PhD Musings

gendering poetry

I’m currently reading gendering poetry by Vicki Bertram as part of my reading for my PhD.  I’m absolutely loving this book – firstly because I can understand it – although it is academic, it’s very readable, and really interesting.  The blurb on the back of the book says that Vicki Bertram ‘considers the role of gender in the writing and the reading of poetry’.

In the first chapter ‘First Impressions’ she looks at six poets – three male and three female and discusses the first poem in the first collection of each poet.  She looks at Simon Armitage, Michael Donaghy, Neil Rollinson, Sujhata Bhatt, Fiona Pitt-Kethley and Kate Clanchy.  What I found interesting here was her discussion of who these poems were addressed to.

In the Donaghy poem she argues that his well known poem ‘Machines‘, although addressed to a ‘dearest’,  its use of an elaborate conceit between a racing bike and a piece of harpsichord music is firmly in the tradition of the Metaphysical poets – the male speaker addressing a silent lover (who in this tradition is female).  Bertram writes that the poem ‘also gestures to the metaphysical tradition in the way that his female addressee functions as an excuse for this opportunity of impressing male friends and patrons’, because the real intent of the poem is not to seduce the female lover, but to display ‘the author’s skill’.

She goes on to explore Simon Armitage’s ‘Snow Joke’ which she writes is part of a ‘pub discourse’ with its use of colloquial language and its tone of an urban myth.  Bertram writes that it is ‘reasonable to assume a male speaker addressing a male audience’.  I can see what she means, although I didn’t feel left out, or disconnected from the poem when I read it – but this is probably because I’ve spent a lot of time in pubs – working and drinking in them as a music student, and I’m aware that I don’t feel left out, by thinking back to what it was like to become ‘one of the lads’ – an essential survival strategy for a female brass player, which I could probably write a whole other post about!

There is apparently a term for this strategy when you do it as a reader – again, Bertram points out that the critic Judith Fetterley ‘coined the term ‘immasculation’ to describe the process whereby women readers steeped in androcentric literature develop the instinct to ‘think as men, to identify with a male point of view’.

The part of the chapter that really interests me was Bertram’s thoughts on how women poets write and address the reader.  She says

There are few modes of public discourse in which women can speak as women, and this is reflected in their poetry, where it is rare to find an explicit address to other women, a collective female discourse.

She gives what she calls a rare example – the poem ‘Marigolds‘ by Vicki Feaver.  It’s use of the collective pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout bridge the gap between the present and the classical past.  Bertram writes that the poem ‘asks its readers to acquiesce in the implicit criticism of men’s foolish ignorance, conned (or attracted) by this fake version of meek, marriageable femininity.’  She then goes on to talk about the problems of this stance, and the issues around ‘collective female identification.’

It made me think about who my poems are addressed to, and who am I writing for.  My poem ‘My People’, which explores a working class identity, is not addressed to my people at all – it’s addressed to a literary audience, or the middle class, it’s attempting to show to someone who has no idea what it is like to grow up in that environment what it is like.  Of course the secondary addressees are the people who grew up there too.  One of the wow moments at Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia was reading that poem on the launch night, and having Charles Simic come up to me at breakfast the next morning, and say ‘Your people are my people too’.

If I think about the poems I’m working on now, it gets more complicated.  I’m working on a sequence called All The Men I Never Married which currently contains poems about or addressed to ex-boyfriends, but also random men that I have come into contact with in some way.  Many of these poems are addressed to a ‘you’, ostensibly the man in question, but I think actually, the true addressee of these poems are women.  I don’t mean that men are excluded from them – I hope they are not, but the reason I like the title is because it shifts men a little – although they are still the subject of the poems, they are not the sole subject, they are one among many.  And a male reader becomes by implication a man I never married as well, with all the connotations that brings with it.

Some of the poems in this sequence explore experiences of sexism directly and I know from performing these poems that women relate directly to them – that it is a powerful thing to have something that you’ve experienced and maybe not talked about, because it just isn’t worth it because it happens all the time reflected back at you and transformed into a poem.  Women come and tell me about their experiences from yesterday, last week, last year.  I’ve written before about the strangeness of men coming to tell me about their one experience of sexism in 1985 when they got their bottom pinched – and my theory that they are trying to understand, rather than silencing my story by putting theirs on top of it.  When I’m feeling bad-tempered, however, I do wonder!

So I don’t quite know whether this is true, whether the poems are addressed to women, or men, or both.  My instinct is that most of my poems are sly, and they address one person, whilst looking out of the corner of their eye for their true audience.  Maybe by implying a sexual history (which is still a taboo thing for women to do) I’m addressing men, being ‘one of the lads’, whilst really talking to women.  Maybe in the poems about sexism when I’m outwardly addressing women and sharing an experience I’m sure many will relate to, I’m really hoping men will overhear it and their reality will be changed in some way.  To go back to Bertram again, who quotes Richard Bradford who said that poetry is capable of ‘an unbalancing of perceptions of reality’.

