Can Carol Muske-Dukes make it three out of four women in Scarriet’s 2011 March Madness APR Final Four? Does she have what it takes to beat Stephen Dunn? Both of their poems concern kisses, and maybe this is typical, maybe not—the man’s is a wild desire for one, the woman’s an actual dull one.
Women poets have done extremely well in the Scarriet March Madness Tournament, despite the pool being typically under-represented by women in the APR anthology, The Body Electric. The split in the APR anthology is about 70/30 in favor of the men—yet 10 women poets reached the Scarriet Sweet Sixteen.
Vida has made headlines in American Letters recently by simply publishing some inescapable statistics: the percentages of women writers published in major literary magazines and anthologies—and the numbers are not good for women, especially in essays, criticism and poetry: women trail men in the Fine Arts of Letters—poetry and essays—by two to one.
We’re not talking about construction jobs, or all-time sports heroes, or U.S. presidents, or 19th century composers, or Italian homemakers. We’re talking about U.S. poetry and criticism in 2011: two to one in favor of men. These numbers are staggering, and should be a wake up call to women everywhere.
The overall author split is 60/40 in favor of men, not too horrible, but in terms of reviewing (or criticism) the ratio is 4/1 in favor of men, and as Vida showed, the ratio of reviewing in The New York Review of Books is 5/1 in favor of men. As we get more high-brow, as we get more intellectual, as we get more opinionated, as we get more philosophical, the women flounder, in terms of representation.
For every Harold Bloom, there’s a Helen Vendler or a Camille Paglia, for every Billy Collins, there’s a Mary Oliver or a Louise Gluck, for every John Ashbery, there’s a Jorie Graham or a Kay Ryan , for every Seamus Heaney, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Margaret Atwood.
Generally, women have had great success in writing, and, in numbers of readers, women are surely equal, or very close to men, just in terms of literacy. Women are well-placed in the readership and marketplace of Fine Letters; there is no craven, muscle-bound machismo element keeping them down.
Why, then, are the women so woeful and backwards in these key areas of poetry and essays and reviewing and criticism?
So, girls, what the fuck is wrong with you?
Criticism is the Head of Letters. If you’re not reviewing consistently, or writing philosophical essays, or making your opinions known about writers and writing, then what do you expect?
We know you have opinions about nearly everything—why not writing? You are nearly 50/50 in fiction, and fiction is great, but we all know most fiction is either thinly disguised diary and memoir or vampires having sex with each other. If Criticism is the Head, Fiction is the Rear. And, in terms of opinions about writing, we don’t mean sweet, supportive blurbs for the sisters—we mean real criticism.
And here’s the thing: if you won’t write essays or reviews or philosophy or criticism, you’ll never change these numbers.
Vida, your numbers are shocking, but what do they really mean? And how are we going to make those numbers better?
Any ideas, girls?
I recently found myself having an email dialogue, quite by chance, with one of the founders of Vida, whose stated mission is “to explore cultural and critical perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”
The conversation came about because she, the Vida founder, wanted clarification from me concerning gossip linking her to a powerful male poet mentor. But such talk does not belong in public. It has that smell which consigns it to the garbage pail. Robert B__ eloping with EB is glorious. Put it on the front page. Professor B__ helping to market EB’s poems? Eh, not so glorious.
But every consideration, glorious or not, involving men, women and Letters has an impact every day on the cold facts of Vida’s statistics. Somewhere, between the numbers, and the sorry state of things which those numbers point to, are actual stories involving actual men and women. Do we dare speak these stories and these names? Or do we traffic forever in statistics and polite reactions to them?
We can’t run from theses numbers, but we can run from the truth—of its smelly and corrupt windings—which those numbers signify.
Or, we can follow Ariadne’s thread; we can do the patient, historical work of patiently examining the lives of actual literary men and women, and what it finally means, philosophically.
