I promised on Monday to say more this week about that exchange on poetry, poetry-publishing, and gender in the Chicago Review, and now I'm going to say it: I'll start with some objections to both sides.
Jennifer Ashton, if you'll remember back that far, started a brouhaha about gender and poetry publishing by alleging that folks who still made gender an issue (in, for example, intros to anthologies) were being essentialist. She's still making that allegation, and she's still saying that critics in general, and anthologists in particular, who "insist on the importance of the poems are women's poems transformed the contingent relation between the sex of the authors and the forms of their poems into a necessary one." (That's a quotation from her response to Young and Spahr in the Chicago Review rather than from her original essay in ALH.)
To which I respond (this paragraph and the next two rewritten to avoid mistakes in earlier version): that may be true in the philosophical sense of "necessary," by which my knowing English, for example, and my ability to access the Internet, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for me to write the sentence you are now reading. If Ashton is arguing that even such obviously (to me) gender-marked experimental works as Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day could plausibly have been written by men writing as men (by men who grew up in our society aware of their maleness) then Ashton and I just read this set of poets very differently. (The matter of persona-poems, whose speakers have different gender from their implied authors or from the human beings who really wrote them, would be a distraction here, since these are not persona poems we're debating: I'll happily take that up in another post if anyone wants.)
I think, though, that Ashton gets a good deal of force from the overlap between necessary in the philosophical sense and necessary in other vernacular senses-- that she takes feminist anthologists to argue (and she argues against) the proposition that gender causes, in some stronger sense, experimental women writers to write as they do--- against the proposition that gender is almost a sufficient condition, rather than simply a necessary one, for certain writers (given certain other necessary conditions, e.g., perhaps, having read Gertrude Stein) to write as they do.
That's why I had the sense, after reading Ashton's most recent part in this controversy, that she's taking on a straw person. Thinkers and poets such as Elizabeth Treadwell (whom Spahr and Young mention) find the relation between their poems and their gender (and between other "innovative" women poets' poems and those women's gender) interesting enough to talk about, I think, without positing a strong causal connection: without, that is, saying that gender "made them write that way"--- though they may say that no man could have written a particular poem (that gender is a necessary condition, in the philosophical sense, but nowhere near a sufficient condition for the kind of consciousness the poems record).


