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.