Here’s an example: Elizabeth Barrett was an extraordinary poet, and better known than the male poet who eventually eclipsed her, Robert Browning. When Mr. Browning came courting in 1845, Elizabeth was the famous poet, not Robert, and she had already published, to much acclaim, the type of dramatic poem Robert Browning would later glory in. This is not to diminish the remarkable Mr. Browning, but only to point out how Miss Barrett fell under Browning’s shadow. Barrett was depicted in the modern era as a rescued recluse known for one poem penned—to Browning, which fit right into the Victorian stereotype. Who perpetuates such stereotypes? The critics. And the critics are men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fades away, and takes with her a more accurate picture of the Victorian period, a richer selection of poetry, and a powerful example of a powerful woman poet. All the male critics had to do was refute the Victorian era. Women are larger-than-life figures—unless they are reduced by abstract critical thinking which rejects, in the name of “modern progress,” the actual life of women in the past. The “progressives” are then insidiously reactionary. All ahistoricism is reactionary. Let us have improvements, but please let’s not pre-suppose that means chucking history.
A second example: Edna Millay, who wrote sonnets as good as any in the history of literature, was abused in the press by Ezra Pound’s clique: Hugh Kenner and Horace Gregory, to name two. We all know how one well-placed review can harry and destroy. This is the sort of ugly side of Letters which might be characterized as gossip, but we demean Letters by being squemish—so that we brush the ugly side of Letters under the rug. Unfortunately, thugs and bullies exist in “polite literature.” But the bigger problem is, that because Pound and his group was associated with a certain avant-garde progressivism, “make it new” and all that, critics are not always objective in writing literary history or making critical judgments. Because there is this excitable and revolutionary assumption that the avant-garde is always liberal and forward-thinking, we are blind to when the opposite is true.
It’s not too late to undo these mistakes, since literature always has a past, and is always being made anew within the context of that past. But if women are on avant train they think is going in the right direction, but is not, those Vida numbers could get even worse.
One more example: Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) is a marvelous poet, an amazing, crazy, lyrical, predecessor to Plath and Sexton, but like Millay, Wylie fell off the Parade Float of Modernism. The better-known American women poets, who were quietly conservative, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, were close to Pound’s clique or Robert Lowell; actually, Moore was Bishop’s mentor, and Robert Lowell fell in quickly with Pound’s group via Tate and Ransom, so it’s all pretty cozy. Wylie is a strong, but neglected, poet who would appeal to the same audience inspired by Sexton, and it certainly does not diminish a poet like Sexton to comprehend the significance of Wylie as her influence. (Another neglected poet if we go back futher: Ellen Wheeler Wilcox.) Women in Letters will be hurt if women don’t celebrate good women poets right under their nose, or they only celebrate women poets annointed by men. When it comes to literature, networking in the present can only go so far. Knowing history is invaluable.
So here’s the advice, so far. 1. Be critical, not timid and polite. 2. Be historical, intensely so; follow historical threads back to motivations, and groups who act clandestinely and corruptly. These historical phenomena tend to be the rule, not the exception. If the women say, “Leave the conspiracies to the men,” the women will only suffer accordingly, and the Vida numbers will get worse.
As far as The New York Review of Books, which we now know is 80% male, thanks to Vida, women, I think, would make an important statement if they boycotted that magazine, rather than pleading to be let in. The New York Review stats should not be read as an indication of failure by women, but rather as a failure by the New York Review, a scholarly failure, since the editors are infatuated with the very Modernism school that joyfully throws poets like Barrett, Millay and Wylie under the bus, and they review the same handful of canonized figures over and over again. The researchers at Vida should analyze a few issues of the New York Review, and discover for everyone not just the numbers, but the faulty philosophy, history and scholarship. Remember: Criticism, ladies, criticism! Get in the face of the New York Review! And enjoy doing it! Letting the 5/1 ratio just sit there without comment, after the initial gasps, implies that women lack the talent to write for the New York Review and women better get cracking and improve themselves! Is this the impression Vida wants to give? No! Go on the offense!
And speaking of offense, Carol Muske-Dukes, in her poem, “A Former Love, a Lover of Form,” is not particularly nice, which is not necessarily a bad thing:
When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss
She’s trapped by a dull kiss. She’s a victim.
The following sounds too much like all that bad confessional poetry composed in the 1970s:
Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.
Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.
The poem ends with more puzzlement and complaining:
Is she seducer or seduced?
And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?
She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.
The Stephen Dunn poem features a narrator questioned by a crowd, and gender is completely hidden. It also features a mysterious, yearning self-sacrificing love.
What They Wanted
They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.
Stephen Dunn wins! Stephen Dunn is in the Final Four!