At times it sounds as if Ashton saw no difference between "contingent" and "random" (or "uninteresting"), and no difference between "necessary" and "interesting." "The female community I dismiss," she writes, "would only be worth hanging onto if you thought there was some necessary connection between the forms that count as 'innovative' and the bodies that count as female." Try replacing "necessary" with "interesting" in that sentence—or try replacing "female" with "Irish" or "Mexican"--- and you'll see what I take to be Ashton's mistake.
The most predictable and most frustrating aspect of Spahr and Young's article, on the other hand, is the way it ends: by reminding us that as bad as sexism is, as much trouble as it continues to cause for ambitious American women, there are worse problems in the world today. "Feminism really only matters," Spahr and Young write, "if it engages with issues in an international arena": really? how many issues must it engage, and which ones? Would they apply that test to other political causes of which they (and I) approve? Does environmentalism—an attempt to reduce carbon emissions or to cut down on river pollution in Portland, say—only really matter if it also engages with issues in Belgium and Bangladesh?
Plumbers shouldn't have to worry about not being carpenters, too, unless they want to take up carpentry. Math teachers shouldn't apologize for not teaching history or public health. And advocates of gender equality within the United States shouldn't have to worry that their activism isn't also reducing violence in Colombia or saving the Arctic ice (unless they think that global climate change is so bad we should stop doing everything else until we've fixed that, which is a defensible position but one that only works, I think, with climate change).
All the causes about which Spahr and Young seem to care (feminism and "resource usage internationally" and "education for all") have something in common in that they all have to do with ethical imperatives, but those same imperatives make the causes valuable independently, too: if you are working for one, you should not have to apologize because you are not working for them all. And if you are working for the arts, and if you think it is worthwhile to work for the arts in general (many people don't), you should not have to go out of your way to come up with rationales as to why working for the arts is really working to clean up the rivers, or reduce oil use, or teach better math skills in schools. If you think the arts are important only insofar as they cause those other things, then you should either stop working in the arts and go to work for those other causes directly, or work only in the arts that have mass audiences right now and can change large numbers of underinformed minds (i.e. not poems).
If you feel guilty about working in the arts, given your strong feelings about various kinds of public good, and have decided to keep working in the arts nevertheless, that's a mixed feeling, not an argument: it's also the basis of Spahr's fasincating memoir-novel, reviewed here.
But Spahr and Young are hardly alone in making this dubious quasi-utilitarian argument. The largest failed project in poetry-criticism is, and has been since the 19th century, the attempt to provide narrowly ethical, more or less utilitarian, justifications for an activity that justifies itself only in nonquantifiable, non-measurable, and ultimately, I think, non-public terms. If you think writing poetry, or writing about poetry, is worthwhile only if by doing so you can help slow down global warming, or bring some economic justice for janitors, you probably shouldn't be writing about poetry at all. And if you think poetry has some non-public, non-utilitarian value—that some poems have value even if almost nobody reads them-- then you shouldn't apologize for saying so. Not even if some of the poems are about—and it's surely a promising subject--- justice for janitors.
Allen Grossman implies as much in the same issue of Chicago Review, in an essay I found more profound, and no less memorable, than the debate over numbers. Grossman--who is both a a poet and a thinker about poetry-- may well be my favorite living commentator on poetry-in-general, my favorite promulgator of fruitful hypotheses about what poetry-in-general might be or do. Rather than summarize his argument, which starts but does not end with Hart Crane's last completed poem, I'll offer a few of Grossman's sentences, which should let you know if you, too, will be moved by his piece:
"Hart Crane (or any poet) reminds us that the death-blocked conversation between the dead and the living is identical to the conversation between the living and the living, which is enabled and blocked in life by our unmingling bodies."
"'Meaning' being construed within the poem as the question of possibility of any common experience… Crane's poem… is put in service of the solution of a 'problem,' brokenness, intimate and general—a problem life-constitutive but insoluble."
"In general, the requirement of thought about poetic texts is precipitated by a characteristic of poems that is commonly called closure… We must stop and think… What does the poem intend to follow after—that can be thought that could not be thought by the reader before the poem was known to the reader?"
Grossman also suggests (following Hesoid) that the Muses are the same thing as mean girls. If I can't get a poem out of that, I hope someone else can.
The last thing I want to say about this solid issue of a good magazine is that the essays aren't the most important things in it, at least not to me.
What is? That would be C. D. Wright's magnificent and overtly political long poem "Rising Falling Hovering," part two of which appears alongside Grossman and Young and Spahr—the first part appeared in the previous issue and as a pdf here. Since I offered snippets of Grossman's essay, I'll end with bits of Wright's long poem, though part two of the poem (much more than part one) depends on a cumulative work of narration not well-served by cut-out bits. (I use, here, this symbol + to indicate what are in the original big midline spaces, since the big midline spaces get turned into regular spaces by the web tools we use.) "He" is the poet's college-aged son, who has been traveling in Mexico:
If you give your fears a shape + her friend suggested
You break free of them + this was before the bad diagnosis
After she is assured he is back + from the sea
she concedes + He is going to be OK + he'll make his way […]
During the time she knew he was on a bus + without a wallet + she knew this much
because he left a message on her machine + hurtling as Mexican buses tend to go
she could only say + Esta comiendo mi coco + He is eating my head

Originally Published: December 4th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. December 5, 2007
     Ange

    I have been reading Grossman's criticism, and while The Long Schoolroom thrilled me (the first two essays in particular left me lightheaded, literally: I had stopped breathing at points) I'm finding The Sighted Singer somewhat harder going (any tips for entry points, etc.?). Last time you mentioned Grossman it was in connection to the "face-to-face," which I associate with Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, not Grossman. Can you tell me where in his criticism he talks about it? Thanks!

  2. December 5, 2007
     Steve

    The Sighted Singer is really two books, a long and often rambling interview with Mark Halliday and a hyperintelligent, wise, profound novella-length essay in numbered sections called Summa Lyrica. Skip the interview and read Summa Lyrica. (The face-to-face Levinasian stuff is in there: Stewart almost certainly got it from him.)

