Bookslut just published a superbly frank essay by poet Courtney Queeney. Queeney discusses women poets, the breed she's supposedly part of, and questions what it actually means to stand up for your own. While she isn't decisive, Queeney manages to be exquisitely precise. "There exists a great politesse around women's poetry; and to write critically is, in some ways, to betray one's feminine self," writes Queeney. She starts out talking about the problem of "women's poetry" as a catch-all category that priveleges personhood over craft, then crescendos into close readings of work by Louise Gluck and Heather McHugh.
The first half of the essay is below. Read the rest here.
by Courtney Queeney
I'm a little ashamed to confess that I feel ambivalence, not pride, when singled out as a Woman Poet. Call me an ingrate. Certainly I've reaped the fruits of feminism -- more places to publish, more readers, more teaching opportunities than my female forebearers. More respect, as Ali G would say. Feminist theoretical models of readings have expanded the canon to include previously lost writers and neglected books, which have, in turn, enriched my education.
But still -- at a recent dinner I was seated next to the editor of a hip journal, who is married to a well-known youngish woman poet. "What are you reading?" I asked, my stock conversation starter with literate strangers, and he rattled off a list of writers I'd never heard of, roughly half of them women. "I'm reading Rilke," I said, "and Zbigniew Herbert." I'm used to feeling uncool -- my social life largely consists of scribbling poems and meowing back at my cat -- but more importantly, like a traitor to my sex, reading dead poets instead of my contemporaries, and men when I am a young female writer. My grad school mentor was a woman; five of six poets in my workshop were women; I lurk on a women's poetry list serv. But when running out the door I grab John Berryman, not Jorie Graham. It's an odd position to be in.
But the truth is sometimes I'm annoyed to be a Young Woman Writer. Maybe it's the occasional spats on the women's poetry list serv I belong to where someone is accused of being rude or out of line when their comments seem, to me, merely critical -- of specific works, not of the humans producing them -- as if women must like the same things or risk being disowned as disloyal to our sisters. A March 2008 thread focused on a column in the Guardian by British poet Frances Leviston, written in reaction to the paper's list of Great Poets of the 20th Century, of which only one, Sylvia Plath, was a woman. The Great Poets series as a yardstick of excellence is suspect to begin with; the list was culled from the Faber and Faber catalogue, and never claimed to collect the Greatest Poets, just some Great ones.
Leviston's reaction was not the expected call for numbers parity, but the more unusual admission that she didn't mind the list's gender imbalance. Sure, in her own list of 20th Century Greats she'd axe Siegfried Sassoon to make room for Elizabeth Bishop, and she prefers Yeats to Larkin, but that's it -- no call for a placarded rally or sacrifice of frilly underthings to flames. To support her revised shortlist, Leviston cited both Plath's freedom "to write head-on against the injustice she perceived in her own life and the lives of others," as well as the "parallel importance" of Bishop's "not enslaving your poetry to a feminist agenda, however urgent that agenda might be in the daily world."
Right on! I thought. I was wrong.
A fairly lazy internet search yielded criticism of Leviston's reaction that ranged from the dismissive (she's "young" -- born in 1982) to the political (she's "conservative") to the martyred and pious (she hasn't struggled enough (as, presumably, that commenter had) to the jealous ("she's a published poet herself") to the damning (she's a woman-abandoner). One person even quoted "Miss Austen's plea to fellow novelists in Northanger Abbey: 'Let us not desert one another. We are an injured body…&c&c.'" I read this last bit aloud to my 18 year-old sister, who promptly sassed back, "That's breaking my balls, man" (an admittedly interesting choice of appropriated body parts).
The introduction to Plath's Great Poets pamphlet, penned by Margaret Drabble, inspired further ire for reducing Plath to a tragic victim and emphasizing the theme of motherhood in her poetry. Drabble's introduction does allude to both the head in the oven and lactation, but also characterizes Plath's poetry as "appalling… also exhilarating" and avers, "She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness." In case you didn't get it the first time: "She changed our world." I don't know about the women responding to the Guardian piece, but I certainly aspire to change the world; it seems an appropriately high bar for writers of whatever gender.
Most worrisome in the Guardian exchange was the widespread -- though by no means complete -- characterization of any woman who criticizes another woman's writing as a traitor. And it's a seductive deterrent; when I leaf through journals at the bookstore, I'm struck by how few reviews are penned by women. Heidi Julavits (novelist and editor of the uber-fashionable The Believer, to which I subscribe) while accurately identifying a disturbing trend of snarkiness in book reviews, also seems uncomfortable with reviews that criticize the works they consider. I agree with Julavits when she writes, "Here's the scary truth: individual books don't get reviewed -- careers do. People do." (The recent row over the Oxford Poetry Professorship serves as a handy example. Is Derek Walcott known for skeezing on young women? I don't know the man, but this seems generally uncontested. Did Ruth Padel send a couple of shady e-mails to journalists about the aforementioned skeezing? By her own admission. I'm not at a cocktail party; I just want someone to give three interesting lectures on poetry that I can eventually download to my iPod, and listen to while trying to ignore the drudgery of my day job.)