The women’s poetry question. Again.

I thought Courtney Queeney’s essay ‘The Kings Are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women’s Poetry’ was a confused, rambling piece, unsure of what it wanted to say. There are two questions here — ‘women’s poetry’ which would refer to a vast body of work written by numerous women from across the world, presumably quite different from each other as people, and what ‘being a woman poet’ implies. Queeney’s central point seems to be that she doesn’t want to be classified as a ‘woman poet’ because she does not like  ‘women’s poetry’. Her reasons range from the fact that when running out the door she grabs “John Berryman, not Jorie Graham”  to being affected by “the occasional spats on the women’s poetry list serv” to the fact that her own poetry has been rejected (“three different men — from different generations, who knew me in different capacities — read the manuscript of my first book and each responded with some variation of, I really like your poems, but they’re not very nice.”). Can any of these be taken seriously?

After a nod at Sharon Olds, she goes on to say that most contemporary women’s writing is tidy and boring. Her complaint:

The work of another one of the poets I was hitting my head against epitomizes the poetry of quiet, easy epiphany, which I’d sum up thus: the speaker is adult, the setting bucolic, the pretext a noticing, the tone reserved; the language is “transparent,” as is the handling of line and rhyme. The poems are inhabited by fruit, foxes, moonlight, wind, autumn, waves, birds, gardens, etc. Often cautious, afraid of offending, these poems wind up saying nothing. I wanted — unfairly, as they weren’t my poems — to imbue the work with even a modicum of curiosity or hunger. I wanted to hook them up to an IV.

Firstly, the dull or cowardly poem is hardly a reserve of women. A lot of modern, workshop-finessed poems are a bit tidy and boring. I think there’s even a school of thought upholding it. I’m also a little taken aback that she thinks women interested in poetry (readers and writers) expect Danielle Steelish stuff from it (“If you’ve been prepped by a lifetime of Danielle Steele books, you’re probably expecting some sort of vague, gushy warmth and then tender, post-coital cuddling during which both heterosexual adults express their immense gratitude for aforementioned encounter.”) I don’t remember ever reading about gushy, post-coital cuddling in a poem, by a woman or anyone else.

Secondly, I’m not sure that poems which have factories, frescoes, steel, cement, bridges and metro stations will necessarily say more than poems with nature imagery. There is no simple rule book that stipulates which kind of images hook up to curiosity, hunger, fierceness. Mentioning an IV drip does not necessarily infuse a poem with body or blood. Some of our greatest living poets demonstrate, time and again, that a poem is a not a lego set with fixed pieces and a manual. You have to choose things from the wide variety of the world, and you have to make of them what you can. Mark Doty writes about fish in  A Display of Mackarel and Jane Hirshfield writes about a horse in Heat. And both are wonderful poems.

I do agree with some of her points though. There is no reason for women to be less critical of each other’s writing because they are women. Nor is it particularly unusual to want to be free to write how one wants and not be pigeonholed as a ‘woman poet’. And poetry isn’t about fitting in a feminist agenda — or any other agenda for that matter. At the same time, identity and politics (and identity politics) do play an important role in the work of some very good poets ranging from Cavafy to Anne Carson.  So again, it’s a question of how it is done, isn’t it? Also, the fact that women write about ‘womanly’ experiences is hardly odd. After all, to us, it is not ‘subversive’; often, it’s just life.

Anyway, here is a response to the essay, which I liked, and here is another.

And speaking of poems by women, I liked a dog poem I read today. It’s by Julie Carter and it’s called ‘Bitten’. An excerpt:

…I thought hers

was the relief of philanthropy–a woman proud
when her Annies found their own pie-eyed

Warbuckses. But maybe it was the promise
of sleep, of safety. A night without alarm.

Did she curl up her hands tight around
the bite marks? Did she pull her collar

up, up to ward off teeth?

It’s not cute. It’s not cuddly. Read the full poem at her blog.

4 thoughts on “The women’s poetry question. Again.

  1. It’s amazing that you managed to discern any argument in Queeney’s essay. I couldn’t tell what she was trying to say, so I’m glad there was someone to interpret it for me.

    I re-read some bits of her essay, and she does seem to be hugely mislead by her own reading. I personally haven’t read much contemporary poetry by women (by that I mean I’ve read much more contemporary poetry by men), so I certainly wouldn’t try to typify and criticise women writers that way. It’s own fault for not looking hard enough.

    By the way, I’m a huge Julie Carter fan. I remember this poem of hers very well — not the words, but the feeling it gave me. I should go look for it.

    Also, I’ve been showing this simile of Alice Oswald’s to everyone, because it’s so unbelievable:

    This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties

    like an old woman taken by the neck
    and shaken to pieces. (from ‘Head of a Dandelion’)

    It’s not very ‘nice’, is it?

  2. Anindita says:

    @Aditi: Heh. I had to work really hard, believe me. I actually read the damn thing twice or thrice. I like Julie Carter too and am hugely impressed by her as a person as well (from her blog)…

    Ah, nice excerpt from Oswald! Have been dying to read more of her. Have you come across a book of hers here? Or does one have to order on Amazon as usual?

  3. I think I read it at James Midgley’s blog. Haven’t seen any Oswald around here.

    You can order from Amazon? I thought they don’t deliver to India.

  4. Anindita says:

    They deliver but the shipping’s exorbitant, I think. Found some poetry books on Rediff.com which has free shipping but Oswald was out of stock. I ordered Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wives and Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar. Let’s see what their delivery systems are like…

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