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second sex takes second place?

By Abigail Deutsch

Sappho

I own a pink skirt, a pink dress, a pink scarf, a pink coat, three pink sweaters, and six pink shirts. Each time I shop for clothes, my eyes wander toward another rose tee, and my fingers fondle another salmon sarong, and I ask myself, Why?

But I know why. I love pink because I am Woman.

Obviously.

The more serious implications of being Woman—and Literary Woman in particular—have lately drawn a lot of press. First, as poet Steve Fellner noted in his blog, men beat out women four to one in the prestigious, and historically male-skewed, Whiting Awards for emerging writers. Second, in a move that attracted much more attention than the Whiting wrong, Publishers Weekly compiled a boys-only top 10 books list of the year. The extended list of 100 best books featured 29 female writers.

In response, Women in Letters and Literary Arts started a list of their own. The purpose is “to note great books by women that Publishers Weekly missed in their all-male top ten ‘Best Books of 2009.’” Given that Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and other stars published books this year, the task shouldn’t be too onerous. As of today, the WILLA list features so many books that this blogger felt dizzy at the prospect of counting them.

So many books, in fact, that as I skimmed down the page, one of the central mysteries of the issue emerged—a mystery that doesn’t necessarily pertain to sexism or feminism, though it might. Why the obsession with listing and besting? Does anyone believe in those lists? Are they just conventions that help readers, writers, and publishers navigate a confusing landscape? (Even if everyone agrees they’re just convention, of course, they still matter—they still affect sales and recognition.)

I haven’t noticed anyone puzzling over that question, but Lizzie Skurnick of Politics Daily writes a cutting, entertaining meditation on the subject, and Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin offers the usual biting sound byte:

Women are making their own lists, with no men on it. That’ll teach em! But don’t we expect this now from places like Publishers Weekly? The only surprise being that. . .no one at some point said, “We should put a lady on there, or the feminists are going to make a fuss about it” (or maybe they did and the next line was, “Actually, people might read us if that’s true”).

In unrelated developments that nonetheless appear related, The Guardian has amped up its coverage of Gender across Genres. British writer Joanna Trollope chews on chick lit. Jo Shapcott, who chaired an event called “The Female Poem,” raises the question: “Do women genuinely write different poems from men and, if so, what could be said to characterise the ‘female’ poem?” No one’s sure, which seems like the right answer. In her summary of the event, Shapcott proposes advantages of being a female poet:

The panel was convinced that a poet ought to be an outsider. The edge, the discomfort makes for clearer vision. Maureen Duffy reminded us of the audacity and courage of Aphra Behn in this regard. Virginia Woolf pinpointed the feeling of an outsider beautifully in A Room of One’s Own: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

Comments (33)

  • On November 12, 2009 at 4:42 pm Daniel E. Pritchard wrote:

    you know I was just writing about this — the question of feminism — in my blog today, and I’d been having this same conversation with people about female authors.

  • On November 12, 2009 at 5:39 pm Cheri wrote:

    I have a large print of “The Poetess” (pictured at the beginning of your post here) framed and looking right back at me on my home office wall right now. :)

  • On November 12, 2009 at 11:40 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    I know a lot of women, including the CEO of SheWrites, who are angry about this. I can’t say I’m even giving that much energy to it. I think anger would signify a level of surprise or shock I just can’t say I feel. Disappointment, yes, that things are still this way, but not really anger.

    If men like the guys who run PW are ignoring the writing of so many talented women, whether by conscious bias or through some inability to receive the female perspective, that’s really their loss. I’m glad I don’t have to live with them, that’s for sure.

    • On November 13, 2009 at 11:19 am Teri G. wrote:

      Is it more or less maddening to know that it isn’t guys at PW? That a woman is the editor? And both women and men made up the list?

      • On November 13, 2009 at 1:07 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

        It’s hard to say. We could get into a discussion about how some women seem to go out of their way to fit in to male-dominated hierarchies…I’m not having them over for tea, either.

        • On November 13, 2009 at 1:12 pm Teri G. wrote:

          Good point, Wendy. I just wonder about “countering a lie with another lie” (I think that’s from a Dorothea Lasky poem? Not sure), making separate lists, etc. I wonder what Annie Finch thinks of the whole thing.

          • On November 20, 2009 at 4:56 pm Annie Finch wrote:

            Hi Teri, Do you mean what do I think of the fact that women were involved in making this list?
            Annie

            • On November 20, 2009 at 5:53 pm Teri G. wrote:

              Hi Annie,

              Thought to wonder because you’ve set up a separate internet space for women, right? And so this seems to be a separate best of list for women. I’m not sure separating is the best thing. So I wanted to know your take.

              -Teri

              • On November 21, 2009 at 2:36 am Annie Finch wrote:

                Hi Teri,

                I think I’m for it. Not in a spirit of separatism, but in a spirit of communication, raising awareness, sharing our enthusiasms for some of the women writers the larger world doesn’t “get” (yet). It seems a lot more constructive than the alternatives (complaining, protesting, bitching, trying to be more patient, trying to get them to change their minds, etc.) It’s a healthy outlet for frustration that offers the constructive side benefit of changing the literary landscape (and believe me, it will!).

