Friday, January 02, 2009

Feminism & Creative Failure

Poetry critics waiting for the next batch of new collections [by men?]

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c. [Jeremiah: 12]

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! Lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Sitting alone in the throb of a crowded university café, making notes towards a review of Patience Agbabi’s Bloodshot Monochrome for Poetry Review, my eye falls on the title of one of her Problem Pages Sonnets, based on a poem by Hopkins: “Send my Roots Rain”.

In a kaleidoscopic flash, I’m back in the flat despair and agony of that poem: ‘Birds build - but not I build'. Everything around me, so vibrant and intrusive before, falls away into silence in the face of every poet’s recurrent nightmare, the fear of not being able to write. Or, more accurately, of not being able to write well.

Plath knew that fear intimately: 'These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.' (Stillborn, July 1960) Like all writers, she feared putting pen to paper only to create the barren line, the images that lie fallow and 'stupidly stare'. For a writer, what greater horror can there be? Throughout literary history, the prospect of his or her own death has frequently meant less to the poet than the death of the Muse or the impossibility of continuing to write, for whatever reason.

Here, Milton agonises on his dilemma:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless

and here Yeats, dramatically self-destructive, rubbishes his own creative impulse in The Circus Animals' Desertion:
... Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Laying aside my pen and Agbabi’s book, I pause to consider some of my own recent work. Primarily a sequence, hastily begun, though long thought of, slowing now to an uncertain trickle. Based on an ancient epic, its narrative voice is masculine, as is much of the subject matter, and having just re-read some strong feminist criticism (Vicki Bertram: Gendering Poetry and Kicking Daffodils), I’m suddenly dubious about the whole schema.

Is it a betrayal of sisterhood to speak with a man’s voice? And not just any male voice, but that of a poet. My opposite number, in other words: a rival under the same flag, a privileged opponent waving his advantages in my face. Am I selling both myself and my gender out through a lack of feminist backbone, a failure of imagination?

Yet poetry ought to be beyond all such nonsense. Poetry lifts itself above politics, one might say, whilst inevitably being written from a political standpoint. But does that make any sense in the face of the real, the everyday? There can be no such thing as a wholly apolitical poem, after all, anymore than a wholly apolitical poet. In life, every decision we take, every gesture we make - from what we buy in the shops (green, organic, secondhand) to what we throw out (or make do and mend) and even how we discard it (recycle, hand-me-down, flytipping) - reveals a political stance; logically, the same principle must apply to the poem.

Poets tend to believe in the apolitical poem though and see poetry as something apart from everyday life, largely because it suits our purposes to do so. Yet politics - particularly gender politics - has an unpleasant way of insinuating itself into poetry to such an extent that it cannot be ignored or sidestepped. From the moment the gender of a poet’s name is registered by a reader, it dictates whose work gets published, and subsequently rewarded with grants, awards, reviews and critical writing. In short, gender politics lies behind the building of poetic reputations and careers.

Here, Vicki Bertram in Gendering Poetry (Pandora Press, 2005), having acknowledged the usual exceptions - Carol Ann Duffy continues to attract critical interest across the board - questions the striking imbalance of representation of women poets in most critical volumes and anthologies in comparison to that of male poets:

If women poets do not get included in the 'general' analyses, overviews, and anthologies used in schools and universities, they will slip out of sight, and be forgotten until the next wave of female anger gathers and launches another period of recovery work. Currently women poets' writing merits a separate chapter, an easily accommodated tributary, while the main river flows on undisturbed. The lack of published criticism has a further damaging effect: it prevents the emergence of contexts within which the broader resonances of their work might emerge. (p.12)

Men, it seems, looking at Bertram's various graphs and studies, are still very much in control of the poetry scene. And here I am, a woman, writing in a man’s voice, an uneasy mixture of hubris and fawning obsequiousness.

‘Birds build - but not I build.’ Thus the supremely talented Hopkins, eloquent on what he deemed his own failure of eloquence. I have no such talent to fall back on, but an equal measure of despair. My unfinished sequence - at such a vulnerable stage of development, still embryonic, half-formed in my mind - taunts me with its potential for failure. Is it a creative dead-end?

Panic begins to set in as I consider that possibility. If I decide to abandon my new sequence written in a man's voice, made uncomfortable perhaps by self-accusations of male ventriloquism and the impotent recycling of archaic material - however original or audacious the treatment - where will I go from there?

To be 'between poems' - i.e. not actively writing - for any length of time is to be in a precarious, even dangerous, position. In the game show that is poetry, if one door closes behind you, another needs to open pretty smartish ahead of you, or you soon find yourself right back at the beginning. To extend the metaphor, if I leap off the wobbly raft of my sequence, will some greasy stepping-stone emerge quickly enough from the bubbling swamp to save me?