I would be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on any or all of this! Please feel free to comment below.  I posted about this on Facebook and there have been some fascinating discussions on there – with one person pointing out that maybe poems by female poets addressed to one other woman are fairly common, but it is poems that are addressed to a female collective that are rarer, and more problematic.

I’m not saying by the way that women ‘should’ address other women at all – I hate the word ‘should’.  But I am wondering about what happens if we do, and what happens when we don’t, and whether we do or we don’t!




22 comments on “PhD Musings

  1. I need to read this book; a ‘female voice’ heard by other women is a fascinating concept. Is it an issue because women have been excluded from mainstream poetry for centuries and are always forcing a space? As CAD says, we all dip into the same stream of poetry; and historically that has been a male gendered stream. I need to think abut the audience for my own work, I’ve never really considered this seriously, but I think the subject matter of my PhD poems particularly would speak more to women, being about the mother/daughter relationship.
    Thank you for your ‘musings’, I enjoyed reading it; food for thought.

    1. Hi Rachel
      Thanks for commenting – I’m not sure I agree about your mother/daughter poems appealing more to women or speaking more to them. Technically they shouldn’t – I mean, how many father/son poems do we read and enjoy? Look at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ for example. Vicki Bertram does talk about the fact that ‘men poets’ (her deliberate choice of phrase to show how gendered our unconscious responses to language are) are more often thought of as speaking universally though, whereas women are considered to be more subjective – she says their voices become somehow ‘thinner’. I’m guessing your PhD poems will be framed in a mother/daughter relationship but they will really be about love, power and who has it – all universal themes!

  2. When writing my poems, in particular when putting together my collection, the men and women from my local community back home, were looking over my shoulder – people who generally don’t read, never mind read poetry, and don’t know anyone who has written a book. I imagine them sitting and hearing me read them and I hope they feel they reflect their experience of being working class, the pitfalls of masculinity, for example not speaking about mental health, and their relations with women. I of course, do want people from a different background to like my poetry, but they are not there when I am writing. I have felt that pressure and responsibility since I began writing poetry five years ago, and it doesn’t feel like it will go away in the near future. The problem I have is trying not to portray the working classes in a negative light; of always relating their experience with work, and how they are exploited. I think your poem, My People is a great example of showing both the good and the bad of your people, without being patronizing or negative. Thank you Kim.

    1. Peter – your collection sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. I love the idea of your local community looking over your shoulder. I had this image as well when I was writing My People – but again, I realise that really I’m talking to people not like them, as if I’m trying to say ‘look this is what they are actually like’ so I think slightly different to your approach.

  3. Interesting stuff Kim. Off the top of my head -and it’s a long while since my Womens Studies MA course (1985) – I would have thought there were a body of poems written by women to the collective of women, as well as individual to individual women (including love poems) but I haven’t made a methodical study of this!
    Having read your piece I dug out my printed copy of Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe flicking to two poems, Rape and Poem of Women. I would assume these are addressed to women in general. I wonder if you’ve examined any of Rich’s poetry, or commentary, in relation to the ideas you mention?
    Now you’ve prompted me to get hold of the Vicki Bertram book too.

    1. Hi –
      I have been looking at Adrienne Rich -although I don’t know those particular poems. I will dig them out. Vicki Bertram also writes that it seems to be more prevalent in American women’s poetry to speak to collectively to and as a female, maybe because of the history of protest/political poetry.

      1. 😊 After I’d written this I was thinking it might be more prevalent in the northern Americas than, say, in the UK. Audre Lord and Margaret Atwood spring to mind. No doubt there are many others.

        Another musing: can we always (ever) ‘know’ the audience the writer ‘intends’, or indeed how each reader is reading? Rhetorical question, or at least I don’t think there is a definitive answer. The slant, and layers of meaning, that poetry so often adopts makes it even harder to fathom.

  4. Kim, this is really fascinating and not something I had ever thought about with my own poems. I guess it’s different with short stories – I never thought of the gender of a possible reader. And so, when I moved towards writing poetry, it didn’t occur to me either – but the notion of addressing someone is perhaps stronger in a poem. I’m going to be musing on this for a while, thank you!

    I read some very very interesting books on poetry for my PhD, ones that I also thought would be academic and “dry” but which turned out to be similarly thought-provoking. Poetry and Pedagogy turned out to be a really interesting read!

