Friday, July 02, 2010

Mothers, wives, poets.

Horrified today to see, via Arc poet Jackie Wills' blog, that an 'unknown' - as Jackie puts it - American poet called Eleanor Ross Taylor has been recognised for her talent with the Ruth Lily Award.

What horrified me was not the poet herself, or her poetry, or indeed the award, but the apparent equanimity with which some people seem to accept without question the US critic Kevin Prufer's description of her work (taken from a recent blog entry on the NBCC Award shortlisted finalists):

Her speakers are most often mothers and wives thinking about their grown children, the complexities of marriage, and (increasingly in the later poems) their responsibilities to the dead and their own impending demise. Sometimes these voices emerge from an ostensible past, as in “My Grandmother’s Virginhood, 1879” or “Motherhood, 1880.” More often, they take place in an undefined domestic present.  Occasionally, they rise from more surprising places, as in “Kitchen Fable,” where the flatware itself takes on the consciousness of a frustrated wife.

Wow, and there I was thinking we'd got past the ludicrously sexist 'Look, a woman who writes about domestic issues! Quick, let's give her an award and encourage other women to steer clear of politics and the 'big' issues, and write about their children and husbands instead.'

Granted, for some women, writing about being a wife and mother is all they want to do as poets. And for some women, writing a poem about being a woman is a political act in itself.

But let's at least stop and examine why Eleanor Ross Taylor has been so suddenly plucked out of obscurity to be given this award, if it isn't to suggest - perhaps at a subliminal level - to female writers that good girls who keep their heads down and only write quiet, domestic poetry will be recognised for their modesty and humility in the end.

Even if it's only with a pat-on-the-head style encomium from some highly placed male critic.


Anne said...

(He's asking for trouble with a name like that.) I've only read a bit of her stuff online, but was she *really* given the prize for "quiet, domestic poetry" and her "modesty and humility"? Her subject matter may well be domestic (hell, aren't these women allowed to write about their lives?) but her treatment of it seems to be noisy and subversive.

But if it really were quiet, domestic poetry, then I'd certainly agree with you. I see too much of that and I, too, dislike it.

Jane Holland said...

As I said in the post, the issue isn't with the actual poetry but the wording of the critic's encomium. He actually uses the word 'domestic'. I can't remember EVER seeing a word like 'domestic' being applied to a man's poetry, even when he's clearly writing domestic poetry. It's not a word that shouts 'subversive' at you, is it? So in whatever context it's used, it suggests 'female at home' and, by unfortunate but traditional extension, 'passive' and 'obedient'.

That, I dislike intensely.

Jane Holland said...

And no, I'm not saying women can't write about their lives. Obviously. I write 'domestic' poetry myself. But it's not all I write and if someone wrote this about me, I'd be pretty miffed at the misrepresentation of my work. One wonders whether the poet herself is happy to be seen in that warn and cosy 'domestic' light.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, 'warm'.

Anne said...

Well, yes, to a point: the word "domestic" is always going to sound belittling as long as society attributes little importance to the raising of children. I don't know what other word one might use to describe the subject matter - "family life" sounds just as homely. Does the critic redeem himself at all by this:

But it is too, too easy to call her poems “domestic” or “witty” and be done with them [...] running alongside the music are fierce sadness and, frequently, rage. Married life, these poems suggest, is filled with loss and silence. We are always losing track of each other, failing to tell each other what we mean. Our friends and our children die, and so do we...

"[A]nd be done with them" is pretty damning!

And I wondered about this: I can't remember EVER seeing a word like 'domestic' being applied to a man's poetry, even when he's clearly writing domestic poetry.
so I googled "domestic" + "Kochanowski's Laments", "Seamus Heaney", "Craig Raine", "Christopher Reid", "Simon Armitage", "Michael Laskey" and so on - the word certainly appears, even if it's then qualified by words such as "deceptively". In other words, the word is used and then the critic will insist "but not really" or, "but not merely" - much as he does here. Which illustrates your point, I guess.

Anne said...

I recall the editor of The Wolf saying a while back that he did not wish to publish "domestic" poetry. He wouldn't be publishing Vicky Feaver's Ironing, then, or Lake Isle of Innisfree.