I'm very sympathetic to several of Averill Curdy's points ("Is Anybody Out There?" December 2003). They are made with eloquence, and some of them have that kind of bold, testing honesty which is particularly difficult and especially admirable. The concept that women might exist in the poetry world, even today, on a shadowy border between being silent and being silenced is both poignant and bleak. I think the questions asked here are brave and necessary.
The main sticking point is the idea of criticism itself. I certainly recognize how crucial it is, and how important its role as a rallying point for each new generation. But the question remains: what does it really mean for a poet to develop and possess a critical voice? For myself, I don't associate such a voice with reviewing, or any routine wish to carve out some kind of position. I think of it as something more urgent, more inward.
All poets face one thing, and they face it alone: the mysterious distance, part cultural and all solitary, between writing poems and being a poet. The way it is navigated is different for every poet. I certainly found the writing of prose essential to managing that distance. But the word "prose" is deceptive. I also reviewed poetry for the Irish Times for the best part of twenty years. I valued the books; occasionally I valued the chance to say something about them. But reviewing never helped me travel one inch of that distance I'm describing. It is only the making of a critique which does that. What's the difference? Reviewing is almost alwaysthe "almost" here is importantdone from the center. It is the outcome of shared ideas, shared assumptions, even the shared fact of the physical object of the book. Critque-making is almost alwaysanother weight heredone from the margins.
It is the product of that inward, isolated struggle to become a poet, and to leave a record of that becoming. Averill Curdy speaks about the relation of authority and articulation. I think the real relation, in terms of a critical voice, is between authority and risk. The poet who risks standing at his or her own margin, and making a critique from it will have the authority of that act. Even though the critique is inwardly-directed, willful or even self-absorbed, the authority comes from renewing the old covenant between being and becoming a poet.
I should add that afterwards, once this is done, then the civil and communal duties of reviewing and commenting have a real value. Then the poet can move from the margin to the center. Poets can argue, explain, chide, and protest in a review. But the essential work, the defining work, is in the initial making of an individual critique. Until a poet knows where he or she stands, they can't know where anyone else does.
How much are gender and generation involved? It's a huge question and well stated in Curdy's essay as a question rather than an answer. I tend to think that gender, even now, plays a role in the flawed permissions that women sense as they try to travel between being and becoming poets. By flawed permissions I mean a compound of different things: diffidence in the face of a canon a woman poet may feel she has inherited but hasn't shaped; anxiety in the interpretation of the relation of the poet's life to a woman's life; the private attempt to clarify what Averill Curdy says may be the fact that "women have a different way of responding to art." Any or all of these can make a poet hesitate on the edge of making her own critique. But flawed permissions can themselves be the engine of new critical understandings. In that sense, the critique offered by women poets can often possess a new and welcome power.