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A SHORT, HIGHLY PERSONAL OBSERVATION COMPLETELY LACKING IN EXAMPLES WHICH I COULD HAVE NEVER HAVE MADE THIRTY YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS A YOUNG POET STILL LIVING IN NEW YORK, BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW ENOUGH TO KNOW IT WAS TRUE. BUT I DO NOW.
Germaine Greer, Paula Rego, 1995. (Pastel on Paper laid on aluminum 120 x 111 cm., National Portrait Gallery).
W.H. Auden once said that he always felt that he was the youngest person in the room, even at an older age, when this was certainly not the case. I’ve felt similarly while blogging, especially when being reprimanded by commentators half my age. This could have all sorts of explanations. But for the moment let’s file them under “Monkey Glands”, aka W.B. Yeats. Today, I have a more pressing issue at hand, a comment on the younger generations of scriveners; or to reverse Auden’s impression, all of those younger than myself and involved, in one way or another, in the palimpsestic quest of poetry. I mean poets in their twenties, thirties and forties – fifty being the cut-off date.
Of course, there are exceptions but for the moment I am intent on generalizing. In the field of poetry, women make better bloggers than do their male counterparts, also better commentators, better critics and, increasingly, better poets. Of the younger generation of poets I am discovering through my involvement with Harriet, the women are clearly superior. Not only is their poetry more ambitious and achieved but their criticism is more daring, their originality of thought deeper and their wit more honed.
Why should this be? One reason perhaps (and this is undoubtedly one of those clichés for which I will be run out of town) is that women have an ontological connection that men don’t have to making and creating, to nurturing form out of raw materials: out of themselves, out of language and out of the ground, in the sense of both lettuce patches and the Heidegerrean notion of fundamentum absolutum, or der grund. Heidegger posits a reversal of the Cartesian first principle and says “I am therefore I think.” This stands in well for the difference between male and female sensibilities.
Traditionally discouraged or prevented from taking part in social paradigms of creative expression (with the exception, of course, of motherhood) women have learned patience, the art of autonomy and a capacity for restraint. Related to these qualities is the fact that they are more open to difference, generally more tolerant, and less threatened by the mechanisms of authority: those mechanisms that are found in traditional knowledge structures, traditional language structures and traditional institutional structures. Since historically women have had to defend themselves against the power emanating from these structures, their mastery and insight into the workings of power is deeper. Likewise, women’s competitive instincts are more subtly attuned to the task at hand, the medium they are dealing with, the objectives of a given project than they are with the impression they would like to make upon the world. This comes from ease with self-effacement, which in artistic endeavors results in a more thoroughgoing capacity for immersion in the project at hand. They are more apt to experiment in ways that produce organic forms for expressive purposes rather than try, as men so often do, to trick language into duplicating the will. Because women are generally more sensitive to others, they are more sensitive to the needs of the poem. Because they are more coherent, grounded and possess a higher degree of self-knowledge at a younger age, they are better prepared to resist the influences of their teachers, their education and even the expectations of the medium they are working in. Hence they are more original.
Decades of work by women to open new formats, create equalities, to encourage creative and intellectual work, to valorize the special experiences of women (both material and intellectual), and to formulate a critical framework for understanding the various forms of oppression woman have born, and continue to bear, is, in my opinion, and in my special field of concern (poetry and literary criticism) also responsible for the health, innovation and continuing wonder of the medium. But it is not the whole story, and it is time to move on, away from theory and back to practice. On a practical level, that of making and reading poems, male poets now have more to learn from how women work, and from what they are saying and creating than vice versa.
And yet in spite of what I say above (characterizing women’s experience, perhaps inaccurately, and seeing their poetry as having benefited from that experience) I have never been comfortable with the designation “women’s poetry”, or with any of the other normative appellations that marked 20th century discussions on the subject and that led to misleading typologies and atomizations. In fact, I follow Berryman’s cue in not distinguishing between British and American poetry – and I carry that further to all poets writing in English: Irish, South African, Indian and West Indian, Australian etc. (two of my favorite poets, John Kinsella and Less Murray, are from down under).
I’m even uncomfortable (since I live and work in a polyglot setting) with classifying poets or their poems by language. To pit French poets against German poets seems hardly useful when we finally arrive at the poem itself. My Portuguese colleagues, some of whom I’ve translated, are essentially doing the same thing that I do when I write a poem. The fact that they are writing in Portuguese doesn’t matter in the end. Of course different situations produce different poems, but this is a question of topicality and character and follows no scientifically consistent pattern. When I have to use categories I prefer them to be as large as possible and related to historical conditions, which effect poets in an aleatory fashion. I recently argued that postwar Central European poetry was stronger than that produced in Western Europe over the same period, but these are supranational categories and have more to do with how two different political systems effected creativity in a variable and highly unorganized fashion. Just as women, over the last three centuries, have had more hurdles to overcome than men when it came to legitimizing their status as artists and poets, Central Europeans had far more difficulties creating poetry and publishing freely in the postwar period. Perhaps a degree of resistance helps in the creation of art. Be it as it may, it is the art that we must finally look at, independent of even the most sweeping categories.
This is not to say that poets should not use (if such were possible) their special experience, experience that can derive from many things: location, language, race, gender, poverty, wealth, temperament, what they read and what they don’t read, or whatever. But for the reader or the critic to use these experiences taxonomically corrupts our capacity to evaluate poetry at the level of the poem.
By looking at poetry qua poetry we are more apt to read more sensitively, praise more accurately and winnow more decisively. But just in case you’ve missed my point, I think we’d all be the better for paying serious attention to the poems now being made by poets who happen to be women, and trying to figure out why they’re so good.