When I raised my head last spring following eighteen months of intensive study for my PhD exams I was anxious to look around my corner of the twenty-first century. If asked, I could have said a great deal about Sidney’s Defence of Poesie, or the development of the sonnet, or Keats’s aesthetic doctrines. About the poetry and criticism of my own moment, though, I felt like someone returning to her family home to see what the new owners have done. I bought and borrowed a number of recent debut books and read the back issues of well-known journals. While there were a number of poems I responded to with real and varied intensity, the criticism was, for the most part, depressingly homogenous and tentative. Still, there were a few conspicuous poet-critics of my generation whose work I did in fact find lively, opinionated, and consistently engaging. Then I noticed something. They were, without exception, men.
I should define my terms. By “conspicuous” I mean writers who have consistent access either to a major literary magazine or one of the national general-interest publications. I intend “young” to be interpreted developmentally rather than chronologically. That is, I consider my generation to be comprised of those who have published one or two books, or whose poems can be found regularly in major journals. And by “criticism” I mean practical criticism, the reviewing of new books, rather than scholarly articles or broader essays on poetics. It has always struck me that the bread-and-butter work of reviewing possesses a more than ephemeral importance. In the process of championing the kind of poetry that deserves fighting for right now, a young poet is not only establishing the paradigm by which readers can discriminate from among the flood of new work, but also creating room in the greater conversation about poetry for her own aesthetic. Why, then aren’t more young women doing this? Why don’t more young women believe criticism to be a necessary corollary to their ambitions as poets?
A couple of possible explanations come to mind. I’ve heard it argued that men control most of the prominent literary magazines and are more likely to respond to voices similar to their own—aggressive, combative, critical. A moment’s thought, though, will recall the number of excellent journals edited wholly or in part by women, including The Hudson Review, The Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, and Salmagundi. To my knowledge, no young female poet-critics producing work of real and specific distinction have emerged from their pages.
Might there be any truth to the idea that women have a different way of responding to art? Criticism, at least as we’ve come to understand it in Western culture, is by definition hierarchical: to criticize is to admit some system of relative value. Perhaps women are less inclined to make judgments in this way, or more inclined to make that system of value wholly individual. That is, if men tend to evaluate all poetry against some given “objective” tradition, perhaps women’s responses derive from a more idiosyncratic or personal standard, judging a writer against her peers or her previous work. This notion suggests a different model of ambition for women than for men, one that is less overweening and more private. It’s an ambition whose face looks more like Elizabeth Bishop, say, than Robert Lowell or Randall Jarrell. But Bishop didn’t write any criticism to match her poetry, nor do I see any evidence of this differently inflected “female” criticism emerging. And if it does exist it seems a generational phenomenon, because I can think of numerous older female poet-critics who have written extensively and fearlessly about their peers and predecessors, beginning with Marianne Moore and continuing through Louise Bogan, Adrienne Rich, Eavan Boland, Mary Kinzie, Sandra Gilbert, and Louise Glück.
In the final analysis, I think distinguishing genuine modesty from mere timidity is difficult. Whatever your opinion of creative writing workshops, it would seem as if all those workshops, essays, and seminar papers might produce some critical tinder. In workshops, however, I’ve often found the young women, my peers as well as my students, tentative. On the whole, they’re less willing than the men to risk fully articulating a position that they know may be provisional. I have also heard them speak as if they feel too acutely a lack of authority, not recognizing that authority—the very authority that will help to hone the edge and develop the particularity of their future work—grows from articulation.
There’s another problem, which is generational. Over the past few weeks I’ve talked to friends about this issue, women who are smart, opinionated, and eloquent about poetry, and who agree that the development of a critical voice is essential. They admitted, though, that their reluctance to engage in criticism resulted partly from concerns for their careers. They felt their own positions too tenuous, and were too aware of the negative impact a critical review might have on their own relationships in the close-knit poetry world, as well as what a negative review might do to the author under consideration. To be sure, this phenomenon is not limited to women. Still, it seems that a few young male poet-critics have overcome their hesitations, putting their vocations before their careers.
One could argue more favorably that the silence of young women reflects the greater importance they place on creating and sustaining community. But “community” doesn’t mean the same thing in literature that it does in life. Sometimes, in fact, it means the very opposite. Some of the social lubricants and securities essential to human community can be anathema to the more impersonal community of art. Indeed, some of our greatest poetry has emerged only when the relationship between the poet and his or her “community” has been most fraught. Milton wrote Paradise Lost only after the collapse of the Protectorate, when he was forced to relinquish his hope that his pen, like Virgil’s, might continue serving the state; Wordsworth’s late poetry suffered as his values came to mirror more closely those of the English establishment; Emily Dickinson lived at a great remove from the literary community of her time; and Rich rejected the comfort of those aesthetic values that had won her first book approval. While most poets accept the belief that poets derive authority from their positions as outsiders, we seem oblivious as to how cozy and provincial our own community has become. We can’t forget the essential fact that criticism is not about us, the poets, but about the poems, the work, and keeping the work healthy is the greater good.
I’m not quite sure where this leaves us, or perhaps it’s just that I’m uneasy with where this leaves us. Perhaps women do have a different model for coming of age as poets than men. Perhaps we have a less agonistic relationship with the past and see our predecessors more as companions than as adversaries. Still, it seems a fatal lack of commitment to avoid testing even our affinities, to sustain only the comfortable self-affirmations of conversations among friends or the balked dialogues of the internal arguments we all carry on with ourselves. After years of struggling to acquire a critical voice, protesting efforts to limit and even mute that voice, it seems that we are falling silent voluntarily.
I think more women of my generation—including myself—need to conceive of criticism as one of their responsibilities as poets. I think more journals—including this one—need to seek out these women and be open to their voices, however far they might range from conventional models of criticism. I’ve used the metaphor of conversation when describing the condition of criticism because I believe there are natural limits to what can be learned in solitude. I also believe that the kinds of conversations that occur in workshops and among peers possess genuine and durable value. But I think the kind of conversation we need right now is public, passionate. William James said that “truth happens to an idea; it becomes true, is made true by events.” The notion is both compelling and daunting—compelling because it authorizes action that has not been perfected in wisdom; daunting because it requires courage.