  5. I have been thinking some more about this interesting topic. Adrienne a Rich wrote with a feminist consciousness about women’s experience but she wanted men to be listening – her poetry couldn’t begin to effect change if they weren’t. And so it is, as the discussions around this topic seem to be saying. Poetry isn’t just polemic so it’s ways in will always – in the best poetry- will be ‘slant’ or, as you say, ‘sly’ with attention to not only what’s being said but how it’s said. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s writings The Blue Studios and The Pink Guitar were influential for my PhD which had a strong feminist slant ( that word again, thank you Emily!) and I think what she has to say on the ‘transmission’ and ‘reception’ of poetry is relevant here. There’s a history of a gendered ‘otherness’ regarding attitudes of male writers to writing by women. This is what Bertram is saying too and it is straying from the notion’collective’ audience of women- but it is certainly a great topic to be discussing. I’m as equally receptive to work by male and female poets but I ‘receive’ works by women, as part of their audience/ readership with the awareness of gendered socio/cultural ‘baggage’ that is attached to women’s writing and women’s voices. In my thesis I kept writing ‘women poets’ and had to to keep making a point but was aware all the time that we rarely have to say ‘men’ unless talking about these gendered issues. A bit like the awful’lady doctor’ where a male doctor is an assumed default. Enough. Thanks Kim!

    1. Yes, I was thinking too about this default position, not only in poetry as you say. Didn’t
      Simone Beauvoir write about this? I like the point you make about baggage, clarifies where some readers are coming from, including myself.

    2. Thanks for commenting Pam. I was reading something about Adrienne Rich the other day writing deliberately with a female audience in mind – and now I don’t know where I’ve read that! I’ve been thinking about this question of audience again, and who we are talking to. I went to an event with Sara Ahmed and out of an audience of a couple of 100 there were about 15 men. It felt like a really great safe space, but I did wonder how any social change would happen if men weren’t involved in the conversation.

  6. There is something about the professionalism of the poetry world/media figure world – the writers listed made it into that sphere. Writers are constantly pushing themselves up there, forcing themselves into a position, role, where they have some level of ‘success.’ This forcing, I have noticed, can bring extraordinary poems,but in time and if not checked can ossify the writer’s idea of their created self.

    For women writers? How is it? Not only forcing themselves on, with the same toughening of self, but on every level and maximised.
    The writer creates the poet that the reader sees and reads. Keeping in touch with the real self is the dangerous part.
    A professional poet becomes a kind of monster. The better ones acknowledge and playfully mock the image; the others believe in it wholly.

    1. Sorry about the delayed reply Michael – I don’t necessarily agree about the professional poet becoming a monster. Most of the poets I know are great and the ones that aren’t just happen to be poets. I don’t think poetry made them that way! And having grafted as a music teacher for 13 years and grinding my teeth whilst people said ‘oh it’s so great you’ve got a proper job’ I’m quite enjoying being a student again, having time to think about things and write and read without rushing out from place to place.

      I think the forcing you are talking about maybe comes about when you forget to be ambitious for your work and instead start being ambitious for your self – for me that is the trap to avoid.

      1. The ‘culture’ of the performer in modern society – in private just people: in the media: Who is that person?
        I’ve studied under a number… and they were just this, Monsters. Whether trying to be alpha males or females, it’s that they presume it is necessary/needed for the job.
        And the up-and-coming copy etc etc.
        The ‘culture.’

        Enjoy your studentship. Part of me would like to as well – I have not the stamina.

  7. I feel quite passionately about the history that lies behind this argument, and equally hesitant about getting involved with the thesis and the way it becomes a refracting lens or a particular filter through which poem’s are read. I’m uncomfortable with the reification of ‘women poet’s. Because a lot of the poets I know….probably the majority…..are women; none of them are the same as any of the others in their perception, their world view. If I’m not utterly misled, the first thing their poem’s address is what concerns and arrests them…and their relationship with it as they try to catch it through language. Kim Moore, Fiona Benson, Rebecca Bethin, Wendy Pratt, Julia Deakin, Carole Bromley, Pascale Petit, Christy Ducker……seems to me they are all talking for themselves in language that’s inevitably gendered by its history, but which they change by the fact of inventing their own momentary moments of language. I suppose I feel that the premise of this book is the sort of PhD exercise that potentially stops us from reading what’s in front of US. I suspect that a a subtler way of thinking…as in Eiser’s ‘Implied reader’ might get us further. The subtext…. that women poets are somehow hamstrung or constrained or hobbled by language ….only has heft if you forget that it necessarily applies to men ,too.

  8. Rebecca Gethin….apologies for all the apparent typos. My Kindle has reverted to overriding what I type, and WordPress won’t let me edit posted comments. Keep on Sunday Posting

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