  3. December 5, 2007
     Bobby

    Dear Steve,
    Thanks for spending so much time on these essays. I'm especially glad that you brought up the Grossman and Wright. But there's a couple of things in this post that aren't clear to me.
    First, how is saying "that no man could have written a particular poem" not essentialist?
    Second, is it really so easy to sift out our (political/ethical) lives into independent causes as you suggest? I think what Spahr and Young are responding to is a sense that feminism (as a cause) is not one cause among many but is a position that is (or should) be related to a person's whole way of acting in the world. It may be tired or predictable to say that feminism has to do with race, class, and international politics, but it's no less true for being so. The plumber/carpenter analogy is actually an accurate one. No, the plumber doesn't "have to worry about not being a carpenter" but he does have to worry at least a little about carpentry itself (so that he can figure out which walls can accommodate pipes, and so on...) Saba Mahmood has written well on this subject (feminism, not plumbing) studying, for example, the way in which Western feminist rhetoric was deployed in the French veil controversy. Her conclusion (in an article with the forbidding title "Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counterinsurgency") is that "we tend to forget that the particular set of desires, needs, hopes and pleasures that we embrace do not necessarily exhaust the possibilities of human flourishing." It's always seemed to me one of the great strengths of the best feminist (and more recently, queer) theory that it's been able to keep at least one eye on that far horizon, i.e., the general question of human flourishing.
    Anyway, thanks again for the discussion.

  4. December 5, 2007
     Steve

    Keeping one eye on the far horizon sounds good; beating yourself up for being situated in a particular way isn't, and a lot of the rhetoric I now hear about the situatedness of domestic politics in "developed" (rich) countries sounds, to me, too close to beating yourself up. I'll check out Saba Mahmood when I can.
    I suppose it is essentialist by some definitions-- would it still be essentialist in the form "no one who has not had X experience could have written text T, and almost everyone, if not indeed everyone, who has had X experience, as far as I know, is female?" What I was trying to get at there was the distinction between the philosophical sense of "necessary condition" and the vernacular sense in which it has causal force. But I don't think I did a very good job-- in fact-- such is the advantage of blogging-- I think I should go and untangle those sentences, by rewriting them, now.

  5. December 5, 2007
     Bobby

    I don't think bringing in experience solves the problem, at least not as long as that experience is pegged to a certain kind of body. The question is not whether there are experiences available only to certain sexes--of course there are--but rather why this should determine in advance what or how a person writes. This is different from saying that a person's sex doesn't have anything to do with what he or she writes. Ashton explains it best in her CR article:

    If what [Spahr and Young] have in mind [when they talk about essentialism]...is something like the belief that the anatomical differences between bodies contribute, like many other contingencies, to the situation in which a poet (or any person) finds herself, and thus to some of the limits and opportunities she faces, then their definition would indeed be something quite apart from the theoretical mistake that I identify with the discourse of “innovative” women’s poetry. That essentialism would not be damning from my perspective either. I may be extending too much benefit of the doubt here, but I do think Spahr and Young understand very well that it’s one thing to think that a poet makes her formal choices in the context of a situation–a situation that inevitably includes her sex–and quite another to think that her sex dictates those choices in advance. Both involve essentializing sex, but the second kind of essentialism involves a mistake about the relation between bodies and forms that the first does not.

  6. December 5, 2007
     Steve

    That's what I meant by "talking past each other," above. Ashton is (correctly!) attacking a certain kind of essentialism which identifies all the interesting aspects of certain poems with gender-- but I don't think that kind of essentialism is something Spahr and Young are committing (nor do I think it's in some of the other places where Ashton finds it); Spahr and Young are attacking what lawyers call discriminatory effects (and sometimes alleging discriminatory intent). To put it another way, I'm not sure that either participant in this debate is applying, or working hard enough to apply, the principle of charity: they're not construing their opponents so as to avoid accusing those opponents of errors, when such constructions seem available and plausible. OTOH I'm glad the debate's taking place.

  7. December 6, 2007
     Jeannine Hall Gailey

    Thanks for this intelligent commentary, Stephen, in what continues to be a fascinating discussion to me.

  8. December 8, 2007
     Susan McLean

    Thanks for the link to the article on mean girls. I did get a poem out of it, though mine has nothing to do with muses.