary ideology that he can’t grasp the absolute importance of “voice” (which I take to mean individual, distinctive style) to the ultimate survival of any piece of writing?
    Christian and his students are, of course, free to write — or assemble, or dissemble — for an imagined future audience of cyborgs, but if there is going to continue to be an audience for poetry, then poets will have to continue addressing human experience, human emotion, and human psychology. The lyric is only one form in which this can happen, but it’s a form that’s likely to outlive not only the PoBiz that has produced such safe, anemic mainstream poetry, but the self-congratulatory claptrap that characterizes the avant-garde.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 5:55 pm Christian Bök wrote:

    Hello, Joseph:
    Granted, the Romanticism has spawned lots of irrational, incoherent forms of self-expression, most of which owe a debt to Keatsian “negative capability”—and I might suggest that this trajectory of Romanticism leads to many of the more radical poetics of the avant-garde, particularly among the work of the Symbolists and the Surrealists (many of whom explore the Romantic darkness of the Imagination). When I point to the “quietude” of the lyric, however, I am referring, of course, to the Wordsworthian notion of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” free from the rhapsodic, irrational character of the “spontaneous outburst of feeling.” This kind of lyricism has come to define what Marjorie Perloff has called “official verse-culture,” and indeed this kind of “sentiment” does in fact seem to confront every “crisis of subjectivity” with a reassuring return to the normality of thoughtful meditation. The idea of “negative capability” already presumes that, by effacing the self, other kinds of “experiences” might find a way to speak through us on their own behalf. I might suggest that alternatives to the subjectivity of “self-expression” might include automatic writing, mannerist writing, and aleatoric writing, all of which suspend the action of the ego on behalf of some other process that might produce the uncanniness of an oracular surprise….
    Despite your claims to the contrary, avant-garde practice has almost never originated in the academy—and the academy has usually greeted such radicalism with much resistance. I might go on to suggest that, if poets of the avant-garde have recently begun to place themselves in such positions of scholarly authority, then their success probably testifies to an act of restitution by the academy in order to make amends for its lengthy history of prejudice. I do agree with you that the avant-garde cannot come into existence without “bourgeois capitalism”—because of course the avant-garde has defined itself as an act of opposition to such a social milieu. I might also go on to point out that your idea of “voice” is not an essential character of style, but an ideological prescriptor for the identity of the subject itself. I agree that students must strive to achieve “an individual, distinctive style,” but I might suggest that, in order to do so, they may have to get “over themselves” and learn to speak in a variety of “voices,” each one appropriate to its own mode of individual expression. I believe that such an activity in fact constitutes the very basis for “human experience,” insofar as we get to imagine what it must be like to be something else….

  • On November 13, 2007 at 8:52 am Don Share wrote:

    Interestingly, Keats also wrote:
    “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all of God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more?”
    – Letter to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, November 9th, 2007 by Christian Bök.