                I used to be very suspicious of listing and besting, but now I think the main reason that people like them is that almost everyone is some combination of busy and lazy, and lists simply make entering new literary territory easier and more convenient for those on the “outside” of a particular tradition. And it makes sense that the people who end up making the lists would be the people who are most invested/excited/enthusiastic/knowledgeable about the literature in question.

                A list, like an anthology, can function as a doorway or invitation to explore a larger territory. If we want others (female and male) who currently ignore or fail to properly appreciate women’s literary achievements to raise their knowledge/appreciation of women’s writing, it seems like a practical strategy to meet them halfway with a list.

                Thoughts like these are discussed in an essay of mine originally written as a letter to a distressed young woman poet. It’s called “How to Create a Poetic Tradition” in THE BODY OF POETRY.

                Annie

  • On November 13, 2009 at 11:46 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    It’s an interesting thing, maybe relevant to note here, though not sure how that relevance would, or should, “mean”:

    There is a recent post at Digital Emunction blog titled “Let Us Name the Most Unjustly and Bizarrely Forgotten U.S. Poet of the 20th Century.” The post is composed of two words: Hilda Morley.

    172 comments follow, not a single one of them by a woman.

    http://www.digitalemunction.com/2009/11/03/let-us-name-the-most-unjustly-and-bizarrely-forgotten-us-poet-of-the-20th-century/

    A byproduct of this post has been a new Wiki project at the DE blog called (oddly) “The Lumpy Corral,” informally catalogued by former Chicago Review editor Bobby Baird and poet and critic (the Nation, Boston Review, Poetry, etc.) critic Jordan Davis. I am aware they would like to made the project’s “staff” more gender balanced. The project aims to gather the names (with links to work and criticism, where possible) of 20th century poets no longer living that merit serious renewed attention. In Wiki spirit, anyone can recommend and contribute. A number of women writers are now present on this list, of course.

    But here, too, to my knowledge, not a single woman has yet proffered a name.

    http://www.digitalemunction.com/the-lumpy-corral/

    What does this mean, I wonder? Are gestures of recovery that would involve neglected women poets only valid if they are exclusively carried out by women poets? Or in some way illegitimate from the start if they are first proposed by this or that male poet? I know there are other questions, but those two seem reasonable for starters. I’m sincerely curious, even as I’m aware that *as answer* there perhaps *won’t* be an answer. Is the “divide” Abigail Deutsch’s post alludes to really so deep?

    • On November 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm Jill wrote:

      There are a number of reasons why women wouldn’t want to dive into the testes-fest over there, Kent. But a big one could be that some guys only like women poets when they’re safely behind the veil of history (and death). Have you added any books to the WILLA wiki?

    • On November 14, 2009 at 4:33 pm Incognito wrote:

      Digital Munction dosen’t have a very diverse list of contributors either, Kent, since you keep linking to it here you must want people to read it. Diverse people? Recently a woman or two added? Are there other ways of making things more diverse and hospitable?

      I think that people set up conversations with those it’s easiest to talk to. They think about the books they like, books that usually make them feel good about who they are, or reflect themselves in a way they want to be reflected. This may seem overly-simplistic, and it is, I fear, but there is a bit of truth in it.

      I think we have to think, and write differently if we want to create more inclusive spaces. I think we have to be uncomfortable, endure silences, be patient as others express themselves, maybe not in the same way you do, or as quickly, or in the same prose style. Ack, why bother, I can hear the roar already, and the swell of like-minded people closing ranks, we are all being open here, talking amongst ourselves, people should join in, keep up you idiot, and so on. Or my favorite, I find your opinion condescending to women and others…

      And that is probably one reason why there are no, or few, women commenting.

      • On November 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

        Reasonable points and fair enough.

        • On November 16, 2009 at 4:46 pm Incognito wrote:

          Thanks for the response, Kent. I do think it’s about making a space where people feel comfortable to join in. Looking forward to that.

          On the other hand, my sisters, would love to hear your two cents here, or anywhere really. Need not be gender related. But rumor has it women can’t think critically hence the few invitations to the table.

          Is that so?

  • On November 13, 2009 at 12:11 pm Abigail Deutsch wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone.

    Wendy, your mention of SheWrites prompted me to visit that site’s feminist counter-list:

    http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/anything-they-can-do-we-can-do

    And I was delighted to see that Umberto Eco has clearly been reading Harriet. He shares his view on the nature of lists with Der Spiegel:

    “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. . . .There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,659577,00.html

  • On November 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Thanks for the response, Jill.

    On the “teste-fest” remark, though: Are you sure that’s really accurate, in regards to the “guys” at DE, that there is only interest in women poets who are safely “behind the veil of history”? There are any number of breathing women poets whose work I follow and admire, if I may offer the self-defense, and I think that would certainly be the case with most of the men associated with the blog (though I admit to not knowing about the site you link, I’ll check it out).

