Essentialism? Say What?
I’m eavesdropping; my hand cupped around my ear to better hear the conversation at the next table--a poetry clan is debating an article that has riled them—and it’s by one of their own. Previous issues of Chicago Review and women’s anthologies clutter a table already crammed with a computer for browsing the contemporary/experimentl/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry blogosphere. I want to join them. Maybe they’ll let me if I figure out what “essentialism” means. Is it related to “creationism”? Or “phrenology”?
In all seriousness, the poetics of this bunch places them in an essential lineage—as postmodern feminists they are carrying on a tradition that views language as having no inherent meaning apart from its cultural freight. The work of the poet is to help us see how culture and language invents us, a sometimes liberating act. I admire, for instance Juliana Spahr’s wonderful book This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, in which the onset of the current Iraqi war takes place in bed with her and her lover. In joining the two, she exposes the euphemisms of the government being played out in the media as misnomers. I am avid to listen in on their conversation.
They’re talking about prize money, about how many of them get published in which magazines, about who gets jobs, etc. Are these experimental types now the status quo? Do they crave recognition and economic security as much as the rest of us? Their conversation and debate with Jennifer Ashton seems to me very similar to the emails and phone calls that I receive from Francisco Aragon ( who directs Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies), advocating on behalf of his poetry clan. (I wonder if in its next issue the Chicago Review will run his table and charts of how many Latino poets have been published where.) Only he doesn’t feel guilty and conflicted, as these women seem to, about asking for his clans’ piece of the American pie.
My reaction to the bean counting presented in the Chicago Review article is the same as my reaction to Francisco Aragon’s prodding: I feel bored and a twinge of guilt. Yes, we need to publish more women and more Latinos on poetryfoundation.org, but a headline about under-representation gets few clicks. Why? It doesn’t captivate, unless you happen to be among the group that isn’t being counted. If you succeed in getting such an article or anthology published, who it represents becomes as important as the poetry it contains. Or as Ashton puts it, “And if you just cared about the formally innovative features of the poems, why would you care that they were written by women? Unless, of course what you cared about most was the relationship between the form of the poems and the gendered situation of their authors.” In my opinion, both the form and its relationship to the gendered or racial situation are important. What poetry and poets need are interesting critiques of that locus.
Another way to say this is that Aragon, Spahr, and Young are primarily concerned with the results of literary production and where they are placed; whereas as an editor, I’m primarily concerned with circulating those results—the poems—among readers. Great writing about poetry—all kinds of poetry—stimulates interest in it and so improves its chances of being read. Being widely read means that some work can occasionally effect the circumstances of its production (our social and material conditions), or its reception, its inclusion in the canon, or a canon.
And here’s the difficulty. A majority of the pitches we receive (I haven’t yet calculated the percentage) are from men. There are many fine women writers and critics who write for us now, but we’ve had to go looking for them. The male critics are always knocking on our door (please don’t stop). We welcome that; we just wish more women would. But all of their pitches are often, but not always, about male poets. In the past year we’ve received multiple ideas for stories about Paul Muldoon, Frederick Seidel, C.K. Williams, Gary Snyder, the Objectivists, Robert Duncan, Phillip Larkin, Donald Revell and, of course, Ashbery.
Why haven’t any women stepped forward with story ideas about significant new books by women poets? Significant books (selections or groundbreaking books) for which we have received no pitches include those by Linda Gregerson, Jean Valentine, Claudia Rankine, Adrienne Rich, Ellen Bryant Voight, Alice Notley, C.D. Wright, Joanne Kyger, and Mary Kinzie. (Who have I missed?)
Why aren’t we fielding more requests to place women poets within our literary and social history? Evaluating a poet’s place within a tradition is what Silliman, Harold Bloom, and other male critics and bloggers incessantly argue about. (I applaud Ashton, Spahr and Young for publicly arguing about their differences.)
I can easily rattle off a dozen male critics who critique and “translate” contemporary poetry for a general and literary audience, and in doing so, often self-consciously assert their place in the long line of poet/critics such as Auden, Jarrell, Lowell, and Eliot. Think of Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Adam Kirsch, Peter Campion, Dan Chiasson, Stephen Burt, Willard Spiegelman, David Barber, Harold Bloom, and David Biespiel. Now name the women and minority writers who write critically and well and consistently for a wide audience: Maureen McLane, Adrienne Rich, Meghan O’Rourke, Katha Pollit, Major Jackson, Ange Mlinko, Sandra Gilbert. (Who have I missed?)
To close and in spirit with Young and Spahr’s request to begin a conversation, I offer this laundry list, in no particular order, of pitches that I wish we had received:
• Is there a lost generation of women poets born between 1910-1920? Why is so little written about Louise Bogan, May Swenson, and Jean Garrigue, all of them prominent poets, and in Bogan’s case a major critic, of their time?
• Compare and contrast George Oppen’s twenty year silence with the silences and subsequent work of women poets, such as Anne Winters, Eleanor Lerman, and Lorine Niedecker.
• Many contemporary Latino poets do not know Spanish. Others do and employ “code switching,” beginning a sentence in one language and ending in another. Investigate the tensions and the differences of these poetries.
• Why has Duncan instead of Levertov prevailed in their debate about the social function of poetry? At least this seems to be the case in articles that have crossed my desk.
• How has Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” informed the work of C.D. Wright and Claudia Rankine?
• Is C.D. Wright’s recent book about Louisiana prison life part of inventing a feminist poetic that directly quotes from speech and uses other documentary evidence to—as Phillip Metres writes in an article that we’ll publish next week—“create ‘one big self’ that contains author, reader, and prisoner”? Other women poets who have used these tactics to avoid the subjective while creating an intersection between poetry and social/political circumstances include Niedecker, Rukeyser, Spahr, Levertov. (I know that Reiznikoff is the grandfather of this type of poetry and that many men practice it, but the need to speak as a we, to be inclusive, seems in a Carol Gilligan-ish way to be female.)
• What is the trajectory of Adrienne Rich’s social poetics? And how does it relate to the poetics of the contemporary/experimentl/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community?
Any takers? Any other ideas?
Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...