And even if it does, will it turn out to be a hungry critic - sorry, crocodile - in disguise?

I make a note on the Agbabi collection, sense the vague glimmering of a new poem at the back of my mind - not in the sequence, not in the sequence! - and allow the world to come back in a crash of plastic lunchtrays, the hubbub of students’ voices. Across the years, Hopkins’ self-fulfilling prayer has drawn near and reassured me - ‘Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain’ - with the reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. Male or female, this fear of failure, crippling at times, at times turning abruptly to defiance, is an inescapable part of what it means to write poetry.


Bo said...

I empathise. (Or emPLATHise). I like the idea of you writing in a man's voice. Why the bloody hell not?

david lumsden said...

A great post with a lot of interesting references to digest. The editor's crocodile grin doesn't help the maker's tentative steps towards the next new work. Throw a net over that croc and and get a jaw rope on him, then you should be able to make it across the bubbling swamp.

Angela France said...

My first post vanished into the ether and I doubt I can recreate it all now.
I did want to say though, that I don't see writing in a male voice as selling out in any way.

I write a lot in persona and have written in a male voice almost as often as female voices. I am a feminist and don't see a problem with it. Poetry, for me, is a way of exploring and understanding human nature and the world around me: what better way to understand another gender than attempting to try on their skin?

By the way - I have 'Bloodshot Monochrome - I bought it after seeing her read at Cheltenham this year and particularly wanted it to study what she did with the 'film noir' corona.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry your comment disappeared, Angela. I had no record of it at all. If anyone else has replied and not had their comment appear here, do let me know; there may be a problem with Blogger, or just with this particular blog.

I'm sure Agbabi must be an excellent performer - that would account for her success, after all - but her poems don't work particularly well on the page. An age-old problem for performers, I should add.

Having said that, my husband dipped in and out of'Bloodshot Monochrome' and enjoyed what he read. So it may simply be down to individual taste ...

Not that I genuinely believe that, of course. If I did, I would not be much of a critic!

Sorlil said...

I added another comment below which never appeared!
As for writing in a male voice, I certainly don't see it as a sell-out, more like a kind of post-modern feminism.

Rachel Fox said...

I liked this post about confusion and confidence and considering everything.

I liked the game show of poetry too. I just hope it isn't Numberwang (Mitchell & of their better sketches). It feels a bit that way sometimes!

Vicki said...

Thanks for reading my books, Jane. I'd just like to clarify something: I would never suggest that a poet's gender 'dictates' the success of their work, and I don't believe any writer should limit their experimentation with voice or perspective; I'd certainly not suggest it was 'unfeminist' to write in a male voice or of masculine experience. Nor do I think men poets are 'rivals'! There's a difference between what writers attempt to do, and the way their work is read and received; it's the latter I've tried to explore in my feminist critiques of the poetry world in Britain. I don't think there is a conspiracy at work. But I do think personal taste plays a large part in critical (and creative) responses to poetry, and gender comes into that: it's part of the complex set of relationships that form between reader and poem, reader and persona, reader and poet (preserving the distinctions between each of these).

One last thing: I'm really surprised you don't think Patience Agbabi's 'Bloodshot Monochrome' doesn't work on the page. To me it seems a collection that demonstrates great formal dexterity and wit! Still, there we go: personal taste alive and kicking.

best wishes

Jane Holland said...

Hi Vicki, good to see you here on Raw Light.

Thanks for your response, which has been illuminating. However, I don't think I was insinuating that you thought any of the things you mention above, at least not that I'm aware of. Those were my opinions, and I then quoted something from your book, 'Gendering Poetry', as the post continued. The two weren't necessarily related except where, if anywhere, our ideas might have dovetailed, which is - I guess - for each reader to decide. I'm a little bewildered, in fact, that you should have assumed that the majority of my post here was founded on the opinions in your book. That's not even remotely accurate; I'm quite able to think for myself, and express my opinions in a forthright manner, as regular readers of this blog will testify! I brought your opinions in, a.) to help promote your work, which I think should be widely read, and b.) to bounce my ideas off yours for a moment. That's all. Like you, I don't think there's a conscious conspiracy at work, but I do think that sexism is still so deeply embedded at every level of our society that to imagine it doesn't play a part in the construction of the contemporary poetry scene is a somewhat naive attitude. Ostriches spring to mind, etc.

When commenting on Agbabi's work, I knew my remarks wouldn't be popular. But as you say, a personal opinion, based on about thirteen years' experience of reading, writing, and reviewing poetry.

Women Rule Writer said...

Hi Jane
Happy New year. This morning, this v interesting post inspired me to go and try to get a first draft down of a persona poem (female) that's been swinging in my head for the last 13 months. I'm happy to report that I now have a reasonable 1st draft to work on. Thank you!!