    Also, just to note that Ange Mlinko is also on the “blogger staff” at DE and posting currently, as is Anahid Nersessian, who’s got to be one of the brainiest people in the poetry blogosphere right now. I believe Jenny Boully will be joining soon, as well.

    OK, thanks for the response, though.

    • On November 16, 2009 at 4:47 pm Incognito wrote:

      Jenny Boully is awesome.

  • On November 14, 2009 at 3:08 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I Hate Female Poets

    And this is true…they irritate me.
    If only I knew why
    it probably wouldn’t trouble me so much.
    A misogynist, sexist bastard I am not…
    but these awful words they write!
    So unlike mine! So unmasculine!
    They rue. They take. They touch.

    Well, I hate the men as well…
    they generally drone on & on
    with nothing new and usually just bore me.
    But these damned women!
    They make me think,
    restore me.
    They make me cry.

    .
    Copyright 2009 – Ponds and Lawns, Gary B. Fitzgerald
    Published by Yank Your Chain Press

    • On November 15, 2009 at 2:43 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

      One must wonder why a man complimenting female poets gets such a negative response. Is it just jealous men or poor poetry readers?

  • On November 14, 2009 at 7:12 pm Terreson wrote:

    With the maybe exception of GBF ya’ll are just making a commodity of poetry; another reason why I stay away from your world.

    Terreson

    • On November 16, 2009 at 1:20 pm Matt wrote:

      y’all

      • On November 18, 2009 at 1:10 pm Matt wrote:

        y’all = you all. what’s so hard to understand about this?

        • On November 18, 2009 at 2:12 pm Joshua wrote:

          I think he was saying that with the exception of GBF, “Yahoo and Krull” are making a commodity of poetry.

  • On November 15, 2009 at 12:51 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Yes, Terreson, I too have noticed that on most ‘poetry’ blogs the subject is usually poets,

    not poetry.

  • On November 15, 2009 at 5:09 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Everything seems so wussy these days,
    almost like the women are stronger than the men…

    or has it always been this way?

  • On November 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm Jill wrote:

    It’s not even worth getting excited about, but how typical is it that this potentially interesting thread got dumped on by guys? Way to go, bros!

    • On November 16, 2009 at 1:21 pm Matt wrote:

      who dumped on it?

      • On November 16, 2009 at 6:15 pm john wrote:

        Terreson accused everybody here (except maybe Gary) of making a commodity of poetry — that’s a slam.

        Gary’s (hopefully ironic) deployment of the misogynist term “wussy” was obnoxious, whether ironic or not. (Etym.: wussy = wimp + pussy; pussy = vagina = woman; wimp = cowardly, unmanly, at least sometimes with a connotation of being gay.)

  • On November 17, 2009 at 7:41 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Yes, John. Ironic.

    I was just trying to say that the men are less courageous than the women…and always have been.

  • On November 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm Jill wrote:

    Anyways. Incognito, I’m reminded of this post on Nada Gordon’s blog:

    http://ululate.blogspot.com/2009/09/why.html

    “Why do women so rarely leave comments?”

    Which is of course different from the lists questions, but then also not. Is it necessary to create a “safe” space?

  • On November 19, 2009 at 11:29 am Jon Corelis wrote:

    Having followed this blog on and off for a while, I’m prompted by
    Abigail Deutsch’s interesting post to offer a contribution.
    Apparently there’s no protocol for introducing oneself here, but clicking on my name link should lead to information about who I think I am.

    My contribution is of the “idle comments” variety, though I think they’re relevant and some may find them interesting.

    The picture, from a vase in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, has often been reproduced, usually labeled as “the poetess” or even “Sappho.” Though it could be either, it’s pure assumption: there’s no inscription on it, and though I’m not an expert on ancient art, to the best of my knowledge there’s no iconographic reason to think it’s either. The fact that she’s holding wax tablets implies a contemporary Roman mise-en-scene — wouldn’t Sappho would be holding a lyre if anything? It’s true that Roman poets often drafted their poems on wax tablets, but it’s also true that such tablets were often used for love notes, so this could be a portrait of a woman meditatively composing a letter to a lover. All pure speculation, but at any rate it’s a really beautiful portrait.

    Another idle though more directly relevant comment: the remarks on the poet as outsider reminded me of something I happened to read recently in, of all places, W. H. Auden’s introduction to The Oxford Book Of Light Verse (not a very good anthology I think — I much prefer Kingsley Amis’ revision — but where was I oh yes) to the effect that the greater the extent to which the poet is integrated into society, the easier it will be for that poet to speak in commonly understood language, but the harder it will be for that poet to have a vision of truth undistorted by social conventions; conversely, the poet who is is more detached from society will find it easier to reach a vision of truth unspoiled by society’s illusions, but harder to find the language to communicate it. I’m not sure if fair use will allow me to quote the whole passage, but you could look it up.

    • On November 21, 2009 at 1:55 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

      Hey, maybe she’s making a grocery list, or one for party invitations.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 by Abigail Deutsch.