Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Plato Must Die

Really interesting exchange in Poetry magazine (www.poetrymagazine.org), which is, unfortunately not yet up on their website--maybe in a few days. January 06 issue. An exchange among Meghan O'Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser, and Eleanor Wilner on "women's poetry."

This is also a concern of mine. It's hard to duplicate their discussion, which comprises 12 pages of single-spaced prose. The basic underlying issue, though, is whether the phrase "women's poetry" constitutes a patronizing, female ghetto into which women willingly place themselves, isolating themselves from the greater concerns that make great poetry just to focus on women's issues and experience. There was lively discussion about what exactly one means by the phrase, how it is implemented in the present and was in the past. And, of course, pertinent discussion of how necessary some of this intentional separatism was 30 to 50 years ago.

I, too, find myself going back and forth about these issues. Are there a set of women's issues that women must feel compelled to write about or acknowledge? No, women are as various as men--that Anne Coulter and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both represent our sex is a constant marvel to me. Is there something we can describe as women's experience? Certainly--we get pregnant, have a different physiology, give birth, respond to sex with men or women differently than men respond to sex with women or men. We are still wired differently by our social conditioning. (Meghan O'Rourke, for example, makes a lot of these points). Women's experience, too, is fraught with difference--we don't all prefer working with people to working with ideas, as the Crown Prince of the Ludicrous, David Brooks, would have us believe. We respond to the events and circumstances of our sexual and gendered experience variously (point also made by Jill Rosser).

But I still thrill to a poem that speaks from my perspective as a woman. It's like this rare thing, this rare moment of connection. Sure, many a male poet speaks to me, or holds convinctions/responses that I share. But this representation of some aspect of a collective consciousness of femininity heightens my awareness of my own person, reassures me that I am not so mad or different after all, to think or feel the things I do.

J. Allyn Rosser's comments I found provocative and intriguing, yet often defensive. Here is a women who's still hiding behind her first initial, and whose name could represent male or female. And she was the person who most vociferously denounced 'women's poetry'. I don't know why she chooses to represent her name that way--I guess her first name is Jill, which is how Eleanor Wilner referred to her, so Jill must go by that--but if the playing field is so level and women's experience matters so little because it is too provincial within the concerns of great poetry, then why does Jill intentionally obscure the gender of her name?

This belief that Great Poetry exists without references to particularities, that it is some species of thought that references only global human themes, and that its purposeful suppression of the identifiers of gender, class, race, etc. furthers its grandiosity, timelessness, and etc., is such hogwash, I think. It's Plato barking orders at us from the grave. And Plato was no fan of poetry; he considered it dangerous and insipid. But Plato's Theory of the Cave has become the backbone of conservative thinking about the arts: that the Great Ideas exist out there in some pure, unadulterated form, and we mortals only copy them to make art, and the more the copy that we make adheres to the particular, the more particularities it contains, the lesser the copy it is.

As an aside, Virginia Wolf does talk about the Great Art being androgynous in A Room of One's Own, but I have never been certain that what she means is that it should be sexless, devoid of particularities or of the raw basis of differentiated experience. What I recall is that she means it should be fully human: both male and female in its powers and sensibility. She cites Shakespeare as the one example of this.

Anyway, I am no fan of Plato, as you can surely tell. I find him irrelevant to the creation of art. To me, perhaps, in one definition of it, art is a balance between the particularities of lived experience, and the universalities in which that raw experience must be offered to others who do not share exactly my experience. That is, it must be intelligible, and not a puzzle of particularity. But the markers of individuality, the voice, the variations of line and punctuation, and observation, is what makes the thing fly. You have been given a voice marked with individuality: use it.

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